Chè: Part One and Chè: Part Two (Steven Soderbergh, 2008)

Practically an $65 million experimental film, or at least a conceptual art object above all else. First half is the more conventional of the two, with a genuinely rousing climax. It’s probably necessary for context, but I could have done without the interview segments and UN speechifying—too familiar from a thousand other biopics. Second half is repetitive and punishing—the evil twin of the first half. It’s hagiography to some extent, but the character of Chè is never (by design, of course) illuminated beyond the “symbol of the revolution” referenced in the first half. He often disappears into the background in the first part, and the second part exists almost wholly to show the limits of his charisma. Technically, it’s par for the course for Soderbergh—nice cinematography (it’s excellent-looking DV), crisp editing, the image somehow coming off as simultaneously well-composed and off the cuff. Part One could probably be enjoyed on its own; Part Two not so much. Part One: 64, Part Two: 60

Four non-kid songs I sing to Dulcie at night-night time, and the subjects I’m apparently teaching her about

  1. Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want - The Smiths - Disappointment
  2. Duncan - Paul Simon - Religious hypocrisy and sexual awakening
  3. A Day in the Life - The Beatles - Cosmic indifference
  4. Here Comes a Regular - The Replacements - Alcoholism

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (Stephen Hillenburg, 2004)

Second on the Skandies roundup, this was the first kids movie I actually attended with a kid since I myself was a kid. Believe me this feels much less creepy than sitting there by yourself in the middle of packs of kids and their beleagured parents. Even if your kid is really way too young to actually watch the movie. I have not seen the SpongeBob TV show, though I’m very curious about it due to the almost unanimous praise heaped on it by critics reviewing this movie. I certainly would have enjoyed the movie more if it were 10 minutes long like the TV episodes. Instead, we get the old standby: Our misfit heroes embark on a quest, things look bad, the day is saved, lessons are learned, the learning of lessons is ridiculed. It’s quite funny, though, with an appealingly obnoxious childishness, and it deserves a passing grade just for dispensing with most of the sub-Robin Williams pop-cultural riffing of something like Shrek. And I agree with Greg: the voice of Plankton would be funny reading the phone book. Demerits for featuring [kitschy TV star], who isn’t even up to a [kitschy TV star] cameo.

THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE runs 1:28, and is rated PG. It contains several animated sponge and starfish butts, lots of underwear, and live-action inflatable male breasts. It would be fine for older children, or children too young to really understand.

My daughter Dulcie, age 17 months, seemed to like the movie, though she often seemed more interested in running up and down the aisles. I would estimate from her responses that she would give the movie a 57. Her favorite part seemed to be the live-action “cyclops” sequence–she waved and said “bye!” to the cyclops as he carried SpongeBob and the Starfish off. I say 64.

Oasis (Lee Chang-dong, 2002)

For the last few years my Januaries have been mostly taken up by a mad scramble to see a heap of 2004-eligible titles before the deadline for the Skandies poll I participate in. The first title this year is Oasis, out on dvd, a South Korean film about the doomed romance between a mentally slow misfit and a woman with severe cerebral palsy. A Hollywood version of this story is simply too horrible to contemplate, but Lee approaches the material with a resonably hard-edged realism, and the performances, especially Moon So-ri’s, succesfully navigate even the obligatory cutesy fantasy sequences. If you’re succeptible to this sort of thing, you’ll fall hard. Unfortunately the ending employs a plot mechanic that I can’t stand, where an array of supporting characters, through callousness and tragic misunderstanding, brutally persecute our innocent heroes. I spent the last 30 minutes in constant frustration, wishing everyone would just sit down over tea and clear things up. 65

La Dolce vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)

Since the birth of my daughter 17 months ago, I’ve been able to mostly keep up with the new releases I want to see, and I can still sneak in dvd’s a few times a week, but the number of repertory screenings I’m able to get to has dipped severely. In fact, last year I saw only 4 older films in a theater, and one of those (THX 1138) was in a multiplex. (The others were The Battle of Algiers, The Right Stuff, and Ashes of Time.) So it feels good that my first movie of the new year was La Dolce vita at the Paramount Theatre, which is apparently planning to show more films this year outside of its annual Summer Classics series.

My experience with Fellini is pretty limited. I’ve seen several of his movies, but aside from Nights of Cabiria, I saw them all long, long ago. I’ve seen 8 1/2 more than once, so I have some memories, but La Dolce Vita–I remember as a high school senior getting a beat up VHS copy from my local video store in Rolla, MO, after I ran out of Woody Allen movies to rent. I think it was the only foreign film in the place, possibly the first I ever saw, and I don’t think I had a clue what was going on in it. Maybe I didn’t make it through all three hours.

So this movie is pretty good. It’s dated, for sure, but once you attune yourself to its rambling, episodic structure and the details start to accumulate it really takes hold. It’s really no more than eight or ten sprawling set pieces, but practically every one is memorable in some way. All the shrill, messily choreographed, “Fellini-esque” segments create a chaos that makes the film’s quieter moments–Anouk Aimee on the prostitute’s bed, the sound dropping out in the fountain scene with Anita Ekberg, the conversation with Steiner, the echo chamber, and god help me even the sad clown trumpeter–resonate more strongly. And through it all is Mastroianni, the perfect bumbling identification figure, simulatneously enormously pleased and hopelessly disappointed with himself, somehow floating outside the tableaux around him (at least until the memorable final orgy). There’s a bland moralistic theme–Marcello of course must choose between his clingy, suicidal fiancee and a lonely life of empty sensation–surrounded by all sorts of cynical messages (men are animals, women are mothers or whores, sensation sells, etc.), but the movie is never oppressive or scolding. A deserved classic. 83

Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004)

Lean and mean and unpretentious (perhaps to a fault), and, like most “serious” horror these days, more gory than scary. Romero in ‘79 could only dream about Snyder’s CGI-enhanced mayhem–like when a speeding truck plows through a group of zombies, knocking each flat with a smear of blood and a sickening thud. I need to rewatch the reputedly deeper original (which I haven’t seen since high school and which I see is out on a spiffy new dvd), but about all the subtext this new version can manage is its slasher-movie-like relish in the grisly deaths of the two sexually active characters, one in the only act of violence in the movie that truly disturbed me. Still, worth it for the terrific opening sequence (which might have had more impact on me if it weren’t spoiled in the trailer), and the satisfyingly menacing opening and closing credits. 66

The Ladykillers (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, 2004)

I finally caught up with this, and yep, by my reckoning it’s the Coens’ worst movie, and by a decent margin. I was expecting something more mainstream than their usual fare (why did I think this? The awful trailer? The presence of Tom Hanks? The fact it’s a remake?), but it’s pure Coens–blatantly unreal setting, crude stereotypes, silly accents, violent slapstick, egregiously elaborate dialogue. How they’ve made that stuff work so often in the past I’m not sure, but this is pretty much an object lesson on the limits of Coen-ness. It’s not unwatchable, just extremely labored, shouting in your face for solid minutes just to get one cheap laugh. Hanks is predictably fine, but he never quite moves past simple technical brilliance (like George Clooney did in almost singlehandedly saving Intolerable Cruelty). Also, the numerous gospel interludes, which seem shoehorned into the movie in a bald attempt to replicate the success of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, really bothered me. 47

21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, 2003)

Tragic, philsophical, and serious as a heart transplant, with hand-held camerawork, grainy photography, and three huge, nakedly emotional performances. Arty Oscar bait, in other words. Unlike Pulp Fiction or The Sweet Hereafter (or even Iñárritu’s debut, Amores Perros), the scrambled chronology doesn’t really provide any particular narrative payoff—it’s interesting on a surface level (and it keeps you on your toes), but I think the movie would play about the same without it. Ultimately, it’s all a bit too much, with plenty of ponderous dialogue about fate, coincidence, divine plans and such (Penn’s final voiceover set my teeth on edge), and a storyline just this side of ludicrous. Still, it’s undeniably well-crafted and at times quite moving. Also Penn, Watts and especially Del Toro are excellent, in an Oscar bait kind of way. 65