Minority Report: An Improbable Future

Minority Report is actually a pretty good film. I haven’t read the original short story, so I don’t know how faithful it actually is to the source material, but it at least feels Dickesque. Thematically and plotwise it’s strong enough, so I’ll focus my attention on the setting.

Near-future sci-fi suffers from a problem I call “unnecessary whooshiness”. This is when things just go “whoosh” or do other futuristic things to emphasize their futuristicness. There are a lot of short-term changes it’s pretty easy to give a pass to because they will plausibly change: for instance, in my lifetime alone, the primary removable computer medium has changed appearance 3 times (three different sizes of floppies and optical discs). But a lot of the technology used in Minority Report is just plain silly: not just not within our present grasp, but in fact downright impractical. Most of this technology is the Precrime computer systems. We get an awful lot of footage of Tom Cruise whipping windows around a screen with a glove, which looks damn cool but is kind of ridiculous from an iterface-design perspective. Most real successful devices are based on some sort of tactile feedback to the user and an onscreen display. They’ve tried the direct route with detection of movement in open fields, and the result’s terrible. It’s like hooking a theremin up to your computer’s mouse input. The other ridiculousness is the damn wooden balls. They sort of tried to explain this one with some folderol about the wood’s unique grain corresponding to the names, but, eh, kind of pointless, and pure whooshiness. I guess it gets something of a pass since the entire functioning of the precognitives is inexplicable, but, really, it’s not something which should need to be explained away as such. Oh, and the jetpacks. Jetpacks are kind of stupid. Especially for police. On a costumed hero, sure. But if you’re providing mobility solutions for a policeman, why not a hoverbike or something? Having them strapped to your back is generally a bad idea.

I harp on these issues only because, in many respects, the near-future image is pretty good, and I have to find something to bitch about. The world has changed, but in ways which are for the most part gradual: the nonlethal devices the police use in various situations correspond roughly to present-day nonlethal police armaments. People live in ordinary, sometimes squalid houses and apartments: there aren’t sweeperbots zipping around, and they aren’t in arcologies of glass and steel. The brand names are the same as the present day too, which is actually pretty offputting, since the advertising in the film is already irritatingly enough presented without being irritating shilling for real-world products: it reminded me perversely of the persistent presence of Taco Bell in Demolition Man, which was fine on its own but really not something you want to evoke in an ostensibly serious film. But, generally, I actually found the near-future a reasonable place. But the plot and themes were better than the setting.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Grave of the Fireflies: Death of a nation

This is, above all things, a dismal movie. I was grading papers while I watched it, so there was a sort of sympathetic patheticness going on, as it were. You might be fooled into thinking it’s a hopeful tale of survival in the face of adversity, except that the first ten minutes make it clear that those sunny, smiling, healthy, optimistic children are going to die sad, lonely, and in pain. It was very emotionally affecting: starkly drawn but detailed, and the children’s early joy only makes their preordained tragedy more moving.

A couple of film-watching notes: it was on AZN, so it was dubbed, not subbed. Also, interrupted every half hour by commercials for the U.S. Army. Oh, the irony.

From a cultural standpoint, I suppose this film’s pretty revealing. The end of World War II marked a giant change in Japanese culture, self-image, etc. 40 years later I guess they could talk about it in the terms it happened in, but at the time it was the most serious trauma a society could suffer. And, in honesty, Japan needed to suffer that sort of trauma.

I’m not talking about the atom bomb. That’s a controversy that continues to rage on and on which I don’t know where I stand. But somewhere along the line, Japan would’ve been defeated, and undergone the same necessary self-examination that their surrender did. And it needed to be done, because Japan was a seriously sick society at the time. Japanese society has always been a bit incomprehensible to Westerners—still is, too a large degree, in spite of our wholesale importation of every manner of Japanese cultural artifact—but at the time, it had been getitng progressively unhealthier, especially in terms of self-image. Which, in a microcosm, is sort of something we can see in Grave of the Fireflies. I’m not so much of a monster as to suggest that Setsuko and Seita’s suffering is a necessary evil, the way the deconstruction of Japan as a nation was a necessary evil, but there are common elements both in the large-scale and small-scale tragedy. Yes, there is pathos and suffering, but there is also a grerat deal of self-delusion and pride working to bring about their destruction. The interplay of pride, duty, and the compromising of thier integrity (e.g. Seita’s need to steal to survive) is, on some level, not the quandry of a boy so much as the quandry of a nation which is incapable of changing its self-image in the way necessary to survive a changed world.

But, er, yeah, if you haven’t seen this film, do so. But don’t expect to be happy after.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

Arsenic and Old Lace: A gun on the mantel

Arsenic and Old Lace is a fine, delightful old romp of a film. It’s been a while since I saw Cary Grant in a comic role. I think the last time was His Girl Friday, which I was honestly somewhat underwhelmed by. The acting’s a bit hammy, with pop-eyed double-takes and all, but it’s good fun. Also, I absolutely adore Peter Lorre. Every film he’s in he’s a credit to. Maybe it’s the accent, maybe it’s the general weaseliness, but there is a definite role Peter Lorre does and he does it well. Speaking of playing roles, this is one of the least hokily metaleptic films I’ve seen: it’s far too easy to take self-referentiality and turn it into the focus of the film. But the references to Boris Karloff are merely passing; I’ll admit the whole scene about how stupid people act in plays went on perhaps a bit too long.

Anyways, it’s been 3 days since I saw this (I caught it on TCM on Sunday) so I’ve forgotten perhaps some clever things I meant to say. Except that I kept expecting someone to actually drink the wine.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

A Wind Named Amnesia: Did I watch this film? I don’t remember.

I really wanted to like this one. It had a very promising premise: a mysterious calamity causes all people except for those under very extraordinary circumstances to lose all memories, and very promising themes too, as well as a story-frame of which I approve, namely, a road trip across America. Somehow, though, it ends up exploring everything superficially. We never get a real feel for the calamity: mankind is brutish in San Francisco and LA (where it always was), but somehow there are still a lot of well-maintained-seeming houses, bridges, etc. And the elevators work in the apocalyptic future, which is more than they do in the present. The thematic elements of the movie shift radically: prominent in the first half is the idea that mankind is but a short step from the beasts and the fragility of civilization, but musings on civilization end abruptly as the US east of Vegas seems to be completely depopulated. There’s some discussion of free-will, and open-ended questions on the dangers of technology and of knowledge, but nothing terribly profound. And then, er, the Wanderer has sex with an alien, which is sort of where the story slipped off the rails for me.

On the other hand, one could view the whole story as metaphorically linked to Wataru’s developing sexuality, and there are lots of hints dropped about this: talking about “wanting to learn what Johnny couldn’t teach me”, and his constant attempts to rescue chyx. But this take on the story kinda bugs me. A road-trip across an apocalyptic America is a monumental task, an epic in scope. Getting laid shouldn’t be the point of an exercise like that. The beginning of the movie is actually not too bad, but everything after the Eternal City is kind of undirected and confusing. And that’s about half of the film.

See also: IMDB, Anime News Network, AniDB.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown: A music factory of the non-C&C variety

The tagline for this film challenges us to believe that the Funk Brothers were responsible for more hits than any other person or groups of people. With all due respect to the group, I’m wondering if this isn’t technically inaccurate: Hal Blaine was one of the most ubiquitous people in the LA music scene in the 60s (and into the 70s), so he might have them beat. I’m not brining up Hal Blaine frivolously:the Funk Brothers and the Wrecking Crew, separated by most of a continent, present two sides of a coin.

It’s an article of faith among indie-rock geeks and other folks on the fringes of modern music that factory-produced music by stars-of-the-week are essentially negligible. This is (among other reasons) why people continued to sneer at Britney even after she put on some damn pants. I’ll agree that the modern music star-of-the-week scene is sick, but not that factory-produced music is inherently uncreative: a great deal of the most groundbreaking music of the 60s was factory-produced, by either Tamla-Motown or Phil Spector. Which brings us back to the mechanics toiling in those factories, which is what this film’s really about.

Motown developed a distinct sound, and produced a bajillion records exploring every facet of that sound. They did this with good production, good A & R, and one hell of a studio band. This documentary tries very hard to play up the tragedy of non-recognition of thier importance to the process. “Tragedy” is, in my mind, a bit strong, except inasmuch as it killed James Jamerson, but it is indeed a shame how little-known the Funk Brothers are, because those backing tracks are rich and imaginative, and apparently a lot of the credit for that goes to the Funk Brothers.

This is where, once again, I draw a dichotomy between the LA and Motown sounds. Some of the difference is racial, but I think a lot of it’s just plain cultural: LA was all about polish and veneer and still is. I haven’t heard or read about Phil Spector in the studio, but I’ve heard the Wrecking Crew reporting on working with Brian Wilson, and Spector must have been far, far harder on them. That scene was very controlling, very specific about what they wanted, very focused on production, whereas the Funk Brothers, talking about their role in the creative process, draw a picture of a scene where by day they basically wrap whatever sort of jam they threw down in a club the night before around someone else’s song. The scene sounds very extemporaneous and improvisational, and somehow it came out right.

Those are basically my thoughts on the film’s primary message, which I suppose was supposed to raise awareness of the studio band as an entity deserving of respect in its own right, but I was sort of aware of that already (although not much of the Funk Brothers, so I’m grateful to learn more there. Considering the film’s delivery of that message, however, I was generally pretty pleased with the interview portions and narrative, but I could have done with more original performance footage. The Funk Brothers did tour with Motown performers occasionally, so it’s not like the footage doesn’t exist. The new stuff is decent in a not-really-what-I-expected kind of way: these reunion gigs are always a bit bittersweet, and some of the vocal talent was decidedly odd: Joan Osborn was a treat (both auditorily and visually, ahem) on “Heat Wave”, but she seems to have stepped into completely the wrong song for “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”; even Colin Blunstone’s voice is more suited for it. I was also underwhelmed by Chaka Khan on “What’s Goin’ On”, but although her Marvin’s not too hot, she’s got a decent Tammi, since “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was well-done.

In summary, it was a nice look at different people from a different scene. 60’s retrospectives are all about California, and even when they mention Detroit it’s all about the vocal talent. Nice to see the underdogs finally getting the respect they deserve.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir: The Reason for this Season

Well, I actually watched this one on Tuesday, and I’m only writing it up now. Problem with the timestamps is that now everyone knows what a slacker I am.

I liked a great deal about this film, and can’t think of anything in particular I dislike. The entire interaction with George Sanders seemed to a certain extent like an unnecessary plot cul-de-sac, but I guess it’s the lever with which Captain Gregg’s disappearance is facilitated. I can’t actually complain, because George Sanders gave a deliciously oily performance, almost but not quite as good as his scoundrelliness in Rebecca. It’s really very much a character-driven story, and the characters are well-executed. Rex Harrison (who I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before) was effective as well, although his role is sufficiently cliche-ridden that it doesn’t seem like it takes much to make it solid. Gene Tierney is a hell of a lot better than the sort of nonentity she was in Laura, to say the very least.

One thing that bugged me a bit, in retrospect, is the character of Anna Muir. We see her in the first scene, and we expect her to be around and part of this unconventional household through the whole film, but she for the most part just vanishes except when she is absolutely necessary to the plot, which seems downright artificial.

And it’s got bathing-machines. Bathing-machines! That’s one of those delightfully quaint Britishisms which can make me almost forget Gene Tierney’s fairly obvious American accent.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Magnolia: Coorperative Multitasking

Magnolia has a couple of good ideas trying to escape from poor direction. It starts of on a pretentious note, bringing up things unrelated to the following story, and then goes on to attempt to impress us with how clever it is by juggling a number of stories. We know how movies work, and that the stories will link up. Some of them do; some of them don’t, and I suppose it’s meant to challenge our preconceptions but ends up just being sort of unsatisfying. Each of the stories has some good meat on it, and doing a few of the interrelated stories rather than trying to juggle them all would give a more cohesive story. See, a lot of films do this sort of “reverse tree” structure, where seemingly unreleted events coalesce in the end. They usually stop at four on the outside. Juggle this many, and you start to see the problems with the structure.

A big problem is pacing. Now, I won’t go into the fact that this is a really damn long movie, except inasmuch as that’s symptomtic of the pacing problems that plague this film. It idd not occur to me it had pacing problems until about halfway through, when it was approaching the First Climax, the point where everyone reaches a primary moment of crisis or decision or action which they’ll spend the rest of the film responding to. I’m not deeply into moviecraft, so I don’t know the technical term for it, but you know it because it gets all tense and dramatic music plays for a while. This works OK most of the time. The problem here was that they tried to bring all these stories to a head at once, so they had to keep the dramatic tension and the dramatic music and all that dramatic shit going a long time. You can only keep an audience on the edge of their seat for so long, and I kind of lost interest when I saw that each of the plots was advancing at a snail’s pace to the crisis.

Also, film this complex, things get lost in the shuffle. Everything which goes on with Marcie at the beginning? Disappears. Linda’s suicide attempt? Unresolved. Stanley’s father being a prick and told not to? Unfinished. The actual history between Jim and his daughter? Unilluminated. Bit of a letdown after sitting through so much to see a what seemed like relevant plots just get shuffled off. Also, what the fuck was up with the frogs? I’m not saying that sort of absurdity doesn’t have a place in a film, and even in a serious film. But you do something fairly grittily realistic, without even dry humor, and then you throw in a surreal element, then go back to life as normal, and it makes one wonder why you bother with realism if you’re going to dispense with it for the sake of an incomprehensible plot point.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.