Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Review Mania!

Those of you who pay attention to the Passing Judgments section of my sidebar may have noticed that I've had the same two DVDs out from Netflix all fall. I don’t get to the movies much, though I love them, and as Boy is quick to remind me, I am embarrassingly poorly-versed in the classics. So my Netflix Queue is over 400 discs long, and keeping the same two titles for so long simply isn't helpful -- to say nothing of its cost-effectiveness.

Then there are the many DVDs that I've purchased or received as gifts. I've always been a bit of a video collector, but I've really taken to the DVD revolution. I'm the kind of geek who's a total sucker for a good commentary track and deleted scenes. Generally (and I assume this is true of most people) I only buy DVDs of things I know I like. So a new disc is as much about a collecting impulse as it is about actually watching something I've already seen. Yet why buy them if I'm not going to watch them? Or at least the special features!

You'd think with the way I've been mostly unemployed for six months I'd have watched everything, but you'd be very wrong. The Explorer 8000 Home Entertainment Server, GameCube, and high speed Internet have conspired against me. They're all entertaining, yet require less commitment and thought than sitting down and watching a movie (especially a movie like Star 80 or Brazil, which I was foolish enough to rent at the same time, instead of something fluffier).

I put a ban on all new DVD purchasing until I'd watched what I'd already had. Of course, then my birthday happened. Then Donnie Darko was on sale at the Virgin Megastore. Then Chanukah. Oy.

With a new job on the horizon and everything on TV a rerun, it was time to finally do something about my video lethargy.

So last week I hunkered down on the couch, undisturbed, and watched Star 80. One of the Entertainment Weekly critics recently called it one of the most underrated films of all time, and I can see why it wasn't embraced in 1983 -- it's dark! I felt really detached from it, which I think was sort of a defense mechanism. As an outside observer, it can be extremely frustrating to watch because it's so obvious that Paul Snider is dangerous and coming unglued, and I couldn't fathom how no one else saw it. But of course, it's a true story, and none of the real players had the benefit of being shown the grisly ending first by Bob Fosse. And speaking of Mr. Fosse, this is the first non-musical film of his I'd seen, and I was happy to see how well it holds its own with Cabaret and All That Jazz. Fosse had really come into his own as a director by Star 80, and the storytelling has a weirdly dance-like quality to it, despite an almost complete lack of even background music. It has a very typical late-70s/early-80s slowness and visual style that I'm not crazy about, but that does add to its period air. Fosse has always excelled at casting on stage and screen, and everyone in Star 80 is wonderful, breathing real life into characters who could have easily become types.

Moving on to lighter fare...

The other victims of the GameCube/DVR/Internet triumvirate have been the various projects at my desk and around the apartment. So last week I buckled down and tackled those as well, and that seemed like a good time to watch the complete DVDs of Sports Night that Boy got me for my birthday in August. Having seen them all before, and with no special features, I decided that Sports Night is a great show to just listen to, since it's so rich with Aaron Sorkin's language. And while this is where he and Thomas Schlamme first introduced and perfected the pediconference, and introduced us to a workplace full of extraordinarily smart and witty people doing a job they're passionate about, they hadn't yet developed the visual flair they would eventually add to The West Wing. In fact, it's really interesting to watch them learn how to make a TV show. The big words, fabulous quips, and brisk pacing are all there from the beginning, but they take a while to find their footing in the year-long story arcs and slowly-revealed backstories. In its favor, Sports Night is much simpler than The West Wing, with fewer characters, and a much easier-to-understand workplace. The real joy of the show comes from watching its marvelous cast -- Felicity Huffman, Peter Krause, Josh Charles, Sabrina Lloyd, Josh Malina and Robert Guillame -- deliver Sorkin's dialogue with gusto and zest. And the fact that I just used the words "gusto" and zest" without irony shows that I've been watching far too much of it. Also fun for West Wing fans is spotting the actors who started small on Sports Night and went on to big things in the White House. There's Sam's prostitute girlfriend as a guest anchor! Look, it's Donna as a wardrobe assistant! Hey, it's that FBI guy as a freaky executive!

Believe it or not, I managed to see a movie in the theater too. It's said that all Jews eat Chinese food and see movies on Christmas (as movie theaters never close, and the Chinese restaurants are the only ones that are open). I tend to believe that this is a myth, especially in New York where pretty much everything stays open and it seems like everyone goes to the movies simply because it's a day off. Still, in college, when we only saw each other during winter break, S.A. and I decided to adopt our people's fake tradition, and we've kept it up ever since. This year we went to Big Fish, and it was one of the best movies I've seen this year (though I guess we've already established I haven't seen very many). I've always been a big Tim Burton fan, and while Big Fish may not be a typical Burton film, it certainly bears his trademark whimsy and detailed production design. I think, really, it may be quite typical, and simply a sign that the director is maturing. (The story is largely about a son's strained relationship with his dying father, and Burton's own father died just before filming began.) I don't want to say too much about the movie, as it's still playing in theaters and I think it's really best discovered naturally, but I will say that S.A. and I were both in big messy tears at the end of it, and from the sound of it so was everyone else in the theater. The acting is splendid, from the always good Ewan McGregor to a barely recognizable Helena Bonham Carter, to an absolutely luminous Jessica Lange. Billy Crudup is great in an unusually understated role, and the film really belongs to Albert Finney. I'm sure they'll all be robbed of award nominations for being in something so far from the mainstream. Though really, it's a very simple and traditional story at its heart. If I have a complaint, it's that my fake boyfriend Ewan has got to get out of this trend he's been on lately of not taking his clothes off in movies anymore. Seriously, I think Star Wars was the first thing I saw him in where he didn't show his ass, and I was damn disappointed.

Finally, I watched my other long-held Netflick last night. A few months ago, Boy and I saw Man of La Mancha on Broadway, which then led to a rental of Lost in La Mancha, a fascinating documentary about Terry Gilliam's disastrous attempt to make a Don Quixote film. Watching Gilliam (whom I enjoy as both a director and more generally as a public personality) fail so spectacularly made me want to see his "masterpiece," Brazil. I knew it was a film that would require all my attention, and it's long, so I kept putting it off. And now that it's done, I can't really say it was worth the time I devoted to it last night. As one would expect from Gilliam, it's beautifully designed, and a good bit of the fun is in the background, in the wit of the retro-future he's created. But that's a good bit of the problem too: retro-future is so 1985. After Minority Report, Orwellian visions seem quaint. Hell, after the Bush administration, Orwellian visions seem quaint! Admittedly, I found a sign in an office that reads "Suspicion Breeds Confidence" creepy when viewed in 2003 (though Britain has been dealing with terrorist threats at home for much longer than we have in the States), but that's about it for the film's ability to predict the future. More importantly, and more unfortunately, there's really not much of a story to hang all this high concept on. I didn't care about any of the broadly-drawn characters, and I couldn't really figure out why anything was happening or why I should care for 2 hours and 20 minutes. It all just seemed hopelessly self-indulgent. For Monty Python fans, it's fun seeing Michael Palin in a dramatic role. For anyone else, I recommend Twelve Monkeys, a much less hyped and much better-constructed Gilliam film that posits a much more plausible terror for the near future.

One of my new year's resolutions is to watch the rest of my backlogged collection, and to try to see more movies, both new and old. So hopefully there's more of this to come (well, unless you didn't like this post, in which case I guess it's not that hopeful!). Of course, new TV returns next week, which is good too. '80s arthouse movies are great and all, but I'm going into OC withdrawl!

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