Friday, February 18, 2005


In the rather awful movie Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, one character explains to another that to "buckwheat" someone is to, without getting into the really disgusting details, shoot them in the intestines so they die slowly, in terrible agony. Since then, Ann and I have rated movies as "buckwheat" or "not buckwheat", or containing certain percentages of buckwheat. If you feel like you were gut shot when you left the theater, that movie was buckwheat…So, without further ado, as the Oscars descend upon us with all of their unintended pretentiousness and camp, here are the First Annual Buckwheat Awards for Best and Worst Movies of the Year. (Most of these mini-reviews are culled from a year’s worth of VanderWorld Reports. To subscribe to the VanderWorld Report, please visit my website and click on the link in the lower left hand corner.)


#1 - ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Wow. I can't think of a movie this structurally complex that also got to me emotionally. I was crying by the end of this one, and not because of anything sappy or sentimental. Jim Carey and Kate Winslet play the two main characters--caught in a relationship that may be fated to follow a decaying orbit. The movie mostly plays out in reverse, as both Carey's character and Winslet's opt for the services of Lacuna, a company that erases select memories. In this case, they both decide, at different times, to erase their memories of each other. What follows from this conceit--a conceit that in the hands of almost anyone but the writer of Adaptation and Being John Malkovich (both emotional deadwood next to this new movie) would be utter crap--is brilliant, moving, and, in many ways, sublime. Carey's performance is of particular note, in that for once we don't ever see the actor behind the character. The way that Lacuna is brought in without explanation and the way in which the memory erasure occurs is accomplished so naturally that it doesn't derail the movie in any way. Again, in lesser hands the whole SF element would have been awful. But here, it's different. In this movie--the title from a poem by Alexander Pope--even the subplots have poignancy. Stunning, stunning work. One of the best movies I've ever seen. (No buckwheat)

# 2 – A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT. This new movie by the director of Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, and Amelie combines the horrors of war with a tough-minded yet moving story. Set during World War I, the movie follows a group of men condemned to die for trying to escape the trenches through self-mutilation and other means. Sent into the no-man’s land between the French and German lines, their fate seems certain...or does it? To Mathilde, played with great flare and grace by Audrey Tautou, it isn’t certain at all—and she sets out to discover what happened to her fiancee, one of the condemned men. The resulting love story, detective yarn, sweeping war saga, what-have-you, is one of the greatest feats of sustained, convoluted storytelling we have seen in a very long time. As it twines and intertwines toward its ending, you keep thinking that there’s no way it can end in a way that avoids cliche and sentimentality. And yet, the movie achieves an absolutely perfect ending nevertheless. Unfairly overlooked for awards and panned by The New York Times in a review that also dismissed the sublime Amelie, it is, nonetheless, a near-perfect movie, with great performances (including a revelatory cameo by Jodie Foster) and amazing cinematography. (No buckwheat)

#3 - NAPOLEON DYNAMITE - If you went to this movie based just on someone telling you the plot, you might not be expecting much. Napoleon Dynamite is a "nerd" in high school, and the movie shows him trying to get a date to the prom, helping his friend win a school election, and trying to deal with his crazy uncle. Sounds typical, no? Well, no. Napoleon Dynamite is anything but typical. Whereas hip, trendy movies like Garden State had echoes of other movies, almost every scene in ND is something you've never experienced before. This is a comedy based on the main character's resolute defiance of reality--a nerd who doesn't think he's a nerd and has no need to fit in with his classmates. In the process, we meet characters and experience situations that are drop-dead funny, in highly original ways, and in part because of the characters' deadpan reactions to those situations. A bit about a time machine will have you rolling around on the floor, cramping up with laughter. The crazy uncle's videotaping of his football prowess will do the same. We saw this movie in Boston after WorldCon and at first we were puzzled, because everyone around us was laughing about thirty seconds before the joke. We soon realized everyone in the theater had seen the movie two or three times. I think this movie might be my favorite of the year. We were literally sore from laughing when we left the theater. (No buckwheat)

#4 – SIDEWAYS. Featuring the lead actor from American Splendor, Sideways is a funny, absurd, sometimes poignant road story, in which a friend takes a has-been actor on a tour of California wine country in the last week before his wedding. The scenery is gorgeous, the situations fresh, and the pain and black humor well-earned. However, my favorite scene involves a discussion about wine that is mind-bendingly sensual and satisfying. At times over-the-top, but never boring. (1/100 buckwheat)

#5 - THE INCREDIBLES. Part homage to the Sean Connery-era James Bond exotic-island-eccentric-villain movies and part tip of the hat to superhero comics, The Incredibles is a stunningly funny and oddly touching movie. The director and writers have invested a tad more care in the characterization of the family of superheroes at the core of the film than others have for many live-action flicks. The result is a movie in which you care about the characters even as you're laughing hysterically at the many sight gags and such inspired bits as scenes with a fashion designer who specializes in superhero outfits. The animation style is retro and futuristic at the same time, the voice-overs expert. This is a near-perfect animated feature. (1/100 buckwheat)

#6 – HERO. I've heard this Jet-Li movie about an assassin and an emperor called "reactionary" and "supportive of the Chinese government's position" too many times. Let's get one thing straight--this is a fiction about a long-ago time in Chinese history before the unification of a bunch of small feudal states into an empire. Anyone who thinks those small feudal states were any less ruthless or any more benign than what replaced them is living in a dream world. Yes, the movie is convenient for the Chinese government because it can be interpreted to mean that the current situation--including repression--is for the greater good. But what I find interesting is how the fictive elements of the movie actually subvert the usual "ragtag bunch of rebels taking on the establishment" structure we've grown accustom to in movies. Jet-Li is magnificent as the would-be assassin. The cinematography dazzles, with different color schemes depicting different versions of the same events. Structurally complex, vivid, and with excellent acting and direction, this is a marvelous, sometimes gritty, often poetic martial arts love story. (1/100 buckwheat)


THE AVIATOR. Fueled by two excellent performances—Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn—Scorsese’s epic about the famous Texan follows Hughes as he makes movies, builds and flies airplanes, and, finally, the beginning of his decline, wherein he is set upon by enemies and by the betrayal of his own mind. DiCaprio’s performance seems more nuanced than in the past, while Blanchett turns in the best female performance of the year by managing to capture Hepburn’s essence by using part of what in Hepburn increasingly became caricature and mixing it with her own approach to the famous actress. There are sections of The Aviator that don’t seem relevant to the whole, but in general the movie stays focused on Hughes’ various airplane obsessions and his increasing difficulty with some form of mental illness. (1/64 buckwheat)

KINSEY. Liam Neeson is great at showing the clinical, obsessive-compulsive nature of Kinsey, whether studying wasps or human sexuality. The movie's single-minded focus on Kinsey's studies and their affect on his human relationships saves the movie from some of the fuzziness of other biopics. A scene in a forest with a doe late in the film is somewhat sappy, but otherwise this is a very sound sometimes daring and sometimes emotional movie. (1/64 buckwheat)

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. Shot in a tense documentary style, this account of an Odessa, Texas, football team's drive toward the state championship is based on the unsettling book of the same name. The movie can't provide the depth of the book, with its haunting expose of a town that has nothing left to cheer about but football, but it does a nice job even if it does at times seem superficial. Billy Bob Thornton, who has been awful in many recent films, redeems himself with his performance as the coach who must stoically listen to conflicting bits of advice from the team's often retarded boosters. A nice performance also from the boy from Slingblade, now grown up and showing no residual effects from having been a child actor. (1/64 buckwheat)

SEAN OF THE DEAD - This funny zombie flick in which the main characters don't realize at first that they're surrounded by the undead is kind of a one-joke movie. Once you experience that joke, it's still amusing, but it's no longer classic. The first twenty minutes of Sean of the Dead are a riot. After that, the movie shifts into a different gear, alternating between ha-ha and serious. Personally, I would have liked the movie to have entered Monty Python territory at some point. Still, this is definitely funny stuff. (1/4 buckwheat) (1/32 buckwheat)

SPANGLISH (1/16 buckwheat) - A lot has been made of the noble-maid-WASP-bitch set up of this movie, but we found a lot of individuality in the characters in Spanglish, rather than stereotypes, and lots to like in Adam Sandler's performance as the husband. This is an enjoyable movie experience, with strong performances by all of the characters. It's possible this movie will sour on us with time, but at the point of viewing, we found much to like about it, especially since the ending seems more mature than most Hollywood movies.


THE GRUDGE. Let me just say that if I visited a house that turned out to be haunted by the spirits of two vengeful ghosts and I learned over time that they were going to seek me out and kill me no matter what I did, I wouldn't hide in my bed or hide in an empty office after hours or go back to the house in question for no particular reason, or go from an empty office to an empty apartment building; no, I WOULD FIND THE BRIGHTEST, MOST CROWDED OPEN-24-HOURS PLACE IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE AND I WOULD STAY THERE FOREVER WHILE REMAINING PLEASANTLY INTOXICATED. Alas, no one in this sad excuse for a horror flick shares my sentiments. And they pretty much all die. And the ones who don't you begin to wish would--and more quickly, too, so maybe the movie would end sooner. Please? (3/4 buckwheat)


LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS This crapulous sneer-fest posing as a legitimate Gorey-like delight is like finding a dog turd in amongst your Godiva chocolates. Not a pleasant experience. Not only does Jim Carrey mug for the camera so much that you find yourself wondering if he's ever seen any of Peter Sellers wonderfully nuanced comic multi-character performances, but there's a grievous waste of Billy Connelly, the marvelous Scottish comedian. The child actors in this movie are fine, but with the exception of Meryl Streep, the movie is hideously mis-cast, with good actors badly used. I really wished someone would have tasered Carrey in the middle of this movie. I'd have paid ten bucks just to see that. Then, add in settings that are right off of the Hollywood back lot and make no causal sense when put together, and you have a completely flat, noxious mess. Please stage interventions for people who think this is delightful Gothic fare. This is just another crappy Hollywood movie. Afterwards, Ann and I asked ourselves what wonders might have been revealed if the director of City of Lost Children and Amelie had directed Lemony Snicket, and that just clarified for us how awful what we had just seen really was. (3/4 buckwheat)


THE LIFE AQUATIC. Here's a movie that doesn't quite hang together, no matter how desperately it tries. Taken as a series of disconnected scenes, there's much to find humorous or even moving in this movie. But when you throw the awkward father-son relationship scenes in with the documentary-style pirate attacks scenes and then add the goofy Cousteau parody scenes and, for good measure, throw in animated sea life sequences, you wind up with a well-intentioned, beautiful mess. You have to give the director credit for trying, but he's gone too far this time. Oddly, we wouldn't have wanted to miss this film, even knowing how messed up it was, but it's still messed up. In short, it's not a bad movie in the conventional sense of "bad". It's still very watchable. (1/2 buckwheat)


HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS Ann and I expected a lot more from a movie directed by the same director who created the wonderful Hero, especially since all and sundry have been calling this one a great movie. Instead, what we got was an inferior form of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with long, awkward monologues intended to fill in information the audience won't know otherwise and characters whose indecision creates long moments of boredom, to the point that Ann and I almost fell asleep during parts of this movie. (Afterwards, we both thought it should have been called The House of Indecisive Lovers.) The final fight scene is both wonderful and retarded at the same time. The government soldiers after the doomed lovers are an inept as Keystone Kops. The sets are beautiful but ultimately repetitive and dull. A wonderful scene involving a bamboo grove is undercut by illogical fight sequences. In short, this all seems like a trial-run for the effortless magic of Hero. At least, we hope this was made before Hero, and not after. (3/4 buckwheat)


THE VILLAGE. Once you realize that almost every element in this movie has been set up for one reason and one reason only--to support the heinous twist ending--you want to strangle the director with your bare hands. In short, the director has twisted the story to fit his Twilight Zone needs and as a result created all kinds of tears and rips in the fabric of his narrative that only become apparent after you learn the truth about the dumb-ass village. One reviewer called it "The Village of the Idiots" and I don't think they are far wrong. The horrible thing about all this is that the acting has a certain gravitas to it, the cinematography is excellent, and the scares in the early part of the movie are superb. But everything--and I mean everything--is undermined by the ending. (Two-thirds buckwheat; the first half is 25 percent buckwheat and the last half is 150 percent buckwheat.)


REX THE RUNT. We rented this DVD of episodes about four odd clay-mation dogs not knowing what to expect. It's by the same people who brought us the movie Chicken Run and the Wallace and Grommit series. Except it is a thousand times stranger and more surreal. In one episode, a character gets put through a sausage grinder by mistake and goes around as little more than a coil of intestines and two eyes and a mouth. In another episode, the dogs build a time machine, with disastrous results. In another, they deflate the Earth by mistake and use it like a balloon slowly losing air to get to a space lounge that only serves chicken, which is delivered to them, one chicken for each dog, alive, only to have the alien waiter use a flame-thrower to burn the chickens black. At which point, each dog starts to nibble on an incinerated head. Then they get sucked into a black hole that opens up into a weird alien church. In yet another episode, they explore the inside of one their compatriots' bodies by miniaturizing themselves. And in another episode, they collect cities like Birmingham and set them up in their kitchen in miniature form. And yet there's nothing I can say in summary that can really do justice to the surreal humor and oddness of it all. It's the strangest, most grotesquely beautiful clay-mation (on a conceptual level) that we've ever seen.


At 3:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

how about most buckwheat sci-fi of the year jeff? many to choose from in 2004. or even the subcategory, most buckwheat adaptation from a sci-fi novel?

At 8:47 PM, Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

First of all, I think the idea of the Buckwheats is awesome, and I so wish I'd thought of it first.

Re: House of Flying Daggers, I could tolerate monologues, because I knew a kick-ass fight sequence was coming up soon. The first 3/4 of the movie blew me away, but then once they actually reach Flying Daggers HQ, the whole thing just falls apart. I definitely agree on the final fight scene being both wonderful and retarded at the same time, but perhaps more retarded than wonderful.

And I'm going to check out Rex the Runt. I'm a big fan of Wallace and Grommit, and your surreal descriptions just need to be seen.

At 6:09 AM, Blogger Hal Duncan said...


At 1:50 PM, Blogger JeffV said...

Thanks for your enigmatic blurt.

Mr. Morrison:
Your wish is my command:

ALIEN VERSUS PREDATOR. An Aztec/Cambodian/Egyptian pyramid under Antarctica created thousands of years ago. Infested with aliens and predators. Things pop out of chests with astonishing frequency. Logic flaws. Men in predator suits. Men in alien suits. Boom! Crash! Sizzle! Need I say more? Well, yeah, I have to say one more thing. The scene in which Our Heroine accidentally impales an alien on a stick and then receives the top half of the alien's head and the bottom half of its spine in honor of her achievement from a Predator who then makes her an honorary Predator instead of blowing her ass into the next crappy priceless. Reminded me of Mean Joe Green in those Coke commercials throwing his jersey to the kid... (One hundred percent, dyed in the wool BUCKWHEAT!!!!)

Maybe I'm just jaded by the number of kung-fu epics I've seen over the years. It just seemed like the politics in that movie were incomprehensible and the fight scenes were the same five to ten government soldiers doing the same moves against Our Heroes over and over. But I know a lot of people who like the movie. (Hey--good luck on all that stuff you're working on. Keep focused. Drink a lot of green tea. Make sure you exercise. You'll come through it fine.)

At 4:49 PM, Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Sorry. Couldn't resist. One of my favourite things about "Rex The Runt" is Vince (the, well, pet dog of the main characters (who are all, of course, dogs))... Vince with his "Random Pavarotti Syndrome".

I don't know why, but the thing that sticks in my mind most about the series is Vince blurting "Tuesday!". It's a gem of a show.

At 5:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


LOL! I totally forgot about "Tuesday!" It is one of the funniest thing about it, for some reason. Thanks for reminding me.

Hey--great comments about style, etc., on your blog.


At 10:00 AM, Blogger Chuck said...

Have you seen:

Its got a Napoleon Dynamite Soundboard and a dance video.

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't know all your categories but you should sentence the producer Moctesuma Esparza plus Edward James Olmos and everyone involved in HBO's crapfest "Walkout" for some AK/Uzi - style BUCKWHEATS.


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