So, um, Halloween has come and gone and things have festered.
I shall return. Hopefully by the 22nd.
Things have been extremely busy for my professional life the past 2 months, and my dear sweet hobby which I would love to have as my professional life has been dealt a serious blow to the sternum.
Meanwhile people seriously believe A Tale of Two Boats or as it's commonly referred to The Dark Knight should be a best pic nomination.
And I can do nothing to stem the tide.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
So, um, Halloween has come and gone and things have festered.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Monday, October 06, 2008
When writing film reviews, it's inevitable that at some point you'll hear someone say to you, "Can't you just watch a movie and enjoy it?" The implicit question here is, "Can't you stop thinking so much?" The reason I bring this up is twofold: 1) it annoys me (and I think people should be ashamed of themselves for even thinking such things, much less voicing them) and 2) because I feel Bill Maher's pain. Religulous features Maher talking to various religious figures, asking them questions about their beliefs, and expressing his skepticism, his outrage, and his disappointment at the lack of critical thinking that people apply to their faith. The film is predominently focused on Christian thought in the United States, but makes a cursory stab at discussing similar problems and absurdities in the Jewish and Muslim worlds as well. This is not a film that is likely to convert anyone in any direction, but for fans of thinking, it's an amusing, and even important document of how people deal with matters of belief.
From all evidence, Maher is a bruised cynic of a comedian, the kind of jokester who cares deeply about the "rightness" of the world while despairing that things will ever work out to his satisfaction. He pulls few punches with those he speaks to; he often scoffs and mocks the ridiculousness of their claims as they defend, say, the existence of a talking snake. He's a funny man, and his quick wit and observations are satisfying. But underlying his mirth is a clear desire to understand, to have a reasoned, intelligent discourse on the topic. When talking to Ken Ham, who represents the risible and dangerous Creation Museum in Kentucky, Maher's sense of disappointment at not being able to have an intelligent debate on the topic of "Creation Science" is palpable. He looks positively crestfallen as Ham refuses to engage and evades Maher's questions. In the early portions of the film, I began to fear that the deck was stacked too much in Maher's favor, that he was choosing to debate lightweights so he could emerge victorious. But after his interview with Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, exposed this respected, notable scientist's bizarre standard of evidence for a historical Jesus, I realized that any interviewee would suffer. It's not Maher's fault that there are no rational discussions in this film--when it comes to religion, there can be none. For good or bad (and, in case it's not obvious, I'm with Maher that it's bad), religion and faith exist in a realm beyond rationality's reach.
This, of course, is the film's point. It's interesting, and perhaps appropriate, that the the film doesn't develop an argument, doesn't develop point-by-point to its conclusion. Rather, Religulous is an emotional appeal, a screed decrying the laziness of thought demonstrated by religious proponents and the danger inherent in this type of thinking. It's strange, and I doubt it's intentional, but Religulous is almost like a religious experience in and of itself--it stacks up subjective, personal experience after subjective, personal experience until it reaches its fiery, impassioned, and evangelical conclusion. I guess this may be called hypocritical, but I found it exhilarating--if appealing to reason is fruitless for Maher (and it most evidently is), what else does he have left?
The film is unfocused and scattershot, full of wacky, digressive edits to film clips and stock footage that underscore a point Maher's making or reveal the subtext of a particular scene. I passionately hated the cutting at first, but after a time, I got into the film's aggressive editing style. I came to an awareness that more than anything, this is a goof-off film, a comedian's comedy movie. At times it felt like a naive avant-garde film school project, laced with non-diagetic sound effects and smart-aleck subtitles exposing the vacuousness of the subject being interviewed. The kitchen-sink mentality of the film was alarming at first, but as I began to understand the tone of the film, was incredibly satisfying. In Religulous, laughs are valued over fairness, but honesty is valued above everything.
Those of weak faith who feel threatened by having their beliefs challenged would be wise to storm out like the burly trucker at the beginning of the film. Those who cannot see the absurdity in deism will no doubt chafe at the lack of any semblance of balance. But this is an important movie, one whose shelf-life is probably very small, but vital. In this time and place, it is increasingly more important that our leaders have more religion than intelligence, and the standards for basic scientific education are continually undermined by those who would supplant their own mythologies for sound methodology. For good or bad, it is important that these beliefs be questioned, be loudly interrogated in public discourse, if only for the sake of caution. Religulous fulfills this need, and it makes its point in a single shot. During a Las Vegas-style Passion Play at a Florida Bible Amusement Park, an actor portraying Jesus writhes on a cross, casting his eyes toward heaven. The camera tilts up and there, crossing the sky, is not God, but a commercial airplane. The shot successfully argues, all by itself, that the coexistence of these two things is monumentally absurd. It's as momentous in implicit meaning as when the bone becomes a space station in 2001.
Would Be a Good Double Feature With: The Passion of the Christ
Monday, September 29, 2008
Crazy-slammed at everything in life. This week's post will have to be POSTPONED or outright cancelled. But if you want some general movie-related thoughts:
It is hard to remember a worse casting decision than that which dropped Renee Zellweger into Leatherheads. She is so clearly out of her league playing in the Hepburn mold that she sunk the entire movie in 2 scenes (it was taking on water before this, but yeeeeeesh is she horrible here). There are few movies I have actively chosen to stop watching on the grounds that I no longer wished to spend time with them, and this is one of them. George Clooney clearly has some good chops as a director, but his body of work as a director reveals that he is in dire need of an editor who will shape his stabs at sophisticated style into a unified piece.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Forget that the story of Ghost Town is an overly-familiar Scrooge tale about a grumpy man who learns to love again with the help of a few ghosts or that the film itself often feels like a mawkish, mid-nineties romantic comedy following in the (then) successful wake of Nora Ephron films. Focus, instead, on what elevates the film from a standard but well-executed programmer to a howlingly funny film: Ricky Gervais. Viewers of the British version of The Office or Extras know that Gervais is a master at spinning comedic gold by playing sad little men, and his work in Ghost Town only further confirms this. He imbues the curmudegonly stuff with an unrelenting sweetness that belies the bruised, aching heart at the core of the character, but he also plays the lovey-dovey stuff with a cynical, aware edge. This, by itself is valuable, but doesn't even get into how delightfully, devillishly funny he is. His use of the phrase "fait accompli" when discussing the results of a laxative would, by itself, justify the cost of admission.
Gervais plays a dentist who abhors the company of others, preferring the tidiness and quiet of a secluded life. He goes in for a colonoscopy and dies for seven minutes during the procedure. After being brought back to life, he finds that he's able to see and hear the ghosts of others who have passed on, and these apparations begin to pester him to help take care of their unfinished business. He's disgusted, of course, that he has a new cadre of souls to be annoyed by, and finds that he can't isolate himself from these desperate, needy creatures as easily as he can with the living. The most persistent of these spirits is a smooth-talking, tuxedoed ghost played by Greg Kinnear. Kinnear's distrustful and jealous of his widow's new fiancee (the fiancee is a humorless bore, played admirably by Billy Campbell), and wants Gervais to break up the relationship before she is hurt again.
Things complicate when Gervais lays eyes on the woman, played by Tea Leoni. He's immediately smitten and decides the best way to break up her new relationship is to romance her himself. This would smack of convenient or even lazy plotting, but for the performances of Leoni and Gervais. Leoni, for instance, plays her character as a bit of a misfit, a morbid, goofy, and even nerdy woman. She's delivering a lecture on mummies, and the unbridled passion and obsession she evinces makes her seem like an immediate good match for the cloistered, fussy Gervais. This holds true throughout--the two have a remarkable amount of chemistry and this renders Gervais's awkward, uncomfortable attempts to woo her cute rather than spooky and her return on his affections relatable rather than perplexing.
The film was directed by David Koepp who's a Hollywood screenwriter of some note (he's credited on such little films as Spiderman, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), and his past directorial efforts have been competent, if not exactly inspiring (Stir of Echoes and The Trigger Effect being the best of the lot). Here he's working in the same realm--a hundred little choices in this film add up to it feeling smart and sturdy for what it is, even if the film winds up feeling a little insignificant. The most inspired choice Koepp makes, though, is in giving Gervais plenty of space to do his schtick. Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis found great success by giving Bill Murray this kind of room to play in films like Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, and even lesser vehicles like Meatballs or Stripes. Koepp's generosity with Gervais's performance is the correct approach--Gervias should be (and hopefully will be) as universally celebrated for his comedic gifts as Murray is.
While the film is too cutesy and too sentimental at times, I, and the audience I saw it with, were roaring with laughter for very long stretches. The woman next to me was doubled over and gasping for air and huge swaths of dialogue went unheard due to the revelry. This is not necessarily a film for the ages, but the comedy is sweet and inviting, hilarious and honest. Mainstream comedic films have become increasingly brash and pointed over the past few years, and even something as funny as Tropic Thunder can be quite an assault on the senses. It's a nice feeling to watch something like Ghost Town, which has something of the air of a classic comedy from the 30s. It's far from squeaky clean, but it's nevertheless decent at its core. By laughing you feel a little bit better about yourself and the world around you.
Would be a good double feature with: Groundhog Day
Monday, September 15, 2008
From time to time, I like to consult long-time colleague and mentor Ace McGee for his insights on a film. His storied career began in 1969 when, at the age of 8, he entered the world of critical letters with his razor-sharp excoriation of the dumbed-down fumblings of his elementary school's Thanksgiving Day Play. The piece, Turkey Time Is the Real Turkey, is a must-read for any fan of the Elementary School Theater, and his ribald, profane take-down of the play is even more astonishing when you learn that McGee had a small role in the production. The same year, he wrote his classic book, Moonshot, Woodstock, and Nixon: An Eight Year Old's Letters from Vietnam, still considered to be the seminal work on the experience of the juveniles who were drafted into the service during that turbulent era in American History. After seeing Burn After Reading, the latest Coen Brothers film, I sent him a text that read "wot did u thnk?" and only three minutes later, he texted back with the following response, reprinted here as he sums it up better than I ever could.
"Where do these guys get off? Do they think we're stupid or something? They keep saying the same things over and over again, with absolutely nothing new to their nonsense. It's like they think we forget every time the new Coen Brothers movie comes out that we've heard it all before, but they just go right back to the well and give us the same-old, same-old stuff. These imbecilic critics see the movie and then they start tossing out the word 'misanthropic' like it's supposed to be a bad thing, or like it means anything. 'Oh,' they cry out, just about to faint like a Southern Belle, 'these guys don't have any sympathy for the stupid characters that populate their narratives! They look down upon these simps and judge them harshly! Oh no!' Forget that it's not true, and that, while the Coens often bring an ironic, detached perspective to their narratives, they're still able to present clear, relatable characters that are nonetheless absurd cartoons of humanity. Forget that. What these people, these critics are talking about is themselves. They are the ones who can't face the dumb, obsessed idiocy of themselves, and so, while they identify with the stupidity, they are also repelled by it. They mistake the consequences of the characters' actions for judgement by the filmmakers. And then they feel judged since they've empathized with the dum-dums in the movie, and they boo-hoo-hoo all the way through their published columns about the poor saps that these mean old directors went and gave a spankin' to, and their hearts grow three sizes because they fought for the little guy characters of a movie, and meanwhile I'm crackin' it up because I know I'm stupid and that life's not fair and that's what makes life funny sometimes.
"So forget them. This is a hilarious trifle of a Coen Bros film, and it's only a trifle because it's missing that visual splendor. Remember in even their first movie, Blood Simple how they made little ol' Texas look just as alien as the Sea of Tranquility (where the astronauts landed)? Not a lot of that here. There are one or two moments where they find that groove of epic Otherness that they bring to all of their movies (even The Ladykillers--a movie that suffered from too much sympathy for their characters), but it's not nearly as visually rich in design. I almost didn't care, though, because they replaced that rich mise-en-scene with something different and wonderful: great faces. You almost want this to be like The Passion of Joan of Arc where the entire movie's done with closeups. Everyone's face is hilarious, especially Brad Pitt's. The dude's great at vacuity, no doubt about it, but he's not just stupid, he's got a childlike earnestness that is quite endearing. It's a spiritual cousin to his movie-stealing stoner part in True Romance. But then, the whole cast is great, and their looks of perplexity, or confusion are priceless... if you just watch the movie for the faces you'll probably enjoy this movie 50% more than if you're watching it for, like, the plot (which is a fun parody of espionage thriller conventions). Yeah, they all overdo the dumbness just a tad at times, but they're all playing at the same levels of cartoony, and no one's 'playing' dumb. Even Clooney who, after two movies playing dumb with the Coens, has finally gotten it right. Everyone's eyes are stupid, I guess, is what I mean. You look in their eyes and just see stupid, not an actor who knows better winking at you and saying, 'Shucks, aren't I a dweeblehead!'
"And maybe it's just a trifle of a Shaggy Dog story, or something, man, but I don't know because I keep thinking about it. I couldn't help but think about Modern American Problems while watching it. Gimme a few days and I'll whip up the right words for it, but you know, we just saw the movie, and I'm waiting for you to get out of the bathroom so I can get a ride home from you. Not enough time! But there's something there, particularly in the way Frances McDormand wants to get plastic surgery to "remake" herself, so that she'll be more attractive to men. It's like, we all think we can just buy love that way. You know what I mean? And we're all pretty stupid and uninformed about geopolitical matters, so maybe we'd take a classified document to the Russians, even though they're not so much our enemies anymore. And the CIA is a 3rd person omniscient force in the world over who can and will control our lives if they need to. I thought the story was somewhat meaningful, anyway, in a subtle way, not a way that screams out "I AM ABOUT MODERN AMERICAN PROBLEMS."--Some guy just stepped on my foot. What's taking you so long?
"I loved it, I gotta say. I loved every microsecond of it. Remember when Lebowski came out and you and I loved it, but everyone was kind-of rolling their eyes and saying, 'They did that after Fargo?' but now it's lauded as this classic and people love it? And we got into that fight because those two critics from the Post and the Times were mocking us as pot-heads for liking it? And I had to go to the hospital because I'm a hemophiliac and that dude from the Post cut me? And now they've eaten their words? I don't know if this is going to age as well as Lebowski, but I think people are going to look back on this one more fondly than they're treating it now. It's a bleak movie, sure, but it's very, very funny and I'm still crackin' it up about that ending. It might be seen as a jab at the audience by the dweebleheadeds, but I think it's a grand joke the Coens are making on themselves for spinning such an elaborate yarn about nothing. And anyway J.K. Simmons and David Rasche are so funny, they'd make it a worthwhile movie even if you hated everything else in the picture. You know, the most important thing about the movie, though, is
"I just broke off my thumbnail on my phone. You gotta get out here and get me to the hospital, man, I'm gonna bleed to death."
Ace McGee is currently in stable condition at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital and Medical Center.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Sunday, September 07, 2008
The crisis of an innocent man wanted for crimes he did not commit is closely identified with the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and for a brief time, Tell No One looks like it's going to be a solid French entry into the "Hitchcockian" genre. The film reaches its zenith when its hero, a pediatrician framed for murder, leads the police on a footchase through urban streets and across a busy highway. Using speeding traffic to foil cops is amusing to both the audience and the hero, and seeing this standard hallmark of a major metropolitan area treated like a wild, deep river is a nice trick (Though the hero's proud smirk at the multi-car pileup he's caused is a little worrying. Isn't this guy supposed to be a doctor?). But, while there are other good moments in the film and Tell No One is a nice, diverting mystery, it never really finds a comfortable stride. The plot is too loose and freewheeling; I spent most of the time keeping track of all the characters that populate the film and trying to pin down exactly what they were after. Worse, the film isn't front-loaded enough. Too many times, the film drops a clue that makes no sense to the audience and lets a character explain why it's meaningful. It's not nearly as much fun to be told that (hypothetically) Person X could never have fired the gun because he broke his finger the night before than it is to figure that out for ourselves. This is a film that works on a scene-by-scene basis, but, taken as a whole, it doesn't cohere.
The premise is simple, intriguing. The doctor's wife was murdered eight years in the past, but then he starts getting emails that seem to be from her. This inspires him to dig into the events of the night of her murder, and he soon finds that her death might not have been the open and shut case it once appeared to be. Soon, he's in over his head, embroiled in an elaborate conspiracy of crooked cops, seedy hoods, and equestrians that all want to take him out of the picture. As it progresses, it gets to be too much. Tell No One is far more convuluted than its structure can support. The film starts with one too many significant characters, and, like a season of Lost, makes the fatal mistake of adding on even more instead of exploring the people it started with. It all builds to an exhausting, interminable scene where somone in the know tells the hero everything that happened, but it's not satisfying. For one, the scene goes on forever and all forward momentum stops cold; the protaganist just sits there listening to the description of events. Further, the events that transpired unbeknownst to our clueless hero are so far-fetched and ridiculous, that I started getting inappropriate giggles during the explanation. Summation scenes like this are a staple in mystery stores, and (with few exceptions) I can't abide these moments. I loved a similar scene in Redbelt because the explanation did not end the movie, it only deepened my understanding of the character's problems. Plus it was over quickly.
Despite its chaotic plot and overpopulation, the filmmaking from director Guillaume Canet often has a powerful kick to it. I really enjoyed the way the movie played with time; the flashbacks here feel more like the free-associative memories of its main character than the plot points that they are. And the noisy score by "M" is a delight, reminiscent of some of the crazier choices made by Morricone or Badalamenti. At one point, the woman sitting next to me whispered to her friend, "Good soundtrack!" and she's right. Of course, she said this during a moment when U2's With or Without You was playing, a moment when the doctor makes his first positive step toward figuring out what exactly is going on around him. I pretty much don't like U2, but I still loved its use in this scene. The camera slowly creeps onto François Cluzet's face, and he cracks a very meaningful smile as the music builds and builds. It's forever changed my perception of this song, but the triumph ends too soon. The music fades out just as it's reaching a crescendo, and the movie cuts to some mundane shot of the doctor unlocking his front door. It's not just here--the movie is full of this sort of cinematticus interruptus, cutting to something else just as things start to really heat up. Whatever powerful moments exist, they're often undercut by the film's clunkiness.
Tell No One is based on a novel by Harlan Coben (a writer I have absolutely no familiarity with, and, based on the film's merits, one I won't be paying attention to anytime soon), and it bears the hallmark of an adaptation that hews too closely to its source. The surfeit of characters and plotting would feel much more at home in the expanse of a novel than the tight confines of a feature film. For all the confident charge in the filmmaking, it's just too much weight, and the story begins to stall just a few scenes after its great chase. Hitchcock once made the claim that bad books made good movies, but I think, even then, they need to be mercilessly pulped of their novelistic excesses the way plays sometimes need to be taken out of the drawing room and onto location.
Would be a good double feature with: Frantic
Saturday, September 06, 2008
Sitting in an audience of older folks (most of them no doubt bought senior tickets) and middle-aged couples or 2 middle-aged women while watching a French film makes me feel like I've just given money to NPR. Can anyone confirm if I'm getting a tote bag?
I've come to dread this particular demographic in a theater more than a gaggle of rambunctious text-messaging teens. Teens are necessarily self-centered and have to posture at all times or they will suffer the consequences of exile. I can't excuse their behavior, but I understand it. However, the people in this NPR sort of crowd have the bleary-eyed look of breeders with assortments of 2.5 kids and have no doubt had to teach their children movie manners at some point or other. And, yet, they sit there, whispering to one another as loudly as they can, trying to be heard over the horrifying din of something other than themselves. Their comments echo about the theater, but because they've made an attempt to whisper, they believe they are invisible to all. Do they forget? Are they bad parents?
The most common thing heard in this crowd is "what's going on?" or "is that the same guy from before who bought the car..." Such things fill me with an inappropriate rage, as it is the very same impulse to instantly quash all mystery that favors the cheap and easy to digest over a challenging experience. Worse than the confused, though, is the barely-together middle-aged couple who have lost all interest in one another and are at the movies to have some semblance of a shared experience. As they joke about the movies and how these things remind them of their kids, trying to ask them to be quiet is seen as an affront to their marriage. They will circle the wagons against such an onslaught and wonder how you could possibly be so bothered.
I realize that I'm fighting a losing battle here, and yet I must do what I can to beat back the tide. I blame stadium seating most of all; people lose the notion that they are not one, but pieces of a unified whole. However, it is not just this technological innovation to blame. I saw Juno in an old-school theater and suffered through a non-ceasing babble from a horrid, horrid woman. I believe she feared that she would die if she didn't stop talking, and so treated my left ear to a recitation of J.K. Simmons' filmography and her judgement of the wisdom and likability of the characters onscreen. I leaned back and pleaded to her in a whispery voice, "Please stop talking," but she persisted. As a pacifist, I don't know what to do when people, asked nicely, refuse to consider the needs of others. Luckily, I'm also a trained passive aggressor, and I simply started repeating things she said loudly. At one point, she asked her seat mate, "Did that guy just say what I said?"
This may have been the only moment of introspection in her life. But she soon went back to babbling, and I got a nasty look from the woman sitting in front of me. As I tried to whisper my plan to her, she simply looked embarrassed for me and punched me in the face. As a result, I thought Juno was overrated.
NOTE: There is a big difference between having discussions with your seat mate and laughing at funny things or expressing surprise at a plot twist or cheering an action scene. Don't try to nail me on that technicality.
Monday, September 01, 2008
After watching David Mamet's Redbelt (recently out on DVD), I asked myself, "Why isn't everything at least this good?" Redbelt is a small, twisty movie about a seasoned, dogmatic Jiu-Jitsu instructor who exhibits a purity of spirit and grounded optimism (some may say naiveté) in the face of an intricate and often ludicrous plot sprung on him by opportunistic lowlifes. Like the small intestines, the film bends in on itself and turns so many corners, that it's able to compact a surprising amount into its limited space (in this case, 110 minutes). Better still is the fact that, up until the final moments, the film moves through this structure like a shark; every moment moves the plot or the characters forward. Its momentum is such that any nagging questions about the plausibility of the narrative or the fact that people are engaging in some pretty complicated deceptions to accomplish things that would probably be easier handled with a good old-fashioned exchange of large amounts of currency are left behind.
What happens in Red Belt is tidily explained by Ricky Jay near the end of the film, a summation of all the trickery and deceit employed to the disadvantage of the noble Jiu-Jitsu instructor. It's a relief to the instructor when he does, but also to the viewer. Mamet's script is marvelous in the way it rations out the pieces to the film's central puzzle to the audience and the protagonist at once. Having a character whisk away the subterfuge to reveal the machinations of the plot can feel arbitrary or lazy, but here it's simply a confirmation of everything you (and the instructor) have suspected all along. The pieces are in hand, you've got them fitting together just fine, and all this revelation does is confirm the picture on the box. It doesn't hurt that it's swiftly done.
The film is anchored on Chewitel Ejiofor's performance, and he serves with great distinction. The noble and pure artisan is a cliche of the highest order, particularly when dealing with martial arts fellows. Ejiofor avoids the traps of making his character either self-righteous or a martyr. When he can't scrape up the money to pay for his studio's broken window, he exhibits both regret that his ideals will not allow him to earn a quick buck by fighting professionally and the enticement that such an easy path holds for him. Like Mamet's script, the performance is a carefully controlled drip. When he shouts at someone at the film's climax, it's both a surprise and a delight to see this otherwise gentle, selfless man explode into such a commanding fury.
In negotiating the con-artist plot Redbelt stacks up one small success after another, but it bungles the finale. The movie's smart enough to know that the real fight does not happen in the ring, and I was delighted that the final fight was motivated by ideals and philosophy, not brute aggression or something as trite as revenge. The writing is just as sharp here as any other moment in the film, but the filmmaking turns a shade too mawkish. When the sentiment starts roaring in, it's a bit too much and too soon.
It's a disappointment to see the movie falter so, as it's otherwise a solid little movie. The whole endeavor has the vibe of a great B-movie from the past. One of the things that makes these films valuable, even now, is an efficiency in their storytelling--absent time and money, they couldn't afford to focus on anything but their subject matter. Redbelt is similar. It provides an honest look at a small corner of the world and tests its main character's ideology in a taut, efficient framework. It's no surprise given Mamet's pedigree that it's the writing that distinguishes this movie from similar, but less successful fare, and it is also writing, I believe, that is the answer to the question I posed at the film's conclusion.
Would be a good double feature with: The Set-Up
Spout.com link: http://www.spout.com/films/326740/default.aspx
Thursday, August 28, 2008
You guys! Hulu's got ALL THREE Karate Kid movies (The Next Karate Kid is not canon, I don't care what anyone says) available for watchems! You can enjoy these films in your living room at the touch of a button and then finish off with a quick take-in of Me, Myself, and Irene? The future just keeps on getting here!
Friday, August 22, 2008
Diabolique is about two woman who, together, plot the murder of a terrible man. He is husband to one, mistress to the other, and such a pouty, abusive lout that his death is welcome to both women, whatever personal rivalries they may feel. All three work at the same boys boarding school. The wife is wealthy and owns the place, the husband runs it as a principal, and the mistress teaches. The troubled relationship between the three is known to all the teachers, staff, and students of the school, and these side characters walk around, shaking their heads at the drama that unfolds before them on a daily basis. The wife is an ex-nun with a heart condition, and she's opposed to both divorce and murder for religious reasons. But, after suffering at the husband's hands for so long, her anger inspires her to break the latter taboo. Yet, it is the mistress who, tired of the abuse, plots the murder and asks the wife for help. They drown the man in a bathtub, and soon after the wife begins to crack under the strain of her guilt. When things begin to get mysterious (the body disappears, the suit the man was killed in is sent to the cleaners), the poor woman's heart begins to deteriorate. The mistress, bound to the wife through their mutual crime, must watch over her, protect both of them from the other woman's conscience.
It isn't long before the two women are turning to familiar gender roles to get through the strain--the wife is frail and emotional, while the mistress is competent and taciturn. Watching this relationship develop in this way, to see these two form a fractured, diseased "marriage" consummated by murder is fascinating. Saying this movie is about lesbians is a stretch; these characters are in bed with one another due to a man's absence. Sexual desire has nothing to do with it. There is, nevertheless, a dollop of subtext in there that compels--particularly as the mistress is quite butch--and I couldn't help but wonder if this movie was the only way to discuss lesbianism in 1955, to speak of it in terms of aberration and violence. Then, thinking of how lesbianism is usually portrayed in today's films, I wondered if that's still the case.
As a suspense thriller, it's great fun. All of the murder and scheming is fine and well-done. The twisty plot seems obvious in the light of decades of soap operas and cop shows, but the characters and writing are always sharp. Information is doled out in just the right amounts and at the appropriate times. Just as the two women begin to need each other on a deeper level, we get deeper information about them and their histories. But really, this whole movie pretty much serves as a setup to deliver the final sequence in which the wife is terrified by the shadows and ghosts of her guilty conscience. She moves down the halls of the school as doors creak open by themselves and the lights go out mysteriously. Someone or something has typed the name of her victim on a typewriter, and the gloves of the murdered man lie nearby. Terrified, she flees to the bathroom and lying in the tub is a vision of terrifying simplicity. This is perfect funhouse filmmaking, chock full of spooky shadows and suggestive sounds timed perfectly to the viewer's increasing heart rate. It's especially neat, because the heroine is in such a vulnerable state that stress alone can kill her. Since she's the character with whom the viewer empathizes, and since the movie's wound the viewer up so well, you're doubly concerned for her... if her heart is racing like mine... she can't live much longer! Few movies of this period still retain their power to grab me, but this is killer stuff. It got me good.
The director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, was apparently called the French Hitchcock at some point (Hitchcock reportedly wanted to make this movie himself) , and the way he juggles suspense with grim, gallows humor in this film is certainly evidence of this. The film ends on a half-joke, half-scare when a child intimates that the film's business is not quite finished and is punished for his insolence. But, despite the deftness of crafty filmmaking and the cynical humor, Clouzot is less interested in maintaining the status quo than Hitch. The mistress character alone draws a sharp contrast between the two directors. She's got a very French kind of cool about her, constantly wearing sunglasses, smoking, and brazenly speaking her mind. Hitchcock may have dreamt of this woman, but if he had, he wouldn't have allowed such a fiery-willed lady to exist film without wanting to punish her for it (he does this to both Annie and Melanie in The Birds. Time to find a nice man and settle down, ladies!). In Diabolique, it's the aberrant that survives, the outcast who overcomes (though, of course they do not ultimately "win," their fate feels nothing like punishment). This is refreshing, even in the context of modern cinema. In fact, with its cinematic flair, and love of quirky women, Diabolique points the way directly to Pedro Almodovar more than it sides with Hitchcock, and I believe that's a victory for everyone.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Tropic Thunder is great. It's unbelievably good. It's, by far, the best mainstream, studio-released comedy I've seen since Anchorman, and it stands taller than that insane Will Ferrell vehicle. It's howlingly funny. And, unlike a lot of recent comedies that, while very funny, are terrible, amateurish movies (*ahem* 40 Year Old Virgin), it actually works as a good, silly movie too. Tropic Thunder has discipline, exactitude. Its plot takes surprising, inventive turns. With very few exceptions, its scenes are pitched perfectly, the comic timing is spot-on, and the movie entices with less rather than more. For once, I wanted to see more of these people riffing with one another. I was excited about seeing deleted scenes on a future DVD. And, around the time Tom Cruise, as a megalomaniacal gazillionaire financing the titular film-within-the-film, started randomly dancing, I couldn't wait to see the movie again. What a relief! What a wonder! Ben Stiller deserves an MTV movie award or a Commie (my fictional Comedy awards trophy) or something for the direction and writing here. Forget it, that's a half-measure. Let's give the script, by Stiller, Justin Theroux(!), and Etan Cohen, an Oscar nomination. It's a near-perfect example of ensemble comedy writing. Everyone has a moment, every character works, and the supporting players are interesting, well-observed, but don't overwhelm the movie. The plot is silly and earnest and perfect for the comedic characters that populate it. What sentiment exists in the film is as hyper and crazed as its characters, and, thus, the growth of its characters is earned, but never schmaltzy. When they have big revelations about themselves, it induces laughter, not eye-rolling. And the movie is paced well. It maintains its arch, manic tone for the entirety of its runtime; the laughs are good, respectable, intelligent laughs, and they happen throughout. Tropic Thunder is great, great, great.
The film is a joke on Hollywood and celebrity culture, taking potshots at Vietnam war films and the hardships of making movies, but it's not a smart, clever satire in the vein of Robert Altman's The Player. If anything, the film's plot and tone has more in common with the broad, crass brushstrokes of Airplane! or Three Amigos! (perhaps the movie should have an exclamation point at the end of its title too?); it's more spoof than satire. It focuses on a group of vain, whiny actors, during the making of a prestige Vietnam film. After their incompetence ruins an extremely expensive shot, the director takes them into the jungle in order to exert more control of them and get better performances. Soon, they become stranded in the wilderness and must find their way back to civilization. Meanwhile, they face a very real threat from a group of local drug manufacturers who've confused them with DEA agents. The line between fantasy and reality is blurry to these actors, particularly Stiller's action movie star, and some aren't sure if what's going on is real or part of the movie-making process. This, of course, owes a debt to Amigos, but this film casts a wider net. It mocks not just the clueless actors and production crew of the film, but brings in the equally clueless agents and money men of the Hollywood system. Here, it finds great comedic treasures in the negotiations between Tom Cruise's gazillionaire and Matthew McConaughey's agent character, a scene of such delightful insanity that I fear nothing in deeming it a classic. The film is loud, but shows bravery in screaming about the insanity of Hollywood. It's a world where it is perfectly logical to think a virtuoso, white actor might dye his skin to play an African American, and a world where he would thereby get the role over all the talented African American actors out there. Pointing this out is funny enough. Having this actor embrace another African American actor and lament the 400 year suffering of "their people" is gravy.
So, while the film is more broad than subtle, it works in a way that movies of this ilk rarely do. It isn't content to just deconstruct or mock the tropes of the films it targets or the behind-the-scenes archetypical characters that are its subject, though it most certainly does this. However, like Airplane!, Thunder, both mocks and celebrates the cliches it skewers. Through derision, it actually rediscovers what made these moments or these characters meaningful in the first place. When Robert Hays successfully lands the plane at the end of Airplane!, it's a joke on the many Airport films of the 70s, sure, but it's nevertheless a delight to see this very silly character triumph over adversity, a delight that another trite Airport movie could not have achieved. Here, seeing a crew of American actors making their way to a helicopter in the jungles of Asia while under enemy fire works in much the same way. Scenes of this nature are so overdone, so overused that the audience laughs when the sound effects fade out and a moaning woman wails away over depictions of violence, and yet amidst the laughter comes concern and real, honest tension. Working in this way--being both a send-up and a celebration--is a very hard line to toe. With too much silliness, you're just watching Scary Movie 4 or Meet the Spartans or Walk Hard, movies that seem to think a reference to a film, inverted somehow, is a joke. Throw in too much drama, and the comedy can float away while the film hits the important beats. Video store shelves are choked with the remains of films that failed to walk this line successfully, some directed by or starring Ben Stiller himself. And yet, with Tropic Thunder, he pulls it off masterfully.
He does not do so without faults. Stiller, the actor, is the weakest link here; he's very clearly not up to the task of acting alongside his ensemble (particularly Robert Downey Jr.); he plays his Tug Speedman with far too much jokiness to invest in the character (after the movie was over, I wished that Cruise had also played Stiller's role in the film... it would have taken the movie to even loonier heights). He's a Saturday Night Live goof on the notion of an action star, and his scenes are the most mawkish, the most obvious. He's a distraction. Stiller is protected by a brilliant ensemble (hey, Jack Black is funny again, everyone!) and his solo scenes are still sharply written, despite his lackluster execution. This is fortunate, as otherwise, he may very well have sunk his own movie in one or two scenes. The movie also nearly overwhelms at the end with one too many climaxes. But, it's undeniably wonderful to see these clowns come through for each other in a pinch, and just as it starts to seems as if the movie has no more ideas but will continue needlessly, it ends. Anyway, the rest of the movie is so maniacally entertaining, with such an enjoyable, crazed tone, that its final moments of largesse are eminently forgivable.
It is, perhaps, just as ineffable to dissect the success or failure of comedy as it is to create it. Sometimes the joy of watching a successful comedy comes solely from watching good craftsmen ply their trade--Duck Soup, for instance, isn't necessarily "about anything," but it is a treat from beginning to end. I'm not sure that Tropic Thunder has a central point or thesis other than Hollywood is made up of a collection of selfish weirdoes. And I doubt any thesis one could pull out of this confection would shed much light on the moment when Jack Black bites into a live bat in order to get his heroin back or the brilliant, understated straight-man work done by Jay Baruchel as an unknown actor forced to contend with these massively insecure superstars. The film merely takes its heightened, exaggerated characters and puts them through one hilarious grind after the next, punishing them for their arrogance and self-absorption. And, still, there's an affection for them, a sense that what they do, however self-aggrandizing it may be, has value, or is, somehow, at its core, part of everyone's experience with the world. Is that true? I don't know. I don't care. Tropic Thunder takes some very good comedic actors and puts them in some great moments at the service of a clever, funny plot. It does this extremely well, and, in so doing, it's the best Hollywood movie of the summer.
Would be a good double feature with: Blazing Saddles
Friday, August 15, 2008
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
When I saw the trailer for Stealth in 2005, I was absolutely delighted. From this preview, it looked to be a perfectly silly B-movie of the highest order. The premise, the characters, and their attitudes just screamed a goofy good time, no more so than when Jessica Biel, after seeing the new AI-controlled super-plane, says, "What are they going to replace us with a bunch of machines?" Throw in the old "lightning strike turns robot into a self-aware killing machine" plot and I'm already giggling. There's something about a ridiculous, high-concept premise like this played seriously that promises a logically challenged, but internally consistent work. Something that feels like it may have been produced by computers trying to approximate human art.
I never saw the movie. At the time I wasn't seeing many movies, but I was also protecting myself. If Stealth had been anything but a cracking, silly ride, made competently but ignorantly, it would have crushed me.
The Trailer in Question
But wait! Here comes Lakeview Terrace, a film that, from the trailer, looks to be as goofily serious as Stealth. The premise is high-concept, thin, and ridiculous, but the execution looks completely earnest. And among the plot mechanics, there seems to be something going on about wildfires that inspires actual interest.
I probably won't see this movie either. I've already seen both of them in my mind. They're both directed by John Carpenter, and they both make me happy on cold, rainy days.
Monday, August 11, 2008
The Pineapple Express is a mid-80s buddy action film as filtered through a haze of pot smoke. The characters are stoners, but after one of them witnesses a brutal murder, they're forced to run for their lives. As they evade the bad guys and the law, they bicker and fight, but eventually become good buds, ready to take on the local drug kingpin in defense of each other. It's not even remotely believable to watch these two go from pothead to action hero, and, were the film a better concoction, I might not have a problem with this. But the movie wants to have it both ways, wants to convince me of the characters' incompetence and then show them blasting away with automatic weapons, emerging victorious in fisticuffs, and etc.. The tone of this thing is so off-kilter; it wants laughs from looney tunes violence and sentiment from honest pain. Other films have succeeded in walking this line between comedy and tragedy--Midnight Run and Hot Fuzz spring to mind--but this one fails miserably. It's such a delicate balance between the two, that it's hard to know where Pineapple fails. But fail it does and it squanders a lot of good will along the way.
It certainly is funny, particularly during the first two-thirds of the film. Watching the two knuckleheads escape from harrowing situations while stoned provides more than one belly laugh. Facing certain-death situations, they come up with far-fetched, logic-free plans to save themselves and then execute these ridiculous solutions with the complete and utter conviction of children. Giving these two so much to do is helpful; the movie mostly avoids the lazy, counterculture insularity that pervades other drug-celebration films (though an opening prologue featuring army experiments with marijuana feels like it's playing directly to those "legalize it" people in the audience, the ones who would tell you the many uses of hemp if you gave them a chance). As they run from one high-stakes situation to the next, it's hard to avoid developing a great deal of affection for these two losers, particularly James Franco's Saul. Franco's performance is a delight. He's got it down pat--the leap from one random idea to the next, the continual need for approval, the "I love you, man" smile. As the straighter man in the duo, Seth Rogen is competent and funny, though his work here feels rather one-note. This may be why the relationship between the two never quite gels; they're clearly having fun, but when the movie asks them to be upset with one another, it's as unconvincing as their marksmanship. To be fair, I think the script has failed the moment more than the acting. They've just evaded death and serious injury in gunfights, fist-fights, high-speed chases, and more, all while completely stoned, and Rogen's character has the gall to shout at Franco, "We don't function well when we're high." Dude, lighten up. If anything you're doing better.
Of course, the character has a reason to be so sour at the moment--his girlfriend's just broken up with him--but, here and in the whole film, there's no connective tissue from one moment to the next. So, while some scenes are funny and work by themselves, the film doesn't work as an entire piece. But, the film is undisciplined and sloppy anyway. Scenes habitually go on far longer than they need to and outwear their welcome. While these scenes play on, you can imagine everyone cracking up on set or in the editing room, but on screen the rhythm is off (probably due to the previous scene going on and on). It sometimes veers into the pathetic "anything-for-a-laugh" mentality that so alienated me from Walk Hard. And, I especially grew tired of the way it relied on overdubbing a funny quip from Rogen over wide shots or cut-aways. All this is ignoring the action set-piece that ends the film, a sequence that goes on for (it must be) 500 years, drains away everything that was funny or endearing about the two leads, and seems to want to both lampoon and be a genuine entry in the buddy action genre. Again, this can work (and again, Hot Fuzz springs to mind), but here it falls flat. Mostly, I just didn't believe the film. It hadn't convinced me that the villains were genuinely threatening or that there were any real stakes in this sequence. It's like watching someone else play a video game, and a not very good one at that.
There are bright spots to be found--Kevin Corrigan should be showered with candies and treasure for his turn as a domesticated henchman. Whenever he was onscreen, I wished the film was about him--and there are some very, very funny high-points, but The Pineapple Express is clunky, disappointing. Translating the tropes of an action film to a couple of pot-addled protagonists seems like a great idea--what do action heroes do, but follow their gut with the conviction of children?--but it misfires. Its failure reminded me of the success of The Big Lebowski, a film that translated the tropes of the hard-boiled mystery novel to a similarly drug-addled protagonist. When The Dude recounts the Raymond Chandler-esque events of the film to the two squares in the back of the limo, it's hilarious and almost a welcome critique of the crazy, unmanageable plots of these mystery stories. You try to explain The Big Sleep to someone who hasn't seen it and see if you sound any more sober. I think a similar sort of transcendence could be found by having two completely stoned action buddies fighting in an action movie plot, but it's not here. The climax of The Pineapple Express is a huge explosion when it should have been a bong hit.
Would be a good double feature with: The Big Lebowski
Sunday, August 03, 2008
I find most modern American horror films to be dispiriting rather than frightening, and while watching The Ruins, I had an epiphany. At its core, the genre has always had a close relationship with fairy tales, and in this way, it's always been moralistic, wagging its finger at the arrogance of those who would dare cross societal boundaries. Of course, the subject of its moralizing is ever-changing with the times--horror films of the 30s had, among other things, a fascinating ethnocentric dread (beware the swarthy Romanians!), the horror of the 80s punished those who indulged in the sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll lifestyle of the 60s (ladies, stay chaste!), and so on. In The Ruins, the decision to explore the ancient culture of Mexico, rather than remain shallow, uncultured tourists at a beach resort, is the decision that dooms its college kids. By itself, this is an anti-intellectual message (another staple attitude of the genre), but pair it with other recent films like Hostel where characters are punished for their exploitation of foreigners by remaining shallow, uncultured tourists, and you have the beginnings of what seems to be the modern horror movie's message: Don't do anything at all. Stay where you are.
Give it credit, even while indulging this sort of xenophobic terror, The Ruins manages to make flowers kind-of scary. Not "I'll never feel safe at the florist's again!" scary, but, at least, "Hey, Main Character, look out behind you, there're flowers there!" scary. The Ruins is about a group of college kids who, while vacationing in Mexico, take a trip to an ancient Mayan pyramid that lies unexplored and uncharted. It's not, we're told, on any maps, so the knowledge of its existence is passed along like a bootleg concert recording, with rudimentary maps passed down to the curious from insiders. When the youngsters get there, they're forced to the top of the pyramid by some gun-toting Mayans who then set up camp at the pyramid's base, killing all who come back down. Thus trapped and with no cell phone signal (this lack of a cell phone signal has become as trite as the invader cutting the phone lines... can we find something else to do with cell phones, please?), the collegiates must fend for their survival, find water and food, and wait for rescue. Meanwhile, the local foliage seems to be trying to eat them.
These carnivorous plants are, by far, the best part of the film. The flowering vines delight in blood, and they move, indifferent and innocuous, toward each freshly-spilled pool. Their casual, reliable reaction to the suffering of the humans is (I'd wager) intentionally funny; the film is aware of the silliness of a group of vines slithering toward a freshly severed limb, so what could have been a laughable attempt to scare instead becomes darkly comic and even endearing. Goofier still is the narrative invention that the flowers of these vines have gained the ability to mimic the sounds around them, but this too emerges as more creepshow fun than implausible stupidity. The reveal of this trait happens in a nifty bit of sound design--each flower, by itself, seems to sound off just a fragment of the noise being mimicked, so, the full sound is achieved when all the flowers noise in unison. It's not all laughs, though; they're creepy little creepers. They're ubiquitious and unceasing. After spending a night on the pyramid, one of the college kids wakes up to find that some of the vines have crept upon her overnight and inserted their stalks into some recently-sustained wounds. Worse, the plants are thriving, reproducing within her bloodstream itself. The inexorable threat of the plants is about the only thing that pops up above an otherwise formulaic survival horror story. It's certainly a much better eco-threat than the one in The Happening, anyway.
Nevertheless, the film is suffused with the sense that nothing matters, that the characters have no agency. Each idea they employ to deal with their predicament is about equal in terms of whether or not it's a good or bad idea, and the success or failure of their ideas seems entirely up to the dictates of chance or, as it were, the screenwriter. In this case, the screenwriter is a punishing fellow, and none of their ideas have any degree of success (up until the last one), and so the movie just hops from one kind of hopelessness to another. There's no sense of building action or increasing horror, just a steady drone of people screaming as each fresh, random horror is visited upon them. This is getting increasingly typical--The Strangers, for all its craft, had the same problem--and it's why the net effect of modern horror films seems to be saying, "Give up. Stop trying. Whatever you do, it's going to result in the same thing." That there is, eventually, a plan that works seems as much an accident as anything else in the film (it's also a betrayal of what we've been told about the Mayan force at the base of the pyramid), and, so, The Ruins falls flat on even providing a catharsis.
What we're left with is another film that sees the very act of doing things and going about your business as a punishable act of hubris. Rather than being frightening, these films just leave me numb--as in the rancid, unforgivable ending of The Mist, the twists of fate are often as absurd as an old Warner Brothers Cartoon. Characters are punished not for any transgressions, but for lacking omniscience. They turn left instead of right and, so, get eaten by goblins. Someone bites into a cracker and an anvil falls on their foot. If only they'd have known! Bad, arbitrary things happen to people all the time, it's true, but most modern horror films seem to be content to simply state this and then nod knowingly. "Whaddya gonna do?" they say, shrugging. They don't provide us with stakes through the heart or "shoot them in the head!" There's nothing to be done. The bad guys are out there, and they will get us no matter who we are or what we might learn. In a world in which the earth that once nourished us turns noxious and the government unapologetically tortures in our name, it's pointless--these films show us--to do anything. The Ruins and its ilk offer us a justification for surrender to the perils of living, a way to excuse one's apathy in the face of violation. Ok, now I'm scared.
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Friday, July 25, 2008
Rumblings of a Robocop remake/sequel/whatever have been flitting about for a while now, and despite Darren Aronofsky's attachment, the whole thing makes me sour. Complaining about remake-itis and sequel-itis is common practice these days amongst film folk such as myself, but, as I have such strong personal feelings about the original Robocop, this one pains me on a gut level. Anyway, I guess it's moving forward as stated here at the Hollywood Reporter. Jerks.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs is good, funny stuff for about 45 minutes, and then it sags under the weight of its plot. There are some key problems like the fact that a lot of the jokes feel like recycled business from previous episodes and there's not a very clearly defined "A" story, but its biggest problem lies in the pacing. This 90 minute movie has the feel of TV act breaks running through it, and the repetition of climactic builds (that would precede a commercial break were this a string of 30 minute episodes) soon wears the viewer out. As a fan of the show and these characters, I can't help but enjoy the extra life this property has gotten through these direct-to-DVD movies, but I hope that the next one shows a little more understanding of the unique demands of feature-length storytelling.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
RING THE BELLS! WARN THE MAYOR! PROTECT MCCLANAHAN AT ALL COSTS!
THE TIME IS UPON US! GOD HELP US ALL!
FROM THIS MOMENT ON, NO ONE WILL SHOOT IF YOU DON'T STOP!
ESTELLE GETTY IS DEAD!
ESTELLE GETTY IS DEAD!
ESTELLE GETTY IS DEAD!
ESTELLE GETTY IS DEAD!
ESTELLE GETTY IS DEAD!
Monday, July 21, 2008
Batman Begins, the reboot of the Batman franchise that precedes The Dark Knight, was a novel take on the whole Batman mythos. It spent most of its running time justifying the wackiness of a dude putting on a costume and fighting crime in real-world terms. It was also the first Batman movie that (finally) correctly identified that Batman does, in fact, have a super power, after all--he's rich. Playing with themes of noblesse oblige and grounding the action in the landscape of an urban crime drama, it found a new, welcome spin on the character and justified its re-telling of the Batman origin story. It also barreled past a perfect ending about an hour or so into the film and went on and on through some ho-hum plot about supervillains poisoning the water supply or something. Now, on the heels of that film's success and amidst a huge cultural footprint comes The Dark Knight, a film even more overstuffed and overplotted than its predecessor. It goes even further in the attempt to remove Batman from the arch, exaggerated comic book universe and place him in the middle of a modern American city, and also outwears its welcome by going on far longer than its plot deserves. The film is two and a half hours of superbly produced scenes of dour, sweaty machismo, but features little-to-no dramatic tension for most of this time. It's weird, because the script has the air of a well-structured and nuanced procedural with motifs and themes that bounce off of one another, reflecting the ultimate larger purpose of the film, and the chief villain is a wondrous, relevant rendition of modern day anxieties. But the film is, ultimately, a dreary experience puffed up with unearned self-importance, and, while there's a lot of chaotic movement and things blow up real good, it's monotonous. Everything is always happening at the same level; each scene and each gesture is as grand as the last one. As a result, The Dark Knight congeals into a puddle of pretty goodness, its ambitions encased in the ceaseless drone of the execution.
That said, it's still often a mesmerizing film. When it's working and everything is clicking (which is about half of the time), it's a magnificent crime drama about a desperate, rotting city. A large part of this success is due to Heath Ledger's Joker. The late actor's performance is crazy-good or good-crazy; like Johnny Depp in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, his performance elevates the entire film. As written, this Joker is an anarchic terrorist, a self-described agent of chaos (...calling Maxwell Smart...). He may have a purpose, but whatever it is, his methods eclipse his politics and render them irrelevant. It's a perfect villain for the times, an exaggerated version of America's terrorist bogeymen whose methods and beliefs can seem so utterly foreign and impenetrable. Ledger's clearly having a good time with this; he employs a bunch of crazy tics and grimaces, and intones most of his lines with a chilling deadpan. A less capable actor would have gone too crazy, but Ledger imbues the craziness of the character with a palpable sense of masochism and self-loathing. It's soon clear that Batman's use of force and technology is no match for the sheer psychological guile that this villain possesses. All of this informs the best scene in the film (and Ledger's in most of the movie's best scenes), an interrogation scene where Batman is free to pummel and torture the Joker, but finds himself powerless nonetheless. It's the first and only time in any Batman film that the villain and the hero seem completely equal, flip sides of the same coin, and the only moment in this film that truly embraces the scarred, freakshow nature of its characters.
What a shame, then, that Ledger's buried amidst the movie's rambling, listless plot. The movie has a lot going on, enough to fill a few episodes of a weekly TV series, but it doesn't find any traction until around the halfway mark, when things begin to get a bit personal for the characters. As mentioned, it's all very smartly written with its themes of scarring and despair and loss and so-forth. And I liked the way it cared enough about characters on the periphery to give them their own mini-stories within the main plot, but a lot of the film's subplots don't work and just wind up as padding to the runtime. Early in the film, Batman goes to Hong Kong to capture a money launderer, but the whole thing just rings of a pretty diversion, an excuse to shoot some cool exteriors and throw in some exposition about a pivotal piece of technology. And, for all of the work the screenwriters did to foreshadow the eventual corruption of Aaron Eckhart's District Attorney, Harvey Dent, his transformation is rushed and sloppy. This is doubly disappointing because Eckhart is also crazy-good in his role, but he's hampered in his most interesting moments by a makeup job that looks like it belongs in the Halloween display at Spencer's gifts. There are buried hints of greatness in the script, but the movie spreads itself too thin and the plot becomes so convoluted that it distorts anything resembling a coherent or intelligible or relatable story.
The most troubling aspect of the film is its use of Batman himself. For one thing, someone chose to give this hero an unintentionally hilarious vocal effect, like someone accidentally pressed a reverb button on the sound board when mixing in his dialogue. His unnaturally deep and echoy vocal presence is just silly. He sounds like an incompetent lead singer of a Goth band who covers up the inadequacies of his voice with audio effects. This would be easily overlooked but for the fact that Batman is quite chatty in the film--he seems ready to invite characters over for tea at times. Anyway, Christian Bale isn't exactly the most commanding of presences here, and his life as Bruce Wayne is all but ignored in favor of the corruption of Eckhart and the Joker's preening. Batman is forced to make several choices throughout the film, choices with dire consequences for his character, but it makes no difference, no impact because it's not clear who Batman is anymore. Frankly, the character seems to be about as confused and random in his own morality as the Joker. He sees killing as the ultimate taboo, the one thing he won't do, but when he's perfectly content to smack people around, violate civil rights, and wantonly destroy property with barely a second thought, it just comes off as an arbitrary rule. The movie tries to exploit this by having the Joker force Batman to confront the futility of ideals in the rotting, festering world of Gotham City, but, while the confrontation is fun, the filmmakers do very little with it. They basically turn Batman into a square, like Kevin Costner's boy scout Elliot Ness from The Untouchables, lamenting his impotence under the threat of the sexier bad boy. But, really, the character is just ignored. You could quite easily remove Batman from this movie completely and have a much tighter and probably better film about a valiant District Attorney facing the perilous evil in himself while trying to stop a sadistic madman. This is bad news for a film that ends with Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon monologuing about Batman's mythic importance to Gotham City.
But, look, all of this complaining about the shortcomings of The Dark Knight is really a bit of scolding. The movie isn't bad, really, just disappointing. I find myself wanting to wag my finger at it to set it on the right path. There's quite a bit of good, grim fun in the film, and while the overbearing sameness of the execution is wearying, the film is nevertheless commanding. If you're willing to ignore the awfulness of the film's climactic showdown which features Batman utilizing a really stupid-looking (and, after a time, unnecessary) SONAR technology to fight the Joker and a drama on two cruise ships that plays out like the worst disaster movie from the 70s ever made, the film moves from scene to scene with an appealing confidence, indifferent to the muddled script. It's easy to get swept away by its briskness. The cinematography and the use of Chicago locations are grand; Gotham is not a cartoon here, but a stand-in for all modern urbanity. It renders the despair and hopelessness that marks city life rather beautifully, though it, of course, ignores any positive aspects of living there... you know, things like a symphony or good bookstores. It's frustrating because, with all of its strengths, the film has assembled many of the right ingredients, but just drops them into a pile onscreen. Despite the magnificent, handsome production and Heath Ledger's classic performance, the movie only works in fits and starts. Besides, there's a limit, I think, to how much real-world verisimilitude you can employ in a film about Batman before the arch, crazed nature of its main character starts to feel out of place, and the movie pushes right past it to the point that the whole thing unravels, becoming nearly as absurd and cheesy as the 60s TV series.
Would be a good double feature with: Thief
Monday, July 14, 2008
Monday, July 07, 2008
Hancock is a surprising film. For one thing, I was surprised that Jason Bateman, usually a master of smarm and weaselly tics, was able to portray a kind-hearted, genuine good guy with such conviction. Here, he uses his formidable skill at comedic deadpan to deepen Ray, a sweet, gentle boy scout of a Public Relations man. The strength of the film’s action scenes was also quite disarming. Though director Peter Berg’s fidgety, shaky camera often confused the action or diluted the drama, the images in the film had a real weight to them, particularly when contrasted with the murky fuzz of other computer generated spectacles. During a pivotal bank robbery sequence, I felt like I was a child watching a Superman movie for the first time, such was the wonder and excitement wrought by the filmmaking. Mostly, though, I was surprised by the fact that, in a film like this, I actually found myself in uncharted territory. Something of a twist occurs late in the film, and I realized that I had no idea where the movie was headed. Because Hancock is so narrow in scope—it’s really a three-character drama masquerading as a superhero film—the consequences for this reveal felt important, meaningful. It’s quite a wondrous thing in this day and age of cookie-cutter fairy tales to feel a genuine sense of curiosity during a mainstream action vehicle. So, while it fizzles out quite a bit in its final sequences, Hancock is a taut, cheeky superhero film that manages to be both a solid comic book story and a funny lampoon on the whole genre.
The title character, a dissolute superman named John Hancock, belongs to a long line of insufferable, cranky, and lonely men in American movies. Usually, these men reform once they find the love of a good woman, like Bogart in The African Queen. Here, though, it’s Bateman as the naïve, optimistic Ray who provides the unconditional love and support for the aching, angry Hancock. Ray is impossibly sweet; his job involves asking corporations to give away life-saving drugs and food free of charge to those who need help. He’s laughed out of the boardrooms, but maintains his plucky spirit--you almost expect him to exclaim, "Gee Whiz!" at some point. One day, Hancock saves Ray from getting crushed by a train, but causes a massive derailment in the process. Angry onlookers, furious at the superman for destroying everything in his path, unleash a tirade of vitriol at the bumbling Hancock, but Ray, grateful and needing a ride, invites him to dinner. From there, the two develop a shaky relationship, as Ray, over the objections of his skeptical wife (Charlize Theron) begins using his PR skills to help Hancock become a proper superhero.
Along with Iron Man, this is the second movie of the year about a superheroic lout who eventually finds redemption, but Hancock’s approach to its character is much more satisfying. Will Smith’s John Hancock is an abusive, self-absorbed drunk of the highest order. He's indifferent to the suffering of mere mortals and fights crime, it would seem, out of a mixture of boredom and obligation more than concern for the public welfare. His disregard for the law, property values, or the safety of the general public as he swoops in to save the day is fun to watch, particularly in Smith’s able hands. Going all the way back to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith has often played the part of a charismatic outsider, struggling to keep up with the arbitrary rules of a strange, foreign world, and the same is true in Hancock. When he’s coached by Ray to make a landing without destroying the city streets or to tell the police at a crime scene that they’re doing a good job, Smith’s confusion is funny and understandable. His powers render him immortal and above the rule of law, so why should he care?
Funny too is the way the film takes seriously the swath of destruction that follows superheroes. Usually it's a throwaway joke at best--an action scene concludes with a car's hubcaps falling off, for instance, or a family of four looking around at the remnants of their formally happy and intact home. In Hancock, the consequences of this destruction are the very point of the film, and have a bit of political bite to them, similar to something from Team America. The movie's character is a heroic power that's above the law, that stumbles into a situation trying to do good but makes a mess out of things, that arrogantly insists people love it despite this tendency. It should sound familiar. Oh, also, his symbol is an eagle. Got it now?
While Hancock is a smart, assured film, it's also a fidgety experience. The director, Peter Berg, also directed last year's The Kingdom, and this movie suffers greatly from some of the unearned sentiment that plagued that film. Berg's got a fine command of staging action scenes and gets great performances out of his actors, but, too often, he tries to orchestrate sympathy using overlong montages scored with mournful music. It's a cheap trick, but where one of these montages may have worked, there's a few in the film. They all begin to stack up and feel redundant. More problematic is the last act of the film. After the fun, nearly incomprehensible twist, Hancock is bogged down with too many explanations, too much dramatic stillness. The pace sputters to a halt as everyone--the audience and the characters onscreen--have to be told this or that or the other thing about things that happened long ago and far away. A key relationship between two characters is the basis for the entire climax of the film, but it isn't developed near enough to work, so the film (almost literally) limps to its conclusion.
Still. In a world choking with a glut of formulaic superhero films, Hancock is refreshing. It fizzles out after a 3rd act twist, but, for most of its running time, it’s a breeze of a film. It’s mercifully short at 90 minutes and manages to do much more with its running time than most movies of this sort do with almost twice as much. But, really, it's all about that bank robbery scene. When the reformed Hancock flies in to the rescue, it's a powerful moment that revitalizes the whole genre. He's not just saving the hostages in the bank, he's also saving himself from a lifetime of arrogance and unintended consequences. Speaking as an American myself, it's somewhat inspiring.
Would Make a Good Double Feature with: Mystery Men
Monday, June 30, 2008
I have been chosen to be an entertainment blogger for the website for a(some) TV station(s) in North Carolina. Starting with this week's review of Wall-E, my work is being republished at this site:
Today the Wall-E review is on the front page under "features".
Sunday, June 29, 2008
While Wall-E is a feast for the eyes and ears, it's, first and foremost, a treat of good, old-fashioned filmmaking. If you see it in the theater, you will undoubtedly be bombarded with previews for other 3D computer-animated films featuring animals that scream, jump about, and act as obnoxious as the four-year-old sitting next to you. Though they leave me with the impression of having lukewarm high-fructose corn syrup drizzled onto my head, I know that these films have their place and provide some measure of enjoyment for undiscerning children and obnoxious adults (I, myself, was quite fond of the wretched Transformers: the Movie at a young age and am glad to say I grew out of it). Everything in these trailers is played big and loud--all the better to milk laughs from the audience--so, it's doubly refreshing when the feature attraction begins and nobody talks for a long, long time. Wall-E develops its story and characters with a minimum of dialogue, relying, instead, on the much more satisfying (and hundreds of years old) convention of editing meaningful bits of visual information together and letting the audience fit the puzzle pieces together.
Whenever I see a film use these tried-and-true cinematic conventions (usually it's when watching a well-made silent film, but there are other modern examples), I feel as if my brain is being flossed of the detritus of more pandering, shallow entertainments found on TV and in the multiplex. It's no different here; the opening passages of Wall-E are delightful for the elegant and earnest way they ladle out the exposition for the the titular main character and the world he inhabits. Wall-E is set in a distant future where the Earth has become a giant landfill, uninhabitable due to the heaps and heaps of garbage wrought by human industry. Humanity itself has taken to the stars in a giant spaceship named The Axiom, leaving the Earth to the care of a robotic cleanup crew. Wall-E is the last surviving member of these robots, and, some 700 years after the evacuation, he's still dutifully following his programming. Every day he gathers garbage, compacts it into cubes, and stacks the cubes into giant piles, some as tall as skyscrapers. As he undertakes the Herculean task of cleaning the Earth, it becomes clear that this robot has more to his existence than work. He has a penchant for collecting; while sifting through the garbage, something strikes his fancy--an egg beater, a Rubik's Cube, and, one day, a single stalk of plant life poking through the muck--and he takes it to his home where he places it amongst other treasured possessions. One of these is a VHS tape of an old musical, and, as he watches scenes of romance unfold, it becomes clear that this is one lonely robot. He yearns to dance and hold hands with a paramour of his own. All of this is revealed with an expert eye towards efficiency. The details of the world are tucked into the frame as we watch Wall-E on a day's work, until slowly the entire picture is clear. The animation is gorgeous to look at and evokes such a powerful feeling of loneliness and isolation, that it's almost a bummer when another robot named EVE shows up from outer space.
EVE is a probe, sent to find signs of life. At first she's as oblivious to Wall-E as he is smitten, focusing only on fulfilling her mission. But soon, they meet, strike up a budding romance, and, just as it seems Wall-E may have found a dance partner, they are swept away to the deliriously satiric confines of The Axiom. It's here that the film (inevitably) finds its way to a more conventional, yet incredibly endearing Chaplin-esque story rife with sentiment and good-natured comedy. If the second half of the film doesn't quite live up to the timeless, soulful quality of the opening moments of Wall-E's solitude or his courtship with EVE, it's nevertheless suffused with wit. As Wall-E begins to explore The Axiom, he finds that the humans onboard are entirely dependent on robots. They can't move around without assistance from robotic chairs, feed, much like babies, from cups with giant straws provided for them, and live lives dictated by well-timed advertisements ("Blue is the new Red"). They continuously watch television, and they don't even seem to know where they are or the history of how they got there. It's not so much different than watching people in a shopping mall on a Sunday afternoon. It's not the most brilliant or inventive satire of modern times I've ever seen, but it's certainly funny and has a deafening ring of truth to it. Wall-E, bumbling through this world, brings with him the promise of a real life--a home planet with work and problems and, above all, plants. It isn't long before the captain of the ship, delighted to learn of his history, is up all night asking the computer to tell him everything there is to know about this little planet named Earth. Even hoedowns. This leads to a revolution, of sorts, as passengers aboard The Axiom awaken to a larger purpose and reclaim their dominance over the rigid, unbending automatons that run their lives.
There's an underlying message here, of course, about waste and the ecological responsibility of the common man and moving beyond mere survival to something more fulfilling, but, thankfully, the movie avoids the hypocrisy of having a Disney film hammer home a didactic screed about the horrors of disposable junk. Wall-E is more interested in telling the story it wants to tell, and it does this with a deftness that looks deceptively easy. It's pretty much a perfect film, one that accomplishes everything it sets out to do. It scrapes the surface of greatness at times, but it never quite achieves this. I find this is often the case with films as tightly constructed and written as Wall-E; it's like they're powered by clock springs and, as such, there's delight and surprise and magic, but not enough spontaneity or, if you will, life to them. This is just a quibble, though, and a very minor one at that. This is a wonderful film. It earns its laughter and sentiment through quiet, thoughtful honesty about its characters. You will believe a robot can love.
Would Make a Good Double Feature with: Modern Times
This review can also be viewed at: news14.com