Friday, April 25, 2008


At the center of Atonement is a much-celebrated, five minute tracking shot following a central character (once a gardener, now a British soldier during World War II) across the evacuation at Dunkirk beach. As he and his companions stride across this landscape, the camera takes in a wealth of visual information, detailing with great efficiency the vast swaths of humanity present at this specific time and place in history. It exposes not just the horrors of war represented by the wounded, dying, or dead soldiers, but also the boredom and esprit de corps of the men waiting to be rescued from military annihilation. I have no familiarity with the book this film is based on, so cannot account for whether or not this is an attempt to capture the density of information from a memorable moment or chapter in the novel, but, while this shot is technically impressive, its use in the film renders it solely a novelty, a technical gimmick for cinematography nuts to discuss as they list the great tracking shots in film history. What occurs during this shot could not be called a "scene" in the traditional narrative sense; it's just a tour. For all of the information the film provides in these five minutes, it neglects to use its wizardry to tell us anything at all about the character it's so laboriously following around.

So much of Atonement resembles this shot, resembles this moving-without-really-going-anywhere mentality. It's a gorgeously shot film with inventive use of movement in the cinematography, a similarly inventive and richly textured score, adequate-to-great performances, and a script with well-wrought multiple perspectives and a broken chronology that pays off superbly in the movie's final moments. Yet for all of these riches, it doles out narrative like a drip irrigation system. The film recounts the destruction of the love affair between the noble, lower class Robbie (James McAvoy) and the upper-crust, mannered Cecilia (Keira Knightley) after Cecilia's jealous younger sister Briony tells a life-shattering lie about Robbie. In doing so, it flails all over the place, apparently unsure of what story it's telling or even why it's telling it. The film is no doubt trying to keep up with the book's breadth and scope, but who cares? There's no spine to be found, nothing holding its pieces together but the title--a title that, it should be noted, is more or less ignored by the structure of the script until the film's final scenes.

Even beyond the famed tracking shot, much of this film's running time is taken up with pointless shots of characters walking through their environs (these walking shots probably add fifteen minutes to the film's length). While this type of thing does convey a welcome specificity about the film's setting, as well as a pleasing visual aesthetic, it amounts to very little as the characters and story don't seem rooted to this time and place in the same way that, say, the characters or story of Barry Lyndon did. After a while, I wished the characters would stop going places and just get there already. I was vaguely interested in the familiar but somewhat surprising story, and these moments were needlessly delaying my gratification for some production design pornography.

For all of these complaints, Atonement actually inspires very little passion (beyond relief that the usually tone-deaf Academy did not reward this middling film at Oscar time earlier in the year). The film is bold and big in a David Lean kind of way, and, though this is very often at odds with the story being told (never more apparent than during that dunderheaded, misguided tracking shot), it helps to offset the slippery, invertebrate nature of the script. While it strides around, gleefully showing off, it's hard not to feel somewhat impressed with its cockiness while knowing that it's overcompensating.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


No post Thursday, April 24. One coming tomorrow, Friday the 25th.

Blame my pants!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hand me my patching trowel, boy.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be playing with template, site layout, and the like.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Thanks to DVD technology, I've been making my way through the first and second seasons of Saturday Night Live, and if watching these early episodes reveals anything, it's that, even at the pinnacle of its relevance, the show was always an uneven muddle. These early episodes are eminently enjoyable to watch, if only for their time-capsule qualities, but seeing Gilda Radner do Emily Litella for the fortieth time lays bare how eager the show was to go for the easy joke and how readily it wasted the talent of the comic actors at its disposal. I'm not all that interested in adding my voice to the plethora of words which debate the merits of SNL, but watching Walk Hard reminded me of seeing the great John Belushi or Jane Curtin hamming it up to eke out laughs from a poorly-written parody of the latest hit film.

Walk Hard is a terrible comedy, unfunny and uninspired. Chronicling the rise and fall of singer-songwriter Dewey Cox, it aims to lampoon the treacly artist biopic film, but the jokes are so incredibly obvious, on-the-nose, and overplayed (triple-O adjective score!) that the result is more Scary Movie than Airplane! Its idea of mocking the conventions of the genre seems to consist of stating that these conventions exist and winking. When Dewey Cox realizes he's abusing drugs and alienating the people he loves, he moans, "What a dark period!" 'Cause, you know, all these movies like Ray or Walk the Line feature the artist going through a dark period, so if we state it outright, that's comedy gold!

At the center of this mess are the wasted performances from comedic actors who deserve better. John C. Reilly as Dewey Cox seems to have borrowed Will Ferrell's acting toolbox for much of the film, but he's more charming than Ferrell and is able to earn some laughs through the sincerity of his performance alone. Tim Meadows has a nice turn as Cox's drummer, and a few more characters on the periphery of the story manage to spin gold out of nothing. The songs that Cox sings are funny too, particularly the ode to Little People sung during the Bob Dylan phase of the movie, but these things do not a movie make. If only the novelty music market wasn't in the stranglehold of the Yankovic monopoly, the filmmakers may have been more open to the idea that the best realization of their impulses was a solidly funny album.

It's odd that, for all the comic pedigree attached, Walk Hard commits the worst sin a comedy can: it begs for laughs. All throughout this movie, I felt like a man in a loud Hawaiian shirt was saying, "Huh? Huh?" after every (presumably) funny line and rolling on with his act in defiance to my indifference. When Cox, who lost his sense of smell after a childhood trauma, regains the ability to smell things, he goes around joyfully smelling everything in sight. When he gets to a pile of horse manure, he lingers on it, remarks upon how bad it smells, and then lingers some more. And it goes on and on, like the filmmakers thought that smelling shit never stops being funny. And, oh, how I would have agreed with them just an hour or so before I saw this remarkably unfunny, hammy moment.

The desperate, flop-sweat drenched writing in the film is shameful. It's like they shot the first draft of the screenplay before realizing that they only had enough material to support a longer-than-average sketch. Worse, the movie's observations about the genre are about as tired and trite as the films it's targeting. Frankly, I don't need Walk Hard to make fun of these conventions for me, particularly as it's got nothing more to say than any reasonably intelligent person. If I'm watching something that's predictably chronicling the rise and fall of an artist, I can be trusted to turn to my friends and intone, "What a dark period!" at the appropriate moments and then nudge them to make sure they got the joke all on my own, thank you.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Prince of the City

The Sidney Lumet films Network and 12 Angry Men are top-tier films (two of my all-time favorites, in fact) and both share a tendency toward the theatrical, featuring brazen, full-throated performances that reek of grease paint and sweat-stained costumes baking under a bank of fresnels. But, even as the actors are biting into their lines with thespian glee, Lumet's no-nonsense, no-frills directing grounds the gesticulations and exultations with the verisimilitude of his sets and locations and the relative stillness of his frames. That these films emerge as such transcendent experiences owes, no doubt, a large amount to their scripts, but enough cannot be said of the light, assured touch he brought to the helm of these productions. For whatever reason, Prince of the City is missing that same deft captain, for Treat Williams, clearly pouring his heart and soul into his part as the lead of the film, walks the razor-thin line between "theatrical" and "overacting," stumbles, and falls into the abyss of acting hell.

Williams plays Daniel Ciello, a New York cop working in an elite Special Investigations Unit of the narcotics division. He's got the wife, the kids, and a nice house that he's paid for with money stolen from crime scenes. Daniel and his partners in SIU work with very little oversight from the authorities and, with this freedom, they regularly, casually wet their beaks with the drugs and money they come across in their duties. At first Daniel feels perfectly justified in this, a fact he loudly and violently espouses to his junkie brother, but when a special federal investigation begins to sniff around for corruption in his department, he volunteers to cooperate and expose the problems in the department. He has only one proviso: he will not, under any circumstances, betray his partners. As he investigates and then testifies against his fellow police officers over a period of years, Ciello's loyalties and identity shift; he becomes unravelled and paranoid as a result. His life is threatened on numerous occasions, his resolve weakens, and he's torn between telling the truth and protecting his partners.

The film makes great hay out of this grist for police procedural. The grit and grime of narcotics work is effectively and quickly etched, and, later in the film, there are many compelling, impressive shots of the corridors of power, where larger-than-life men decked out in tuxedos, judicial robes, and expensive suits (seemingly) decide the fates of the lesser folk, hunching over their declarations in conference rooms and hotel rooms. The melodrama of the plot is neat, well-researched fun; the script has the authentic air of a newspaper's well-documented expose of one man's fight to make things right in a world gone wrong and Lumet's way of capturing the movement and life of the New York locations only adds to this real-world air.

Meanwhile, all this authenticity is going to waste because no one, it seems, is keeping an eye on the acting of the movie. Not fifteen minutes into the movie Daniel has the aforementioned confrontation with his brother and it's like a parody of a scene between two method actors. Both actors are shouting at each other, Williams is pushing the brother, shouting some more, and it's all very deeply felt and passionate, but everything from the blocking to the vocalizations to the camera movements feels utterly rehearsed and choreographed. For all the shouting, there's no life in the scene and, what's more, it comes about an hour too early. This tone-deaf quality to the acting carries throughout, despite a slew of well-cast, solid actors (Jerry Orbach! Lance Henriksen! Bob Balaban! and more!).

Indeed, poor Treat Williams. My only other experience with the actor was as a low-rent Harrison Ford in Deep Rising (he's an absolute joy in that film), and it's clear from this movie that he's probably "got the goods," but no one's minding the store. Particularly in the early parts of the film, it seemed he was going for a Pacino Award for most unmotivated shouting in a feature film, as almost everything he says turns into a completely spontaneous and overwrought cry of rage and frustration with no build-up. Later, as the character unravels, he's awash with ticks, grimaces, unconvincing winces. More frustrating (and indicating Lumet as the source of the problem), as Ciello turns into a raving lunatic, other, rational characters don't seem to notice that he's gone nuts. They talk to him as if they can't tell he's falling apart and often act as if his Parkinson's flavored response is a sane response. The obliviousness of the characters is frustrating and Williams' performance is stranded as a result.

The film is annoyingly repetitive as well. Around the eighteen thousandth time Ciello agonized over whether he should betray his partners or tell the truth about illegal activities, I longed for the quick and tidy wrap-up of a Law and Order episode. The script favors accuracy to life over drama, going through long-winded procedural patches depicting the nuts and bolts of Ciello's ordeal, seemingly unaware that the same dramatic beat was handled five minutes prior. It starts to feel padded out to its 168 minute running time, making Ciello's story more significant than is earned.

Prince of the City certainly has merit, particularly as the investigations begin. When a wired Ciello goes undercover to get crooked cops confessing to misdeeds on tape, it's enjoyably suspenseful and nicely wrought. However, these moments are wrapped in a beginning and ending that miss the mark entirely, and what might have been a fine, even powerful performance is run aground and abandoned, forced to dine on the desert island scenery. Alone.

Would make a good double feature with: Scarface (1983)

Friday, April 04, 2008

Double Feature: Hostel & Hostel Part II

I've been curious about the recent (and now declining?) glut of horror films focusing on torture for some time now. As a long-winded academic at heart, when I saw ads for the Hostel and Saw films, it was impossible to ignore the way they tugged at the zeitgeist-sensing center of my brain. Surely, my brain cried, there must be a reason for these films beyond the insatiable blood-lust of any standard human population! Why are these films finding a market? Why NOW? The subject matter, however, made me a bit queasy and I will admit to not wanting to spend my hard earned money to watch some actors pretend to be in pain. However, after hearing Eli Roth, the director of the Hostel films, speak quite articulately about his intent in making the movies, I decided to swallow my discomfort and sample some of the old ultraviolence to see if there was anything to what Mr. Roth was saying or if he was just a windbag.

Having sat through both Hostel and Hostel: Part II in one afternoon, I realize that it isn't the graphic violence I should have feared, but the dramatic stillness of watching torture unfold onscreen. Two people are in a room. One is helpless, bound, and unable to do anything at all. The other character is holding a sharp object and approaching with ill-intent. Since we've been told by the film that there is absolutely nothing the first character can do to escape this torment, there's really nothing happening in the scene. The only question, the only suspense is, "How much of the body's frailty is the movie going to show?" An entire film devoted to scenes of this nature is bound to be a pointless, dull experience, lacking in any narrative tension. Luckily, neither Hostel or Hostel: Part II is Hard Candy. Both films cast a wider net than depicting the specifics of skin vs. blade, and neither lingers on the torture in a gratuitious fashion (that is, the torture is germane to the plot.). And, while both films are greatly flawed, there's more going on in both than just the easy titillation of feeling scared for people in pain or the vicarious thrill of being the torturer.

Of the two, Hostel is by far the better film. Three young men traveling through Europe go to a hostel in Slovakia, enticed by the promise of sex with willing, beautiful women. Once there, they're kidnapped and held as prisoners by a "hunting club" run by some very naughty Slovakians. This organization offers the wealthy people of the world an opportunity to kill people like our intrepid heroes in a variety of gruesome ways (for a hefty fee, of course... and Americans cost the most!). While this storyline never overcomes or plays with its inherent xenophobia (you mean the local authorities are corrupt and in on the whole shebang too? What hope has a young American in this backward, barbarous land?), it, at least, has the half-believiablity and terrifying simplicity of a juicy urban legend. As a whole, the script is well-constructed, and Roth, as writer-director, credibly depicts the logistics of how such an establishment would operate and the types of people who would patronize such a service. There's a refreshing depth and clarity to the world of the film. And, thematically, there's a fun, though clumsy, modern twist on horror-movie Puritanism--the boys are cinematically punished for objectifying women and become objects for gleeful, sexually charged mayhem themselves. The movie doesn't do much with this, particularly as it's just as guilty of the crime as the boys, but it gets points for trying.

For all of this, Roth writes himself into several corners and the solutions he comes up with are ludicrous and too convenient. When presented with a seemingly inescapable dungeon, I desire more than a chair whose bolts come loose at the right moment or a casually tossed away gun as the means by which the hero escapes from danger. Problematic, also, is a tendency toward easy characterization. At one point, the main character re-enters a place of danger, an act that defies any definition of good sense, even taking into account the first-act monologue shoehorned into the film to justify it. Similarly, the final sequence of the film, in which the hero finds revenge, is unconvincing. While it's tempting to blame Jay Hernandez's performance (which is adequate but simplistic), the real culprit is Roth's script which never does the heavy-lifting it needs to earn these moments. Too many of these moments pile up and suffocate the plot's credibility.

But for all the stumbles he makes as writer, Roth, as director, clearly knows what he's doing. I was surprised and pleased with the editing of the film, particularly in a third-act chase sequence that captured, of all things, a sort-of Spielbergian Indiana Jones vibe. The editing in the torture scenes is masterful too, not too coy and not too gleeful. It shows just enough of the violence, like the film is putting a hand over your eyes to shield you from the horror, but still letting you peek through the fingers. It's shot with real ingenuity, as well. A POV shot through a black hood reveals just how dire the situation is in several stages, taking in all the details of the torture room until it stops to stare at the table of implements. When the main character is dragged through the dungeon for the first time, the shot which reveals the horrors of his predicament mirrors a previous shot that revealed the forbidden pleasures to be found in a brothel.

These technical aspects are nearly good enough to overcome the problems in the script. I wound up liking Hostel a whole lot more than I thought I would and, so, was excited and curious when I started watching the sequel. I couldn't imagine what would compel Roth to create a sequel besides pure economics. There were tantalizing questions left unanswered in the original, though not the kind that I necessarily need answered to feel satisfied. Indeed, often these sorts of questions are the sort that turn a film into a delicious, half-remembered dream (see 2001) and answering them tears the dream away and brings it gasping for life in the harsh glare of reality (see 2010). While Hostel: Part II never quite betrays the original in this way, and while it compellingly deepens the world presented in Hostel, it's also more indulgent, more scattered, and often feels strangely self-important or insular, almost like a fan-made Star Trek film intended for devotees.

At the film's outset, Roth takes the consequences of the original film far too seriously, taking up too much time (and employing too many twists) to wrap up the fate of a character from the first entry. Then, we're back in too familiar territory, following a group of Americans in Europe falling into the same Hostel-trap as the original film. But, just when it seems that the sequel is going to be a mere a remake of the original, the film takes a welcome turn, introducing and following the story of two businessmen who've paid for the chance to kill these unsuspecting tourists.

In following these two wealthy gents, the film finds something new to talk about, though, again, the characters are developed in a simplistic, flat-footed way. One of the dudes is a macho A-type, excited about the prospect of killing someone as a kind of macho rite-of-passage, while the other is a weaker dog, bullied into signing up by his associate. He's less successful than his friend, feels emasculated by his wife, and exudes the never-quite-committed-to-anything attitude of a perpetual bronze trophy winner. While Roth charts the former's excitement and the latter's doubts and insecurities to a realistic end, he comes to a conclusion that is a lot more obvious than he seems to think it is. Still, it's smart of Roth to find the familiar rhythms from the first film and then switch perspectives, playing on our knowledge of what's to come.

That the three victims are young women this time is completely wasted. Similar to Tarantino's Death Proof, (Tarantino is the executive producer of both Hostels), the women are fantasy creations--even when no boys are around they talk and act the way some women do when they're trying to attract a mate. The hint of lesbian sexuality permeating the film has all the sophistication of soft-core pornography without the payoff. And, though the ladies are lured to the Hostel, not by sex, but by the promise of the best, most relaxing hot springs in the world, they're still kidnapped upon making themselves vulnerable through sexual activity. While Roth makes a play at something resembling gender equality by prominently featuring a female torturer (who bathes in the blood of her victim, a la Elizabeth Báthory), he never really dives into the sexual politics at play. Everything's surface level, kiddie-pool stuff and the movie ultimately feels like a safer, milder(!) version of In the Company of Men.

Whatever problems the films have (and as noted, they are legion), this is not to discount Roth's skill as a director. Both films are shot and paced wonderfully, and Roth seems to have a fine understanding of the filmic language he's working in. Part II, in particular shows a certain maturation--for all of its meandering (and boy does it ever meander), it builds expertly to a rousing climax that would no doubt bring down the house if it were a movie about baseball. This ending also features the delightful, devilishly clever escape from the unescapable dungeon missing from Hostel.

What Roth is missing, though, is an equal understanding of humanity. His first film, Cabin Fever, was a fun exercise (and nothing more) in 70s horror nostalgia, but was also distinguished by the fact that its best performance was delivered by a dog. Roth gets his best performances in both Hostel movies from a group of children. He's already figured out how to defeat the old Hollywood adage about never working with children or animals through camera placement and editing, but has yet to grasp the simplistic wonders waiting to be found in human performance. Like many virtuouso genre directors, I wanted Roth to go deeper in his thinking, to really sneak in something subversive and witty, but he never quite makes it. As it stands, after three films, I still can't tell if Roth is a gifted director who knows how to push the right buttons in an audience, but still has a lot to learn, or if he's a savant who knows where to place the camera and when to cut, but can do no more. I do know, however, that he's not a windbag.