Thursday, July 31, 2008

The future is here.

This is how we have all begun to watch. Death to videodrome. Long live the new flesh.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In Bruges

It's been nearly 14 years since Pulp Fiction re-popularized and re-mythologized the hitman for its generation, and through this time, cinema has seen more than its share of men (and sometimes, rarely, women) executing people for money.  Anyone who was paying attention to such things can remember the tiring glut of mostly abhorrent, jokey crime dramas that followed in Pulp's wake, so much so that it often seemed that the film's legacy would be the forever tied to these lesser pictures.  And, of course, in many ways that's true.  To this day, Pulp Fiction represents a change in filmic paradigm, but it paved the way for both its lesser imitators as well as those that exceeded it in quality.  Without it, it's hard to imagine No Country for Old Men winning its well-deserved Best Picture Oscar, and it's even harder to imagine the existence of In Bruges, a wonderful film that unearths a surprising amount of truth and humanity from this genre (and should maybe win a statue of its own).  With a similar cynical, but humane tone that vacillates from wrenching drama to high comedy, it's a perfect counterpoint to Tarantino's opus: the crime film in thoughtful mid-life crisis compared to Pulp Fiction's adolescent swagger.  
In Bruges has a sickly, diseased charm.  The experience of watching it is not unlike those times when you lie awake, unable to sleep, contemplating all the harm you've done other people, and feeling oppressed by the associated guilt (the film may lose those who don't experience such moments in their lives, but I contend that they're worse off).  In such dark, personal moments, one might be tempted to abandon everything by hopping on the next train out of town or even committing suicide, and this film looks those temptations square in the face and examines them through the good-natured, but confused lens of the following morning.  All of its characters harbor life-draining, bottled-up secrets and regrets, but they get through their days with a dose of old-fashioned cynicsm, physical exertion, and mind-altering substances.  It focuses on two hitmen who are holing up, on instruction from their boss, in the small Belgian town of Bruges after the younger of the two (Colin Farrell) botched a hit.  They're instructed to lie low and wait for instructions.  The older hit man (a scream-to-the-rafters good Brendan Gleeson) is delighted to take the opportunity to sight-see, and he drags the indignant Ferrall to a variety of the town's historic destinations.  During these excursions, the father-son dynamic between the two men is perfectly played; Ferrall comes off as a pouty, incurious teen, more interested in drinking and hitting up the local women than Gleeson.  The older hit man clearly understands where the younger man is coming from, but, feeling his years, is nevertheless interested in matters of a religious and historic nature and wishes to impart his young companion with the important lessons these things provide.  
This good-natured, but contentious relationship between the two men is established efficiently by the actors and the script, and, by itself, it's a marvel.  They're so good, you could watch Gleeson and Farrell chat and bicker their way while grocery shopping for two hours and never feel less than entertained.  But part of the thrill of the movie is in how writer-director Martin McDonagh pushes this relationship to the breaking point.  Farrell is torn by guilt, suicidal even, and desperately wants help or advice from Gleeson, but the older man has no answers for him.  Gleeson carries his own pain around with him, but years have calloused him to the emotional complexities of his life as a hit man.  And while Gleeson tries to convince Ferrall to stay alive while they wait for further instructions, it's suddenly clear that In Bruges is using its hitmen to tackle an exploration of the very meaning of life itself, using their high-stakes, hard-lived lives to ponder the question--to be, or not to be?  And while, like Hamlet, In Bruges doesn't come up with a definitive answer that we can all take home and apply to ourselves, it, like Hamlet, shows us how that it's hard, but worthwhile and important to arrive at an answer.
But, lest it seem that the movie is a moody, muddy work of tears and ruminations, it should be noted that In Bruges is a hysterically funny film.  McDonagh has written some clever, rancid dialogue for his sleazy characters.  From Ferrall's scathing condemnation of American tourists to the racist drivel spewed by a coked-up little person, the film pulls no punches.  At times it seems like the movie's about to go off into shock-for-shock's sake offensive humor, but it's much more clever than that.  Unlike, say, the worst episodes of South Park, the script holds the characters responsible for the inevitable consequences of their attitudes, and the bigger laughs in the film come from showing the ignorance behind their offensive gibberish.    But, even better, is the funniness of the McDonagh's plotting.  There's a perfect, dark joke somewhere in the middle that also serves as a plot point, a botched suicide attempt that forces both men to confront a new wrinkle in their relationship and their own respective attitudes toward their lives and their work (I would love to go on about this moment, but I wouldn't dream of giving it away to anyone, not now, not 100 years from now, and, so, I remain coy).  It's a moment of absolute genius, as confounding and contradictory (and thereby hilarious) as life itself. 
If In Bruges has a flaw, it's only in its immaculate structure.  The drama is nice, tidy, and economical, and, while these are all good things, it may be a bit too tidy, too pat.  As the film nears its conclusion, it gathers up all of its loose threads and begins to tie them off, weaving all of them into the final beats of the story.  It does this marvelously--everything that has happened in the film has some effect on the ending--but the machinery behind the scenes does start to groan and strain a bit to fit everything into the final location and the pacing slows as McDonagh moves all of his pieces to the appropriate positions on the board before kicking-off the finale.  It's interesting, though, that the plot of In Bruges is so tidy, while the emotional and philosphical ramifications for its characters are not.  With its fractured narrative, spontaneous digressions, but tidy morality, exactly the opposite is true of Pulp Fiction, and this, to me, is a clue as to why I prefer one or the other depending on how I spent the previous night

Would be a good double feature with: Pulp Fiction   

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

Briefly Noted: Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs

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

It is a sign









Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

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

Forget it, It's Chinatown

Nothing this week. Can't be helped. Dry your eyes.

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 na├»ve, 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