Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Dream Come True!

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

From the Queue: Diabolique (1954)

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

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

In the heat of the night

It's going to be 105 or something degrees today here in Portland. No air conditioning.

People told me that when I moved to Portland, I would grow weary of the cold rain and the clouds. This has not happened.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

End of Days

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lakeview Terrace

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.

Lakeview Terrace

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

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

The Ruins

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.