Monday, November 26, 2007

The Mist

Whoda thunk that arch-schmalt merchant Frank Darabont would be able to pull off such a brutal, down and dirty creature feature as The Mist? I guess if all you do is adapt Stephen King materials, you'll eventually get to something horrifying. And man, are they some good creatures. Through a combination of suprisingly good CGI and rubber gags, Darabont creates some really horrible monsters lurking in that there titular mist: just looking at them gives you that Lovecraftian sense of revulsion that King was trying to convey. In addition to providing the B-movie goods, Darabont deepens the film with some great in-group/out-group tensions between the group of bewildered people trapped in a grocery store surrounded by monsters. Marcia Gay Harden in particular is vivid and eerie as a holy roller whipping her acolytes into a sacrificial frenzy to appease her Old Testament god. In fact, most of the characters are given richer shading than you usually see in this sort of scare-fest. Most remarkably, Darabont alters the original ending of King's story (which isn't really an ending at all) by making it both more dramatically satisfying AND darker than the original. In the end, The Mist isn't really scary, but it's deeply creepy, and since most horror films can't manage to be either scary or creepy, I'd put that down as a signficant accomplishment.

Score: 8.0

Thursday, November 22, 2007

No Country For Old Men

In my fall movie preview, I wrote that No Country For Old Men might be the least whimsical Coen brothers' movie since Miller's Crossing. It turns out that isn't the case. No Country For Old Men is the least whimsical Coen brothers' movie since the invention of whimsy.

This movie season has seen some pleasant surprises (Into the Wild, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) and disappointments (Eastern Promises, American Gangster), but no film had yet exactly met my expectations until now. I went into No Country For Old Men expecting to see one of the most amazing American films of the past decade, and that's exactly what I got. It's cool when things work out like that.

The Coens have been astoundingly prolific and varied in style over their twenty year careers. With No Country, they revisit the terrain of their first film, Blood Simple. Both films could be considered "Texas noir:" gritty crime films featuring regular people confronting embodiments of pure evil, against a backdrop of scrub brush and big block Detroit sedans. What sets No Country For Old Men apart from Blood Simple, indeed, from the entire Coen brothers canon, is its commitment to emotional impact. The film creates a hermetic seal around its characters and universe, drawing the viewer in to a palable reality. In the past, the Coen's have been content to create immersive film realities for the purpose of riffing on genres and film tropes: shits n' giggles, know, for kids? With this film, the Coen's have entered uncharted territory: gone are the comic grotesques, hyper-stylized dialogue and deadpan absurdism that have largely defined their output. Instead of reminding the viewer at regular intervals that they're watching a movie, they let their craft and characters speak in the soft but textured voices of a recognizable reality. The virtuoso technique on display does not reflexively celebrate the magic of film, but is rather put to service instilling existential dread in the viewer. It's a feat of cinematic ledgermain with few equals: the movie practically places you into an hypnotic trance designed to show you a cold and merciless universe where death is inevitable and meted out randomly. You leave the theater acutely aware of your personal vulnerability, pondering the terrifying vastness and cruel capriciousness of the world. You feel like a plucked chicken set in the middle of a wind-swept prairie, waiting for the wolves to come.

This effect is achieved through a constellation of techniques, including a canny lack of any musical accompaniment. The catalyst of it all is certainly Cormac McCarthy's source material. I intentionally avoided reading the book before seeing the film in order to go in fresh. It was the right decision, but it leaves me feeling unable to fully engage with the film's achievements. As such, I expect to read the book this week, and post a fuller write-up of the film at that point. For now, sufficit to say that this flick is a pisser.

Score: 10

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

In most heist movies, the crime itself functions primarily as a plot device. Depicting a robbery gives the filmmakers a sweet opportunity to thrill the audience with a close-up look at the ins and outs of thievery, as well as plenty of shooting and blood-letting. Answering the question of why the heist is being committed isn't a priority: the vast sums of easy money are reason enough. What makes Before the Devil Knows You're Dead a singularly interesting heist film is that it addresses a fundamental fact overlooked in most heist films. Crime, first and foremost, is a symptom of pathology. Pathologies of psychology, of family dynamics, of economics, both personal and systemic. Sidney Lumet's film fractures the chronology and point of view to illuminate the conflicting motivations of the members of the Hanson family: brothers Hank and Andy, who decide to solve their respective money woes by knocking off their parent's jewerly store, and patriarch Charles, who has to deal with the wrenching fallout of their efforts. Each character has their own agenda and their own needs, and the film subtly evocks the sources of both. Andy, the mastermind, burns with familial resentment, as well as the restlessness and ennui of a well off man who has everything he could ever need, yet still feels empty, and is certain that just a little more will finally do the trick. Hank struggles under alimony demands and a nagging inferiority complex regarding his brother. Throughout this film, which focuses intently on the quiet, mundane moments that add up to create a person's emotional atmosphere, Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson break up the action into prismatic, often silent sequences that all reveal crucial aspects of the chracters and their histories. Rather than explain how the heist is pulled off, these scenes are meant to show us why it went down, and it all adds up to a bracing portrait of contemporary American life and the essential sickness of many of our relationships and the hollowness of many of our dreams.

Shorter review: BTDKYD = A Simple Plan + In the Bedroom

Score: 8.8

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Modest Proposal...for which I am legally entitled to 5% of the pre-tax gross.

I just rewatched Paul Greengrass' superb docudrama about Northern Ireland Bloody Sunday, one of the very best films of the young century and a big reason why Paul Greengrass is one of the most exciting filmmakers currently operating. In addition to the real life intensity-fests of Bloody Sunday and last year's United 93, Greengrass has also directed the last two Bourne films, with the same consistently thrilling, powerful handheld style. His stuff is a giant FUCK YOU to all the nitwits out there who bitch about the "pretensiousness" of handheld camerawork: watch these films, then try to tell me that they would be more effective with a lot of crane shots and steadycam shit. Not only does the handheld style convey stark, queasy realism, it makes things feel spontaneous, which is important when you specialize, as Greengrass does, in recreating historical events. Anyone going to see Bloody Sunday knows that it ends with the Paras emptying a bunch of rifle clips into unarmed Catholic protestors, as anyone going to see United 93 knows that it ends with the plane crashing into a field in Pennsylvania. Yet, watching Greengrass' recreations, the audience feels a sense of dread and apprehension not only due to what we know is coming, but also from the delusional but strong sense that ANYTHING can happen. The documentary style totally ignores traditional film grammar, requiring the audience to hunt through the tangle of unorganized, overlapping dialogue and action for meaning. There's a scene early on in Bloody Sunday in which Ivan Cooper, the Protestant MP who lead the non-violent civil rights march that sparked the confrontation, confers with a car full of IRA gunmen. Cooper tries to convince them to keep their guns away from the protest, the head gunman (it's probably supposed to be Martin McGinness) tells him "your marches aren't going to change anything." Cooper responds with the certainty of the righteous: "Watch us." It's the kind of moment that most movies would grind to a halt in order to emphasize. The camera would pull in for a tight close-up on Cooper's face, set in steely determination, as he said "Watch us." There would probably be some sort of orchestral sting, as well. Instead, Greengrass shoots the exchange from long distance, with Cooper's face obscured by the door of the car. If the viewer finds that particular bit of dialogue important, he has to work for it: just like in real life, moments of significance don't announce themselves while they happen. They occur in the same bustle of quotidian and hectic details that make up every moment of the day. They only take on significance in retrospect.

Anyway, this little encomium to Paul Greengrass is all an introduction to a bold idea I had today. In my review of Darjeeling Limited, I aired my suspicion that Wes Anderson might be reaching the limits of potential for his particular brand of upper class quirkfest. While Paul Greengrass' films are uniformily excellent, and the prospect of him doing a film about Iraq (adapting the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City) and Vietnam (adapting the book They Marched into Sunlight), according to his next two projects, are both very exciting, there is a danger that he might get caught in a similar rut. Here's my bold idea: what if Wes Anderson were to direct Greengrass's script for, say They Marched into Sunlight while Greengrass directs Anderson's next script? Think about it: Wes Anderson trying to shoot an ambush of U.S. troops in Vietnam with pristine framing and meticulous set design while Paul Greengrass jittery-cameras his way through a quirky domestic dramedy. Such an experiement would take both directors out of their respective comfort zones and could result in utterly fresh approaches to the material.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What Does Hollywood Need? MORE REMAKES!

Yes, the recent herpes rash of pointless remakes that has plagued the American cineplex is a dispiriting development. Yes, the vast majority of these movies are mercenary attempts to cash in on the good will of a pre-existing "property." Still...hear me out on this....I think that there ARE movies that should be remade as soon as possible.

I recently watched the cult classic Roger Corman production Deathrace 2000, which, as advertised, is a sly, witty satire with giddy perverse bursts of violence. Unfortunately, it was made for approximately seventeen dollars, and it shows. Not only does the low budget reduce the impact of the action set pieces, it artificially limits the scope of the satire. At the start of the film, we get our only view of the futuristic dystopia of the year 2000: an insanely cheesy matte painting of Jetsons buildings. If somebody could get together fifteen or twenty million bucks for a remake that kept the central plot elements and expanded the film's universe, you'd be dealing with a real pisser. Plus, you could do real justice to the concept of tricked-out dune buggies intentionally running over the elderly.

Basically, the only time you should remake a movie is when the original version fucked up a great premise or screenplay through inept direction or a cripplingly low budget. Other candidates for potentially ass-kicking remakes:

George Romero's The Crazies

John Carpenter's They Live (of course, this will probably end up being the ONLY John Carpenter movie that DOESN'T get remade)

The shitty Jet Li movie The One and the shitty Jean Claude Van Damme movie Timecop for the same reason: both of these movies take a sci-fi premise with nearly unlimited possibilities, (parrallel universes and time travel, respectively) and completly wastes them. I mean, Timecop is about a cop who travels through time...and the vast majority of the film is spent in the amazingly foreign and exotic year of 1995!

Any other candidates for a jizz-blasting remake?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

American Gangster

This movie is essential a black Goodfellas if the foul-mouthed cops who busted Ray Liotta at the end were in half the movie instead of one scene. And if it were directed by middlebrow grinder Ridley Scott instead of cinematic genius Martin Scorsese. Other than that, the two films share a lot of characteristics. They both glory in horrible seventies fashions and the glamor and sudden violence of the gangster lifestlye. More substantatively, both films underscore the connection between the cuthroat world of organized crime and good old American capitalism. Both films are also about two and a half hours long. One of the bigger differences is that only American Gangster actually feels like it's two and a half hours long. I never complain about movie lengths, but man does the middle of this fucker DRAG. The movie never really builds any kind of momentum. Still, there are few things cooler in film than when Denzel Washington plays a bad guy, and there are some really nice bits here and there, but it just doesn't add up to much beyond a well crafted gangster film that bites off a bit more than it can chew. It's too bad, because American Gangster is clearly aiming for epic sweep: it's an attempt to encapsulate the urban decay and endemic political and social corruption of the Vietnam war era, but the techiniques used are clumsy and ineffectual. The most egregious of these is the repeated use of one of the worst tropes in the filmic canon: the Amazing Expository Televison! Instead of weaving the political realities of the late sixties and early seventies into the film and its characters, whenever Scott wants to give a shot of poltical context, he shows his characters watching television, which is always convienently tuned to a news report on the situation in Vietnam, the urban drug epidemic, etc.

Score: 7.7