Friday, December 28, 2007

Two Days, Two Crummy Movies

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

This movie certainly had its funny moments (the sequence with the faux-Beatles played by Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long being paramount), but in the end there just aren't enough laughs. This is the third film of the year from comedy god Judd Apatow and its easily the worst. I think the reason this failed is because parody is an inherently absurd genre, and Apatow just isn't built for comedic absurdism. His best work is totally grounded in real human dynamics and situations and, as a result, Walk Hark tries too much to inject pathos into the proceedings, but as soon as you've introduced the absurd elements of film parody, it reduces the impact of any sort of character depth or interaction. If Adam McKay, an Apatow collaborator, director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights, and the foremost practioner of absurd comedy in Hollywood had made this film, it would have been a riot.

Score: 6.0

Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem

Goddamn it, this shit shouldn't be so hard! The platonic ideal of a predator fighting an alien is inherently awesome, and yet, in two straight films, made by two different production teams, professional filmmakers have managed to fuck it up beyond redemption. Why do they keep insisting on spending the majority of the film with boring, lame human characters? Motherfucker, it's not called Aliens Vs. Predator Vs. Annoying Douchbags. And when are they going to hire somebody who can shoot a fucking alien fighting a predator and make it remotely possible to tell what the fuck is going on? I know that it's easier to hide special effects gimmicks if you shoot a scene in a cave or a sewer, but howsabout someone sit down with a fucking slide rule and figure out how to show these fuckers fight in less that complete darkness?! The shit of it is, if they do another one, I'll definitely watch it.

Score: 3.0

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I don't really think that I'm qualified to review this movie, seeing as how I've never seen the musical it's based on, or any Steven Sondheim musical, for that matter. I've seen (and been annoyed by) enough musicals to observe that Sweeney Todd isn't usual: the songs weave in and out of the film without defined endings and the staging is intensely claustrophobic: there are no dance numbers, no moments when newsboys and passersby drop what they're doing and start belting one out. Most of the songs are sung in small rooms by one or, at most, two people. That doesn't jibe with other musicals I've seen, but I don't know if that's an original component of the Sondheim theatrical show, or a Burton invention. Ah, hell, I'm out of my depths, here, man. I'll just say that I usually find musicals annoying and ridiculous, but I found this one less annoying and ridiculous than most, although I still have a hard time connecting emotionally to characters who inexplicably burst into song.

Score: 7.7

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Subjectivity and Criticism: Why Bother?

This fall saw the release of two crime dramas from venerated directors: David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises and the Coen Brother's No Country For Old Men. My wife and I saw both of them during their respective theatrical releases and recently, as we hashed over our favorite films of the year, I discovered something that surprised me and led my to question the very validity of the notion of film criticism. Both Carolyn and I liked each these two films, but we loved different ones. I found Eastern Promises to be a well-crafted but slight genre entry, while I was absolutely blown away by No Country. Conversely, Carolyn admired the craft and execution of No Country but was more deeply affected by Eastern Promises. What intrigued me about our differing responses to these two movies was that they didn't really have anything to do with the quality of the films. We didn't argue the technical merits of one film over the other, rather, our difference came down to divergent emotional responses to the material. I walked out of Eastern Promises unmoved, while No Country left me shivering. Carolyn had the opposite reaction. It turns out the Naomi Watts character, who I sort of wrote off as a wasted part (if I recall correctly, I said that all Watts had to do in the movie was "sweat the Morten-dong"), stuck with Carolyn, especially her emotional arc, which I largely overlooked. Watt's character isn't just seeking justice for the dead Russian girl who sets the plot in motion, she's resolving feelings of grief and guilt for her stillborn child, and struggling with an attraction to a man who terrifies and excites her. I'll admit, I noticed that stuff while I was watching the movie, but it didn't leave much of an impression. No Country, on the other hand, she called a "guy's movie." As much as I love this movie, I certainly can't disagree with that assessement; it's a diagnosis that helps explain why the film was less powerful for Carolyn. If all that stuff with Naomi Watts left me cold, why would Tommy Lee Jones mourning his lost virility be any more evocative for her?

This all raises the question: if our gender is that determinative of our emotional response to art, how the hell are we supposed to make meaningful judgements of films other than "I liked it"? I'm left thinking that the only thing that can be analyzed with any sort of objectivity are the technical aspects of a film: as I said, we both thought that each of these films was very well made and engaging. The elements that push a movie from "good" to "great" are almost entirely personal: your reaction is largely going to be determined by your age, race, gender, and life experience. At the end of the day, whether a film "speaks" to you or not often depends on what you're listening for. So, I guess the reason I'm making this largely-obvious point is because I want to know if there is a case for the opposite view: that craft is not the only thing about film that can be objectively analyzed; that you can measure the effectiveness of things like character relatability, thematic resonance and emotional impact. Right now, no such answers are forthcoming, but I'll certainly keep thinking about it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I Am Legend

I really wanted to like this movie, and for the first forty minutes or so, I did. The haunting shots of post-apocalyptic Manhattan and the persistent focus on the day -to-day realities of a man dealing with lonliness, loss, and vampiric hordes are compelling. For a would be blockbuster, this film insists on slowing down and closely observing details that most big action flicks miss. Unfortunately, even though the film has a surprisingly interesting artistic point of view, the script is helluva weak. I don't mind a film like this skimping on the action if all the quiet scenes are building on each other towards something. However, in I Am Legend, the character building scenes don't actually build on each other, and they end up leading to a flat, infuriatingly dumb "Signs"-style ending. It certainly doesn't help that the CGI plague victims who menace Will Smith throughout the movie have that patented CGI shininess to them that makes them look like World of Warcraft avatars. Gollum aside, CGI has just not yet reached the point where it can be used in such large doses without seeming really, really fake.

And, as with most post-apocalyptic films, I end up spending a lot of time wishing that the movie were set during the deadly plague, not after. Some of the best parts of the film are the flashbacks to Will Smith's family trying to evacutate Manhattan as it's being quarantined. After the last of those scenes ended, I kept hoping that there would be more. Look, Hollywood, I know tha it's difficult to set a film during the apocalpyse because it doesn't fit with your precious three act structures and your Robert McKee character arcs, but c'mon, already! Get on the damn ball and make that shit happen!

Score: 6.9

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

No Country For Old Men: Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers


I just finished reading Corman McCarthy's book No Country for Old Men and it only increases my awe at the Coen brothers' accomplishment. They have taken the most potent plot elements, exchanges of dialogue, and themes from the book, thrown them onto the screen with the technical panache they are know for, while leaving behind McCarthy's excessive philosophizing and meandering. To use a metaphor from the classic film Monster Squad, they melt down the raw silver of McCarthy's prose and shape it into a hollow tip bullet, perfect for killing werewolves.

One of the big things aiding the Coens was their choice of material. Unlike writers like Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller, who utilize the narrative voice to communiate a lot of the psychological and philosophical themes of their works, Cormac McCarthy, in this novel, at least, lets the characters and plot mechanics express the themes. This means that the work is perfect for translation to film: it's just a job of putting the action and dialogue up there on the screen. If that's all the Coens' had done, they probably would have made a good movie. What makes No Country a great movie is their incisive editing and reshaping of the material to create maximum visceral impact. In fact, they seem to have more faith in the potency of McCarthy's tale than the author himself does.

In his attempt to write a novel focusing on the existential horror of ordinary folks staring into an abyss of idiot fate and human cruelty, McCarthy laid out a tale that obliterated the expectations of the reader. He starts with one of the most cliche of all crime thriller plots: regular joe stumbles across large sum of money (or drugs), criminals pursue him in order to regain it. There have been literally* jillions of books and movies made utitlizing this premise, from Charley Varrick to True Romance, and it carries with it certain expectations, mainly that it will end in a climactic show down between the regular joe and some avatar of criminality. McCarthy fills these roles with the vivid, compelling characters of Llewellyn Moss and Anton Chigurh, and sets them on a collision course...and then he has a bunch of nondescript Mexicans kill the protagonist before he can have his showdown with Chigurh...and only two thirds of the way through the book. This ingenious subversion of audience expectations is the most effective representation of McCarthy's theme, and the Coens smartly keep it intact. Even more smartly, they trust their mastery of film craft to convey this theme without resorting to the didactic dialogue that plagues too much of the book. Although at least eighty percent of the dialogue in the film is drawn verbatim from the book, most of the character exchanges last much longer in the book, and to the detriment of the characters, themes and narrative momentum. The laconic cowboy aphorisms of that pepper the movie are compelling and witty in small doses, but tend to induce reader fatigue after pages and pages of the same clipped, obtuse rhythms. More importantly, the prolonged disquitations turn the character of Chigurh, who, in the form of Javier Bardem, ranks in the top echelon of film bad guys, into a grumpy freshman philosophy student, not a being of pure will and a symbol of implacible, unreasonable death.

Take the scene, early on in both the film and the book, when Chigurh has a conversation with a hapless gas station attendant. As the two characters talk, it becomes clear that Chigurh is deciding whether or not he is going to kill the attendant. To that end, he asks the attendant to call a coin toss. When his guess of "heads" turns out to be correct, Chigurh allows him to live, and gives the attendant the quarter, telling him that it's his "lucky" quarter. In the film, when the attendant tries to put the quarter in his pocket, Chigugh tells them not to, because in his pocket the coin will lose its specialness, become "just a coin...which it is" in Chigurh's words. It's a film scene of unbearable suspense, and that last line echoes in the viewer's head long after it has been spoken. Those few words contain a universe of meaning; that coin, like the attendants life, is extraordinary and unique...and, at the same time, completely anonymous and mundane, depending on who is beholding it.

Contrast the way the Coens' end this scene with the way the scene ends in McCarthy's book. Most of the dialogue is identical, but when the attendant tries to put the "lucky" quarter in his pocket, Chigurh doesn't respond by telling him to put it "anywhere not your pocket, where it will get mixed up with the others and become just a coin...which it is." Instead, he says:

"Anything can be an instrument. Small things. Things you wouldn't even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People don't pay attention. And then one day there's an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It's just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it's just a coin. Yes. That's true. Is it?"

Saying shit like this, Chigurh should be holding a goddamn baton of french bread, not a compressed-air cattle stungun. There's no way that a mini-monologue like that could stick with you. There's too much stuff there, too much abstract rumination, all of it stripping the mystery and terror away from a character who never leaps off of the page the way that he does off of the screen. In the end, I just think that the Coens trusted the plot structure and characters to convey the apocalyptic dread and desolation that McCarthy was striving for, while McCarthy himself felt compelled to overdetermine the themes by hammering them home in conversation after conversation. It's understandable, in a way. The sort of terror and sense of vulnerability McCarthy is going for is much easier to convey cinematically than in prose. He probably felt the need to lard Chigurh's murder spree with soliloquies because he didn't have the chilly intensity of Javier Bardem's coal-black eyes to help bring out the darkness.

*okay, not literally