Wednesday, December 17, 2008
I'll wait for everyone to finish vomiting into their mouths.
Once you've swallowed your chunder, I hope you come around to the realization I did: this is actually brilliant. In fact, it's the only possible way to follow up The Dark Knight. Instead of dealing with the impossible-to-meet expecations set by Knight, Christopher Nolan and company are making a completely different type of movie. You expand the Batman universe, embrace the richness of life, revel in the fact that Gotham isn't just a city of corruption and despair, but of humor and love as well. You make sort of a demarcation line between the paranoia and cynicism of the Bush era and the hopeful humanism of the Obama era.
Now, there's no guarantee that this will work, but I have faith that the Nolans can make a looser, funnier Batman film that doesn't devolve into Schumacher-style leaden camp. The LaBeouf casting is really the warning sign: that little shit does not need to be in every tentpole franchise. Leave something for Jesse Bradford or somebody.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Gus Van Sant has made a string of defiantly non-conventional films in the past ten years, from Gerry to Last Days, films that privilege mood and mundane detail over plot pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, Van Sant fails to bring this sensibility to bear on his new film about assassinated gay rights icon Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Instead, Van Sant offers up a large slice of formulaic, telegraphed biopic action. Sean Penn serves up a textured, affecting performance, but his character is given little in the way of an interior life. He is defined by his commitment to gay equality, and even the attempts to detail his relationships with boyfriends James Franco and Diego Luna come across as half-hearted gestures towards dimensions that are never investigated. Van Sant sandwiches scenes dramatizing the high points of Milk's political career; his first, unsuccessful run for the Board, his third, successful one, his campaign against Anita Bryant's attempt to ban gay teachers from California public schools, between bits of contemporary news footage. This roots Milk in a specific time and place, but also blunts the film's momentum, as does a framing device that finds Harvey Milk dictating his life story into a tape recorder. Not only does the narrative purpose of each individual scene announce itself instantly, but these scenes fail to build onto one another to create a cumulative effect. That's another common problem with biopics in general and another area where Milk fails to distinguish itself from the pack. Most biopics feature a bunch of disconnected vignettes of obvious intent that never cohere. Milk is no different, marked only by some strong performances and a few nicely naturalistic sequences. Penn in particular is brilliant. His face is usually a fist of angst and rage, but here he effortlessly assumes the skin of an affable, engagingly humane figure.
But Milk is being embraced by critics as one of the year's best films, not to mention a vitally important film, coming out in the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 8 in California. Part of this because the very conventions that make Milk an exceedingly generic piece of biographical filmmaking are what also make it compelling. This is the first big, sweeping biopic about a gay activist. It's the gay Gandhi, or X, a cinematic validation of the gay rights struggle, with all the attendant airless self-seriousness. You know you've made real progress as an oppressed minority in America when you get your own big-budget encomium to a fallen martyr. So Milk's conventionality and overwrought reach for historical significance make it a celebration of the mainstreaming of the gay community.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Michael Mann's Heat is usually cited as the apotheosis of realistic film shoot-outs, and there's a reason for that. The throw-down between Robert De Niro's bank robbers and Al Pacino's LAPD in downtown L.A. is striking in its comittment to a flat, unaffected sound design and crisp editing. It doesn't hurt that a few years after Heat came out, a couple of bank robbers lit up an LA neighborhood and the news footage was almost indistinguishable from the movie. Still, Heat does not, in fact, feature the apotheosis of the hyper-realistic shootouts. Towards the end of the scene, there's a some close-ups of Pacino that make audience identification a bit too intense to qualifiy as hyper-realism. That honor goes to the climax of Christopher McQuarrie's Way of the Gun, a mind-bendingly pretensious bit of late-90s Tarantino thievery starring Ryan Philippe at his most un-interesting. The only thing to recommend it is that final shoot-out, which is notable for its studied distance and super methodical blocking; the bad guys even use the Weaver stance, for god's sake.
"Ballet of Bullets"
Nowadays, shootouts that feature gushing blood spurts and bodies flying through the air in super slow motion are synonymous with John Woo and his goddamn doves. The style was pioneered by cowboy philosopher Sam Peckinpah, specifically his masterpiece, The Wild Bunch. That was a revolutionary film; the apocalyptic final shoot-out between William Holden's gang and pretty much the entire Mexican army was a sharp break with the strong tradition of bloodless gunplay in Hollywood horse operas. The style has been so overused by now, particularly by motherfuckers from Hong Kong, that the returns have diminished drastically. At this point, the only way to make it interesting is to ratchet up the ultraviolence to stratospheric heights. And yet, it's been over a decade since Chow Yun Fat shot up a hospital full of pregnant women and old folks in Hard Boiled, and nobody has come close.
Rapidly Edited, Music-Saturated Suckfest
If you've seen the ungoldy bad shootout at the end of Enemy of the State, then you've seen the absolute worst this style of shootout direction has to offer. The Scott brothers, Tony and Ridley, are the supreme acolytles of this awful, obvious and migraine-inducing way of doing business. As in most cinematic matters, Ridley is slightly more compotent than his special needs bro. It's also the default style of pretty much every mediocre to bad former commerical director who makes action films, from the braindead likes of 3000 Miles to Graceland to the equally braindead but guility pleasureable Smokin' Aces.
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Sunday, December 07, 2008
Synecdoche, New York is focused laze-like on the mind of Schenectady, New York theater director Caden Cotard played with lethal empathy by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a clear surrogate for the filmmaker. Cotard is plagued by mysterious ailments and a creeping decrepitude that mirror Kaufman’s own well-known hypochondria as well as the inevitable physical decline in store for us all. To distract from his illnesses and to reassure himself that his life has meaning and weight, Cotard sets about writing, casting and rehearsing a massive theatrical performance, staged in a giant warehouse that incorporates every experience in his life, from his failed marriage to artist Catherine Keener to a series of romantic failures with a string of women including box office ticket taker Samantha Morton and actress Michelle Williams.
The film serves to take the top off of Charlie Kaufman’s creative machinery and expose the gears for all to see. As Kotard struggles to make sense of his life (and death) by directing actors in dramatic reconstructions of scenes from his life, the audiences sees how and why this particular artist, and perhaps all artists, can turn pain into creative expression.
Though this movie boasts the same sort of post-modern high concept as his previous scripts, it doesn’t feature the conventional plot structure that made those films more satisfying as straightforward entertainments. Instead, Synecdoche, New York operates on the dream logic of a David Lynch film. Like Lynch, Kaufman seeks to give the audience the experience of being inside his head, but rather than present them with the images of his nightmares as Lynch does, Kaufman shows them the fuel of his nightmares, namely fear of death and obscurity and the bitter memories of anguish endured and inflicted. This approach, with its abundance of absurdity, symbolism, philosophical tangents and studious lack of narrative drive, makes Synecdoche, New York a hard film to love. However, it’s downright impossible not to be moved by its brutal frankness, trenchant insight, and superhuman ambition.
Thursday, December 04, 2008
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
There is another cinematic delight of mine, something that gets me pumping my fist in delirious joy in the middle of a crowded movie theater: awesomeness. This isn't the same as a "guilty pleasure" or "so bad it's good." Awesomeness is a triumph of film craft, rather than art. Bad movies can have awesome parts, but the awesome parts cannot themselves be bad. Awesomeness is also without redeeming artistic or thematic value of any kind. Awesomeness is totally visual, and relies on the sort of high priced production design and special effects that only Hollywood films can manage, so it's rare to find in a genuinely challenging and/or non-commercial movie.
Awesomeness is a cinematic spectacle of singular destruction. It can be property destruction or physical destruction, but it must be unique, it must be audacious, and it must be executed with verve and verisimilitude. Unless all of these criteria are met, you just don't have awesomeness. There's a scene in George Romero's Land of the Dead that is textbook awesome: a soldier pulls the pin on a grenade, before he can throw it, a zombie chops his arm off with a cleaver, then chops his leg off. The soldier then falls onto his severed limb, which still holds the live grenade. He is then blown into several distinct pieces that fly across the screen. Awesome. There is another scene in Land of the Dead that attempts awesomeness, but fails. A zombie gets the drop on a soldier, who is relieved to see that it doesn't have a head. Then, the head which is actually attached to the body by a thin string of gristle, pops forward and takes a bit out of the soldier's arm. Now, the inventiveness of this scene means it could have been awesome, but the head is rendered in cartoonishly crude CGI. Zombie movies in general are chock-a-block with awesomeness, because they usually include a whole lot of creative damage done to the human body.
Explosions are generally not awesome, because they are so generic. You've seen one, you've seen them all. Car crashes are rarely awesome because they're usually shot in such a predictable series of quick cuts and overlaid with hysterical musical dubbing. The car crash/mass murder in Death-Proof is indescribably awesome, because it's a dizzying combination of singluar physical damage AND singular property damage. In fact, Quentin Tarantino is probably the most prolific generator of awesomeness currently operating. Marvin getting shot in the face in the middle of a conversation in Pulp Fiction? Awesome. Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs getting lit up by Tim Roth with about fifteen shots to the chest when you thought Roth was unconscious? Awesome. Pretty much the entirety of Kill Bill Volume 1? Awesome. Uma Thurman stepping on Daryl Hannah's freshly-plucked eyeball in Volume 2? Awesome. Remember, awesome is not the same as good, and a lot of Tarantino's awesomeness is tied in to his emotional and intellectual vapidity. It takes a certain childishness to take up the intensely powerful medium of film and use it to creatively replicate the severing of limbs and the implosion of heads.
Michael Haneke does not approve of awesomeness. In fact, he might be the least awesome filmmaker currently working. Him or Ang Lee. That doesn't mean I don't like Haneke's work. He makes some of the most intellectually engaging films out there. (Ang Lee on the other hand, produces thorazine on celluloid) In fact, there is another cinematic phenomenon that gives me a shiver is a similar if less fist-pumping way as awesomeness: anti-awesomeness.
Anti-awesomeness is when a filmmaker deliberately denies the audience a visceral thrill in such a way that makes them aware of their perhaps subconsious craving for the spectacular and asks where such feelings come from. Haneke is a master of anti-awesomeness. The final scene of David Fincher's Zodiac is a triump of anti-awesomeness.
To exhalt in awesomeness is to revel in the aesthetics of the consequence free world of graphic mayhem that movies create. Anti-awesomeness is the pointed reminder that our desire to watch the world and the human body smashed into soggy pieces comes from a sinister place. There is a magnetic beauty to a showering cascade of organ meat. We can reassure ourselves that we only find it beautiful because we know it's fake, but why the hell do we think it's beautiful in the first place? Any answer I would give would have something to do with my dreams of apocalypse, and I do appreciate filmmakers who challenge such dysfunctional narcissism. That doesn't mean I won't keep seeking out an orchestral arrangement of cartwheeling limbs. Anti-awesomeness is penance, twelve rosaries and six hail marys to purify the soul between evicerations.
Monday, November 24, 2008
The character Poppy (Sally Hawkins) in Mike Leigh's new film Happy Go Lucky could potentially serve as the Platonic ideal of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She's a relentlessly upbeat kindergarten teacher who has a compulsive need to emotionally engage with every person she meets. The wisp of a plot also calls to mind other films about grumpy men and the two dimensional quirk-factories who love them. Poppy takes driving lessons from a pathologically surly instructor played by Eddie Marsan who goes from loathing her constant chatter and unfailing pep to falling in love with her. What distinguishes Happy Go Lucky from the films of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl variety, and what makes it an ingenious critique of the genre is the fact that Hawkins doesn't blow into Marsan's life. Hawkins is the main character, and the audience is introduced to her bitter driving teacher at the same time that she is. This is a crucial shit that takes a shopworn premise into unexpected, rich new directions.
Hawkins' Sally is not a walking, talking device for the spiritual enrichment of a man. She's a walking, talking person, whose commitment to maintaining a cheerful attitude and reaching out to the people she meets are character traits that grow out of her personality organically. The film is composed largely of a series of interactions between Hawkins' sunny disposition and a parade of bitter, closed-off, wounded, or flat out insane people who are alternately befuddled, amused, enchanted and enraged by her. The reactions that Hawkins' provokes are another aspect of the film that challenges viewer expectations. No one is magically cured of their unhappiness by being around Hawkins. They interact with her the way that people tend to interact with strangers whose behavior confounds social norms, or whose outlook challenges their preconceived notions. These failures to connect serve to isolate Hawkins for the audience as a unique person, and to place her actions and mindset in the a existential context. She doesn't laugh and dance and smile at strangers to make the world a better place. She does it because it makes her life livable.
Monday, November 17, 2008
For all of its slam-bang action, exotic locales and Bond angst, Quantum of Solace is finally unsatisfying, as it sets up an epic confrontation between Bond and a worldwide criminal organization that must be left for the next movie to be dealt with. One hopes that two movies worth of vague suggestions about the nefarious QUANTUM group will eventually pay off, but in Quantum of Solace, all that the audience can look forward to is a plot that is simultaneously overstuffed and thin. There are plenty of globe-trotting action sequences, including a car chase on winding Italian mountain roads, a boat chase in Haiti and an inexplicable showdown in an empty, hydrogen-powered hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert, but because Bond's enemy is so ill-defined, the stakes are unclear, which makes it hard to invest too heavily in the outcome. It doesn't help that director Marc Forster stages the action with a marked lack of invention, the only exception being a poetic shootout at an opera house that still manages to evoke unwelcome memories of The Godfather Part 3.
Quantum tries to compensate for the lack of a compelling enemy or satisfying plot by focusing on James Bonds' struggle to come to terms with the death of Vesper. Daniel Craig is all coiled intensity and glowering rage, with most of the trademark Bond wit strangled by grief. Bond takes out all this pain on the world, one broken-necked goon at a time. In this film, Bond is absolutely no fun, but his emotional journey is not particularly interesting, either. Like the action scenes, it rings the same familiar tones of a host of other action films. Nothing about the character connects to the rich legacy of "James Bond." This includes the ostensible "Bond girl," Olga Kurylenko, who is far too obsessed with her own personal losses and revenge plans to pay Bond much romantic attention.
After the arc-ridiculousness and nancing-about of Pierce Brosnan, it was clear that the Bond films needed a revamp. Daniel Craig has made a capable, indeed bad-ass Bond, and brings a needed gravity and physical presence to the role. Two movies into his tenure, however, a disturbing trend has emerged. The ambitious plan to deepen the character of James Bond by giving him emotional baggage has, in Quantum of Solace, served to render Bond somewhat generic. The man punching his way across five time zones in this movie could be any number of wronged and broken vengeance-junkies to have graced cinema screens in the past few decades. At some points, he brings to mind the Punisher in a tuxedo instead of Kevlar. "Depth" is thought to be an objectively good thing for a film character to have, but James Bond is somewhat defined by his shallowness, his ironic detachment, his sang froid. Making him into a standard-issue revenge seeker drains him of that electrifying coolness that has made Bond such an indelible figure in popular culture. This grief-stricken James Bond knows how to brood like no other, but he's no longer a guy you'd want to have a vodka martini with. Dude would just bum you out.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Role Models is a strong bit of evidence that originality is not an essential ingredient to a successful film comedy. The plot is standard issue in every way. Two underachieving schlubs played by Paul Rudd get in trouble with the law and are forced into cour-ordered community service with a Big Brothers-type organization mentoring a couple of friendless outcasts. Rudd is paired with a Live Action Role Playing nerd played by McLovin himself, Christopher Minz-Plasse. Scott must contend with Bobb'e Thompson's hyperactive f-bomb machine. As you might have guessed, the guys bond with the kids, the kids bond with the adults, there is a third act complication, and by the end of the film, everyone has learned something about themselves. If you can't see every plot point coming a mile away, you've probably never seen a movie before. There's even the requisite double montage: an upbeat second act montage of the kids and adults getting closer, and a downbeat third act montage of sadness after the aforementioned complication. What makes Role Models special is that the third act montage features one of the most pants-wettingly funny sight gags in recent film memory.
For all the predictable plot mechanics, Role Models works because of the winning performances and chemistry of the actors. Paul Rudd subverts his usual shaggy charm by playing a bitter failure who projects his self-loathing through withering sarcasm and generalized misanthropy. All of which makes him a perfect foil for Sean William Scott, whose goofy affability is a perfect contrast with Rudd's seething resentment. The real comedy gold is watching them at work: they hawk a sickly green energy drink called Minotaur under the guise of conducting "anti-drunk" assemblies at high schools. No wonder Rudd loses it and crashes their goofy minotaur-shaped SUV into a statue. The dynamic between the leads and their "littles" is just as entertaining, making the by-the-numbers "getting to know you" sequences more fun than they have a right to be. Minz-Plasse's ernest, unironic enjoyment of medevial roleplaying games plays perfectly off of Rudd's ironic detachment, and one of the best parts of the film is watching Rudd's joylessness crumble in the face of unselfconscious fantasy play. Another highlight is the laid-back party boy Sean William Scott connecting with his hyperactive, pint-sized maniac over Kiss lyrics and the best way to subtly ogle the female boob. In a movie this dedicated to letting its characters breath and play off of each other to full comic effect, an original plot is not necessary. The predictable beats don't distract from the smooth transition from comic set-up to comic set-up. You don't want plot trickery, you just want to watch these people be funny.
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Judd Apatow has made a mint over the past few years producing comedies that follow a consistent template; indifferently directed tales of delayed adolescent man-children groping their way towards maturity and love while spouting filthy one-liners along the way. If that formula seems familiar, it’s because Kevin Smith practically invented it. Yet, while his films have consistently existed as mildly profitable niche entertainments, Apatow has taken Smith’s dude-centric cult sensibility and turned it into a string of mainstream mega-hits.
This is not a great injustice. Apatow produced films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked-Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are light-years better than most of Kevin Smith’s work. Smith’s raunchy dialogue tends to be awkward, stiff and fake-sounding, his direction is slipshod and the emotional interaction between his characters is over determined and superficial. Apatow movies are upgrades across the board. The improv-heavy dialogue is naturalistic in a way that Kevin Smith and his penchant for baroque diatribes could never reproduce. There is a vastly greater attention paid to cinematography and shot composition. Most significantly, the characters are more vibrant and relatable. Apatow took the slacker-ethos and gleeful crudeness of Clerks and Mallrats and gave it heart and poignancy.
Credit Kevin Smith for lack of ego. Instead of raging against a comedy poacher who found a way to turn his cinematic jalopy into a hot rod, Smith has observed the myriad ways that Apatow has fine-tuned his model and incorporated those changes into his new film Zach and Miri Make a Porno. The result is Kevin Smith’s funniest, most heartfelt and technically adept film in a long time.
Smith’s smartest decision is borrowing Apatow leading man Seth Rogen and casting him in the role of Zach. Rogen’s bombastic delivery gives Smith’s dialogue an organic feel that it usually lacks. Smith also seems to have finally grasped the fact that film techniques and editing can enhance character development.
The story concerns two slackers: Zach and Miri (Elizabeth Banks, looking way too put-together to be working at a mall in Pittsburgh), attempting to get a hold on their mountain of unpaid bills by making a porn film featuring themselves and marketing it to their former high school classmates. In the process, these Platonic roommates discover depths of feeling for each other they’d never admitted to themselves before. None of the romantic twist rate as original or particularly interesting. Still, the relationship resonates thanks to vulnerable performances from the leads. Even in the absence of an innovative plot the usual Kevin Smith parade of Byzantine sexual references prove consistently funny, especially since there is a context for all the raunch.
The frustration of watching Zach and Miri comes from seeing a whole host of comedic premises go undeveloped due to Smith’s choice to focus intently on the evolving relationship of the leads. The mainstreaming of pornography and the rise of amateur porn on the internet are subjects ripe for exploration. Instead of delving into them, Smith treats the porn set-up as a flimsy pretext for unleashing weapons-grade filth and putting his protagonists on a path towards love.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Anne Hathaway stars as Kym, a recovering drug addict on a weekend pass from rehab to attend the wedding of her sister, Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt). Over the course of three harrowing days of emotional combat, years of resentment and trauma rupture like ripe boils. Hathaway's Kym is an ego monster of epic proportions, an all-consuming narcissist whose drug-addled antics and rehab-fueled theatrics command the attention of every member of her family, then complains about the burden of such scrutiny. It's a fearless performance. Hathaway refuses to soften her character to gain audience sympathy, but she reveals enough vulnerability and pain to evoke pathos. For their own part, Kym's family, from her sister to her father (Bill Irwin) and her estranged mother (Debra Winger), do more than simply react to her shenanigans. Each one of them display a host of hang-ups, neuroses and weaknesses. Credit Jenny Lumet's tart, crisp script for presenting such a compelling menagerie of wounded characters imprisoned by their pasts and straining to free themselves. Tragically, the only people with the power to validate them are the same ones who bring their pain to the surface.
Witnessing all of this horrifying dysfunction, a sensible audience member could be excused for wondering why these people bother to maintain their relationships with one another. Lumet and Demme smartly leaven the bitterness by lingering on the moments of grace and affection that are just as much a staple of family gatherings as drunkenly hurled accusations. Demme films the rehearsal dinner and the wedding with a winning intimacy. He lets moments of affection, like a heartfelt toast or a raucous dance-off breath, and the on-screen joy proves infections. It reminds you why you put up with the endlessly frustrating people in your life.
These blissful spells prove fleeting relief, though. What lingers is acute awareness of the irreversible damage people do to the ones they love. Despite the relatively extreme nature of the family history on display in this movie, the dynamics of attraction and repulsion, redemption and resentment, are painfully recognizable. That bittersweet pang of familiarity gives Rachel Getting Married a lasting impact.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
One of the noblest and most quixotic missions an artist can undertake is to battle against this collective self-deception, to insist upon a true reckoning with our national crimes, weaknesses and hatreds. Unfortunately, mainstream film artists have generally been complete incompetents at this sort of thing. Take Vietnam; the only Hollywood film that was released during the Vietnam war that directly dealt with the conflict was John Wayne's study in right-wing delusion The Green Berets. In the decade after the war ended, Vietnam films flooded theaters, and almost to a one they described the war as a tragic mistake, with the most terrible suffering being endured by...the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Not the millions (MILLIONS!) of Vietnamese who were killed and wounded by American intervention, but the people who killed them. Hollywood has helped codify a collective memory of Vietnam that's rougly akin to Germans remembering World War Two as a time of great suffering by the brave Wehrmacht troops on the Eastern front.
So far, it's looking like the Vietnamization of our memory of Iraq will be aided and abbeded by moviemakers. Unlike during Vietnam, there have already been a number of movies made about the Iraq war while it is still ongoing; credit the 24 hour news cycle. Almost all of them have come at the conflict from the same vacuous, immoral position: whatever you think about the rightness of the war, it sure is hard to be a soldier! Maybe they're scared of being called "un-American," or maybe they just haven't thought about the war deeply enough to approach it with anything other than shopworn cliches that have held sway in war films since John Wayne took Iwo Jima. In any event, pretty much every movie to directly reference the war in Iraq that has come down the pike has been a mushy, pointless snoozefest.
It's a sadly predictable shame that War, Inc was uncerimonously dumped in a handful of theaters earlier this year before limping onto DVD. If all those apolitical Iraq war movies went down in flames, there was no sense in putting a lot of advertising behind an Iraq war movie that plays like Grosse Point Blank written by Naomi Klein. It's too bad, because War, Inc is the first film of the Iraq war to contain the appropriate outrage, passion, vision and fucking BALLS.
John Cusack, that commie, and his cinematic comrades-in-arms have crafted a pitch-black comedy that takes the insights of Klein's Shock Doctrine and stretches them just enough to push the privatized horrorshow of the Iraq war from tragedy to farce. In the near-future, the United States has occupied the mid/central Asian nation of Turaquistan, contracting the invasion and running of the country to a monstrous hybrid of Halliburton and Blackwater called Tamerlane. Cusack, playing an even-more-morose version of Martin Blank, is hired to assassinate a foreign oil minister whose pipeline plans endanger Tamerlane's dreams of energy hegenomy. Cusack's cover in Turaquistan is as an organizer for the trade show "Brand USA" which seeks to introduce the conquered populace to their shiny new future as vassals of corporate America. There are a host of pitch-perfect, bitterly funny jokes about the criminality and corruption of the Iraq invasion, but not many that you'd actually laugh at. More like wince at. Like a chorus line of Turaqi war victims with prosthetic legs made with the very same technology that blew off their real ones! This movie isn't perfect: it really does simply hijack the plot of Grosse Point Blank wholesale, and there are some byzantine soap opera twists that distract more than they enrich, but attention needs to be paid to a film with a real commitment to dramatizing the horror and absurdity that we have all been party to over the past five years.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
The film starts promisingly enough, as a young television reporter (Jennifer Carpenter) and her cameraman (Steven Harris) tag along with a couple of firefighters on an emergency call to a dungeon-like apartment building where an elderly woman has been screaming in her locked apartment. The atmosphere is creepy and realistic, and when the old lady starts biting people, it's genuinely unsettling. But once the military shows up to quarantine the building and the survivors start screaming and running around and getting infected and biting each other, the proceedings dissolve into an increasingly tedious bout of whack-a-zombie as infected people jump out of the dark at the protagonists with numbing frequency. When I needed to go to the bathroom near the end, I half-hoped that one of the characters would reach a save point and I could go grab some Milk Duds.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
W is Stone's most restrained film in many years, both visually and thematically. There are no randomly inserted mystical Native Americans, for one thing. Also absent are the overexposures, jump cuts and assorted gimmicks that comprise Stone's cinematic bag of tricks. The only time the old, wild Oliver Stone makes his presence known is in a sequence depicting W's conversion to evangelical Christianity. There are a lot of close-ups of blue-eyed Jesus and Bush's pastor, Earl Hund (Stacey Keach) praying fervently. Even this scene is devoid of the queasy, hallucinatory intensity of Stone at his most inspired. It's too bad, because without Stone's vivid personal stamp, W is a beige, by-the-numbers biopic content to touch on the highlights (and lowlights) of Bush's life while failing to offer any real insight. That born again conversion, which had such a tremendous effect on Bush's life and fate, carries no weight and makes no imprint on the rest of the film. It's just one more incident of import to be checked off the list before moving on.
Stone's interpretation of George Bush is as conventional as the presentation. Bush starts out as a charming, aimless hellraiser, crushed by the expectations and disappointments of his powerful father. After years of drinking and business failure, he is rescued, first by the love of Laura Walsh (Elizabeth Banks) and then by the love of Jesus Christ. Fueled by unresolved daddy issues, Christian fervor and his own innate charisma (with a little help from political operative Karl Rove, played with smarm to burn by Toby Jones), he takes the Texas state house, and then the White House. There, in the aftermath of 9/11, his subconscious need to one-up his father is yoked to the imperial fantasies of his Vice President (Richard Dreyfus, in the role he has aged to play) to launch a reckless invasion of Iraq. Along the way the audience is treated to a greatest hits collection of Bushisms, from "is our children learning" to the near-fatal encounter with the pretzel to the immortal "fool me once..." The combined effect is one of empathy cut with gentle mockery. Stone seems to be saying: Bush might not be bright, but he means well.
After two hours, that's not much to hang a movie, or an analysis of an eight year presidency, on. Still, there are more mundane pleasures to be had while watching W. Josh Brolin is funny and relatively subtle; he avoids caricature while still channeling Bush's most indelible mannerisms. Some of the behind-the-scenes machinations of Bush's war cabinet make riveting, horrifying viewing even if the overall sense is of drastic abridgement of crucial details by Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser.
The question that lingers after watching W is: since none of this is news to any person who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to politics for the past eight years, and it's hard to imagine why someone who hasn't paid attention to politics would watch a movie about George W. Bush, what exactly is the purpose of this movie? It may well be that making this movie is catharsis for Stone and company, a chance to cleanse the artistic palette of George Bush and all his attendant pathos and absurdity: a cinematic washing of hands before the dawning of a new political era. Whatever the motivation of the filmmakers, and whatever one thinks about Bush's legacy, his impact on the country and the world deserve a more thoughtful epitaph than this movie.
Thursday, October 09, 2008
Crusty Southern Authority Figure:
Barry Corbin and Noble Willingham
This character actor subgenre is dominated by two guys who are so similar in bearing and accent and head shape that they might as well be fused at the torso. The easiest way to keep them straight is to remember that Barry Corbin was on Northern Exposure and Noble Willingham was on Walker, Texas Ranger.
Pudgy Jewish Authority Figure:
Maury Chalkin and Saul Rubinek
As in the Crusty Southern catagory, the role of the older Jewish gentleman of position in any given movie is usually played by either Maury Chalkin, probably most well known as the cavalry officer is shoots himself in the beginning of Dances With Wolves or Saul Rubinek, who was famous gunned down while trying to buy a suitcase full of coke in True Romance.
WASPy Authority Figure:
James Rebhorn and Bob Gunton
So you want your mayonaise-eating district attorney or corporate bigwig to be tall and slender? That calls for the rawboned, hawkfaced badassery of James Rebhorn, whose highest rank in a film came when he played Bill Pullman's Secretary of Defense in Independence Day. If you're looking for more a stocky, fireplug of a man, but want to stick with the Mainline Protestant vibe, you can't go wrong with Bob Gunton, best known as the evil warden in Shawshank Redemption.
Vaguely Effeminate Authority Figure:
Stephen Tobolowsky and Jeffrey DeMunn
The word "vaguely" is pretty capacious in this case. Stephen Tobolowsky, ("You know, Ned....Ryerson!") is really quite effeminate, wearas Jeffrey DeMunn, who's been a bunch of movies, but never really in a notable way...um, he was the sheriff in the original Hitcher, is just slightly effeminate. I guess if you put both levels of effeminate together, they even out to "vaguely."
Mark Boone Jr and Richard Edson
Richard Edson is actually sort of well known for his roles in Jim Jarmusch movies, but he gets his most consistent work playing skeevy lowlives in Hollywood films like Strange Days. He always looks incredibly dirty and in the early stages of heroin withdrawl, which is a very good look when you're getting rousted by a cop played by, I dunno, Russell Crowe or somebody. Mark Boone Jr is known basically for being a guy who shows up in a lot of movies as an unwashed scumbag looking like a chubby Tom Waits. He was Gordon's crooked partner in Batman Begins.
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
The story of Tae Kwan Do instructor Fred Simmons, played by co-writer Danny McBride, who is coming off of a monster year in which he was the funniest thing about the two biggest comedies of the summer, Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder, and his struggle to come to grips with his wife's freely dispensed handjobs, has some of the DIY vibe of Napoleon Dynamite, mixed with the existential bleakness of Your Friends and Neighbors. The film is loosely assembled, episodic and largely plotless. More importantly, there is very little in the way of character development. Fred Simmons is a preening dick at the start of the film, and slightly concussed preening dick at the end. In the context of the movie, these aren't really demerits; if the filmmakers had tried to affix a redeeming character arc to their collection of brutal, awkward-comedy vignettes, it would look like a cheap concession to audience expectations. As it stands, the defiantly unsympathetic characters and stunted emotional growth give the proceedings a sense of tactile reality. You don't get the sense of smart-ass filmmakers mocking a bunch of karate-chopping crackers. Rather, it feels like a rancid, sad but bitterly hilarious slice of life culled from experience. The last shot of the movie is a freeze frame of Fred Simmons looking defiantly, yet stupidly into the middle distance. The look on his face brings to mind a line from American Psycho: "this confession has meant nothing." Coming on the heels of ninety minutes of failure and obvliousness and deadly killing systems, the moment is a dark comment on the American psyche. Plus, there seriously high-level comedy in this movie, most of it of the squirm-inducing variety. Not to mention all of those delicious dialogue nuggets that you can hold onto for use at the perfect moment...like during a gang-rape situation.
Monday, September 15, 2008
That premise is on glorious display in the brother's new movie. Two gym employees, the stupid-but-joyful Chad (played by Brad Pitt) and the stupid-and-desperate-for-money-to-pay-for-an-extreme-makeover Linda (Francis McDormand), stumble across a computer disk full of gobbledegook from the harddrive of a recently fired CIA analyst played with vertigious arrogance and seething rancor by John Malkovich. Their bone-headed attempts to extort the analyst and/or sell the "raw intelligence shit" on the open market ripple through the Georgetown townhouses of government middle management, ensnaring, among others, George Clooney's federal marshal, who brings a welcome addition to the Coen cavalcade of character types. Stupid and greedy, meet stupid and horny.
Not to sound too much like Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale, but Burn After Reading is decidedly minor Coens. None of the characters (save Malkovich) make an impression beyond their outsized comic stupidity. The performances are generally amusing. Clooney, in particular, seems to have perfected portraying "smug and oblivous." Brad Pitt is the exception, giving a painfully labored attempt at carefree vapidity that leaves you swearing you can see the flop sweat glistening in his pompadour. The farcical plot machinations lack any sense of forward momentum, with the clockwork seeming to wind down rather than speed to a satisfying conclusion. Part of this is by design: the comedy comes from observing the vast chasm between what the individual characters think is going on and what the audience knows is going on. What seems world historic to them is laughably slight to the observer. But the ramshackle plot reinforces the sense that the whole movie is an undercooked goof, a chance for the Coens to put on screen some random bits of comic business that wouldn't fit in any other project.
Still, it's a wonder that even when the Coens are sipmly having fun with genres and over-the-top mugging by A-list stars, they still manage to inject toss-offs like Burn After Reading or The Ladykillers with a singular, and singularly cynical, worldview. McDormand's character in particular has a tragic edge to her bufoonishness. Her single-minded pursuit of life-altering plastic surgery is what starts off the whole bloody debacle, and there is a great sadness in this that McDormand smartly suggests between her moments of thundering stupidity. Linda Lipske wants to be loved, and only way she thinks that is going to happen is if she mutilates herself into a grotesque parody of the women she sees on television. Like all the ill-fated dim-bulbs who come to grief while scrambling for money in Coen brothers movies, she's making a desperate grab for a cruelly illusory and wholey destructive American dream. Give it up to the Coens: whether it's Granny Smith or carmel-coated, the apple always has a razor in it.
Saturday, September 06, 2008
September should be a better month for films, what with the Coen brothers laying the smack. I'm also going to post more random crap and lists and such. I don't want to lose you people.
Monday, August 18, 2008
It's too bad, because there are some really good gags in here, they're just buried under two movie's worth of creaky plot machinations and tonal whiplash. Tropic Thunder is instructive, though, on how not to do an action comedy. Coming on the heels of the deft and witty Pineapple Express, it illuminates the difference between scenes that work as comedy and as action, and scenes that recycle dumb action film cliches. Still, there were at least three moments of explosive laughter and several more solid chuckles strewn throughout, so that's something.
Monday, August 11, 2008
In what is in many ways the most ambitious production yet to come out of Apatownia, Seth Rogen and writing partner Evan Golberg have written an action comedy about potheads on the run. Action, unlike comedy, is very much a director's genre and it's to the great credit of Apatow and company that they were aware enough of the limitations of their inert, sitcomy house style to look outside of their fraternity for a director. David Gordon Green's directing job on Pineapple Express is a remarkable balancing act. For the most part, he sticks to unobtrusive two camera set-ups that allow Seth Rogen, playing a process server who witnesses a murder, and James Franco, his constantly-baked pot dealer, to play off of each other in a relationship that deepens as the film progresses, while still featuring tons of truthful, funny moments. When it comes to the action sequences, Green tightens his grip on the material, delivering some genuine ass-kicking scenes while maintaining a light tone, like Walter Hill with a smaller dick. He even finds a few moments to indulge in the sort of charming, time-out-of-time reveries that mark his previous efforts like All the Real Girls.
The story is a by-now-familiar Apatowian bromantic comedy, with Rogen realizing that the pot dealer he had previously kept at arms length is really the best friend he has in the world. What makes the film distinctive is the action movie gloss. Like last year's Hot Fuzz, Pineapple Express satirizes the conventions of action movies while simultaneously providing plenty of earnestly awesome action movie fun. The self awareness of the characters is what makes the comedy. Not only are the stoned schlubs on display wholly unfit for action hi jinx, they know that they are hopelessly out of their element, giving the shootouts, car chases, and fight scenes an absurd edge. At the same time all these ridiculous action hysterics are staged with a riotous energy that works together with the reaction shots and pained awkwardness to heighten the comedy and the excitement. This synergy is on perfect display in a fight scene between Franco and Rogen and a drug dealer played by Danny McBride that is both goofy and undeniably badass. The self awareness extends beyond the characters: late in the film there's a bit of shamelessly raunchy physical comedy between Rogen and Franco that parodies the latent homoeroticism of the buddy action genre, but also dramatizes the logical endpoint of the Apatowian bromance.
Monday, August 04, 2008
First, the similarities. Unlike the other superhero films of the year, Iron Man and The Dark Knight both feature superheroes who have no superpowers. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne can't fly or punch through walls or deflect bullets with their skin. They're just a couple of dudes with billions of dollars and some technological savvy. Mark Cuban could probably join them if he wanted to. The lack of superpowers grounds both movies in the real world, making the issues raised by them more practical than airily hypothetical. The political themes are more pronounced, and easier to contrast between the two movies: you could imagine Iron Man and the Batman coexisting the same universe...ours.
Now, to the differences. They boil down to this: Iron Man is an exuberant celebration of the potential world changing good that can be accomplished by a righteous billionaire with a robotic suit. The Dark Knight, on the other hand, calls into question the very idea of costumed vigilantism. If, as is the custom, we take these superheroes as stand-ins for American force, then their radically different takes on the efficacy of superheroism reflects a divergent view of the role of America in the world.
Iron Man is essentially a fantasy of American techno-competence as the solution to world problems. Sort of like a Tom Clancy novel with more character development. Tony Stark uses his wits and resources to create a device, the Iron Man suit, that can act with the sort of precision and stealth that the American military is incapable of. As such, he can zip into messy conflict zones like Afghanistan, take out a bunch of insurgents and not worry that he might accidentally blow up a wedding party, as the Air Force tends to do over there on a monthly basis. The film revels in the awesome amount of good a well-intentioned high tech ass-kicker can accomplish. It's a post-9-11 neocon dream of American facility, purpose and effectiveness.
Iron Man's sense of giddy possibility and thrilling exertion of power started the summer movie season off with an adrenaline jolt. After two months of superhero films that dwelt more with the personal angst, isolation and burden of being a superhero, it's fitting that the bookend to Iron Man is a movie that challenges the legitimacy of the sort of extra-legal wrong-righting in which Iron Man revels.
Some people have criticized (or praised, depending on their political views), The Dark Knight for endorsing the Bush administration philosophy of the "war on terror."* Gotham (America) faces a terrorist threat that cannot be reasoned with in the form of the Joker (Al Qaeda) and Batman (Bush) has to ignore legal niceties in order to protect the citizenry. This ignores the fact that the "transcendent threat" (as John McCain would call it) of the Joker is conjured up by the very presence of Batman in Gotham! He's essentially blowback created by Batman's extralegal and audacious war on Gotham's criminal underworld. Moreoever, Bruce Wayne realizes that his role as a vigilante hero is not a long term solution to the problems of Gotham's corruption. That's one of the reasons he seizes on Harvey Dent as the potential savior of Gotham; he's a man of Batman's principles working within the law, because only a white knight can put Gotham on a stable footing. Batman's nighttime shenanigoats will only encourage Gotham's criminals to escalate their violence and inspire more and more sociopaths to put on their own costumes and match Batman's outsized heroism with outsized villainy. This is what puts the lie to Dark Knight-as-paean-to-Chenyism interpretation of the film: not only is Batman indirectly to blame for the terrifying specter of the Joker, his methods are inherently destabilizing of society, no matter how much short term benefit they might have in stopping the killer that his presence inspired in the first place. And, it's important to remember that, if you want to take the Dark Knight characters and transport them to the current political arena, Bush's equivalent isn't Batman, it's Harvey Dent. He's an elected leader, sworn to uphold the law and work within the established system. One thread that runs throughout the film is that the methods of the Batman are absolutely off limits to Dent if Gotham is to be saved. Bush's contempt for due process and constitutional protections would disgust Dent, and Batman for that matter. The Joker's successful attempt to push Dent over the edge of legality and sanity is his ultimate victory, and Batman's cover-up of Dent's descent into madness is a sad and dirty compromise that merely buys he and Jim Gordon time to allow Gotham to recover from the trauma of the Joker's reign of terror. Remember, the Joker was only drawn into the realm of theatrical criminality by the Batman's own attempt to shape the Gotham imagination with symbols and propaganda of the deed. It all leaves the viewer with a lingering sense that it might have been better for everyone if Bruce Wayne had just tried to buy the Cubs or something.
Leaving the theater after The Dark Knight, on the heels of a slew of movies featuring disillusioned superheroes who have to fight the urge to kill every puny human they see, the joy of consequence free humanitarian ass-kicking that buzzes through Iron Man has been fully stomped out. To once again bust out a geopolitical analogy: Iron Man is the invasion of Afghanistan (up to November 2001, anyway) and The Dark Knight is the invasion of Iraq (up to right this second).
*"War on Terror" is a copyrighted slogan of BushCo and is not an actual war.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
I've long wondered why movie studios create their own superheroes rather than exclusively mine comic books for their material. A successful original superhero film would be a potential billion dollar franchise with no need to split the take with DC or Marvel. Hancock helps answer that question: the problem with creating a superhero out of whole cloth is the insurmountable challenge of introducing the movie going public to a brand new character, brand new powers, and a brand new creation myth while still providing your standard rousing action plotting. Hancock struggles with this problem throughout, hinting at a dense back story, but relying on blunt exposition that is at the same time overly explicit and maddeningly vague.
On top of all this, Hancock also tries to do the superhero deconstruction thing. This charges the film with the task of simultaneously building a fully realized superhero world while subverting it at the same time. It's a daunting mission for any filmmaker, not least Peter Berg, the poorer man's Tony Scott. The film fails for the most part, leaving a collection of interesting ideas that never develop or cohere. Every attempt to make sense of the muddy mythology just raises more questions, but not in a "let's deepen the mystery" way, more of a "boy, this is some annoying, scatterbrained mishmash," way.
Ignoring all the silly Hancock-orgin myth shenanigoats, the film asks some interesting questions: how would an all-powerful being deal with the essential isolation of his condition, how would the American public really react to the latent threat of an uncontrollable omnipotence in their midst? Answering these questions lead into some fresh, funny terrain before the film disappears up its own ass in the third act. Will Smith tempers his inherent Will Smithyness with some angst and a slight edge of menace. Jason Batemen is gold as always. Charlize Theron is...tanorexic. I just wish the filmmakers had concentrated their efforts on the stuff that they clearly had a good handle on, like Hancock's struggle to relate respectfully to people who he could kill with a flick of the wrist, rather than trying to tease out a sludgy miasma of character histories and undercooked relationships.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
How do you respond to a malevolence such as this? That's the central question of Christopher Nolan's film, easily the best movie every made about the usually farcical or dull world of costumed superheroes. Like the best film of 2007, No Country For Old Men, The Dark Knight explores how people choose to engage with an absurd universe ruled by random chance and casual cruelty.
Bruce Wayne deals with the guilt, pain and fear that accompany such an existence by creating "the Batman," a heavily armored crimefighter without guilt, fear or pain. He escapes from the powerlessness of life by embodying omnipotence. He escapes from the meaningless of life by dedicating himself to one cause with total focus: justice and the meting out of said. In the short term, this means jumping from rooftops and striking fear into the Gotham criminal element through the liberal application of fists, batarangs, and keen detective work. In the long term, this means inspiring the citizens of Gotham through his example to live honestly within the system they profess to uphold. If cops would stop taking bribes and start taking down gangsters, Batman would be able to ride off into the sunset...if he could bear it. In the meantime, Batman can work out his demons by tuning up the demimonde. The cost of all this power and purpose is alienation and unresolvable internal conflict. Batman fights to defend the system, but he breaks the law with every ride in the Batmobile (no way is that thing street legal). His most important goal is to make Gotham's criminal justice bureaucrats honest guardians of the public trust, but his liaison with the Gotham Police Department requires Lt. Jim Gordon to ignore the law by failing to apprehend him. This conflict, coupled with the oppressive secret that Bruce Wayne must carry with him every day, make him utterly isolated from the system and the city he loves. It also keeps him from the woman he loves, Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes, forcefully played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who knows his secret identity, and who refuses to be with him as long as "Bruce Wayne," the man she loves, is merely a front for the Batman.
When non-caped crusader District Attorney Harvey Dent takes office (and starts dating Rachel), with a promise to clean up Gotham using proper legal channels, Bruce Wayne sees the chance to retire his cowl for good. But not if the Joker has anything to say about it.
Most of the time in films, comic book villains seem to wear silly costumes for no more reason than...that's what villains in comic books DO. Heath Ledger's Joker is a different breed. Every sinister giggle, every guttural snarl, every nauseating lick of the lips, show the audience what the face paint and motley mean. For the Joker, every concept of humane behavior, from love to honor to dignity, and every human institution, is a fraud, a hideous joke people play on each other and on themselves. But nobody acknowledges this, and the Joker's mission is to let as many people in on the joke as he can. Ledger channels the manic nihilism of the character through a live-wire intensity and a parade of textured tics and vocal mannerisms, transforming him from a mere symbol of anarchy into a nightmare made flesh. The Joker is made even more compelling by the fact that he has a good point. Who among us hasn't been sickened by society's smug hypocrisy? There's a perverse pleasure in watching him torment pillars of righteousness like Dent, Gordon and Batman, using their principles as weapons against them, forcing them to reconcile the essential paradoxes of their natures through the gleeful application of savagery.
All of this angst and moral ambiguity plays out through a dizzying action plot that features some of the most purely entertaining and unnerving sequences in the Batman canon. the intensely focused performances of Ledger, Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart as Dent are matched by a dread-soaked atmosphere, propulsive direction, and a canny editing choices. Crucial events happen offscreen, forcing the audience to piece things together as they go. It enhances the Joker's seeming omnipresence and the sense that Gotham is slowly succumbing to chaos. A prominent feature of the film's score is a unbroken, atonal note that sings in the background whenever the Joker is about the strike. It's deliciously unsettling, and it reflects the nature of the movie as a whole: it's one long, sustained note of heightened tension and fear, with no prospect of release, even as the credits role. Similarly, the movie channels anxieties about terrorism and the ethical response to it without offering the comfort of resolution or pat answers. It's all accumulated tension, the only catharsis available in the amazing action scenes, with the knotty philosophical and personal questions left unanswered. You laugh, your jaw goes slack on numerous occasions, and you actually think a little bit.
The Dark Knight is a singular achievement; a comic book movie that treats its subject seriously, deftly develops characters, oozes relevance and still delivers the action and iconography that the genre demands. Ang Lee and Bryan Singer, let it be known: you are Christopher Nolan's bitches for all eternity.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Seven hundred years after humanity abandons a trash-strewn, poisoned earth, Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Model, or "Wall-E," carries out his mission of turning massive piles of garbage int compact, orderly cubes, long after the rest of his robotic comrades have powered down. Hundreds of years of rooting through the detritus of civilization has given Wall-E an intimate knowledge of society, and his mimicry of human behavior has morphed, over time, into the makings of an authentic personality. Part of that personality is a yearning for interpersonal connection that explodes into intense longing when a hovering, ipod-like probe called EVE arrives on earth searching for signs of organic life. Neither robot can speak, so their tentative courtship is dramatized in wordless rituals, the boiled-down essence of romantic bonding. The result is rarest sort of cinematic alchemy, scenes that are involving, funny, and most impressively, offer insights into just what it means to be human, what we need from other people, and how we go about loving them.
As if it weren't enough that Wall-E offers soul-stirring transcendent peons to love, there's also powerfully hilarious satire of corporate stupefaction when the 'bots end up running around on the massive cruise ship in space where earthlings have been living since the environment death of earth. The image of morbidly obese, unitarded folks zipping around obliviously on hover-chairs along lighted pathways, drinking their dinners from giant cups, surrounded by a blur of video screens is cutting and funny in the bittersweet way of knife-trenchant observation. In between moving scenes of Wall-E and EVE and Pixar's particular brand of frothy, kinetic comedy, Stanton and company put together a bracing critique of modern techo-complacency and a rousing call for all of us to renew and enrich our relationships with each other and the world around us.
All of these subtly evocative touches of humanity and piercing social commentary, have a cumulative effect that makes the film's climax wrenching and harrowing and finally blissfully life-affirming. It's a singular accomplishment: a mass audience blockbuster that conveys a authentic emotions, a poignant call to conscience living, and the sheer power to leave the audience with a heightened sense of what it means to love and be loved.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Pan's Labyinth explored the idea of fairy tale creatures living secretly amongst humans. Hellboy 2 takes that premise and runs with it in audacious directions. One of the chief deficiencies of Pan's Labyrinth was best articulated by my good friend and retired archduke John Muther, "not enough monsters." Hellboy 2 corrects that with gusto. Pan's Labyrinth has a dude with two eyes on his hands. Hellboy 2 has a dude with, like, 30 eyes on his...wings! That's the main gag in Hellboy 2: taking Pan's Labyrinth's secret fairy folk and pumping them full of steroids, creating an unstoppable parade of magnificently inventive beasts. Del Toro's aim with all these impeccable CGI creations (and they really are impeccable- the creatures are all part of a seamless universe where the spell is never broken) is to ask the question: what if Tolkein's Middle Earth (or an off-brand facsimile of same) coexisted alongside the modern world? It's a gripping idea that pays off spectacularly in a few scenes: particularly the sequence where Hellboy blows the head off of a giant tree god and a corner of the Lower East Side slowly turns into a garden as the monster dissolves into moss and flowers. That one scene is a more poignant, majestic expression of Del Toro's vision of fairy tale wonder interacting with the mundane familiar than anything in Pan's Labyrinth. Unfortunately, Del Toro chose to shoehorn his personal vision inside the established framework of the Hellboy universe, which just doesn't have room for it. As a result, the fairy tale elements end up fighting for screentime with the same stale schtick and well worn conflicts that animated the first film: Hellboy struggles to come to terms with his uniqueness in the world, Hellboy fights with his bosses, Hellboy agonizes over his relationship with firestarter Liz Sherman, Hellboy cracks wise all over the place.
For all the wow moments, and there are more than a couple, Hellboy 2 never really comes together because Del Toro's world and the prefabricated Hellboy world fail to gel. This is a common pitfall when directors with ambition and a strong viewpoint tactle comic book fare. It's difficult for even the canniest director to avoid getting tangled up in the broad characters, inherently ridiculous dialogue and unavoidably clunky exposition that the genre requires. Still, even a mixed effort like Hellboy 2 contains more than enough eye candy and pathos to make me thankful that dudes like Del Toro are still willing to make a go of it.
Monday, July 07, 2008
Glory and God's and Generals
The American Civil War: a crusade to abolish the wicked institution of slavery and assert to equality of all men, or a noble stand by god fearing Southern patriots intent on seeing their precious folkways unsullied by foreign interlopers? It's a debate that has defined the terms of discussion of the Civil War era, and you can play along at home by sitting down to watch these two films one after the other. Ed Zwick's Glory tells the story of the all-black 54th Massachusetts volunteers, who distinguished themselves in battle during the struggle for Charleston. The centrality of slavery to the cause of the war is never questioned as the soldiers work their way from being a ragtag collection of ex-slaves to a lethal fighting force intent on destroying the institution that largely defined their destinies. By the time the 54th sees action, the Confederate soldiers may as well have horns for all the hatred and violence they represent. Ronald Maxwell's Gods and Generals, on the other hand, gives the viewer four and a half hours of footage of pious, honorable Southern generals, including Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as they assert their righteous duty to defend their homeland. The only black folk in the film are Jackson's loyal servants, who of course, love him like a father and sho don't cotton to none of that "freedom" foolishness. Now, I'm hugely biases against the Confederacy in all things, but if you watch these films back-to-back and aren't fully convinced of the awfulness of the southern cause, then you, my friend, must be a huge fan of horrible, horrible movies and incredibly fruity musical interludes.
Signs and Independence Day
Things these two movies have in common: they're both about alien invasions, and they're both movies. That's about it. Independence Day is an epic action film that jumps across the country and the world, documenting the impact of a massive alien attack that leaves most of Earth's major cities destroyed. Signs is an intimate thriller about one families reaction to a mysterious, slowly escalating series of alien encounters, culminating in an alien attack on their home. The aliens in Independence Day use moon-sized death ships and lazer canons. The aliens in Signs use their bare hands and the poison gas that their hands emit. Independence Day seeks to capture the global sweep of such a crisis, while Signs wants to show how a small group of people, cut off from that bigger picture, make sense of the terrifying changes around them and seek to cope. There's even a subtle but significant difference in the two film's political visions. Independence Day makes a Franklin Roosevelt-style case for a robust government response to the catastrophic. Whether it's a Depression, a world war, or a genocidal alien invasion, there's nothing folks can't overcome if they work together under the inspiration of a charismatic leader. Signs displays a more Reagan-esque take on the efficacy of collective action: when the shit hits the fan, the government won't be there to help, not even your neighbors. It'll just be your family and your faith to get you through the night.
Kelly's Heroes and Three Kings
These two films take the same premise: soldiers in the waning days of a war sneak behind enemy lines to steal a bunch of gold, and spin subversive, seriocomic tales out of them. What's interesting is the different ways the two films are subversive. Three Kings, one would think, should be the more cynical of the two. It's directed by indie stalwart and crazy-person David O. Russell, makes a biting critique of American cynicism and self-righteousness during the first Gulf War and features some dazzling cinematography and use of unconventional film stock. Yet, the character arcs of the protagonists in Three Kings is utterly conventional: they set out to steal some gold, and after witnessing the horrors of Saddam's post-war suppression of the Shi'ite rebels, they discover their consciences and learn to fight for something bigger than themselves. Kelly's Heroes, made in 1970, featuring Clint Eastwood, and helmed by a dude whose last directing job was an episode of the show Archer before quitting Hollywood to become a plumber, manages to blow the doors off of a whose slew of war movie cliches. When Kelly and his band of misfits rush ahead of the Allied forces during the German collapse in WWII, they are wholly focused on nabbing a bunch of Nazi gold from a bank in France. And, as the film progresses, they stay completely focused on nabbing a bunch of Nazi gold from a bank in France. There is no soul searching, no devotion to country or a burning need to rid the world of Fascism. In fact, you get the distinct impression that if these guys knew about a stash of gold in a British bank, they wouldn't hesitate to try and steal it. These guys are the GREATEST GENERATION, the citizen soldiers who saved the world, and in Kelly's Heroes, they may as well be the James gang. Plus, the tank commander, played by Donald Sutherland, is a hippie...a hippie in World War Two! That'll rescrew your carburetor.
The Blob and The Blob
The original Blob from 1958 features a giant red Jell-o mold from outer space that devours everything in a small mountain town. It's a classic piece of cold war sci-fi, in which the threat of an external, homogenizing force is symbolized by a destructive alien. The 1988 remake, on the other hand, is a angst-riddled scream from alienated liberals trapped in Reagan's America. Here, the creature, much more viscous and prone to dissolving the flesh off of people's bones, is created as a result of covert military experiments in space, and government scientists want to capture it for use as a weapon. The other villain in the piece is a crazed millennial preacher who sees the blob as man's just punishment for his wickedness, and seeks to save it so that it can fulfill its divine purpose.