Wednesday, March 26, 2008

2007 DVD Review: Southland Tales

This movie pissed me off. Yeah, I understand that the proper reaction to Richard Kelly's colossal fiasco is supposed to be either bemused admiration for the director's mad vision or unabashed admiration for a misunderstood classic. Fuck that. Richard Kelly doesn't get a free pass to waste millions of dollars and thousands of feet of film just because he's got such a goddamn baroque vision that he can't be bothered to make something coherent or vital. Given the resources and concept at hand, Kelly could have easily made a compelling, provocative film that pointedly confronts the pathologies of American war culture. Instead, we get two and a half hours of muddled turgidity because if it made any sense, it wouldn't be deep, man. Hell, I could even forgive the incoherence if the whole thing weren't so damned leaden. Kelly claims that you've got to watch this thing a bunch of times (and presumably read the massive graphic novel prequel) in order to "get" it, but who would want to slog through most of this stuff again? For a movie that attempts to immerse the viewer in a slightly tweaked reality where nuclear attacks on American soil have turned the country into a sex-crazed, decaying police state, the proceedings are notably joyless. The pacing is slack and disjointed, the actors all seem to be whacked out on thorazine, and even the action scenes limp along like sick dogs. It's a wonder that these zombies can even find the strength to lift a gun, let alone fire one.

This problem is due to the fact that there are two movies here having a subtextual battle royale for the soul of Kelly and the viewer. One movie is a knowingly ridiculous sci-fi parody/satire, sort of a politically-charged Buckeroo Bonzai (when the Rock starts talking about sending monkeys through a tear in the fourth dimension, I was on the lookout for John Lithgow to pop up, yelling about the Overthruster). The other movie is a mopey, abstract metaphysical rumination in the vein of Kelly's first film, Donnie Darko. The two visions clash like Shiites and Sunnis. The intentionally goofy science fiction twists make it impossible to take the existential mutterings seriously, and the lethargic pace and solemn tone drain all of the fun out of the zany fourth dimensional monkey shenangians. Either film could have worked, and that is why watching Southland Tales pissed me off so much: there's a whole lot of potential squandered here. Kelly is attuned to America's cultural sickness like few directors are, and there are frustratingly brief glimpses of the masterpiece that could have been that pop up once a reel or so. Most notably, there's the oft-referenced musical number where Justin Timberlake, as a disfigured Iraq war vet, lip synchs to a Killers song while surrounded by dancing pin-up girls. Most reviews point the scene, either condeming it for being a pointless non sequitur, or praising it for being so unexpected and memorable. It is, indeed, a memorable non sequirtur, but it's also one of the most poignant dramatizations of the mind-space of a damaged Iraq war veteran I've seen since that imperial horrorshow began. Timberlake moves confidently across an arcade, in a sea of shimmying sex kittens, his posture full of bravado and laciviousness, undercut by the blood on his shirt, the lyrics to All These Things That I've Done blaring on the soundtrack, and the haunted look behind his eyes. This moment captures the aggressive drive to assert masculinity that propels young men to prove themselves on the fields of battle, as well as the regret and self-loathing that comes after seeing what really happens there. Kelly seems to think that if he can hit a sweet note every half hour or so, he'll keep the audience from walking out and they'll leave the theater at the very least giving him props for his vision. We can't hold the hamfisted voiceover, the failed thefts from David Lynch, or the deadend plot lines against him: that's the price you pay for basking in the challenging genuis of Richard Kelly. Well, I do hold all the dumb stuff in the movie against him. In fact, I hold the transcendently great moments against him, too: with more disicipline and focus, Kelly could have put together a powerful zeitgeist-channelling classic. Instead, Kelly just threw everything he had against the celluloid and filmed what stuck.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

MYOFNF #11: The Wages of Fear (dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

Watching this intense existential suspense film about vagbond ex-patriates in a South American backwater driving highly unstable nitroglycerine through dangerous mountain passes, one thing that jumps out is the brilliant use of sound. While most films made during this period (and most made nowadays, actually) tend to punch up moments of tension with a bombastic or manipulative score, The Wages of Fear creates unbearable tension with no external soundtrack whatsoever. It's amazing that so few filmmakers have figured out what Henri-George Clouzot knew in the early fifties: silence, or the rhythmic beats of nature, heightens tension far more than an artificial musical accompanyment. This film is chock full of rivetting sequences and its definitely one of the most purely entertaining film I've watched for this project, but its also filled with clear-eyed commentary on capitalism, masculinity, and death.

Monday, March 17, 2008


According to the bible, "ye know neither the day nor the hour" when the end shall come. Civilization could perish in the rising sea levels of global warming, the explosion of a supervolcano under Yellowstone park, a bird flu pandemic, and, maybe, just maybe, a zombie uprising. One thing is for certain: if Hollywood is to be believed, whoever survives the apocalypse will be wearing a mohawk an assless chaps. Neil Marshall's Doomsday takes its visual cues from a bevy of earlier, better films about the end of the world. The mascara-wearing biker punks seem to have stepped directly off of the set of a Mad Max sequel, maybe after a stop off with the folks from Escape from New York.

The recycling don't stop with the costumes and set direction. The plot, characters and action set pieces are all lifted wholesale from previous entries in the End Times cinema pantheon. For ease of use, the all cliches have been highlighted. In the near future, Scotland has been quarantined for a generation to prevent the spread of a deadly, highly contagious virus. When the same virus breaks out in London, a hotshot loner cop who plays by her own rules (Rohna Mitra) is ordered by corrupt and untrustworthy government officials to lead a ragtag crew of military misfits into Scotland in search of a cure. Once there, she is captured and tortured by a gang of Sex Pistols concertgoers, and is eventually forced to fight to the death before a crowd of cheering spectators.

Beyond the distractingly derivative formula, there's some annoyingly good stuff in Doomsday: annoying because it makes it impossible to write the movie off completely. Marshall, who directed The Descent, one of the best horror films of the past twenty years, knows how to put together an action sequence that is faced paced while still being coherent. (Michael Bay, take notes) There are moments of deadpan humor and cheekily irreverent gore that stay with you. One scene in particular; a combination barbeque pit/mosh pit celebration put on by the aforementioned Sex Pistols concertgoers, reaches delirious heights of tastlessness and hysteria. The themes of plague, urban overcrowding and government indifference are all off-the-moment, but the movie doesn't stay in one place for long enough for any of these things to really sink in. Instead, the film skips from one uninspired scene to another before ending with an arbritary car chase climax straight out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Doomsday shows a few flashes of the visual deftness that made The Descent an instant classic, but most of the running time wishing Lord Humungus or Master Blaster would show up and kill everybody.

Funny Games

The question that arises while watching Michael Haneke's thriller Funny Games is: why? Not, 'why make a movie about sadistic young home invaders tormenting an upper class family that indicts the audience for watching it and seeks to make the proceedings as repellent as possible?' That's the question that arises while watching Haneke's original German-language version of Funny Games from 1997. This time, the question is: 'why make your English-language film debut with a shot-for-shot remake of your most controversial film?' By way of an answer, I offer two words: George Sluizer.

In 1988, George Sluizer directed a thriller in his native Netherlands called Spoorloos. It's a chilling tale of sociopathology and free will that features one of the most haunting finales in genre film history. It made such an impression on the film community that Hollywood producers threw a bunch of money at Sluizer to make an American remake, 1994's The Vanishing. This film, unlike the original, has an ending that is haunting only for its insulting stupidity. Everything that made the original a memorable experience was obliterated in the name of delivering a "happy" conclusion that would leave audiences mollified. Haneke's remake is a ringing declaration to American film producers and film goers: he ain't going out like that.

Beneath the conventional thriller trappings, Funny Games is about the nature of film representations of violence and the ceaseless demand for it in movies. It was a relevant theme for European audiences in the mid-90s, and its even more pertinent for American film viewers who have made the Saw franchise a cultural phenomenon. Haneke makes his point in the most direct way possible: the vile tormentors turn at several points to face the camera and address the audience, making the viewer an accomplice in the on-screen horrors. The technique is preachy and self-righteous, but it's hard to criticize Haneke too much because of the rigor of his approach and the indelible power of his restrained, elegant shot compositions. Most filmmakers seeking to criticize film violence end up wallowing in hypocrisy by filling the screen with the same bloody images the director decries. Haneke mostly keeps the violence and nudity, you know, the "good stuff," that we as an audience have paid to see, off screen. What he leaves in front of the camera is all of the personal pain, terror and anguish that inevitably accompanies violence in real life, but which is usually left out of film depictions of it. These scenes are hard to watch, but Haneke's refusal to cut away from such moments of distress make them hypnotizing, and shamefully compelling. The viewer finds, to their great unease, that even the nasty aftermath of bloodshed holds its own dark allure. Haneke's strength as a filmmaker is not so much his worldview as his Kubrickian mastery of spaces and framing, which make even his most heavyhanded intellectual experiments, of which Funny Games is surely one, sickly fascinating. Haneke might be a prude, or he might be a visionary, but one way or another his films pack a wallop, and he's here to stay.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

2007 DVD Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has all the hallmarks of a 70s-style revisionist western: a langorous pace, moral ambiguity, an emphasis on anti-heroes, and hyper-awareness of the natural world. Also, like most revisionist westerns, it takes as its subject the death of the frontier, but does so in an ingenious fashion. While movies like Heaven's Gate trace the decline of American freedom to the capitalist commodification of western spaces, director Andrew Dominik, working from Ron Hansen's novel, focus on the culture of the West: according to these filmmakers, the West began to die when it started to become self-aware. This point is illustrated by the two main characters. Jesse James (Brad Pitt), the aging folk hero trapped by the expectations of his own legandary exploits, and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), James' proto-stalker who is obsessed with James while also yearning to take his place. In both cases, the mythology of the western outlaw has overpowered either character's ability to really claim the freedom offered by the expanses of the frontier.

Even though Affleck was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor, the movie truly belongs to him. Pitt is excellent as James; he coaxes layers of melancholy, playfulness and savagery out of the part, but when the screen goes black it's Robert Ford who resonates. His pathological need for validation and acknowledgment is a harbinger of our modern sickness of celebrity worship. Afflec fawns and stammers over James whenever they interact, but he also loathes James for occupying the exhalted position he himself craves more than air. It's a powerful performance, and it actually contributes to one of the film's chief weaknesses. The film spends two hours dramatizing the push-pull of adoration and revulsion between the two men before the titular murder occurs. That leaves little more than half an hour to rush through the rest of Robert Ford's life. The coda feels hurried, with intriguing notions of growth, regret and the birth of celebrity culture gestured towards, but mostly left unexplored. It also undercuts the power of an otherwise intensely poignant final scene. Nevertheless, the raw humanity of the performances coupled with a vibrantly lyrical visual pallette makes The Assassination of Jesse James one of the most well crafted and memorable studio films of the last few years.

Score: 8.5

Thursday, March 13, 2008

MYOFNF #10: El Topo (dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970)

This film isn't so much a part of the world cinema canon of greatness, but it is one of the very first "cult" movies, and it's in Spanish, and it's crazy as hell, so I thougt I'd check it out. I'm glad I did. It's the story of a wandering gunslinger in a mystical Old West whose search for meaning leads him to gunfights with shamen and cohabitation with underground mutants.The phrase "they don't make up like they used to" seems intensely appropriate. Every frame pulses with the revolutionary thrust of the late-sixties counterculture. The only person making movies this defiantly abstract is David Lynch, but El Topo has a nakedly earnest philosophical agenda that Lynch, with his willful obscurism, would never display. I don't think anyone could make a film like El Topo today without being mocked into oblivion. Writer-director-star Alejandro Jodorowsky takes notions of spiritual corruption and rebirth, social injustice and redemption, far too seriously for the current climate of ironic detachtment and gentle ennui. Movies nowadays start from the premise that grand cosmic enlightenment is beyond our understanding, and all an artist can do is record the sad foibles of us terminally blinkered humaniods. The only exception that comes to mind is Darron Aronosfsky, whose Jadorowsky-reminiscent 2006 film The Fountain was, in fact, mocked into oblivion. I haven't seen that one yet, or Jadorowsky's follow up to El Topo, The Holy Mountain, but the startingly visual power, potent allegory and, most of all, the sheer uninhibited audacity of the thing has made me eager to check them out. There's something exhilerating about watching a director open his heart and let out a primal scream of existential yearning, with no regard at all for the snickering of the hipsters at the cool kids table.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Diary of the Dead

It's a certifiable tragedy that George A. Romero, creator of the modern zombie genre, can't get a decent budget greenlit in Hollywood. While Michael Bay is given two hundred million dollars to shoot digital robots fighting, then edits the action so aggressively that you can't even tell what's happening, one of the finest horror directors of all time is forced to scrounge for nickels in order to fund his vital, provocative tales of the living dead. More than any other director, George Romero is the man who made horror films relevant. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, and his new film, Diary of the Dead are remarkable for their social insight and thunderous gut-level power. Yet, if there is one problem with his films, especially his last two, it's a claustraphobic lack of scope. For this, Romero is much less to blame than the nearsighted bean counters who won't give him the proper finacial backing. His films always hint at a vastly ambitious vision that is constrained by a paltry budget.

Romero's new film ignores the timeline of his earlier zombie films, which posit a chronology of apocalypse in which zombies slowly, from movie to movie, gain control of the earth's surface. Diary of the Dead reboots, with the first corpses rising from the dead in the present day, recorded by the vast array of digital technology of the present day. All of Romero's zombie films have used the living dead as a metaphor to critique contemporary society. For Diary, Romero's target is the age of viral media and the American compulsion to record our every action. In the film, a group of University of Pittsburgh film students find themselves smack in the middle of a zombie rising that threatens to destroy civilization as they know it. While they trek across Pennsylvania in search of safe haven, they also record everything they experience, for upload onto the internet. Like this year's hit Cloverfield, all of the action is shown from the perspective of the protagonist's camera.

As Dawn of the Dead is a commentary on the pathologies of consumer society, and 2004's underrated Land of the Dead deals with issues of political fearmongering and the exploitation of the global south, Diary of the Dead has it's satirical sights set squarely on the Youtube digital media world we inhabit. The film student heroes are far more interested in recording the horrors of zombie armageddon than helping their fellow men, or even each other, survive. Some have criticized the film for its heavy handed approach to the subject matter, with the action periodically interrupted by ponderous voice overs from one of the film students commenting on the anethestizing nature of media and the sick need to witness suffering. Taken in the context of the film, these segments make sense. After all, the whole idea is that the audience is watching a film made by the characters, and one of Romero's many targets of critique is the pretensious narcissism of self-styled artistes like the subjects. Of course they would feel compelled to beat the audience over the head with their shimmering insights into human nature. It's not as though Romero doesn't have a track record of subtle but powerful satire. Almost all of the subversiveness of Dawn of the Dead, for example, comes from shot selection and the ironic juxtaposition of walking corpses shambling through a shopping mall. There's not a leaden speech to be found.

The first-person point of view camera offers another advantage: Diary of the Dead is much scarier than any Romero zombie film since Night. There's a sense of dread and identification with the perspective of the camera operator that makes every blood-thirsty ghoul seem that much more terrifying. For this same reason, Romero's trademark dry humor has a stronger impact as well, and Diary is also his funniest film in years. Because the camera operators are film students wielding expensive equiptment, there's a fluidity and grace to the shots that other movies using a similar approach, like the abovementioned Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project, lack. This film is a lot less likely to make someone watching it feel seasick.

As enjoyable as Diary of the Dead is to watch, and as incisive as Romero's insight remains, there are still moments during the film where an audience member can't help but wonder what the man might have done with more money and time. The special effects are mostly convincing, but the canvas Romero paints on is frustratingly small. Won't someone cut this man a check already?

Score: 8.3

Thursday, March 06, 2008

MYOFNF #9: Z (dir. Costa-Gavras, 1968)

This film is based on the true story of a 1963 political assassination in Greece that served as sort of a practice run for the right-wing military that eventually overthrew the elected government in 1967. There are a few notable things about this movie, which I dug a great deal. For one, it's a penetrating examination of the psychology and sociology of bureaucracy. Watching the corrupt military officers cover up their involvement in the killing of a pacifist politician with subtle social pressure and straight-forward indoctrination, you get a vivid idea of how these same officers were able to brush aside the civilian government and rule directly. Also, for a film primarily concerned with politics, there is a wounded beating hear in the middle of it. A few poignant scenes with the grieving wife of the slain politician go a long way towards humanizing the proceedings. In these moments, New Wave-inspired flash cutting does a great job of illustrating how memory works; fragments, images, moments from the past flash across our minds prompted by random sights, sounds and smells. For a political thriller, there's an intense attention to human detail going on here. In that respect, Z is a more complete film than a lot of politically-conscious movies from the same era that are less grounded in real events.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

In Bruges

Watching the trailer for In Bruges for the first time a few months ago, I was taken back to the halcyon days of the mid-nineties, when every independent filmmaker with a Panaflex and a squib pack was ripping off Quentin Tarantino. It was a time when cinemas and video shelves where chock-a-block with films featuring wise-cracking criminals killing each other to ironically counterpointed pop songs. At the time, I was in my early teens, and like a lot of knuckle-headed violence junkies at that time, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were my cinematic lodestars, so even though these knockoffs were almost universally terrible, I made it my mission to watch them all. These films tended to have ridiculously long titles, like Truth or Consequences, New Mexico (Kiefer Sutherland's only trip behind the camera) and Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead. These films aped Tarantino's irony-soaked affect and casual violence while failing to reproduce his wit or visual ingenuity. Watching these films was punishing, but in the long run, it was good for me and for the independent film business. It was such overkill that the audience and filmmakers got sick of the whole quip-spewing hitman genre. Of course, it helped that Quentin Tarantino himself went into Stanley Kubrick's one-movie-every-five-years semi seclusion.

When I actually sat down to watch In Bruges, though, the mid-nineties Quentin rip offs were the last thing on my mind. Writer-director Martin McDonagh, an Irish playwright whose short film Six Shooter won an Oscar in 2006, has crafted an antidote to the breezy, cynical treatment of violence that the Tarantino era helped usher in to cinema. Yes, the film is about garralous, funny hitmen, but its approach toward the bruising reality of violence is serious and powerful. McDongagh is sort of the anti-Tarantino: the gangsters in his film don't kill people with a quip and a fast food reference. They have blood on their hands and they can't get it off.

That isn't to say that In Bruges isn't funny: it's often hilarious. Colin Farrell plays a rookie killer hiding out with partner Brendad Gleeson in the eponymous medieval Belgian town after a botched assassination in London. The first reel of the film largely consists of Ferrell chaffing against the constraints of his provincal setting in amusing fashion; he plays the cocky, Tarantino-style smart-arse with convincing aplomb. As the film progresses, Farrell's character begins to deepen as the truth about his London screw up is revealed and guilt begins to gnaw away at his soul. Within a single scene, Farrell swings from charming rogue to angst-wracked basket case. As Farrell slowly loses it amidst the gothic carnivalesque of Bruges, it dawned on me that this was a different type of hitman comedy: one about the psychic toll of violence. The film's power also comes from richly-detailed characters and the nearly surreal setting. All of those spires and flying buttresses and crenellated towers harken back to a pre-modern time in which sin and its repercussions permeated the European worldview. It's a fitting environment for a guilt-plagued killer to come to terms with his actions, his character, and his capacity for change.

Score: 8.0