Monday, April 28, 2008

2007 DVD Review: The Savages

Tamara Jenkins' film deals point blank with a question that is going to become more and more pressing as the Baby Boom generation makes its relentless march towards senescence: what do adult children do when their parents are no longer able to take care of themselves? Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney play a couple of theater people in arrested development trying to deal with the very grown-up task of dealing with their demented, aged father, a man who abandoned them and who they feel little affection towards. Jenkins depicts the grim, desperate situation with a deadpan realism, sort of Alexander Payne minus the whimsy. Hoffman's character is a drama professor writing a book on Bertoldt Brecht, and Brechtian alienation is at the center of both Jenkins' directorial style and Hoffman's method of coping with life. Hoffman's character is a disengaged intellectual, distanced from his own pain and very life, and the experience of dealing with his more emotionally-open, but still stunted, sister, brings up long suppressed feelings, giving the lie to his self-consciously alienated outlook. The film has a similar effect on the viewer: by creating such vivid dipictions of universal family agonies, the audience is forced to reckon with long dormant feelings and memories.

Score: 8.0

Thursday, April 24, 2008

MYOFNF #15: Repulsion (dir. Roman Polanski, 1965)

This is the first MYOFNF entry that's in English, but the director is Polish, the lead actress is French, and it takes place in London, so it definitely counts as foreign. It's the story of a fragile young woman living with her sister, slowly going mad over the course of a solitary week. Polanski immerses the viewer in the mindset of his heroine, and the disorienting deluge of hallucinations and crack-ups that the difference between reality, dream and delusion melts away. Interestingly, the creeping sense of madness makes the film less traditionally scarry than it might otherwise be. The first time Catherine Denuve sees a man standing in the corner of her room, it makes your hair stand on end. As you realize that pretty much everything you're seeing exists only in her head, the sense of fear goes away. What doesn't go away is the anxiety provoked by such close and prolonged proximity to madness, culminating in a chilling final image that stays with the viewer long after the screen goes black.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

2007 DVD Review: Lars and the Real Girl

I've seen my fair share of Indie Quirkfests, but this is my first encounter with an Indie Serious Dissociative Disorderfest. For a good portion of this movie, I was thinking "gimmeafuckinbreak," what with the whimsical notion of a whole town full of people cheerfully humoring a clinically insane loner played by Ryan Gosling by pretending his life-sized sex doll is a real person. But as the conceit grew comically over the top (the townspeople elect the sex doll to the school board! they drive her to the hospital in an ambulance when Gosling says she's 'sick!'), it dawned on my that, while the Nerf-coated magical community of the film is ludicrious, it's supposed to be ludicrious. By making the town comically accomodating, the filmmakers are tipping their hand that the film is a parable about the pain, fear, joy and transcendence inherent in a lone person reaching out to the world to make a connection. Sure, no real town would give an obvious nutjob that kind of latitude, and there sure as hell wouldn't be an understanding young woman just waiting for said nutjob to dump his plastic girfriend and take her out to dance, but these moments are still poignant. Lars' delusions, the understanding of the townsfolk, these things are oversized representations of relatable phenomena. Who hasn't felt a kernal of Lar's discomfort and fear in trying to forge relationships? And who hasn't been encouraged in their journey towards those relationships by the disarming kindness of our friends, family, and occasional stranger?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Jason Segel occupies a specific niche in the Judd Apatow comedy universe. Paul Rudd is all loopy, ironic charm. Seth Rogen is the group's stoner Fallstaff. Segel specializes in playing lovelorn obsessives, the kind of characters who immerse themselves in relationships with an unnerving fervency. As Nick Andopolis in the brilliant, Apatow-produced series Freaks and Geeks, he belted out a painfully earnest rendition of Styx's Lady for a mortified would-be girlfriend. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which he also wrote, his character is the sort of fellow who spends years writing a rock opera based on Dracula featuring handpuppets and not realize for moment that its a comedy.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is about Segel dealing with a break up with his long time girlfriend, a television star played by Kristen Bell. Attempting to get over his persistent heartsick, he takes a trip to Hawaii, only to discover tha his ex and her new British rocker boyfriend are staying at the same resort. Pitching in to help Segel in his healing process are a stable of colorful resort staff members including the always-funny Apatow regulars Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill, and potential love interest Mila Kunis.

Present in this film are many of the traits that define Apatow-gang products like Knocked Up: ecstatically raunchy sex jokes, a cast jam-packed with comedy ringers, emotional beats that ring true, a schmendrick man-child slowly groping towards maturity, and female characters that are inexplicably attracted to said schmendrick man children. What separates Forgetting Sarah Marshall from other films in the Apatow stable is a sense of narrative economy. Sure, there's time taken for some of the patented Apatow aimless but hilarious horsing around, including a delightfully dirty subplot featuring 30 Rock stand-out Jack McBrayer as a sexually inept honeymooner. Yet Segel's intensity of emotion gives the film surprising focus.

Segel uses this film as a showcase not only for his hangdog persona, but also for a lifetime of romantic angst. As in previous performances, Segel walks a fine line between endearing sensitivity and creepy mania. He bares all in this film, including his genitals in an opening scene that is both painful and painfully funny. It's hard not to see the movie as a sort of personal catharsis, especially towards the end, when Segel's interactions with Bell seem to be more venegeful wish fullfilment than organic developments between the characters. This isn't necessarily a problem; it actually makes the film more interesting. Rare is the opportunity in an era when "comedy" and "ironic detachment" are often synonymous to see a performer this willing to put their heart, and their junk, up on the screen for all to see in the name of a getting a laugh.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

MYOFNF #14: Army of Shadows (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)

Melville made his name directing Frenchified versions of American film noir and his masterpiece, Army of Shadows, uses many of the same motifs and themes in dealing with the French Resistance during World War Two. The melding works well because, on a quotidian level, being a member of the resistance was pretty much identical to operating in the criminal underworld, and the same questions of loyalty and fear are paramount. The film concentrates entirely on the mental landscapes of its protagnoists, eschewing any conventional action or much in the way of traditional suspense. This restrained approach not only makes the characters vivid, but also makes a simple voiceover or title intersistial emotionally wrenching.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Movie Mix-Tape: Moments of Dread

The Neverending Story: "We don't even care...whether or not we care..."

28 Days Later: A rage-infected chimp banging its head against the side of its cage. Harder. And Harder.

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: "Mr. President, we cannot allow a mine shaft gap!"

Audition: A man in a burlap sack, rolling across the floor.

Songs from the Second Floor: The assembled luminaries of a small town stand at the edge of a cliff, waiting patiently for a young girl in her Sunday best to walk over the edge as a sacrifice.

The Seventh Seal: A procession of chained, damned souls slouching across the crest of a distant hill.

Ghost World: A slack-jawed, portly young man in a Starter jacket stands in a video store, staring up at a television screen, slurping away at an inhumanly large cup of soda.

Videodrome: "Death to Videodrome, long live the new flesh."

Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Kevin McCarthy standing in the middle of a busy street, screaming his warning to the sky, while cars pass on obliviously.

Rosemary's Baby: The jolliest bunch of middle-aged Satan worshipers you've ever seen celebrating at a baby shower for their new messiah.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Street Kings

David Ayer is running the best scam in Hollywood. Over the past decade, he has been paid to make the same movie three times. He wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for Training Day, and Dark Blue, and directs the new film Street Kings. In all of these films, a crooked but conscience-ridden decent LA cop confronts an evil superior officer who embodies the corruption of the entire department. Ayer collaborates with neo-noir madman James Ellroy in both Dark Blue and Street Kings. Both films contain many of Ellroy's trademark obsessions, but little of his memorably pungent dialogue.

There's not much at all memorable about Street Kings, which feels like a warmed-over remix of not only all of Ayer's previous films, but pretty much every cop movie made in the past 30 years. There's even a speech ripped off from A Few Good Men in there somewhere.

Keanu Reeves is his usual blockedheaded self in the role of a violent, haunted LAPD detective and member of an elite Vice unit headed by Forest Whitaker, whose ferocious scenery chewing and fantastically cheesy cop moustache make for rare bright spots. When his former partner is killed in a botched liquor store robbery, Reeves' takes to the streets to find the killers. Along the way, he employs the two-fisted, smack-first-ask-questions-later investigatory techniques common to the genre on his way to uncovering secrets that will upend his world, and which the audience has figured out before the end of the first reel.

Steet Kings is crushingly generic in almost every detail. The only points of interest are Whitaker's aforemetioned facial hair (Jay Mohr, playing another member of the Vice unit, sports an impressive porn-stache himself), an the bone-deep cyncism displayed by the filmmakers towards the LAPD at all levels. Every cop in the film is motivated by some combination of mindless aggression, greed and desire for status. The characters snarl at, shoot at and extort each other in pursuit of personal ends, culminating in a final sequence that indicts the entire civic and political structure of the city of Los Angeles. This approach would be much more provocative and interesting if it didn't come swaddled in 90 minutes of retreaded cop movie tropes. If Ayer had slowed down the relentless, vacuous plot machinations in order to soak up some of the atmosphere and culture of the city and its police force, his points might resonate as more than white noise. As it stands, the question that Street Kings poses most acutely is: why watch this thing when the stellar police procedural shows The Wire and The Shield are readily available on DVD?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Straight to DVD Disaster: Day of the Dead

Holy shit. I knew this thing was going to be bad, but I had no idea just how bad.

Day of the Dead, an in-name-only remake of George Romero's original, had been put into production after the successs of Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake. It was completed a few years ago, and has been sitting on a shelf since then, until its uncerimonous dumping onto DVD rental shelves this month. I'm surprised they didn't just set fire to the celluloid for the insurance money.

Sporting CGI effects last seen in the first Resident Evil game for Playstation and a script seemingly hammered out by precocious chimps, Day of the Dead is jawdroppingly awful, and not even in an entertaining way. Just sad. No matter what the title says, this isnt't a remake of Day of the Dead, but a remake of Planet Terror done by special ed middle schoolers.

My favorite bit of supergenius thinking on the part of the "filmmakers" was this nugget: since fast moving zombies were awesome in the Dawn of the Dead remake, then SUPERFAST MOVING zombies should be SUPER awesome! For the record, it is decidedly not super awesome. In order to make the zombies appear to move superfast, they speed up the film Benny Hill-style, which doesn't really add to the scare factor so much as cry out for the addition of Yakety Sax to the soundtrack. Someone must have put that together on youtube by now.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

2007 Movie Mix Tape Part One:

Grindhouse: zombies exploding against the front fender of a souped up auto wrecker.

There Will Be Blood: Danie Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) gnawing on a hunk of cold steak, staring at Eli Sunday and plotting his vengeance.

Zodiac: the point of view of a moving vehicle, rows of flag-draped suburban homes, 4th of July fireworks crackling in the sky.

Superbad: a cavaclade of cartoon dicks.

Southland Tales: I've got soul, but I'm not a solider...

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: a locomotive slowing to a halt in front of a barricade manned by Jesse James (Brad Pitt), wreaths of smoke wafting up his legs.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead: Charles Hanson (Albert Finney) staggering out of his son's hospital room and into a white light that slowly envelopes him.

Hot Fuzz: A minature church steeple meets a human jawbone in...slow..motion!

The Darjeeling Limited: "Champs Elysee," a rolling train, and the green Indian countryside.

No Country For Old Men: A blank morning sky, an empty, stoney field, and tucked into the corner of the screen, a single row of impotent barbed wire.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

2007 DVD Review: The Hunting Party

This film is based on an Esquire piece by journalist Scott Anderson called What I Did on my Summer Vacation. It's the true story of a bunch of western journalists who, while hanging out in post-war Sarajevo decided on a lark to try and capture fugutive war criminal Radovan Karadzic, and came surprisingly close to succeeding. There's even a little epilogue at the end of the movie pointing out what sections of the film are based in fact. Those are also the sections of the film that don't suck like a Hoover.

The Hunting Party is an indictment of the entire studio filmmaking process. The source material practically screams out for a film adaptation. But it doesn't have the sort of "arc" and the characters don't fit the models that conventional screenwriting demands. Instead of a bunch of friends getting in over their heads, writer/director Richard Shepard creates protagonists that are recognizable to anyone who has watched more than ten movies in their lives. Richard Gere plays a former TV war correspondent fallen on hard times who reunites with Terrance Howard, his former cameraman who has gone on to better things, but still yearns for the excitement of his war zone days with Gere. They are joined on their quest to capture a fictionalized Karadzic by a green kid fresh from journalism school played by Jesse Eisenberg. Instead of going after Karadzic for the valid reasons of splitting a five million dollar reward and helping bring a war criminal to justice, Shepard invents a ridiculous backstory in order to up the dramatic stakes. You see, during the war Gere fell in love with a Bosnian muslim woman who was murdered by the Karadzic character's militia, WHILE SHE WAS PREGNANT WITH GERE'S CHILD! Seriously, the bad guy is a fucking Bosnian Serb war criminal: you know, rape camps, mortar attacks on village markets, Srebrenica? Are those not enough bad acts to make a film villian hatable? It's the Titanic priniciple in action: no matter how many extras get killed by a given war/natural disaster, the audience is only going to care if one of the victims is in love with the main character. All of these elements, the friend dynamic between the two lead characters, the tortured backstory, the ginned-up action sequences, they are all there because Hollywood dogma has determined that you can't have a movie without them. But since pretty much every movie that comes down the pike has these elements, they end up feeling generic and make it harder to appreciate the parts of the film that actually happened. It doesn't take long for the cliches to pile so high that any sense of reality is buried underneath them.

Score: 5.0

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

MYOFNF #13: The Conformist (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

You know that scene in a lot of art-house type movies where a man meets a woman for the first time, they say maybe three words to each other, and then they're instantly making out? I don't get that.

Anyway, this is a film about a young Fascist in 30s Italy who wants to prove his bona fides to the government by killing his radical college mentor. There's some striking shot composition and a challenging flashback structure, but it left me mostly cold, although I think that may have been the point. The main character is essentially forcing himself to destroy his emotional life as a sacrafice to the state. The problem is that the motivation of his mania for conformity is never really made clear. Then again, I'm the type of dunce who doesn't get it when people who just met start fucking immediately in a non-porn context, so don't go by me.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

MYOFNF #12: I am Cuba (dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964)

Ya'll know I'm a big fan of long tracking shots, and this Soviet-Cuban co-production from the early days of the Castro regime is made up almost entirely of long tracking shots, and hypnotically powerful ones at that. What's interesting about this film is that it is a piece of pro-Castro propaganda, but at the same time the vignettes meant to illustrate the injustice of the Batista years are genuinely emotionally involving. Even though Kalatozov's vision is political, he focuses intently on his human subjects. I'm amazed that a movie made by the bloody Soviet Union ten years after the death of Stalin can grasp of how to make a film with a political agenda while still creating moments between people that feel genuine. Yet, every chuckleheaded Hollywood knob who has tackled the Iraq war has ended up creating a bloodless, didactic mess. Hopefully Kimberly Pierce's Stop-Loss will break that trend.