Saturday, May 31, 2008

MYOFNF #20: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (dir. R.W. Fassbinder, 1974)

Before Todd Haynes remixed Douglas Sirk's melodrama All That Heaven Allows, German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder transplanted the tale of forbidden love to Germany, in a story about an elderly German woman who marries a much younger Morroccan immigrant. Fassbinder's movie centers on the toll that social ostricism takes on their relationship. What struck me about Fassbinder's approach is how studiously he utilizes film grammar to emphasize the alienation and angst caused by drawing abhorrent stares wherever you go. His main characters are frequently framed within the frame of the shot: by doorways, windows, or railings, to enhance the sense that these people are restrained. The repeated tableau effect creates a Brechtian distance that makes the characters seem to be specimens on display, like butterflys pinned to a cork board for the viewer's persual. It's that very sense of constantly being watched, and judged that makes being a social pariah so painful: it creates a hyper-self consciousness, and a sneaking suspicion that your status as an outsider must stem from some essential otherness. These of course are well trode themes for film, but I've rarely seen them evoked so skillfully.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

2008 DVD Review: Rambo

John Rambo is back and he...looks like he's been stung by sixty or seventy bees. Yes, Sly Stallone continues his never ending battle to regain his cinematic relevance by exploiting the success of his earlier franchise, even though he now seems to be wider than he is tall, and looks like someone went upside his head with a two by four. The film compensates for Sly's onrushing senescence by keeping him immobile for most of the run time. He spends the first hour or so glumly piloting a skiff down a river in Burma. In the climactic battle scene, Rambo (who, for the first time in the history of the franchise, keeps his shirt on the whole time) simply stands in the back of a flatbed truck, turning Burmese soldiers into hamburger with a machine gun without breaking a sweat. No hanging from helicopter skids or dangling from trees for this action hero for the AARP set.

To make up for the grindly mopey hero's lack of dynamism, Stallone (who co-wrote and directed!) throws the gore knob to eleven. The evil Burmese troops don't just get shot, they explode like meat pinatas, spraying chunks of appendage and ropes of intestines with each inexplicably gigantic bullet hit. I'll admit that one of my big weaknesses when it comes to action films is outrageously over-the-top bullet hits. Give me a Barret fifty caliber sniper rifle evaporating heads, legs getting chopped off with bullets, and mortar rounds sending cartwheeling spleens into the air, and I'm in grindhouse nirvana. Rambo served up all of the above with gusto. However, this dedication to delivering blood-and-guts makes the film ethically problematic. In addition to making himself viable at the box office again, Stallone's other clear agenda with this movie is to bring attention to the outrages of the Burmese military junta and their campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Karen minority. It's an important topic, but when you stage the massacre of a village full of Karen peasants with the unrestrained hyperviolence of Planet Terror, it ends up trivializing the plight of real people. This is sort of the same problem that Spielberg had with the Krakow ghetto liquidation scene in Schindler's List, but much worse. There's a giddy bloodlust in the sequence that is especially unsettling, especially considering that the military oppression of the Karen people in Burma is something that is happening right now. Who would ever have guessed that noted human rights theorist and auteur Sly Stallone fails at addressing a real humanitarian issue with sensitivity or insight. Still: when Rambo shoots a dude with a heavy maching gun at point blank range and he turns into a geyser of red goo? Awesome!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones was originally conceived by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as a throwback to the pulp heroes of the 1950s that boomers grew up watching in serials and on early television. Funnily enough, Raiders of the Lost Ark became such a cultural touchstone of the 1980s that Harrison Ford's bullwhip and fedora are more likely nowadays to put people in mind of Cabbage Patch Kids and crispy bangs, rather than hula hoops and duck's asses. It's fitting, then, that the new Indiana Jones film Kingdom of the Crystal Skull create a theme park version of fifties America that feels like its been lifted from another 80s staple: Back to the Future.

Familiarity is the name of the game in the new Indy movie, and that's by design. Lucas and company are betting on a rich iconography and 27 years of audience good will to sell this thing to the public. It just wouldn't do not to trot out the series' greatest hits. This approach pays off in some moments: the first time Indy cracks his whip or throws one of those patented wild haymakers of his, it delivers old school Indiana Jones thrills. More often, though, it fails miserably. The dreariest attempt at bringing back the spirit of the original films is Karen Allen's return as Marion Ravenwood, Indy's on-again, off-again girlfriend from Raiders. Allen does what she can with the meager role she's stuck with, but the sparkling interplay and lively chemistry that marked Marion's relationship with Indy in Raiders is here rendered shrill, flat and overdetermined by the script. In George Lucas terms, the dynamic in the two films is the difference between the Princess Leia/Han Solo relationship in the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Queen Amidala/Anakin Skywalker relationship in the new one. The lameness of the two characters scenes together can partially be explained by their awkward brevity. Indy's reunion with Marion is one underdeveloped element in a plot stuffed beyond the breaking point with new characters. You've got a Russian dominatrix (Cate Blanchett), a British treasure hunter (Ray Winstone), a mad professor (John Hurt), and a central casting, Wild Ones rebel (Shia Labeouf). It's a classic case of too much not being nearly enough. None of these new characters (including a classic Indy gal pal) get enough screen time to register as more than fonts of expository dialogue.

Of course, none of the character shenanigans carry much weight if Kingdom delivers the bravura action setpieces for which the series is known. Here again, familiarity breeds contempt. Some of the action scenes have bits of the old crispness, ingenious complexity and deft blend of suspense and humor. Even in the most cracking scenes, though, the ghost of ass-kickings past haunt the proceedings. In particular, a truck chase through the Amazon rain forest between Indy and his pals and a half track full of Soviet troops is genuinely rousing, but it recalls the tanks and horses chase from Last Crusade so strongly that it just ends up making you wish you were watching that movie instead (that was a good one, it had Sean Connery!)

One theme that has been featured in all the Indiana Jones films is a sense of awe at the mysteries of the world. Kids growing up in 80s, an era of closed frontiers, were given a glimpse of inconcievable wonders waiting to be discovered in ancient temples and even government warehouses. This spirit of adventure is tempered by a stern warning that there are mysteries and powers too vast and terrible for human understanding. Attempts to master them will always come to face-melting grief. In this respect, Kingdom fits comfortably in the Indy pantheon. The film is bracketed by two similar and similarly jaw-dropping shots of Indiana Jones, miniscule in the foreground, beholding a tremendous cataclysm. The first shot is of an A-bomb test in Nevada. The second, which takes place in the Peruvian jungle, is...something else entirely. These great and terrible displays of power, coupled with Harrion Ford's increasingly weathered, rickety countenance and a plot that sees Indy coerced into service by both sides of the Cold War, suggest a poignant subtext to the movie. They point towards a hero whose time has passed, who is vulnerable in ways he's never been before, tossed about by new, inscrutable forces beyond his ability to control or understand. With a bit of development, it might have made for a commentary on post-war American life, reminiscent of another 50s genre beloved of boomers: film noir. Unfortunately, Spielberg and Lucas take no time to flesh these ideas out in their headlong gallup from chase scene to musty, repurposed chase scene.

Score: 6.0

Friday, May 23, 2008

MYOFNF #19: The Spirit of the Beehive (dir. Victor Erice, 1973)

This is the kind of movie people that love call "hypnotic," and people that hate call "boring." While there are certainly some striking visuals in this film (especially the final shot), for the most part, put me in the "boring" camp. I know: a philistine like me should just stick with Michael Bay if I can't appreciate artistic, plotless meandering with an allegorical subtext. I'm sorry! I like a story in my narrative film! Sue me! All of that said, there is something special in this film. Unlike most films that operate from a kid's point of view, Beehive doesn't sentimentalize childhood or treat it as a parade of traumatic experiences. Instead, the viewer is treated to a singularly haunting and realistic portrayal of the way that children assimilate the concept of death into their imaginations.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

MYOFNF #18: The Rules of the Game (dir. Jean Renoir, 1939)

Ah, the comedy of manners! A genre I usually have absolutely no use for. Whenever I see be-spatted gentry making eyes at a fair maiden from across the dining room table while the help looks on with bemusement, I reach for my revolver. But this film is notable for the frankness of its sexual politics and its kinetic visual style, both of which seem far ahead of their time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

2007 DVD Review: I'm Not There

Biopics are inherently lame. Not only are their plots hidebound by the known facts of the life of the subject, the time frame of the subject's life insures that the film will be choppy and episodic, with no real momentum built between scenes. Then, there's the crippling inability of the biopic format to answer the question that such films are always asking by their very existence: who is (famous person's name here). This inherent lameness is especially pronounced in biopics about musicians. Visually demonstrating the source of a great musical artist's inspiration, of illustrating the artist's creative process, of showing how the artist's music interacted with the culture around it...the biopic, with its pre-set plot arcs and elliptical structure is singularly incapable of tackling any of these herculean tasks.

So, mad props indeed to filmmaker Todd Haynes, who takes a chainsaw to the very concept of the musical biopic in I'm Not There. His response to the question: "Who is Bob Dylan," would probably be "how can I answer that question if you've got the nerve to ask me?" Haynes' film elides all questions about the quintessence of Bob Dylan the man, or any commitment to a traditional biographical portrait. Instead, Haynes takes as his subject the many artistic persona that Dylan has projected to the world over the years. Hayne's doesn't wan to gain insight into Dylan's psyche or give the viewer a crash course in Dylan's life and influences. Instead, what Haynes is after is something much more unique and interesting: he's using the artistic medium of film in order to represent, in sound and moving image, what it means to experience another artistic medium. The different periods in Dylan's musical career are embodied by different actors, with musical interludes, hallucinations and phantasmagoria that attempt to put the viewer inside a Dylan song, and inside the moment of time when the song was released. A couple of setpieces stand out as particularly sharp: Cate Blanchett's Don't Look Back Dylan emptying an Uzi into the earnest folkies at the Newport Festival, and a white-faced Jim James belting out a mournful rendition of "Going to Acapulco" in a band shell before a crowd of bedraggled Western refugees. The latter scene in particular is a vivid immersion in the apocalyptic paranoia, melancholy, and olde timey theatricality of Dylan's Pat Garret and Billy the Kid era. There might be an inscrutable, grand message here, but the best part of the movie is that there doesn't have to be one for it to be a singular achievement. It's enough to make you forget that Richard Gere is in it.

The film is not always successful: some of the performances verge on parody (and not in a good way...I'm looking at you, Christian Bale) and not every evocation is equally gripping, but the undertaking as a whole is breathtakingly visionary. I'm Not There points the way to a new cinematic approach towards presenting the lives and works of artists, which is a singularly welcome development.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

MYOFNF #17: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (dir. Robert Wiene, 1920)

This is the first, and probably only, silent film of MYOFNF. It's a foundational work of German Expressionism, a profoundly influential filmic style that I don't know nearly enough about. The most striking aspect of this film is the set design, which avoids realistic, or even theatrical renderings of the character's environment. Instead, the interiors and exteriors of buildings are canted at mad angles, chairs and table are vertiginously high, mountain passes appear to be melting. In short, it's the scale and proportion of a dream (or nightmare). Even in a silent film, which suffers from the constraints of the technology available, this approach provokes unease and deepens the horror of a plot that deals with psychic repression and madness.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr. is a great actor. It's important to begin any discussion of John Favreau's Iron Man with this fact because the smashing success of the film rests almost entirely on his shoulders. Downey's greatness is tied to the sense of reality that he brings to all of his roles; he may specialize in playing cads, but the cads he plays are invariably smart, engaging, fun to watch, most importantly, they have a whiff of melancholy about them that gives their witticisms and debauched hijinx poignancy. Downey's charisma, humor and pathos have given us Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy inventor/industrialist who becomes Iron Man, and who is something almost entirely unheard of in superhero films: a great character. Other recent screen incarnations of comic book heroes are memorable for their iconic costumes, their superpowers, and if they're lucky, maybe one defining character trait (think Peter Parker's teen angst or Bruce Wayne's brooding obsession). Tony Stark is right in Downey's wheelhouse of smart-ass hedonists, but as the plot unfolds, Downey unveils layers of emotion and conflict that make Iron Man the rare comic book film where the quiet moments are as enthralling as the action setpieces, if not moreso.

Since Iron Man is the first installment of a likely franchise for Marvel's new film production arm, the film is mostly focused on detailing the origin of the Iron Man character. As in the original comic book, genius engineer and arms merchant Tony Stark is captured by a warlord and forced to make a superweapon. Instead, he constructs a metal exoskeleton in order to escape captivity. Once free, he refines the design into the sleek, rocket-boostered suit we know and love. This tale is updated by moving the warlord from Vietnam to Afghanistan, a twist that suggests a layer of political allegory that the film unfortunately never develops. In fact, the actual meat of Iron Man is fairly undercooked, with a few big fight scenes doled out sparingly between muddled plot points, with villains who fail to register. The best that can be said about the action is that it aspires to coherence, unlike the aggressively edited abstract work of Tony Scott or Michael Bay. That Iron Man easily ranks in the top tier of superhero films is a testament to the work of Downey, as well as Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's fiesty assistant/love interest Pepper Potts, Terrance Howard as his military running buddy, and Jeff Bridges as his glowering mentor, not to mention a script that treats character interaction as more than just a set up for the next explosion.

Score 8.0

Saturday, May 03, 2008

MYOFNF #16: Hiroshima, Mon Amour (dir. Alain Resnais, 1959)

It's fitting that the first shot of this film is of the entwined bare flesh of two lovers. First of the Holy Trinity of the French New Wave (along with Truffaut's 400 Blows and Godard's Breathless), Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour signaled a shift of emphasis in the film world towards earthy sensuality and personal intimacy. Resnais' film helped usher in an era of naturalistic characters, expressive camera movements, and a "subjective" editing style that reflects the preceptions and memories of the characters. Instead of the traditional role of "building a scene" through editing, the film uses editing to break up continuity, to take the viewer into the mind of the protagonist by cutting abruptly between scenes, jumping back and forth through time, from stock footage to historical reenactments to images from the character's distant past. These sort of tricks are old hat by now, but it's striking to see them used in a film from the fifties, and it serves to highlight the role of the second world war in creating the artistic and psychic headspace of the past sixty years.