Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Johnathan Demme ditches his trademark claustrophobic close-ups and hypnotic tracking shots for a raw, free-wheeling hand-held style in Rachel Getting Married. The result is a movie full of sharp edges and the jittery thrum of real, lived life. With its rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue , it feels like the last Robert Altman film that Altman didn't live long enough to make.

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

DVD: War, Inc

The war in Iraq has been a disaster, sure, but it is also an ongoing crime against humanity. It seems that Americans can agree about the disaster part, but you can't point out the criminal part without being called an America-hater. Eventually, we'll all be calling Iraq a "tragic mistake," just like Vietnam. Now, Vietnam wasn't a mistake, it was a goddamn decade long massacre carried out by the United States of America. Of course, admitting as much would make Americans feel all sad in their tummies, so we've all subconsciously agreed to stick with the "tragic" narrative. In twenty years, Iraq will go under same "regrettable goof-up" section in our collective memory as Vietnam, and the next time a group of lying, corrupt war mongers try to squash another dusty outpost brimming with crucial natural resources through fraud, scare tactics and cluster bombs, we're going to be shocked, SHOCKED when it turns out to be a pointless bloodbath.

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.

Until Now.

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.

Score: 8.0

Thursday, October 16, 2008


If you're a fan of verite horror, then 2008 was your year. Quarantine is the third movie since January to feature ostensible first person footage shot by a person experiencing an apocalyptic threat to humanity. While containing effectively visceral moments, Quarantine holds up poorly compared to Cloverfield or Diary of the Dead. At it's best, verite horror can be mercilessly scary by utilizing the hyperrealism of video equipment and long, unedited shots, and by jettisoning the sort of cheap effects, like foreboding music and fast cutting that remind the viewer that they're just watching a movie. At it's worst, verite horror ends up being indistinguishable from a first person survival horror video game, with missions to accomplish and monsters popping up at predictable intervals. Quarantine falls squarely into the latter camp.

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


Everything about the new film W, from its compact, guerrilla-style production schedule earlier this year to its mid-October release, right before the election, suggests that director Oliver Stone wants his film to serve as the epitaph of the Bush administration. Instead, it plays like a highlight reel of live-action political blog posts from the 2002-2004. We get all of George W. Bush's youthful fecklessness, his wacky malapropisms, a decent thumbnail sketch of the run up to the Iraq war, and some dime store psychoanalysis, but nothing that a politically aware person hasn't heard or read about hundreds of times by this late date.

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

Your Guide to Character Actors: Middle Aged White Guys Edition

I'm a big fan of character actors. A good character actor can turn the most one dimensional placeholder role in a film into something memorable, usually due to the charismatic constellation of wrinkles and/or jowls that your movie star types are simply not allowed to sport. Here are some of the pluggers who make cinematic reality possible, and whose crucial contributions are so often overlooked.

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, 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."

Sleazy Dirtbag:

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.