Wednesday, December 17, 2008

To quote Jay Sherman: "Hatchie-Matchie!"

It's been a frequent topic of conversation among my friends ever since we saw, and had our balls thoroughly waxed by, The Dark Knight: how the hell do you follow that? How do you even equal, let alone top, a superhero movie that is now widely considered to be the alpha and omega of the genre? The answer, according to, is to cast Eddie Murphy as the Riddler, Shia LaBeouf as Robin, and Rachel Weiz as Catwoman.

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

Shitty Action Film Villains Volume Three: General Francis X. Humel

Pretty much the only rule of film villainy more important than "the villain can't be a glorified henchman" is this one: "the villain can't be less bad-ass than his henchmen." In The Rock, Ed Harris' rogue Marine recon officer hijacks a bunch of VX nerve gas and takes San Francisco hostage unless he gets a shit-ton of money from the government. It's a decent start, until we find out that Humel wants the money to go to the families of soldiers who died under his command...and that he's actually bluffing and has no intention of gassing Frisco. Meanwhile, his accomplishes, lead by Tony Todd, are very much willing to kill half of the people in the Bay Area, because they aim to get paid! So the supposed villain of the piece ends up getting lit up by his own flunkies because he won't launch his missiles. Some might call this a pleasantly rich characterization for an action film. Since this movie was directed by Michael Bay, I'm just going to call it lame. Also, dude's named after a line of adorable porcelain figurines. 'nuff said.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Every scene in a traditional narrative film serves a purpose for the audience. This purpose may be to move the plot forward, or provide insight into a character's motivation or create atmosphere, but the mark of a really good movie is the degree to which this purpose is invisible to the viewer. You absorb the meaning of the scene through osmosis, certainty kept at bay by unpredictability inherent in watching a movie for the first time. One of the major weaknesses of the biopic as a genre is the fact that the purpose of each scene is almost always obvious from the jump. Actually watching the scene is beside the point, as soon as you know that you're watching the scene where, say, our protagonist learns how to play the instrument that will lead him to glory, or when he makes the fateful decision to run for office. If a quality movie is flesh and bone, then biopics are X-rays, nothing but bones on film.

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

Movie Shoot-outs. A Primer

The two most common things people in movies do to each other is kiss and kill. When they kill, they tend to use guns, that most charismatic of murder weapons, and nothing is more charismatic on film than a bunch of people with guns trying to kill one another at the same time. So, if you want to make sure people watch your movie, you could do worse than throw in a few shoot-outs. This raises the question: how do you film your shoot-out? Filmmakers have offered several models to choose from.


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

Shitty Action Film Villains Volume Two: Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow

All comic book movie fans kneel before the majestic awesomeness of Christopher Nolan. Dude took an iconic character who had been turned into a weak camp punchline by cinematic arch-douche Joel Schumacher and almost singlehandedly made him compelling and relevant. Big ups. Still, there is one serious gripe to be had with Mr. Nolan concerning his newjack Batman films, and that is the horrific wasting of Scarecrow as a villain. Not only did Nolan commit the cardinal sin of making a kick-ass bad guy into a glorified henchman, he didn't even let Dr. Crane bust out his whole horse-riding, sack-cloth-wearing shtick until the very end of the movie, and then only for one scene. At the end of that scene, it bears mentioning, this terrifying conjurer of nightmares is felled by a tazer-shot from Katie Holmes. No movie villain of any kind, not to mention no Batman villain of Scarecrow's stature, should be dispatched with the sort of weapon that a middle-aged secretary carries in her purse. He should also not be taken out by the goddamn girlfriend of the hero. What, Bruce Wayne's squash partner wasn't available to dose him with pepper spray? It's a shame, because not only is Scarecrow a pretty neat villain in the Batman canon, but Cillian Murphy's creepy blue eyes and bemused smirk give him a real presence that is never exploited to the fullest. Good thing Nolan learned his lesson.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman’s produced screenplays, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, have been centered on the question of how people tell stories to each other and themselves. His directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York seeks to answer the deeper of why we tell stories in the first place. His answer has a lot to do with the defining characteristic of humanity; the consciousness of our death. The knowledge that we’re all going to die sets the parameters of our existence, fuels all of our darkest fears, and sends us scurrying about for semblances of comfort and meaning wherever they can be found. For Kaufman, any hope for solace comes in the act of artistic creation.

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

Shitty Action Film Villains Volume One: Raymond Calitri

The Nicholas Cage remake of Gone in 60 Seconds is an awful movie, a Jerry Bruckheimer production directed by one of his sub-Bay minions with all the sweaty bathos and sterile action you'd expect. The only thing memorable about the film besides Angelina Jolie's blonde dreadlocks is the noteworthy lameness of the bad guy. Christopher Eccleston plays Raymond Calitri, the murderous head of an international car theft ring. The problem isn't really Eccleston, who is can convey serious menace, as he did in 28 Days Later and Shallow Grave. The problem is the stunningly lame way that the filmmakers (to loosely apply the word) decide to define Calitri. His "hook" is that...he really likes wood. There's a jaw-dropping scene in which Eccleston gives a whole schpeil about the cleanliness and elegance of wood as a building material in between threatening to kill Cage's younger brother. It's pretty much the only bit of character development Calitri gets and it stands out for the arbitrary stupidity, the naked flailing on the part of hack screenwriters to give their cardboard cutouts something to say. I imagine the room full of script doctors trying to figure out how to make their bad guy stand out as unique, getting bored, turning on the television and seeing a Full House rerun. Dave Coulier and his woodchuck puppet provided the muse of raw poetry that day.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Notes on Cinematic Awesomeness

The highest achievement of cinema, in my estimation, is the provocation of visceral emotional response. I'm not talking about cheap gross outs or easy scares, but reactions provoked by films that create a sense of reality that makes the characters and scenario absolutely real for the viewer in a lightning bolt moment. I'm also a big fan of genre subversion, because the use of cliche tropes are filmic death and should be mocked into oblivion.

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.