Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Love You, Man

The ad campaign for I Love You, Man, pitches it as a font of quotable dialogue; posters and T-shirts trumpet out-of-context phrases like "Sweet, Sweet Hanging" and "Return the Favor" as instant classic movie lines. This is riduclous for a couple of reason, mostly because you can't just declare movie lines "quotable" by advertising them a such, and also because the actual comedy in I Love You, Man is based on the characters failing to find the right words in social situations. Peter Klaven, played to fussy perfection by Paul Rudd, is a freshly engaged LA real estate agent coming to the realization that he has no male friends after years of concentrating on his girlfriends. In his quest to find a best man for his wedding, Peter discovers that he has lost the ability to relate to other men in an intimate way. The funniest parts of the movie are watching Rudd flail his way through a series of humiliating attempts at dude-speak. Rudd draws out the awkward pauses with masterful timing, his facial expression a mixture of humiliation and incredulity at the words coming out of his mouth.

The plot is standard issue romantic comedy boilerplate with a man-tastic twist. Rudd struggles to find a male friend in a series of humorous montages, starts a tentative friendship with blunt-talking slacker Jason Segal, and, of course, this creates conflict between Rudd and his fiancee Rashida Jones. It's all played in a minor key: the emotional conflicts are muted and there is little in the way of drama. The extremely low stakes are to the film's advantage, because the plot itself is familiar in the extreme, and keeping the proceedings low-key keeps the focus away from the contrived scenario and on the easy, authentic interplay between the characters. Writer-director John Hamburg, veteran of amiable but unambitious comedies like Meet the Parents, has constructed a shambling, unfocused chuckle-fest that annoys when it tries to do any kind of heavy plot lifting, but enchants when the actors are given room to take conversations into absurd territory. There's been some criticism of the post-Apatow tendency of film comedies to compensate for underdeveloped scripts with indiscriminate improvisation, and when the actors don't have the chops. or the director doesn't trust them to create memorable character moments on the fly, improv-heavy comedies can be a sloppy, brutal chore. The presence of ace improvisers like Rudd, Segal and Jones, not to mention ringer supporting actors like Human Giant's Rob Huebel and Reno 911's Thomas Lennon, guarantee laughs. Great performances only go so far, however. What makes I Love You, Man memorable is the way it evokes a real and really painful facet of adult life; the increasingly difficulty of making new friends as you get older.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Let the Right One In

Call it the Armageddon/Deep Impact phenomenon. Or the Tombstone/Wyatt Earp phenomenon. Or the Dante's Peak/Volcano phenomenon. Whichever your preferred example, you know what I'm referring to: the semi-annual fluke occurrence in which two movies with essentially the same plot are released within the same year. Over the years, it seems like the types of movies involved in this type of scheduling voodoo have changed. They've gone from high concept (An Asteroid/Comet is on a collision-course with earth and only Bruce Willis/Robert Duvall can stop it!) to puzzlingly obscure. I thought this trend had reached it's apotheosis when the startlingly close release dates of Capote and Infamous showed that there was a deep cultural yearning for film biographies of Truman Capote that I'd never noticed before. Not to mention our mid-2000s craze for movies about Victorian magicians.

Truman Capote is an asteroid on a collision course with a volcano compared to the latest case of cinematic parallel construction. 2008 saw the release of two, count 'em two adaptations of young adult novels about confused kids falling in love with vampires. The high-profile one was Catherine Hardwick's film version of the first entry in a hugely popular book series by Stephanie Meyer, Twilight, which is coming out on DVD and which will see legions of squealing tween girls bum-rushing the nation's retail outlets this weekend. Twilight is a huge hit, both as a book and as a film, because of its use of the Romantic vampire archetype. The classic vampire attack from Stoker onward, in which a broodingly attractive man visits a sleeping young woman in her room and sinks his fangs into her throat, is a thinly veiled sex act, and since the Victorian era, writers and filmmakers have taken advantage of this fact to titillate audiences without scandalizing them. Nowadays, with audiences more jaded than ever, Stephanie Meyer wisely zeroed in on the one constituency that still needs their racy material sublimated. The inherent sensuality of the vampiric allows Meyer and Hardwick to tap into the budding sex drive of millions of teenage girls who are discovering lust, but are still threatened by overt sexuality. So Twilight presents a sexy, virtuous vampire who abstains from premarital sex and drinking human blood, but his carnal appetites for his human beloved are there for all to see, and for all the Hannah Montana set to chastely pant over.

Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson and adapted from a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (brace yourself: it's Swedish), hones in on another facet of the vampire mythos that can prove seductive to a young person; the power vampires hold over life and death. Just as puberty brings strange and threatening feelings of sexual awareness, it also brings a growing understanding of a teenager's essential powerlessness. Powerlessness breeds frustration and, in the surging torrent of pubescent hormones, aggression. An invincible, death dealing bloodsucker makes for a satisfying fantasy role model.

The film reverses the usual gender dynamic of the vampire romance, with twelve year old Oscar (Kare Hedebrant) developing a friendship with a strange young girl, Eli (Lina Leandersson) living in his apartment complex. She doesn't attend school, never comes out during the day, and sends her father out to drain the blood from hapless fellow Swedes for her feedings. Oscar is a friendless child of divorce, subject to constant bullying at his school, and his budding attraction to Eli is driven less by sexual urges than a growing attraction to her strength and potential for violent action.

Let the Right One In is a spiritual heir to the classic 1973 Spanish film Spirit of the Beehive. Both are restrained, elegantly composed films that examine how children process the concept of death through the allegorical intervention of a mythical monster. Beehives' Frankenstein monster never makes his presence known as blood-splatteringly as the young vampire in Right One, Eli comes into Oscar's life for the first time while he's stabbing a tree, imagining that it's one of his tormentors, as though his murderous desires had willed her into being. From here, the film takes a series of dark and challenging turns, guided at all times by a positively Scandinavian directorial austerity that makes the explosions of violence extra jarring and gives the developing relationship between the two young, murder-minded lovers plenty of room to germinate. The deadpan style pays off most impressively during a closing sequence that consummates the bond between the young boy and the immortal blood-sucker. It also raises unsettling questions about the very nature of the universally treacherous path we all take towards adulthood, and how we come to choose our loves and fulfill our desires.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Last House on the Left

There are few delights in life greater than the enjoyment of violence with a clear conscience. Most people have a part of them that yearns to cut a person in half with a band saw, or see someone cut in half with a band saw, but we'd never actually do it. However, if we had a chance to cut a really, really bad guy in half with a band saw, that's a different story. You'd be ridding the world of an evildoer and damn, check out that arterial spray! Movies like The Last House on the Left indulge the audience's desire to watch human bodies suffer horrific damage while still feeling personally virtuous.

The Last House on the Left is the latest vapid, glossy remake of a 70s horror film directed by a eurotrash commercial and music video auteur, in this case Greek helmer Dennis Iliadas. Unlike Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this movie is not a desecration of a classic. Wes Craven's 1972 original was a drive-in sensation, mostly because its insanely amateurish execution made some of the violence seem unnervingly realistic. Watching it today, after thirty years of ever-intensifying film violence, the original film plays like a remake of Ingmar Bergman's Virgin Spring (which it is), mixed with Reefer Madness and a bit of Home Alone in the third act, all executed with comic ineptitude. The remake's crime is not ruining the legacy of a cinematic triumph, but of grinding out a by-the-numbers hackathon with no greater ambition than providing gross-out gags, and still failing to clear that very low bar.

The plot is pretty much identical to the original: a young woman leaves her upscale family's lake house to hang out with a friend, the friend takes her to buy pot from people who turn out to be a band of murderous drifters, said drifters torture and leave them for dead before unknowingly seeking shelter a the home of the young woman's parents.  The parents find out who they have in their house and set out seeking blood-drenched revenge.  All of the violence and torture is meant to titillate, with the torture of the innocent girls serving the added purpose of making the audience's enjoyment of their tormentor's deaths that much more unambiguously pleasurable to watch.  The majority of the action is uninspired even by the low standards of the genre, but the whole dismal spectacle is nearly redeemed by a deliriously over-the-top ending that provides the film's only real surprise, and hints at a different direction Iladias and company could have gone.  As it stands, The Last House on the Left, devoid as it is of anything remotely scary, relies entirely on violence to hold the viewer's attention, but still manages to pull punches and go down like cinematic oatmeal.  

Friday, March 06, 2009


Of the three studio films directed by Zach Snyder, two of them, 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake and now Watchmen, peak with the credit sequence. Watchmen's showstopper opening consists of a series of slow motion tableaux that recount an alternative history of post-war America in which costumed superheroes are not merely comic book fodder, but real people who dramatically shape the fate of the world. The set-ups reproduce storyboard frames from the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Gibbons on which the film is based. It's a nifty bit of filmmaking that highlights Snyder's strengths; a maniacal attention to detail and brazen theatricality. This skill set makes for a Watchmen adaptation that hews closely to the source material in the most superficial ways; the plot, characters and action scenes are reproduced with a fanboy's adoring commitment. For fans of the comic, the film offers the giddy delight of seeing iconic superheroes burst into towering, Technicolor life and Moore's vivid alternative version of America is exactingly recreated. Moviegoers with no familiarity or loyalty to the graphic novel will be less rewarded by seeing characters like the Comedian and Silk Spectre brought to cinematic life, since Watchmen novices bring with them no affection for these figures. Even without Watchmen knowledge, the provocative themes of Moore's story and Snyder's bone-crunching aesthetic still make for a kinetic, thrilling theatrical experience.

Snyder's strict fidelity to the source material means that Alan Moore's thematic deconstruction of the superhero concept makes it to the screen more or less intact. Unfortunately, while Zach Snyder clearly adores the Watchmen universe and has a keen eye for empty spectacle, he is also profoundly vapid. Every frame shows loving devotion to glossy detail, but just as clearly every frame shows the authorship of a director who has clearly not thought through the implications of the material he's working with. While most of Moore's plot and characters, as well as his keen dissection of the superhero psyche and the psyche of a culture that creates superheroes, are faithfully reproduced in the film, it's a stilted, flat reproduction that lacks the graphic novel's density of reference and symbolism. The film is strong whenever Snyder can rely on the world created by Moore to provide a strong template. In those areas where the graphic novel offers little guidance, for example in the performances of the lead actors or in the choice of soundtrack, Snyder fails miserably. For all the blood and thunder of Snyder's epic approach, there is never the sense of an active mind engaging the material, just a drive to mimic the comic's iconography with maximum visceral impact. It's like watching a parrot tell a joke: he can say all the words in the right order, but you can tell he doesn't get the punchline.

The actors all look remarkably like their comic book counterparts, and a few, notably Jackie Earl Haley as the psychotic vigilante Rorschach and Billy Crudup as the god-like Dr. Manhattan, create vivid, memorable interpretations of their characters. In some cases, Snyder's search for actors who could bring David Gibbons' artwork to life left him casting people who look great in their costumes, but ruin everything when they open their mouths. Matthew Goode, playing the super-genius industrialist Adrian Veidt who moonlights as superhero Ozymandias, looks the part, but his performance is a train wreck that undermines much of Watchmen's plot tension and dramatic weight. It's a mistake made inevitable by the filmmaker's commitment to mimicry over active interpretation There are memorable set-pieces, but no real narrative flow, bravura images but no depth of feeling.

For all of Watchmen's failings as a fully realized drama, there's no denying the enduring power of Moore's world and seeing it recreated in light and sound is a treat. The real issue that keeps Watchmen from transcendence, more than Zach Snyder's lunkheadedness, is a matter of timing. Watchmen originally appeared as a twelve issue comic book series in 1986. At the time, it, along with other revisionist comics of the era like Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, revolutionized the way people looked at superheroes. After Watchmen, a character who chose, of their own free will, to don a cape and tights to fight crime, was under immediate suspicion of mental illness. Moore identified caped heroism as a pathology, and ever since, comic books have existed in a state of hyper self awareness. During the twenty years it took for Watchmen to make it to theatres, the character flaws that Moore helped introduce into the granite-jawed world of superhero comics have become required in films as well. Crippling neuroses are now as essential to cinematic superheroes as utility belts and alter egos. Coming out half a year after Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight, Watchmen feels like an unnecessary punctuation mark. None of that means that it isn't fun to watch a giant blue dude turn bad guys inside out. It totally is.