Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Coen Project: Raising Arizona

"I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno...they say he's a good man, so maybe his advisors are confused."  -H.I. McDonnough

Blood Simple's claustrophobic Texas noir introduced moviegoers to the bleak, windswept southwest of the Coen brothers, a place where everyone is "on their own.'" The Coens' second film, 1987's Raising Arizona, broadens the frame to take in Reagan's Sunbelt in all its grotesque wonder. This time, in a live-action Warner Brothers cartoon.  Nathan Arizona is a blustery, vest-wearing avatar for the crassly materialist 80s entrepreneurs who fatted themselves on low taxes and vulgar defense spending.  The fact that fertility treatment allows his previously barren wife to spit out five healthy baby boys taunts simple trailer folk like ex-con H.I McDonnough and his wife, Ed, who want nothing in life more than a "critter" to share their happiness with.  As H.I. says, "we thought it was unfair that some should have so many while others should have so few."  And so, Ed and H.I. set about to score one for the vast multitudes left behind by Reaganomics by swiping one of the Arizona quints.  But in a distinctly Coen-esque touch, the downtrodden proles are fueled by the same small-minded acquisitiveness as the Arizonas of the world.  When H.I. gets Nathan Jr. into the car, he remarks that "I think we got the best one."  The Coens aren't interested in a standard Marxist critique of capital distribution, but rather a system of value that prizes status and consumption as the highest of values and touches the minds of everyone, rich or poor.  Much of the contempt that the Coens' are accused of harboring for their characters is in fact contempt for a culture that builds cardboard subdivisions where every room in the homes has a television blaring, where every clerk may meet in packing heat, and the lethal services of a Lone Biker of the Apocalypse like Leonard Smalls can be purchased for "what the market will bear."

Friday, May 29, 2009

DVD Roundup: Valkyrie

Tom Cruise was born to play a Nazi.  That intensity, that razor-sharp jawline, those fiery, piercing eyes, that flinty, seething voice trembling with conviction.  They're the traits that have made him an movie icon. They're also traits that bring to mind dreams of ubermensch and lebensraum and a bunch of other scary German words, spoken by a whippet-thin man in a sharp black uniform and glistening jackboots.  Watching Cruise play the blandly heroic Wehrmacht officer Claus von Stauffenberg, who planted a bomb meant to kill Hitler in 1944,  you wonder just how creepily effective it would be to see Cruise putting all of that force-ten charisma and certainty behind, say, a death camp commandant.  It would be like Denzel Washington in Training Day, but much more disturbing.  I know Christoph Walz just won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for playing the jew-hunting SS officer in Tarantino's new movie, but part of me wishes that Mr. OT Level Seven could have found time in his schedule to slip on the swastika in earnest.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Coen Project: Blood Simple

"Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else... that's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an' down here... you're on your own." -Loren Visser

Blood Simple, the Coen brothers' first film, begins the same way their Oscar winning masterpiece No Country for Old Men does, with shots of desolate Texas prairie overlaid with the voiceover of a grizzled old country boy.  In this case, it's private investigator Loren Visser, an amoral sleazeball played with greasy relish by M. Emmet Walsh and the first in a long line of Coen embodiments of inplacable evil.  His is the first voice we hear in the Coen brothers' canon, and it vividly articulates a theme that will run through all of their work: people cannot be trusted to overcome their own selfishness and stupidity. As Visser says, "tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help, 'n watch him fly." Blood Simple isn't interested in diagnosing the problem, of explaining just why it is that people are such treacherous dogs, just in describing the condition with dry wit and a southern-fried noir sensibility.  When cuckolded bar owner Marty (Dan Hedaya at his slimiest) fails in a ham-fisted attempt to pick up a girl at a bar, he points out "we don't seem to be...communicating."  That goes for everyone in the movie.  The plot is entirely powered by people who distrust one another, and, as a result, are incapable of meaingful communication. That goes for  Marty and his hired operative Visser, but also for Marty's wife Abbey (Francise McDormand) and her lover Ray (John Getz).  When Ray finds Mardy dead, he assumes that Abbey killes him and buries the body.  When Abbey claims ignorance, he assumes that she's setting him up for the fall.  And when Abbey finds out that Marty's dead, she assumes Ray killed him.  All the while, the real killer, Visser, is hovering in the background, trying to cover up his incompetence with more murders.  The Coens have their usual slightly contemptuous distance from all the idiocy and distrust,  but the question of just why the hell everybody just can't talk to one another without fear of being sold out lingers. In their first film, the Coens establish their love of genre, their amused detachment from the human predicament, and their interest in exploring the faultines of modern life.  They would go further towards explaining just why it is we're "on our own" in their next movie, Raising Arizona. 

The Coen Brothers: Once More, With Feeling

The Coen brothers are on the top of the Hollywood mountain. They've got eight Oscars between them, the ability to chose their own projects with complete freedom, they're intimidatingly prolific, makers of several solid-gold modern classics in addition to the most quotable cult sensation since Rocky Horror Picture Show.  And Yet....  The Coens are held at arms length by a lot of critics who just can't bring themselves to put the Coens in the pantheon of great American filmmakers.  There's no there there, goes the typical complaint.  For all their visual acumen and pithy dialogue, the Coens are empty formalists at heart, interested only in playing with genres and snickering behind the camera at their idiotic characters.  It's true that the Coens love filming stupid people doing stupid things in a comical and/or blood-soaked manner, but there's more to it than that.  The key to finding the 'meaning' in a Coen brothers movie lies in answering the question of why their stupid characters do the stupid things that they do.   The Coens' filmography contains a remarkably consistent critique of post-war America.  No, they're not particularly interested in the inner lives of their characters, but they're mightily interested in the social order their characters exist within.  So over the next couple of weeks, I'll be taking a chronological tour of the Coens' oeuvre, hoping to tease out their worldview, and highlight the conviction and insight that underlies all the deadpan slapstick shenanigans. Tomorrow, we'll start with their 1984 debut Blood Simple.   

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Terminator Salvation

The full title of this movie should be Terminator Salvation: Sorry, There's Profit to be Had!  Or maybe Terminator Salvation: Ragingly Inessential!  Nothing about the Terminator saga cried out for another film, but the brief images of post-apocalyptic robo-combat from the first films are certainly sturdy enough foundation for a guaranteed box office bonanza.  On that score, the movie is a moderate success. Watching Hunter Killers and skinless T-800s and human-snatching giant robots with guns for heads blast away on the landscape is pretty neat, and director McG is laudably workmanlike while directing the action scenes.  He knows what chumps like Michael Bay have yet to figure out: giant, laser-shooting robots are fun to watch, so it's a good idea to allow the audience to, you know, actually see them by nailing the camera down and resisting the urge to edit everything into a Cubist nightmare.  

As for the characters, they don't have much to do but alternate between yelling and glowering.  Christian Bale is his usual humorless self as John Connor and Sam Worthington slips between American and Australian accents as a conflicted cyborg.  Everyone takes the proceedings very, very seriously, but none of their strenuous emoting amounts to much.  The filmmakers are cognisant enough of the broad themes of the other Terminator movies; the nature of free will, the meaning of humanity, to drop in classic lines of dialogue that fans will recognize, but not much more.  The ideas are given no room to breath between the rote scenes of robo-combat that, for their impressive special effects and competent staging, are achingly familiar.  They even contrive to end the movie in a spark-shooting foundry so similar to the one from the end of T2: Judgement Day that the producers very well could have saved money by reusing the old set. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Star Trek

Franchise origin stories are inherently unsatisfying for fans of said franchise.  People who like, in this case, Star Trek, presumably enjoy the dynamics of the characters and the plot rhythms provided by the never ending mission provided by the Prime Directive.  To be sure, there's plenty of fun to be had in seeing how the original Trek crew came together in crisis, but the beats and character interplay that makes the series enduring are, by design, absent.  

Director J.J. Abrams is clearly taking the long view here.  His aim is to resurrect the moribund Trek brand as a durable, semi-yearly film series and the decision to start with an origin story was made not only to reintroduce the Trek universe to a new generation of film goers, but to demolish the continuity built up over the past forty years.  This will allow future entries in the series to develop unfettered by a confining Trek mythology.  One hopes that, in the future, Abrams isn't also going to jettison the time-tested Trek plot model of discovery and ethical crisis as he and his writing team did with this movie.  Star Trek is basically one long action sequence, with little time given over to the kind of thoughtful, allegorical science fiction that Trek has traditionally been known for.  Swap out the characters names and you'd be hard pressed to identify this film with the Trek canon.  

The brutally streamlined plot finds a young Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) fighting for command of the U.S.S. Enterprise's maiden voyage as they seek to stop a revenge-crazed Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) from destroying the planets of the Federation with a portable black hole.  With no time for serious character interaction or the raising of ethical dilemmas, Star Trek lives or dies on the strength of its action scenes, which are by and large underwhelming.  The special effects are flawless, but Abrams doesn't have much of an eye for building a narrative with action.  Space battles and phaser shoot-outs are shot in a series of claustrophobic close-ups that deny the audience any sense of proportion or scale, and most of the set-pieces lack a rising action or ringing climax.  The exception is a rousing sequence in which Kirk and Sulu (John Cho) skydive onto a giant drilling platform and sword fight with Romulans.That scene works not only because it has a beginning, middle and end, but because the stakes for the characters are clearly defined.  Otherwise, a number of the action scenes feel like they exist only to pad the running time or provide missions for the inevitable video game, especially when Kirk is outrunning monsters on a ice planet.  

Most of the characters have to rely on their iconic names to provide definition, with so little running time devoted to allowing them to interact.  The exceptions are Karl Urban as ship doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy, who chews the scenery in a delightfully Deforrest Kelly-like manner, and Simon Pegg, whose Scotty is broad and jokey, but also a welcome relief after so much intense, two-fisted action.  Pine's Kirk has some steel in his spine, but is mostly defined by an off putting fratboy assholishness.  Quinto's Spock owns the film emotionally and intellectually. He's the one with the love interest (Zoe Salana's Uhura) and the dead family members to avenge, and Quinto brings a good mixture of gravity and trembling rage to the role, but how many Star Trek vehicles have to revolve around Spock struggling between his devotion to logic and his repressed emotions?  

Star Trek ends where you kind of wish it had begun, with Kirk, Bones, Spock, Chekov, Uhura, Sulu and Scotty all at their stations on the Enterprise, ready to "boldly go where no one's gone before."  Hopefully future installments will use their new found freedom to make the most of the franchise's potential for big-budget science fiction driven more by ideas than action scenes.  

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

X-Men Orgins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the inflamed appendix of the Marvel film universe.  The back story of Wolverine before this movie was a perfect collection of vague-but-tantalizing details. We know he's Canadian, over one hundred years old, at some point shadowy military types grafted adamantium onto his skeleton, and he's a bad-ass.  That's really all you need to know. By trying to milk more box office juice out of the X-Men's most marketable character, Marvel has created a brain-dead slog of a lumpy, shambling narrative, baffling character motivation, and a few passable action scenes.  Not to mention one of the most criminally incompetent usages of CGI this side of a Sci-Fi Channel original movie.  

The plot is just garbage.  The effort put towards even trying to make sense of it enough to offer a coherent recap seems like it could be much better used organizing a sock drawer or chewing on some tin foil.  Sufficed to say, the audience is introduced to Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), his homicidal mutant half-brother Victor Creed (Liam Schrieber), a secret government mutant task force headed by the nefarious Major Stryker (Danny Huston), and a first act lifted wholesale from Commando.  It's a collection of nonsense and half-sense driven at all times by characters acting without any apparent motivation when they're not leaping to save another character's life just in the nick of time.  And fan favorite Gambit shows up just long enough to chuck a couple of explosive playing cards and generally go to waste.

Beyond the general ineptitude and laziness that dominates the approach to plot and character, the real indictment of Wolverine is the fact that it doesn't enrich the audience's understanding of Wolverine or the X-Men universe at all.  There's nothing in here that couldn't have been more vividly filled in by your own imagination.  With it's ball of tangled, distracting, loose plot threads, Wolverine brings to mind The Phantom Menace more than anything.  We can be thankful that there is no equivalent to Jar Jar Binks, but a fully CGI Patrick Stewart is a little too close for comfort.