Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dots and Cuckoo Clocks

The famous Prater Wheel sequence from Carol Reed's The Third Man. As the story goes, the cuckoo clock line wasn't even in the script. It was added on set by Welles because he thought it helped the timing. Fifty years later, it's still one of the most memorable parts of the film.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Man On Wire (2008)

It’s no surprise that the end credits of Man On Wire list the main musical theme as the “WTC Heist Music.” After all, director James Marsh’s fantastic documentary about high-wire walker Philippe Petit is very much a heist movie, chronicling the planning, scheming, and intrigue involved in Petit’s 1974 attempt to walk a tightrope between the newly constructed World Trade Towers. Using disguises, fake names, falsified documents and months of meticulous planning, Petit and his accomplices managed to smuggle hundreds of pounds of equipment to the rooftops of the towers to engineer what the film's tagline calls “the artistic crime of the century.” It was an art heist in the grandest sense of the term, but rather than stealing a painting or a sculpture, Petit and his friends--identified in the film with espionage-inspired monikers like “the Australian” and “the Inside Man”--were stealing the opportunity to create their own absurd, sublime performance piece.

Marsh uses a number of excellently constructed reenactments to help portray the tension of the “heist,” which required the men to avoid roving security guards, at one point hiding under a sheet for hours while a guard made his rounds only feet away. Marsh never ignores the danger inherent in such a bizarre stunt, and he effectively uses the camera in his reenactments to give the viewer the feeling of being, as Philippe describes it, “on the top of the world.” (Lots of films have tried to recreate the danger of teetering on the edge of great heights, but Man On Wire is probably one of the few that will give its audience a true feeling of vertigo). Like Errol Morris, who’s made a career out of using reenactments in his docs, Marsh adds new levels of depth and artistry to the story with his cut scenes, which are often shot in grainy black and white, to the point that it's sometimes hard to tell what’s reenactment and what’s Petit’s own home movies, which are also used to great effect. There is no video of Petit’s stunning final walk between the towers, but Marsh’s deftness and the film’s pitch-perfect editing are such that you’re not likely to notice.

The story’s frenetic pace and the gripping subject matter are only enhanced by the interviews with Petit, an ebullient Frenchman and born raconteur whose poetic retelling of his own story is the most engrossing aspect of the film. As one of his accomplices says, “he draws you into his world” with his charm and creativity, which played a significant role in the successful completion of the heist. Consider how the men solved the problem of getting the wire from one tower to another: Petit examined a number of possibilities, from hitting a baseball tied to a rope to using remote control airplanes, but in the end they took the simple route and used a bow and arrow to fire a rope from one tower to another. It’s the kind of idea that anyone could come up with, but only a man crazy enough to walk a tightrope 1350 feet in the air would actually try. It’s the same attitude summed up by Philippe when he describes the formulation of his dream: “It’s impossible, sure. So let’s start working.”

While Marsh’s style and Petit’s personality succeed brilliantly in making Man On Wire compelling, an even bigger accomplishment is how quickly and completely they convince the viewer of the validity--the necessity even-- of what is essentially an absurd and pointless act. We see the beauty, the sublimity, and the artfulness that was inherent not only in the wire act but in the planning process, along with the overflowing love Philippe has for his craft, and we leave with a special gratitude for having received a gift we never even knew we wanted.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"There Has To Be Something Else Out There": Paranoid Park (2007)

Save for his forays into mainstream mediocrity with movies like Finding Forrester, Good Will Hunting, and his shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, Gus Van Sant is regarded as one of the more interesting and provocative directors in American film. His career of late, which has included the so-called “death trilogy” of Gerry, Last Days, and Elephant, has established him as a director with something to say-- an artist interested in exploring “big” subjects like school shootings or the enigmatic life of a legendary musician. Beyond anything else, Van Sant is known as a director who gets his audience involved in tough subjects. With this in mind, it’s strange that Paranoid Park, perhaps the best-reviewed film of his career, evokes such a non-reaction, has so little on its mind, and eventually elicits nothing more than an indifferent shrug when its over. While watching the movie I felt like I could identify with Alex, the disaffected, ever-boy teen protagonist at the center of the story, if only because I felt as alienated from and disinterested in his life as he does.

Oddly enough, this does not mean that Paranoid Park is a boring movie to watch, a criticism that is easily (and not altogether unfairly) leveled at Van Sant’s recent work. His fluidity and sensitivity as a director is on display in every frame of the film, and from the start he draws you into the world of Alex, a Portland high school student and skateboarder. Alex is dealing with problems that a lot of kids his age face-- parental divorce, a girlfriend who wants to get serious, the need for acceptance from his peers-- and he walks around with the same vapid, bored expression that can be spotted on the faces of teens in shopping malls and skate parks across the country. But Alex, as he explains himself in an elliptical, inarticulate narration, is troubled by a bigger problem-- one that involves the grisly murder of a security officer in a train yard, and has the police showing up at his high school to question he and his fellow skateboarders.

I’ve frequently heard Van Sant’s style of late compared to Italian Neorealism, the school of cinema in the 50s that sought to portray ordinary life in an unaltered, unadorned fashion (think De Sica's The Bicycle Thief). Some critics have called Paranoid Park, with it’s unprofessional actors (Van Sant found lead actor Gabe Nevins and others on MySpace) and long takes, the heir to this style, but they’re off the mark. After all, people in normal life don’t get involved in murders that often, and a director who wants to shoot in an unadorned style doesn’t hire Christopher Doyle, longtime collaborator of Wong Kar Wai, as his cinematographer. In actuality, Van Sant seems to have hit on a newer, more original approach here, one that attempts to approximate as closely as possible the feeling of being inside a character’s head. Van Sant and Doyle, along with Rain Li, who provides a number of excellent skate scenes, fill the film with an abundance of stylistic “noise”-- from cutaways to super-8 footage of skaters in sewer pipes, to inexplicable soundtrack shifts from Billy Swan to Beethoven, and bizarre sound effects and synchronicities in the audio track-- that helps to show the rambling and panicked dialogue going on in Alex’s troubled mind.

It’s a stylistic achievement, and because it works so well the filmmakers are able to string the viewer along on a thin story and character for longer than they have any right to. But after the first half of the film I started wanting more from Alex than his inarticulate stuttering and blank expression. Van Sant undoubtedly directed Nevins to act this way in order to add a level of universality to the character, to turn Alex into a blank slate for the audience to project onto, but at a certain point a little expression, a little spark of personality here and there, would’ve done wonders for the film.

If this alienation were confined to the character I might have been able to get by it, but Van Sant insists on including the same level of nebulousness and universality to his theme and story as well. What we end up getting by the end of Paranoid Park feels like half a story: kid accidentally kills cop, is troubled by it, and... the end. We never get a real conflict, a real theme, or a resolution. What we get is a rigid character study of the most uninteresting character imaginable. Look, I’m no cinematic puritan. By no means do I demand to be presented with a 3-act structure and a theme at every movie I see. But I do demand that I be involved, if not in the character than at least in the things that happen to them. So I could have enjoyed Paranoid Park as some kind of modern-day Crime and Punishment (which many critics have compared it to), or as a Camus-esque study of randomness and chance a la The Stranger-- but we never get enough evidence from the story to make either such leap. The best explanation I can give is that Alex-- whose father is absent from the home-- is desperate for male attention to the point that he’ll blow off his girlfriend or commit a crime in an attempt to be accepted as one of the guys, and that kind of pseudo-psychology is about the least interesting path the film could’ve taken. At one point in the story Alex tells his friend Macy, an intelligent young girl who is the most interesting character in the film, that he feels like there’s another world beyond everyday life, that “there has to be something else out there.” That’s the way I felt, too, and I wish Van Sant had something more to show me beyond banal surfaces and his own technical skill.

Still, as problematic as Paranoid Park’s story and character are, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t intriguing to watch. Van Sant’s technical skill is considerable, and if you’re into that kind of thing it might get you through the movie-- it’s only when you think about it afterward that everything falls apart. The style on display here is exquisite, and leaves you wondering where a guy with such considerable talent will go next (the first step seems to be a move back toward the mainstream with Sean Penn in the Oscar frontrunner Milk). Still, I can’t imagine it is much more than Van Sant’s skill at weaving together image and sound that has made Paranoid Park so well-received. It is strange to see how he has evolved as a filmmaker over the last several years. Once, I would’ve considered him a director who made thematically interesting but ultimately dull films. Paranoid Park is not dull by any means, but when it ends it leaves you with woefully little to think about.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A New Take On Darko

Everyone who's seen Donnie Darko has their own ideas about what the movie is really trying to say, with director Richard Kelly's take being about the least interesting of all. This essay by film critic Jim Emerson (whose Scanners blog is a lot of fun and worth checking out) poses one of the most wild and oddly convincing theories I've come across. Was Gretchen Ross just a figment of Donnie's imagination? Does Donnie have something of an unhealthy preoccupation with his sister's love life? I'm not sure I agree completely with Emerson's take, but this is certainly one of the more intelligent discussions of the movie that I've read.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Happy Anniversary

The blog turns one year old today. I'm the first to admit that 60 posts over the course of twelve months is a pretty weak output, but I'm going to try and start paying more attention to this thing. Regardless, thanks for reading, and rest easy with the knowledge that I'll be around for another year to tell you why your favorite movie sucks.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Parker and Stone's Mormon Musical

The internets are saying that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are putting together a Broadway show about Mormonism simply titled "Mormon Musical." If it's half as good as the "All About Mormons" episode of South Park, then it will be a work of pure genius.

"One Shot. One Kill.": Charting the Trajectory of the Marksman in Shooter(2007) and Sniper (1993)

(consider this notes for something much more interesting that I'll never get around to writing)

The only pleasure to be derived from 2007’s Shooter is how often and satisfyingly it delivers on exactly what the viewer expects to happen. There are no surprises here. When a soldier in the opening scene shows Mark Wahlberg a picture of his wife, we expect he’ll be dead within five minutes, and he is. When Ned Beatty shows up as a folksy career Senator, we immediately expect him to be corrupt, and so he is. When a rookie FBI agent (played by the excellent Michael Pena) starts researching the assassination attempt at the center of the plot, we expect he’ll uncover a vast conspiracy within the bureau, and he does. Even the details of the conspiracy itself are half-assed and tired (not surprisingly, it involves oil). What keeps the viewer from writing the film off as yet another generic action film is how skillfully and viscerally director Antoine Fuqua handles all the cliches, and how much fun the actors (especially Beatty and Danny Glover) seem to be having going through the motions.

Wahlberg stars as the absurdly named Bob Lee Swagger, an expert sniper who, if the opening scene is to be believed, has never missed. Called out of his idyllic retirement in Wyoming by the military, Swagger is asked to use his extensive knowledge of ballistics to help prevent a possible assassination attempt on the president (we know where this is going, too). After a foreign dignitary is killed in the botched attempt, Swagger finds himself the unwitting patsy in the previously mentioned conspiracy, and has to go on the run to try and clear his name-- think The Bourne Identity meets The Fugitive.

Wahlberg, who as far as I’m concerned has still yet to prove himself as an actor, is more or less a non-entity here. His idea of playing tough is saying all his lines in a low whisper and never once showing any emotion. This fits his character perfectly, though, because as the film progresses, we learn that Swagger will never once find himself in a position of even remote vulnerability. This is one of those movies like Ocean’s Eleven where the main character is always one step ahead of everyone else, and the only involvement the audience has in the story is wondering what new trick he has up his sleeve. On the other hand, the villains in the film are almost cartoonishly evil, from Elias Koteas’ scenery-chewing performance as a psychopathic agent whose name is (literally) Pain, to Danny Glover in an unusual turn as a corrupt official. All their roles seem to be designed to have no gray areas-- that would make their characters too interesting and killing them less fun-- a sentiment proven by a late scene that finds the bad guys sitting in a swank mountain cabin drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and literally laughing about how good they are at swindling the American people.

This works to Fuqua’s benefit, because it gives him a whole ninety minutes to put on a clinic on how to shoot an action movie, which he does rather admirably. Fuqua, probably best known for Training Day, is undoubtedly a skilled director, and he does a top-notch job here of building tension and giving the audience a good understanding of the geography of every scene. That he does it all without using a shaky, “documentary-style” camera is even more to his credit. After suffering through the last two entries in the Bourne series, it was nice to know that there are still action movie directors that care about whether their audience knows what’s going on in a scene.

The film’s geeky take on trajectories and ballistics is also notable, as Fuqua and company seem to take an almost fetishistic delight in describing the physics and mechanics of long-range shooting, from the effects of wind and temperature on a bullet to the pull of gravity and even the spin of the globe. What they don’t ever venture into is the psychological ramifications of taking a life from 1000 yards, or what it means to hold a position where your sole purpose it to kill. Such depths might tell us something about the characters that we can’t see on the surface, but after all, Shooter is not a film interested in telling its audience things they don’t already know.

Whereas Shooter could be considered a film interested only the science of what it means to be a marksman, 1993’s Sniper could be considered a film about the art of taking a life, and the psychic price paid in the process. Directed by Louis Llosa (who would later cement his place in cinematic history with Anaconda) the film stars the underrated Tom Berenger and Billy Zane as marine sharpshooters during the United States’ secret war in Panama. While Shooter sports a faux-complex conspiracy plot, the story of Sniper could not be more stripped down: Berenger and Zane are snipers, and they have been sent into the jungle to find and “take out” two higher-ups in the international cocaine trade.

While it’s billed as an action movie, Sniper might be better described as a psychological drama. Not much happens for the first hour, as we see how the men make their entry into the jungle and begin to stalk their target. What we do learn about is the mindset and mental strength it requires to take on the role of the silent assassin. This is conveyed in the back-and-forth between Thomas Beckett (Berenger), a veteran with 63 confirmed kills and a collection of dog tags belonging to his dead comrades, and Richard Miller (Zane), the green rookie who’s been sent into the bush to keep an eye on him. Beckett frequently talks about the “rush” that a man can get from pulling the trigger, but it’s clear that he’s become cornered into a career that no one does for long, and that the jungle has become his only home. “When the rush is over,” Miller asks him at one point, “it hurts, doesn’t it?” “The worst thing,” Beckett responds, “is not feeling the hurt anymore.”

While Sniper’s moody atmosphere and preoccupation with the psychology of the battlefield separate it from Shooter’s frenetic plot and shiny surfaces, so too do the shooting styles employed by the respective directors. Fuqua rarely shoots from the point of view of the sniper. At most he’ll show the trigger being pulled or a close up of Wahlberg’s face before cutting to the thing being shot, person or otherwise. Meanwhile, Llosa always shows us the target from the POV of the shooter, and almost always with the crosshairs of the scope visible onscreen (it seems as though a third of the movie takes place from the POV of a rifle scope). When the shot is taken, he even switches to the bullet’s point of view as it whizzes through the air toward its target. While the photography in Shooter is more concerned with the results of the act, Llosa’s photography in Sniper focuses only on the act itself, forcing the viewer to identify with the man pulling the trigger and the horrific mental consequences that follow it. That both directors seem to go out of their way to maintain their respective styles is telling, and speaks volumes about the particular mood they’re trying to cultivate.

This connection between the sniper scope and film viewing is rather convincing, and it’s an idea that Sniper plays with much more interestingly than does Shooter. A film viewer-- the passive, far-off observer that is emotionally involved in what happens onscreen at the same time that he is divorced from it, is not unlike the sniper, who watches the action unfold from a safe distance through his own screen, and yet is still forever tied emotionally to the outcome. Whether it’s the “rush” that he feels, or guilt (as in Sniper), or nothing at all (as is apparently the case in Shooter, with its inordinately high body count and protagonist that literally never misses) is ultimately up to the man pulling the trigger, the cameraman shooting the scene, and the viewer watching the screen.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Netflix Watch Instantly Finally Available For Mac

Finally! I've been a loyal Netflix subscriber for more than four years now, but their PC-only watch instantly feature was really starting to get on my nerves. Now mac users can start checking out all the great stuff they have to offer online. Just yet another excuse for me to never leave the house.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Spielberg and Smith's Oldboy Remake

Let's hope it's not true, but several websites are reporting that Steven Spielberg and Will Smith are set to remake Chan-wook Park's Oldboy sometime next year, no doubt continuing a trend of sub-par American remakes of good foreign films.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sam Fuller Tells Us What The Cinema Is

The clip below is Sam Fuller's cameo from Godard's Pierrot Le Fou. Fuller was not only a great director (if you haven't seen Shock Corridor, The Steel Helmet, Pickup On South Street, or The Big Red One, check them out), but he also led one of the most interesting lives of the 20th century. He grew up in New York City and became a crime reporter in his mid-teens, and in his 20s he traveled around the country as a tramp and wrote novels. When World War II started, he enlisted in the army, and his unit would eventually storm the beach at Normandy and liberate concentration camps. When he returned to the states, he shifted to filmmaking, and at the time of his death in 1997 he had made more than twenty features, all without ever having to sell out to Hollywood. His autobiography, A Third Face, is one hell of an American story, and should be required reading for any film fan. As Martin Scorsese says in the intro: if you don't like Sammy Fuller, then you just don't like movies.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Small Town Misery: Snow Angels (2006)

David Gordon Green occupies a unique place in American film as one of the preeminent documentarians of the frustrations and triumphs of small town life. 2006’s Snow Angels, made before his commercial turn as the director of Pineapple Express, has been described by many as the perfect synthesis of the kind of low-key, somber filmmaking style that Green has been cultivating since his feature film debut George Washington in 2000. The film’s biggest asset is the unbelievable depth of its cast, which features Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell, along with an unparalleled group of supporting players that includes Griffin Dunne, Nicky Katt, Olivia Thirlby, Tom Noonan, Amy Sedaris (in a serious role!) and the relatively unknown Michael Angarano in what should be a star-making performance. Coupled with the dependable fluidness of Green’s direction (he garners a lot of comparisons to Terrence Malick), and the film’s source material, a celebrated novel by Stewart O’Nan, you might expect something exceptional, but Snow Angels, though occasionally engaging and often heartbreaking, never manages to be more than just the sum of its parts. There is a lot worth liking here, but by the time it was over, I had the nagging feeling that this was one of the most needlessly manipulative, frustratingly uneven films I’d seen in some time.

Which is not to say it doesn’t have its share of good scenes. Green’s unconventional approach in the early running is to tell his story using a collection of short but often memorable vignettes (few scenes last longer than a minute or two), and these help to set things up rather nicely. We meet Annie Marchand (Beckinsale), a waitress in a small, unnamed northern town, and her estranged husband Glenn (Rockwell), an unstable alcoholic and born-again Christian who’s futilely trying to mend their marriage and reconnect with their baby daughter. Their story is mirrored with that of Arthur Parkinson (Angarano), a retiring high school student whose parents’ (Dunne and Jeanetta Arnette) marriage is on the rocks. Arthur works with Annie at a Chinese restaurant, and we learn early on that she used to babysit him as a child. Green works in these small connections between characters throughout the story, helping to establish how people’s fates are tied together in a small town, and in its first half the film works as a clever character piece. We see the contrasts in Annie and Glenn’s young and struggling marriage with that of Arthur’s parents, and when Arthur begins dating a new student at his school (Olivia Thirlby, doing a lot with a little as she did in The Wackness) the film’s narrative becomes effectively triangulated, following these three relationships of people all at different stages in their lives.

The problem is that this triangulation is about as complex as things get. After all the major characters are set up, Green has nowhere to take them but straight down, and in its second half the plot of Snow Angels devolves into presenting one devastating tragedy after another. This is a common problem with indie films in general, which often seem to substitute unrelenting misery and pain for seriousness and substance, as though only a downbeat story can have meaning. Green seems as intent on manufacturing sadness as your average Hollywood film is with happiness, and beyond learning that they're dejected we never get much illumination on who any character is or why they do what they do. (Rockwell’s Glenn is the only exception, and that’s just because he’s constantly getting drunk and listing out his problems to anyone who will listen). I’ve always been less a fan of Green’s own films than of those he’s produced (Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories) or seemingly influenced (Ray McKinnon’s severely underrated Chrystal), and I’m starting to think that his biggest problem is that he’s too cerebral for his own good, to the point that his movies always seem as though they would have been better served as novels. He does the best he can to hint at depth through camerawork and mood, but his audience can only be expected to fill in the gaps for so long, and the end result is that everything he does ends up being disquieting but never meaningful. Snow Angles is actually based on a book, which I haven’t read, but I get the impression that if we could get inside the character’s heads a little more then everything would pack the punch that Green thinks it does. As it stands, we just get a number of shots of people giving really pained, pensive looks, trying their damndest to look interesting.

Still, to the cast’s credit, I can’t imagine anyone handling the material much better. The acting here is universally good, especially Beckinsale and Rockwell as the two leads. Beckinsale’s performance has been polarizing. Several critics have said that she is too pretty, too cosmopolitan to convincingly pull of the role of a small town mom, but I think she succeeds rather admirably in playing the role of a woman trying to do the best with the cards that life’s dealt her. For his part, it seems like Rockwell has finally found a role where all his capital-A Acting seems to work. For once, all his nervous twitches and facial tics seem at home in the character he’s playing, and he does a good job at bringing a tough character to life. Similarly, Angarano is near-perfect as Arthur, and the budding romance he and Thirlby have is exceedingly convincing, and one of the few bright spots in the film’s second half. It’s in these little details that Green’s promise as a director is most visible. He includes a number of small, unconventional scenes that prove to be surprisingly moving. One of my favorites was a dialogue-free sequence in a bar where Glenn, drunk and grieving, dances with a couple of winos. On its surface it’s unspectacular, but Green is wise to leave the camera rolling and let the scene breathe, and Rockwell is able to sell it and make it one of the better moments in the film. Green does have a gift for understanding the rhythms and oddities of normal, everyday speech. He knows just when to cut to a close-up of an actor’s hands or let a line of dialogue be cut short, and much like his hero Terrence Malick, he knows how to imbue inanimate objects and small glances with uncommon amounts dramatic meaning.

But it's this same sensitivity and Green's penchant for melancholy that ultimately weighs Snow Angels down. It’s not even the dourness that is the problem, but the unrelenting conviction Green seems to have in presenting it and the overall lack of justification for it. David Gordon Green is undoubtedly a talented filmmaker, and in this film he presents us with some sequences of unparalleled beauty that speak to the complexities of human behavior and the trials of everyday life, but somehow it all feels like a cheat. Snow Angels is a film steeped in misery, and when you get to the end of such a film you expect the director to have reached, or at least broached, some semblance of a point (watch Tarkovsky’s Stalker for a good example). That never materializes here, and simply writing the film off as a character study or a mosaic of small town life would be giving it too much credit. Ultimately, the only thing this movie is for sure is a drag. An entrancing, sometimes interesting drag, sure, but a drag all the same.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Foot Fist Way (2006)

After seeing Redbelt, it was strange to finally catch up with the comedy The Foot Fist Way and find that it uses a similar premise and tries to play it for laughs. While Redbelt’s Mile Terry was a Jujitsu instructor whose spiritual purity was at odds with the world around him, Danny McBride’s Fred Simmons is a Tae Kwan Do instructor who grounds himself with the teachings of his craft even as his life is unraveling before his eyes. McBride is solid here, and a great deal of the humor in the film arises out of the way he reads his lines and the odd poses he strikes and facial expressions he uses. Otherwise, though, The Foot Fist Way is a huge disappointment, a film completely absurd and amateurish in its execution that would’ve been much better served as a short. There is little or no story to be found, which director Jody Hill makes up for by inserting countless montages of kids doing Tae Kwan Do in slow motion, and even at only 85 minutes the film feels interminably long. Not unlike Napoleon Dynamite, which the Foot Fist Way mirrors in tone, this is a movie that tries to derive the majority of its jokes from ridiculing its main character. Nearly all of its attempts at humor are based around Simmons' clearly misguided belief that he is a successful guy and a serious martial artist despite his beer belly and the strip mall location of his academy. That’s a premise that would be hard pressed to stay amusing for the length of a comedy sketch, let alone a feature film. But beyond this, there is very little on display here. Even the introduction of Ben Best as Simmons’ hero Chuck “the Truck” Wallace (a clear reference to Chuck Norris) is completely wasted for possible jokes, and the ending confrontation at a Tae Kwan Do demo feels painfully tacked on. What little sly humor is on display here comes from Simmons’ relationship with his wife, played by Mary Jane Bostic, and Hill’s occasional use of slapstick camera work, like a goofy camera move employed when Fred learns his wife has been cheating on him. Other than that, some of the movie’s best lines, like when Bostic describes herself as having been “Myrtle Beach drunk," aren’t likely to register with a number of viewers, and do very little to overcome The Foot Fist Way's considerable faults.

The Wackness (2008)

For a respected, celebrated actor, Ben Kingsley has certainly made some odd career choices of late. Whether it’s showing up in mainstream failures like Suspect Zero, A Sound of Thunder, and The Love Guru, or making an appearance in a Uwe Boll film (BloodRayne), it seems as though Sir Ben is hell bent on sullying his reputation as an actor of class. Either that or the majority of his recent acting choices have been based on a dare. That being said, Kingsley’s role as a philandering, drug-abusing therapist in director Jonathan Levine’s unfortunately titled The Wackness is one of the most delightfully unconventional roles an actor of his stature has taken on in some time. His Dr. Jeffrey Squires is a shrink as messed up as most of his patients, and whether he’s taking bong hits at his desk, running from the police, or making out with an Olsen twin in a phone booth, Kingsley is consistently the best part of this film.

Unfortunately, though, The Wackness is not his story. Instead, this movie is ostensibly about Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), a depressed weed dealer stumbling through 1994 New York during his last Summer before college. Luke’s parents’ marriage is on the rocks, he is shunned by the majority of his peers, and he has little idea what to do with his life. This is why he’s taken to trading dope for therapy sessions with the immature but well-meaning Dr. Squires, whose advice basically boils down to “get laid as much as possible.” Luke takes this advice to heart, but the girl he’s after is Squires’ stepdaughter, Stephanie, whom he quickly falls in love with despite Squires warning against it.

Josh Peck, best known as an actor on Nickelodeon kids’ shows, is perfectly fine as the awkward, unconfident Luke, but he’s done a disservice by Levine’s script, which commits an unforgivable movie sin: its main character is the least compelling, least likable thing on screen. Peck should be given credit for at least breathing a little life and charm into his underwritten role, but he can only take it so far. We never get to know anything about Luke, apart from learning that he likes weed, girls, and rap music, and that he’s generally pretty glum (which might as well be true of every 18-year-old guy in America). Not only that, but Levine’s whole premise is patently unbelievable: how could a kid who’s managed to talk his way into the heart of the NYC drug trade be so bad at communicating with girls? This bothered me the whole way through the film, and Kingsley is even given a throwaway line in one of the therapy sessions expressing the same disbelief. I guess Levine thought that would be enough to dispel any doubts.

The big problem with The Wackness (other than the title, which I must once again assert to be one of the worst in recent memory) just might be, ironically, that Levine’s supporting characters are so well written. I found myself entranced by Kingsley’s Dr. Squires and Olivia Thirlby as Stephanie, and both characters tower over Peck's Luke Shapiro. Stephanie is by far the most grounded character in the film, and it was nice to see an actress get to play a love interest as though they were a real person and not just a two-dimensional catalyst for the plot. By the end of the movie, I couldn’t help wondering what kind of film Levine would’ve gotten if he’d placed Stephanie or Dr. Squires at the center of his story, and relegated Luke Shapiro to the bit part he deserves to be.

One place where Levine does succeed is in utilizing New York City (dressed here to look like it’s 1994) as another major character. There are definitely one too many references to Rudy Giuliani, who had just taken office in 1994, but there are some nice scenes where the characters discuss the way the city is changing, including one where Squires expresses his fear that his edgy, colorful city will be streamlined into one big “happy meal.” Also bringing some life to the movie is the excellent soundtrack, which features some great old-school hip-hop by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De la Soul, and Notorious B.I.G.

But none of this is able to make up for the character problems we find here. I’m not sure if it’s a failure on Levine’s part or something to do with me, but even though I’m not that far removed from the experiences that the main character is going through, I managed to identify a great deal more with Kingsley’s Dr. Squires than I did with Luke. Perhaps it’s neither, and Kingsley is just so good here that he’s able to set himself apart from the rest of the film’s shortcomings. He’s definitely the only reason I’d ever encourage anyone to even consider seeking out a film with such a terrible title.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

One Against Many

From Chan-wook Park's Oldboy. One of the most viscerally cool fight scenes in recent memory, and about the only reason you need to seek out the film if you haven't seen it.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman (1925-2008)

Paul Newman has died at the age of 83. I'll leave the discussions of his life and career to the more eloquent writers out there, but I can say without a doubt that he's been my favorite actor for years, as well as one of my biggest influences as a film fan. When I was 15 or 16 I was a verifiable movie geek, but I wasn't very adventurous in what I watched, content to just see whatever was new. That was until I saw his movie Cool Hand Luke on cable one night. I hadn't ever seen such a great movie character, and soon I was seeking out all of Newman's films, astonished at how many great choices there were. Whether it was Hud, The Sting or The Hustler, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or The Verdict, this was a guy that delivered in every film he was in. His movies were my introduction to the classics, and they undoubtedly changed the way I look at film as an art form. To this day, Cool Hand Luke is still my favorite movie.

I count Newman among the very best of the great actors from the 60s and 70s that made their craft look effortless. Guys like Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Burt Lancaster never tried to make their characters cool or larger than life, it just came naturally to them. But Newman just might have pulled it off with even more ease than all the rest. He had the gift of being completely at home and comfortable in the skin of whatever character he played. He was one of the very best of the kind of actor that seems to be forever disappearing from the screen: the guy that never has to tell a lie or put on an act to get a reaction from his audience.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"There is Always an Escape": Redbelt (2008)

David Mamet as a writer has always been hit or miss. When he’s on, you get great character pieces like Glengarry Glen Ross, one of my favorite scripts of the nineties, or tight action films like the underrated Spartan or The Edge (which, admittedly, I might be the only fan of). But when he’s off-- and he very often is-- you can get cheap sleight of hand like The Spanish Prisoner or nonsensical moral fables like the pathologically awful Edmond. 2008’s Redbelt, a modern-day samurai story which Mamet also directed, falls somewhere between these two plateaus. It’s an almost perfect exhibition of Mamet’s amazing strengths at constructing character and themes, but it’s also all too clear a portrait of his weak plotting.

The film stars the remarkably consistent Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry, a jujitsu instructor whose desire to lead a pure life is constantly in conflict with his need to make a living. His wife (Alice Braga in an uneven performance) pressures him to compete in mixed martial arts fights to supplement his income, but Terry is unyielding, asserting that “competition is weakening.” The film is a character study, and Mamet’s plot is built around the ways in which Terry’s deep sense of honor and morality is tested, whether by a shady fight promoter (Mamet regular Ricky Jay), a neurotic but well-meaning lawyer (Emily Mortimer) or an aging movie star (Tim Allen in one of his better film roles). But all of this is irrelevant, because we know where a movie that owes so much to the Samurai/Western genre is going-- at some point, this guy is gonna have to fight.

Mamet’s plotting is typically haphazard-- characters are introduced and then forgotten, people change from friend to foe on a dime, and no plot point ever seems to happen quite the way that the audience feels it should. Even after over twenty years’ experience in the film business, it seems as though Mamet still tries to maintain a playwright’s aesthetic in his film scripts, letting the characters say outright what is happening rather than letting it be shown by action or camerawork. So when Terry runs out of cash, Braga’s character says quite simply, “you have no cash,” and later, another character tells him that he is “addicted to poverty.” This kind of on the nose dialogue is actually less annoying here than it has been in Mamet’s past work, but the sheer amount of coincidence, chance, and downright absurd plot points he uses to advance his story isn’t, and the audience isn’t likely to buy a number of late twists. To his credit, Mamet knows where his story should be taking these characters, but he can’t seem to figure out how to move them from one scene to another, and while he eventually works his way to a good ending, he makes a mess of his plot trying to get there.

Still, as Mike Terry is wont to tell his students, "there is always an escape," and in the same way that Mamet’s compact and talky theatrical style hurts his plotting, it’s a revelation for his characters. Mike Terry is the kind of smart, sympathetic, classically constructed hero that we get all too little of in the movies, and the fact that Mamet can drop an honorable warrior with a personal moral code into modern day L.A. and still have it feel believable is a testament to his writing. He effectively layers the film around his main character. Every plot point-- no matter how amateurishly it may be reached-- is the result of a motive or action that seems perfectly natural and at home in Terry’s character. The mistakes he makes and the triumphs he has are all the result of something unique to him. That’s enough of a rarity that it just might win you over to the film’s side, and it shows where a writer like Mamet can excel when he wants to.

Of course, Mamet can’t be given all the credit here for making Mike Terry such a fine character-- a great deal of that is thanks to a superb performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, who once again proves that he is one of the very best actors around. In a relatively brief career, he’s managed to cover a lot of ground, from playing a drag queen (Kinky Boots) to a New York City detective (Inside Man) to a futuristic, sword-wielding government operative (Serenity). He’s playing an archetype here--the skilled fighter who considers violence an affront to the purity of the code of the warrior--and he pulls it off rather impressively. He has a gift for being able to evoke the sympathy of the audience whenever he wants it, and even when he’s playing a character that’s more virtuous than most of us could ever hope to be, he manages to make him feel real and flawed. Ejiofor has proven himself adept at carrying the moral weight in his films-- just watch his turn as an immigrant doctor in Dirty Pretty Things-- and it’s probably only a matter of time before he gets cast as the lead of a sweeping epic about a great historical hero. Redbelt is just more proof that he is up to the task. His Mike Terry is the best kind of film hero-- the kind of person that you hope exists somewhere out there in the real world.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

Find the nearest Batman fanboy you know, the kind of guy that has voted The Dark Knight the third best movie of all time on IMDB, and ask him what this film is really about, plot-wise. Not who the characters are, or what the theme is, but just a basic A-to-B rundown of where the story goes. I would bet he won’t be able to tell you much. In fact, beyond rattling off a litany of action scenes, explosions, and a few lines about how scary the joker is, he probably won’t tell you anything at all.

This is because The Dark Knight, the most praised American film of the year, doesn’t ever get around to telling much of a story, at least not coherently (see Michael Atkinson's review for a better discussion of this). And it’s too bad, because this film had the possibility of being one of the all time great B-movies, or at least the most watchable superhero movie in many years. With its moody atmosphere, high body count, and wonderfully over-the-top villain (Heath Ledger is undeniably great and a lot of fun to watch), it’s vintage cult film material. Granted, Director Christopher Nolan would’ve had to hack off close to an hour of the running time (easily doable--and necessary) and take out most of the faux-intellectual moralizing that has gotten so much attention from overzealous film critics, but had he done it he would’ve been left with a tight little action movie that would’ve been remembered as the best Batman of the series. But Noland decided to tack on a 45-minute short film to the end of his feature that introduces a much less compelling villain and takes the story off the deep end of believability (which it surprisingly manages to cling to for most of its length). So after what feels like three hours of action set pieces and philosophy 101 discussions, you lose track of any semblance of plot and the whole movie becomes a jumbled mess of explosions and one-liners.

And all this is fine, considering that The Dark Knight is a Summer blockbuster. Except that it’s not. Or at least it doesn’t think it is. See, Nolan and company are trying to deal with the more complicated aspects of politics and terrorism here-- yes, there are plenty of shots and bits of dialogue that make it seem eerily like some kind of post-9/11 treatise-- but most of it is unspectacular and never manages to rise above the B-movie hokum that fills the whole of the film. What is spectacular is how radical and downright wrongheaded the film’s politics-- or the sermonizing that tries to stand in for them-- really are. The unenlightened masses, this movie seems to say, are nothing more than ignorant pawns to be lied to, spied on, and generally manipulated under the solemn auspices that it’s all for their own good. Batman/Bruce Wayne, the all-powerful and noble oligarch, is just the man to swoop in and take care of everyone’s problems-- a kind of benevolent dictator for the 21st century. Of course, The Dark Knight isn't the only film to ever flirt with these ideas. Lots of action movies-- especially those of the superhero variety-- betray a general disregard for ethics and the rule of law. The protagonist has gotta save the day, after all, and he can’t have civil rights standing in his way. But The Dark Knight is unusual-- some would say more credible-- for the way that it so shamelessly draws attention to its own fallacious message, all in an attempt to pass itself off as a “thinking person’s superhero movie”.

Aside from this half-baked philosophy, all the film really has to offer is a few moments of superior acting sandwiched between one explosion after another. Beyond that it becomes hard to recall. What I find fascinating is not the film itself so much as the enthusiastic response to it from critics and writers. There’s been a whole lot of discussion about what a brooding, tortured hero Batman has become, but nothing about how downright misguided his actions may be (The film’s only attempt at self critique is found in Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox character), or how condescending the film's politics are. The whole conversation about this film seems to highlight some severely reduced expectations in film culture: people are so delighted to find a superhero movie with a message, that they forgot to consider what the message really is.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hamlet 2 (2008)

Steve Coogan continues to prove that he’s one of the best and oddest comedic actors around with his matchless performance in Hamlet 2, the only problem is that the film is only half as clever as his other starring vehicles 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Coogan pulls out all the stops trying to carry the film, from his sly parody of the “inspirational teacher” character to broader gags like repeatedly injuring himself and showing his ass (twice), but even he can’t overshadow the script problems on display here. Catherine Keener is uncharacteristically bad as Coogan’s long suffering wife, and the conflict with her character seems terribly unformed, as does the lame opposition of the town and the school’s principle to Coogan’s titular play. Director Andrew Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady (of South Park fame) came up with a really great premise here, and it’s a shame that they ended up falling back on old standby jokes for so much of the humor. That being said, the performance of the actual play in the film’s final act is spot on, and has to be seen to be believed (something about Steve Coogan as Jesus just feels so right). Likewise, the late introductions of Amy Poehler as a shit-talking ACLU attorney and Elisabeth Shue in a cameo as herself are unexpected and make for some of the best laughs. But I still wanted more. Coogan is great, and scenes like the one where he tries to cross a busy intersection on roller skates are hilarious, but on the whole he deserved better, especially from such an original idea. Here’s looking forward to his next collaboration with Michael Winterbottom.

The Anti-Bourne: 3 Days of the Condor (1975)

Watching a scene in 3 Days of the Condor where Robert Redford fights an assassin in a cramped apartment is like watching the antithesis of the much-lauded style employed by Paul Greengrass in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. For one, you can actually tell what’s going on. And guess what? It’s as exciting as hell. It’s not constructed tension via shaky, handheld camera and quick edits. The tension is just there, it’s present in the scene, and all director Sydney Pollack does (wisely) is let his camera watch it. I wish more Hollywood directors would go back and watch sequences like this. They might learn that filmmaking is about pacing and emotion, not how many shots you can fit into a single scene. Look, I could make a horror film and show it in theaters with seats that deliver an electric shock every time something scary happens, and my audience would certainly jump when I wanted them to. But it wouldn’t be because my film would was scary or suspenseful, it would be because I used a gimmick. Simply put, there’s a difference between building tension and manufacturing it.

As for 3 Days of the Condor on the whole, it’s a smart and well made spy film, and I’ll bet it had some influence on Robert Ludlum when he was writing those Bourne novels in the early eighties. It was nice to see that they portray most of the CIA employees as bookish geeks rather than suave secret agents with a license to kill. (That role falls to Max von Sydow in one of the coolest performances of his career as a calculating “freelance contractor”). Very little of the film seems dated, which is a minor miracle in this genre, and the conspiracy at the film’s center seems just at home in today’s political climate as it must have in the 1970s.

My only criticism of the film is the oft-expressed complaint that the relationship between Redford and Faye Dunaway (who is top-notch as always) seems rushed and tacked on. (It’s such an obvious criticism that it’s even mentioned in Out Of Sight when the two main characters discuss 3 Days of the Condor while locked in the trunk of a car). Try as they might, Pollack and company just don’t manage to sell the outrageous notion that a woman could fall in love with her kidnapper in less than a day. Even with a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome, you'd think it would at least take a weekend. Still, to the filmmaker’s and Faye Dunaway’s credit, her character is not a caricature, nor do they give her some sort of easy backstory to make her seem vulnerable. But artful as it is, the way Pollack plays out the relationship is subtle to a fault, and we eventually just have to settle for it feeling right at the same time that it’s completely implausible.

This complaint aside, the movie works on just about every level, combining the tried and true excitement of one of Hitchcock’s “wrong man” movies with the plot complexity and political implications of an Alan J. Pakula film. That’s a sophistication that you don’t see often, especially in a popular Hollywood thriller, and it’s certainly a testament to the skill of the late Mr. Pollack.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hitmen on Holiday: In Bruges (2008)

Writer-Director Martin McDonagh’s pitch-perfect film debut opens with two hitmen arriving in the picturesque Belgian city of Bruges. The two are fresh off a botched job back in the U.K., and have been sent by their boss to hide out in the medieval city of cathedrals and canals to await his instructions. Veteran Ken (Brendan Gleeson) is immediately taken by the city, and jumps at the chance to play tourist, while hotheaded rookie Ray (Colin Farrell) declares Bruges a “shithole” on arrival and sees no point in doing anything other than drink in the pub. After all, he says, history is “all just a load of stuff that’s already happened.”

On its surface, In Bruges is a story we’ve seen many times before. Even the personal demons of the characters, like Ray’s grief over having accidentally killed a child on their last job or Ken’s calm detachment from his occupation are at this point old plot devices (the killer with emotional issues is one of the most ubiquitous tropes in recent cinema--see You Kill Me, The Matador, Analyze This, The Sopranos and the entire action movie catalog of Nicholas Cage). But McDonagh, best known as a playwright, is a gifted writer of dialogue, and manages to mine Ray and Ken’s mundane and often silly conversations for hidden and surprising depths. His devil-may-care attitude toward plotting is a bit less elegant-- to call the film overplotted is an understatement--but it’s also a big part of what ultimately makes In Bruges so funny and sets it apart from others like it. So after we’ve seen Ray punch a woman, snort coke with a dwarf and two Dutch hookers, and insult just about every social demographic to its face, we are able to let go of any preconceived notions and resign ourselves to going where McDonagh takes us.

Fortunately, the road he takes is more interesting than the genre usually allows, and In Bruges offers some really delightful surprises in its second half. Towering over all the rest is the introduction of Ralph Fiennes as Ken and Rays’s boss Harry, a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered Brit that is the most simultaneously likable and loathsome screen villain that I’ve encountered in some time. Fiennes seems to be channeling Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast here, with his steely-eyed glare and stiff posture (not to mention the string of curses he lets fly ever time he opens his mouth), but he makes the character his own. While Kingsley’s Don Logan was a single-minded, unstoppable force of nature, Fiennes brings some oddly human tics to his performance, playing Harry as the kind of old-school hood that acts on “a point of honor.” He's a proper British thug, and even when he’s shooting a man or overflowing with anger, he’s quick to insist it’s nothing personal.

While Fiennes manages to steal a few scenes near the end of the film, including a shootout with Farrell that’s one of the funniest action scenes in recent memory, the majority of drama in the film is placed firmly on the shoulders of Farrell and Gleeson, and thankfully so. They make a great odd couple, eventually falling into a father-son dynamic that makes for some great humor at the same time that it's oddly touching (see the way Gleeson looks at Farrell and gives him advice before the other leaves for a date). Gleeson’s an old pro, and you expect him to be great (and he is), so it's Farrell's performance that comes as the big surprise here. He seems born to play the role of Ray, and he delivers his most petulant and inappropriate lines (“Look! They’re filming midgets!”) with a childish glee that is infectious and completely believable. Still, where Farrell and Gleeson really prove themselves is not in the film’s lighter moments, but when the mood gets serious. When the two discuss their belief in God or Ray’s anguish at having killed a little boy, it’s genuinely touching. McDonagh’s not just giving the audience half-hearted emotional filler to kill time between the one-liners, but genuine human drama, and this credibility only makes the jokes all the more funny when they do come.

Despite the stellar performances, not enough praise can be showered on McDonagh's script, which is the most tightly constructed of the year. His writing and the film as a whole have already earned him comparisons to Quentin Tarantino, but this parallel couldn’t be further off the mark. When Tarantino’s hitmen in Pulp Fiction indulge in inane chatter about TV pilots or what they call a Quarter Pounder in Amsterdam, it really is inane. McDonagh, on the other hand, imbues every aspect of In Bruges with meaning. Every line, every character, every action ultimately plays a part in the overarching narrative to an almost absurd degree. McDonagh has written the hell out of this movie, so to speak, and the fact that the characters and the drama are still so believable in such an overloaded script is only all the more to his credit.

I’d be remiss here not to mention the fourth key character in the story-- the city of Bruges itself. Love it or hate, this film will still succeed in making you want to go visit this truly remarkable city, which prior to seeing the film I had only heard of in passing. McDonagh makes a joke out of Harry repeatedly referring to it as “a fairy tale place,” but it’s an apt description of the city’s cobblestone streets and canals, which have led to its being dubbed “the Venice of the North”. The fact that McDonagh decided to stage such a subversive, joyously offensive film in this city that seems so staid and proper is just yet another of the many strokes of brilliance on display here.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"And There Was a Great Earthquake..."

One of my favorite long takes from Stalker (1979). Sort of makes up for the other three hours where he barely moves the camera.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Recently Seen...

There Will Be Blood (2007) D: Paul Thomas Anderson

After a year of hype, I finally got around to seeing this one. I’ve never been a big P.T. Anderson fan, but this movie did prove to me that he is a hell of a technical filmmaker. Nearly every shot is perfectly composed, and the score, by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, manages to hit just the right note of absurd menace. The only problem, then, is Anderson’s script. Just like every film he’s made so far, it starts out strong before taking a nosedive and becoming outright plodding in its second half. I can still remember seeing Boogie Nights and wondering what the hell had happened to Anderson’s story when it reached the scene at the drug dealer’s house more than two hours in. The same thing happens in There Will Be Blood when Kevin J. O’Connor shows up claiming to be Daniel Plainview’s brother. It immediately seems out of place, and after a truly useless thirty minutes it becomes clear that his character has only been inserted into the story to serve as an audience for Plainview’s “I hate most people” monologue. That’s just lazy writing, especially in a two-and-a-half hour long movie.

I will jump on the bandwagon and say that Daniel Day Lewis is superb here. I completely bought his character in every way, and he certainly deserved the Academy Award he got, if only because he manages to inject meaning and ironies into his performance that are completely absent in the writing. He certainly blows Paul Dano’s sniveling faith healer out of the water every time the two have a scene together, and for better or worse, he does feel like a great American character. But he’s always bumping up against the shortcomings of the story. Anderson seems to be trying to make a big statement here, but I don’t know what it is, and I’m not sure he does, either. We get an ambitious, greedy oil man, and a smarmy false prophet, but I don't see what one has to do with the other. The film's tagline is "When Ambition Meets Faith." But isn't the character of Eli Sunday just as ambitious as Daniel Plainview? And Plainview, in his capitalist sort of way, certainly has faith in himself and his ability to succeed. So what, then? Is this film a statement on the shortcomings of capitalism and religion? On the hollowness of worldly pleasures? Is it a parable about the sacrifices made in the name of progress? Or how a man can be consumed by his own ambition? Anderson shows us parts of all these themes in varying degrees. The problem is that There Will Be Blood doesn’t have anything new or interesting to say about any of them.

If... (1968) D: Lindsay Anderson

60s-era English school kids rebelling against the establishment can become an odd metaphor the violence of the present. That’s the way most Americans, with thoughts of school shootings all too fresh in their minds, are bound to read Lindsay Anderson’s classic Angry Young Man film. In reality, If... isn’t actually that fixated on violent young people (I’m not too sure the shootout that closes the story even really happens-- it might be yet another one of the fantasy sequences that populates the whole of the film.) It’s more about class structure, insurrection, and the way values are so often sacrificed in the act of revolution (to change society one has to be willing to employ its methods-- which here means violence). It’s impossible not to read the film in the context of the May ’68 student uprisings in Paris, but I think Anderson was concerned with a lot more here than being topical, and the film's target is nothing less than the whole of the English social structure.

The style of the film is a bit perplexing (I spent the better half of it trying to decipher the relevance of the seemingly random shifts from black and white to color, only to read afterward that Anderson had experienced trouble trying to light certain locations and had used the black and white merely out of utility), but Malcolm McDowell seems born to play the role of Mick Travis, and you can see here the blueprint that has been followed by a number of British actors over the years. I’ve little doubt that this is the film that convinced Stanley Kubrick that McDowell could play Alex in A Clockwork Orange. As for Anderson, he started out making documentaries, and you can see that style at work in the film’s first hour, which documents the dreary life of the school as though it had been filmed by Grierson or the Maysles Brothers. The film then takes a shift toward the surreal in its second half, and ends up feeling oddly like a Bunuel movie. This dissonance manages to be one of the its strong suits, and helps to set the scene for the truly bizarre final half hour that has to be seen to be believed. If... is certainly one of the stranger films I’ve seen in a long time. I felt oddly removed from it while watching it, even alienated, but afterward I had the distinct impression that I’d seen something great.

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) D: Walter Salles

There’s not all that much plot in The Motorcycle Diaries. Two friends meet, take a motorcycle trip through South America, and then part ways. It would be unspectacular, if one of the two didn’t turn out to be Che Guevera, the famed revolutionary (and t-shirt image). The odd thing is that Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera play out the story as though they have no knowledge of the history surrounding the main character. Indeed, nothing in Ernesto Guevera, played with astounding sympathy by Gael Garcia Bernal, suggests that this retiring, asthmatic young man would one day be the spokesman for an entire revolution, serving as the voice of a philosophy and leading armies of guerillas through the jungles of Bolivia. Outside of a few throwaway lines, the only uncommon aspect of his character is his extreme honesty-- a trait that the script annoyingly allows to be pointed out by nearly every character he encounters. But even this is excusable, because The Motorcycle Diaries works around the friendship of the two main characters and the amazing scenery they encounter as they ride (and often fall off of) a beat up motorcycle across the continent (this film has been described by others as one giant travel ad for South America-- and they’ve definitely got a point). I can confidently say that this is one of the most manipulative movies I’ve seen. The film haphazardly shoves images of downtrodden communists, oppressed Indians, and postcard-like shots of Macchu Picchu and the Argentine countryside down the viewers’ throats, just hoping to get an emotional reaction. The surprising thing, then, is that it so often succeeds. As a love letter to youthful exuberance, adventure, and friendship, The Motorcycle Diaries manages to be emotionally affecting at the same time that it’s intellectually and politically implausible. And sometimes, that’s perfectly alright. There’s not really any “there” there, but thanks to Salles’ languid pacing, a sweetly melodic soundtrack, and truly moving performances from Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna as his best friend Alberto, The Motorcycle Diaries manages to achieve an almost perfect kind of sophism.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Missing the Mark: The Grand (2007)

Zak Penn’s sophomore effort The Grand has just about everything going for it. For one, it’s stuffed to the hilt with funny people: Woody Harrelson, Cheryl Hines, David Cross, Dennis Farina, Chris Parnell, Gabe Kaplan, Ray Romano, and Michael McKean are all a part of the cast. Even Werner Herzog makes a cameo. It’s also got the kind of promising plot (a group of eccentrics competing in a high-stakes Vegas poker tournament) that seems catered to the self-reflexive, Christopher Guest-style improvisational comedy that worked so well in Penn’s directorial debut, Incident at Loch Ness. With all this in mind, it only seems all the more disappointing that The Grand is devastatingly mediocre. It’s by no means a total misfire, but for every joke or scene that’s worthy of a laugh, there are two or three that fall flat. In the end, it never manages to be more than just offhandedly amusing.

What’s so odd about The Grand is that the parts of it that are actually funny are what end up being its undoing. Penn and Matt Bierman, who wrote the 29-page script that the improv scenes work around, built up a massive backstory around each of the main characters, and these parts of the film prove to be its funniest moments. We learn about Harrelson’s character “One Eyed” Jack Faro, a lifelong substance abuser(“If you can drink it, snort it , shoot it or smoke it, then I’ve done it”), who’s been married more than fifty times and is trying to win the titular poker tournament to save his family’s casino. There is also Chris Parnell as a socially awkward poker genius who quotes lines from Dune at the table, and Hines and Cross as Lainey and Larry Schwartzman, twin siblings that have been forced into competition since birth by their overbearing father (Gabe Kaplan). All of these backstories, including Farina’s as an old-school Sinatra type and Richard Kind as a dimwitted amateur, are quite admirably constructed, and make for some of the movie’s most laugh-out-loud moments. Penn uses graphics and cut scenes to slip in some sly humor, and one bit where Herzog’s character (a leather-clad sociopath known only as “The German”) is photoshopped into old photos is too ridiculous not to be hilarious.

The problem, then, is that once Penn has exhausted the fun of introducing this motley crew of characters, we wish we could watch them do something more interesting than play cards. If the lack of movies centered around poker (especially when it’s so wildly popular) tells you anything, it’s that it’s not the most compelling thing in the world to watch, and The Grand is about as much proof of that as you need. After introducing everyone and giving them the opportunity to execute some more high concept jokes, what we’re left with is essentially the movie version of that Celebrity Poker Showdown TV show (which, oddly enough, no less than three of these actors have appeared on).

The structural problems introduced by the lengthy backstories take their toll on the actors, as well. Given such fully formed characters early on, most of the stars involved have nowhere to go, and the majority of them fall into the trap of latching on to one or two quirks of their character and trying to milk them for all they’re worth. Cheryl Hines, usually great on HBO’s improvised series Curb Your Enthusiasm, plays the lone female ringer, a mother of four with an oddball husband (Ray Romano, surprisingly funny) that was once struck by lightning. Although she’s onscreen perhaps more than anybody else, she’s given the least to do, and eventually resorts to just saying “fuck” every other word in attempt to get cheap laughs. But while Hines still in no way discredits herself, some of the other actors do, most notably improv vet Michael McKean as Steve Lavisch, a seemingly retarded real estate tycoon that’s gunning for Harrelson’s casino. Penn must’ve figured that he could let a guy who’d appeared in This Is Spinal Tap run wild with little direction, but the result is one of the most dreadfully unfunny performances in the film. Similarly, Gabe Kaplan seems to singlehandedly drag the life out of most of the scenes he’s in, and David Cross is also uncharacteristically weak, though he too seems to have little to work with.

Not surprisingly, the best performances in The Grand come from the characters that were given the best backstories, where the one-note joke of their character doesn’t get old too fast. Harrelson is probably the best as the whacked-out born loser Jack Faro, who wears hippie beads and Willie Nelson t-shirts at the poker table and designs novelty casinos like “The Chicago Fire,” where part of the building was always in flames (“it burned down”). Meanwhile, Chris Parnell also works as Harold Melvin, the math genius that lives with his mom and slurps vitamin shakes all day to keep himself mentally sharp. Usually when an SNL-alum is thrown into a comedy film they prove to be one of the weak links, but Parnell is consistently funny here, repeatedly getting laughs out of speaking in a low, nerdy monotone. Michael Karnow, formerly a voice actor for a number of Nickelodeon shows, also steals a lot of laughs as Mike Wierbe, a TV announcer that never misses a chance to plug his book and DVDs for “The Wierbe Method” of poker. Karnow seems to get the zany mood this film requires just right, and his interaction with his straight man co-host Phil Gordon (an actual poker pro) makes for some nice moments.

Penn’s Incident at Loch Ness was for me a minor stroke of genius, playing on the dual legends of the Loch Ness monster and Werner Herzog in a way that was intelligent, fresh and often outright hilarious. The Grand is working on a much smaller conceit, but it still manages to miss the mark because of its overall lack of structure. I’ve yet to mention that in addition to the ad-libbed dialogue, the actors in the film actually played the final table of the poker tournament and let the story be decided by who won. It’s seems like a cool idea, and even I was taken by it at first, but in hindsight it’s a big part of why the movie fails to live up to its potential. Sure, it’s faithful to the improvisational technique the filmmakers are working with, but it also runs counter to setting up a truly well-structured, funny story. When improv is done right, you can get classics like Spinal Tap and the best of Christopher Guest, but when it’s bad, it can be really painful to watch, territory that The Grand flirts with just a little too often.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Viewings 7/20/08-7/27/08

It seems I just don’t have (or find) enough time to write long form reviews of most of the films I see. That’s why I’m going to start posting these groupings of short reviews every week to fill in the gaps...

Belle De Jour
(1967) D: Luis Bunuel

Catherine Deneuve stars as Severine, a bored French housewife who makes up for her sexless marriage by indulging in erotic fantasies. Since it’s a Luis Bunuel film, these daydreams are a whole lot weirder than they are sexy-- one in particular involves her being tied to a barn while two men throw mud on her and call her dirty names. When she hears of a secret brothel, Severine goes to see the madam, and is soon working as a prostitute by day while maintaining her genteel-- and celibate-- bourgeois life at night. Like most Bunuel movies, Belle De Jour includes a healthy dose of the surreal, as well as satire of the soulless middle class and a few witty jabs at organized religion. Oddly enough, and despite the subject matter, the result is a movie that is probably the most conventional film he made in France-- the story has a definite three acts, and even the frequent dream sequences are more clearly delineated as such through some interesting sound design (we hear the sound of bells-- originally linked to a horse carriage in the film’s first scene--every time Severine begins to fantasize). But Bunuel is still a master of the subversive, and like his masterpiece Viridiana, Belle De Jour is notable for suggesting the deepest of perversions without ever resorting to showing them. Consider a scene where a Chinese businessman comes to the brothel. He carries a box that makes a buzzing sound every time he opens it, and though the camera never shows what it contains, the disgusted reactions of the prostitutes are enough to conjure up all manner of depravity. But the joke is on us: Bunuel noted in his book My Last Sigh that he never knew what was in the box. What he did know was that his audience, no matter how dignified they considered themselves, could be counted on to fill in the gaps.

Shotgun Stories (2007) D: Jeff Nichols

Here’s a fine movie that was more or less ignored by the mainstream critics. Three brothers known only as Son, Kid, and Boy, find out that their hateful father has died after leaving them behind, finding God, and starting another family. The three crash the funeral, and have soon started an all out feud with their half-brothers that quickly escalates from bitterness to bloodshed. In many ways, Shotgun Stories is the most American movie I’ve seen this year. Unlike most mainstream fare with its streamlined (and often manufactured) cultural identity, this is a film that could have been made no where else except the Southern U.S., specifically Arkansas. It feels real and honest because it is steeped in the culture that it sprang from. Director Jeff Nichols took the characters that are placed in the periphery and played for laughs in most films and made them the center of his movie, and the result is one of the most humane films to come along in a while. The mostly non-professional cast is nearly universally excellent, especially Douglas Ligon as the gentle but ineffectual Boy, who would rather live in a van in “early retirement” than get a job. Michael Shannon (most notably of the underrated Bug), the only name actor in the cast, once again distinguishes himself as one of the most unique performers working today. He certainly has one of the most interesting faces of any young actor around. Forget Gus Van Sant and all the people saying he’s achieved something resembling De Sica and the Italian Neorealists. This is a movie that feels like it’s about real people.

Stone Reader (2002) D: Mark Moskowitz

This documentary follows filmmaker Mark Moskowitz as he tries to track down the writer of what he considers a forgotten classic of literature. The book, The Stones of Summer, and its writer, Dow Mossman, were briefly hailed as visionary in 1972 before fading into oblivion. By the time Moskowitz discovers the book in 2001 it has become so obscure that even the jacket designer doesn’t remember it. While it’s ostensibly about the search to find Mossman and ask him why there was never another book, Stone Reader is more about the beauty of reading and the gifts that good literature can continue to give to its readers (one writer charmingly calls it “the only pleasure that never gets old”). If that sounds like the kind of maudlin preaching you remember form your elementary school librarian, rest easy. Moskowitz is on the whole able to steer clear of the mountain of cliches that surround his subject. Where the problems lie are not in his content but in his technical skill as a documentarian and editor. He attempts a self-reflexive approach wherein we see the making of the documentary as we watch it, and while this does allow for some nice touches, in particular one scene where Moskowitz handles the unprinted film of the scene the audience has just witnessed, it ultimately makes the film overlong and unnecessarily convoluted. That’s not even mentioning the completely lifeless color palette that Moskowitz insists on using. For a guy who’s trying to make reading look interesting to people, he does him self a disservice by making his movie look as though it were a relic of the mid-eighties.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Zero For Conduct

This is film critic and writer Michael Atkinson's personal website, and it's well worth checking out. He currently has a link up to an essay he wrote that's one of the best things I've read on Werner Herzog. The name of the blog, interestingly enough, comes from the 1933 Jean Vigo film Zero de Conduite, also worth checking out. Definitely one of my all time favorite movie titles.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sinister Seduction: The Beguiled (1971)

The Beguiled finds Clint Eastwood playing against the type of character that had made him a star in films like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. While the stoic Man With No Name let his actions do the talking, John “Mc B” McBurney, the injured Union soldier at the center of Don Siegel and Eastwood’s forgotten pre-Dirty Harry collaboration, is a man who uses his silver tongue to allure, win over, and ultimately deceive his marks. In short, he’s not a very nice guy-- but then few characters in The Beguiled are. The film, which Siegel noted as a personal favorite in his long career, is an exploration of repressed sexuality and human treachery, and its unhinged characters-- who range from the misguided and spurned to the downright malicious-- are what make it an interesting and subtle twist on the typical Western formula.

The film is set at an isolated school for girls during the Civil War. Battles rage just outside of the plantation gates, and the school’s headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) is often forced to turn away sex-starved soldiers who show up looking to “protect” her students, but otherwise the school exists as a peaceful oasis in the middle of the devastated South. That is until John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier, arrives looking for help, and the young girls, along with head teacher Edwina Dabney and the lone slave woman Hallie, reluctantly take him in and care for him. McB’s status at the school is uncertain-- he is, after all, the enemy-- and upon awakening he isn’t sure if he is a patient or a prisoner, though the wooden boards that Ms. Martha nails over his windows are not too heartening. A ladies' man who's as smooth as he is creepy (“old enough for kisses,” he says to one girl upon learning she is twelve), McBurney takes to flirting with the girls to pass the time and get on their good side, and soon has the whole school under his spell. The jealousy he creates among the students and the teachers (especially the repressed Ms. Martha, whose own sexual history is more than a little twisted) soon has the school in shambles, as the women all clamor for McBurney’s affections, a competition that quickly takes a turn toward the weird.

The Beguiled is a good, solid film throughout, but as much respect as I have for Don Siegel (he made Invasion of the Bodysnatchers... enough said) I think it could have been a great movie had it been directed by someone else. Siegel’s a hell of a filmmaker, but he was always a better hand at directing hard-boiled crime dramas like Dirty Harry and the severely underrated Charley Varrick than more subtle, surreal material like this. This was the kind of movie a guy like Roman Polanski (especially in the early 70s at the height of his powers) was born to direct, as its exploration of isolation and budding sexuality seems more at home in a European art film like Repulsion than it does in a Clint Eastwood movie. Likewise, later scenes where an increasingly warped Ms. Martha begins to practice her surgery techniques on McB seem as though they could’ve been ripped from Polanski’s early work. To his credit, though, Siegel understands the surreal landscape in which he is working, and weaves in some truly great scenes, notably a dream sequence that is a fascinating piece of filmmaking. But for a lot of the film it feels like he is out of his depth, and things begin to lag just when they should be at their most exciting.

What keeps The Beguiled afloat are a number of excellent performances, foremost Clint Eastwood as McBurney. If it is known for anything, The Beguiled should be remembered as the film that established Eastwood as the talented actor that he truly is. It was an incredibly brave choice following his iconic roles in Sergio Leone’s westerns to play a part where he is immobile in a bed for the majority of the film, but Eastwood pulls off the role magnificently. He is totally believable as the resourceful but self-possessed McB, and he manages to bring a great deal of shading to a character that could have easily been a one-sided caricature. We root for him throughout the movie, and we want him to escape the clutches of the jealous women, but we also recognize that he’s pretty much a scumbag. That’s a duality that, outside of his role in Dirty Harry, we wouldn’t see out of Eastwood again until he made the masterpiece Unforgiven.

In addition to the nuance of Eastwood’s performance, his characterization of McBurney is buoyed by skillful performances from the all-female supporting cast. Geraldine Page manages to be equally sympathetic and downright terrifying as the ice cold Ms. Martha, while Elizabeth Hartman (Walking Tall) brings one of the few notes of innocence to the loyal Ms. Dabney. Throughout the film, every character has moments of honesty and treachery, sin and virtue, and this technique complicates the story in a way that manages to be endlessly interesting. The only character that doesn’t commit a truly heinous act is the slave Hallie, excellently played by Mae Mercer (who would also make an appearance in Dirty Harry) in a role that well illustrates the pain and complexities the war posed for Southern slaves. If The Beguiled were remade today, screenwriters and producers obsessed with political correctness would probably give her a speech condemning the Confederacy and the institution of slavery, and in doing so the character would become an anachronistic parody. What we get here instead are a few playful exchanges between she and McB (he thinks she should help him because he’s fighting for her freedom) that say everything they need to say without ever being stilted. McB and Hallie’s interaction feels genuine and honest with respect to the milieu--not the kind of desultory preaching written from the vantage point of the present that seems to populate most Hollywood period pieces.

But I stray from the point. The Beguiled is worth seeking out, both for its daring themes and its high level of creepiness. Siegel’s conclusion was a little less than I had hoped for (I think it would have been better served to move in an even more disturbing direction), but the ending is completely satisfactory, and runs in a different direction from just about every Clint Eastwood movie ever made. Still, the real thing to watch for here is Clint’s excellent performance, which I would be so bold as to call one of the best of his career.