Monday, January 28, 2008

The Man From Earth (2007)

The Man From Earth, an excellent example of thought-provoking, no-budget filmmaking, works on a deceivingly simple idea: “what if a man from the Upper Paleolithic survived until the present day?”

This is the question that John Oldman, a mysterious professor of history, asks his friends and colleagues when they gather at his house at the beginning of the film. John is inexplicably leaving town after ten years at a promising and successful job, and when pressed for the reason by his guests--an educated lot that includes professors of biology, archeology and anthropology-- he begins to tell them a most extraordinary story. John, they learn, is immortal. Born 14,000 years ago in the age of cavemen, he has walked the earth for centuries, never aging, always moving on after ten years for fear of being discovered. What follows is an elegant philosophical discussion about the nature of time, aging, knowledge, immortality, and belief, as John is interrogated by his befuddled and skeptical friends.

The Man From Earth is certainly a science fiction film, but not in the classical sense. Its script, deftly written by the late Jerome Bixby (of Star Trek fame), simply takes a fascinating idea and explores its logical implications in a refreshing and intelligent manner. There are no bug-eyed monsters or robots or sleek spacecraft. In fact, the whole of the film takes place within the confines of one room, and the story consists mostly of educated people talking about obscure subjects. Yet the film still manages to be utterly engrossing. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi pictures or 2004’s Primer, The Man From Earth is a film of big ideas, not big special effects, and this humble style is one of its greatest assets. Director Richard Schenkman wisely keeps his camera in the simplest of set-ups for most of the film, allowing Bixby’s script to speak for itself. Likewise, the sparseness of the film’s set design and its lo-fi look, off-putting at first, eventually reveals itself to be necessary in order to give the viewer the space to contemplate the heady ideas it has to offer.

The film’s cast, unusually strong for such a small movie, is made up of several familiar faces, the kind of actors we all recognize but whose names we rarely know. John is played with a nice subtlety by David Lee Smith, a ubiquitous character actor in film and network television with the sort of everyman qualities that seem necessary to make his character believable. John's colleagues Art and Dan are played by William Katt and Tony Todd, both of whom are probably best known for their work in the horror genre in House and Candyman, respectively. Todd certainly shines the most out of the supporting cast as Dan, the perceptive and open-minded anthropologist who chooses to take John’s story at face value, mystified by the possibilities that such a person’s existence could hold. “I,” he says in a lovely monologue near the end of the film. “A kind of latitude on what we happily call reality.” Still, not all John’s guests are so understanding. The rest of the group’s reactions range from incredulity, to skepticism, all the way to downright anger as the sheer scope of John’s experience becomes clear and his claims begin to force them to question their own values.

The Man From Earth is most fun when it’s exploring the implications of John’s existence and what it has taught him, as it’s clear that Bixby put a great amount of thought into constructing his character. John has a great knowledge of history, but as he explains, his perspective at any given age was always so narrow and confined that he was never able to truly gain any kind of advantage on his fellow man. When the earth was said to be flat, he believed it. As Dan observes, “no matter how long a man lives he can’t be in advance of his times... he can’t know more than the best of the race knows.” Moreover, since John is forced to move every ten years he is never able to truly explore any particular career path or field of study. The cruel irony the film presents for John is that he is never able to live his life in the same way that ordinary people do. Even though he is immortal, he must divide his existence into an infinite number of short, ten-year lifespans, never putting down roots or staying in one place long enough for people to notice that he isn’t growing any older. Indeed, there is a certain sadness to John’s situation that I wished the film had more readily acknowledged, but Bixby, perhaps wisely, is more concerned with the philosophical than the personal.

The Man From Earth is certainly not a perfect film. The character of Sandy--portrayed to be John’s sort-of girlfriend and likely the person who would have the most insight on his character--scarcely speaks for the better part of the film, and the question of how John manages to not age is dismissed with a perfunctory line about how in science “anything is possible,” but these are only small complaints. The film intends to exist as a sort of philosophical dialogue, and it achieves this goal quite effectively. The conversation at its center is always interesting and challenging, and, most importantly, never ventures into the realm of pretentiousness.

Made for roughly $200,000, The Man From Earth is a textbook example of how to create an engrossing, entertaining film with a minimal budget. Contemplative science fiction like this is forever becoming rarer on the screen, and its too bad, because films like this one often manage to be some of the most affecting and memorable stories you’re likely to see.


As a brief postscript, it is worth noting that the producers of The Man From Earth have made news by claiming that file sharers illegally downloading the film have been instrumental in its gaining attention and selling more copies than it ever would have otherwise. This is how I found out about the film, and it's only further proof of what many people have known for a long time: that a reasonably free exchange of information is good for art, and the numbers on the deleterious effects of file sharing are anything but exact.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Color Me Kubrick (2006)

While his notorious reclusiveness allowed famed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick considerable anonymity, it also allowed Alan Conway, the aptly named confidence man at the center of the outrageous and sometimes amusing Color Me Kubrick, to come into the world. The film, which bills itself as a “true-ish story,” follows Conway through late-90s London as he impersonates the renowned director, using the average person’s desire to be associated with famous people to his considerable advantage. Despite knowing little about Kubrick or his films, Conway, a flamboyant dresser and eccentric personality, manages to extort money, gifts, and even sexual favors from his unwitting marks using a combination of charm, false promises, and outright weirdness.

Conway is played with a gleeful panache by John Malkovich, using just about every tool in his acting repertoire to create a caricature that manages to be as fascinating as it is preposterous. With his penchant for vodka, gaudy get-ups and young men, the character of Conway offers more than enough fodder for Malkovich, who uses his considerable talents to turn in his most over-the-top performance since he played himself in Being John Malkovich. Indeed, parallels to Being John Malkovich abound in Color Me Kubrick, as Malkovich the actor gets to turn the tables on that film’s pretenders to do a little imitating of his own, using Kubrick’s personality to achieve the respect and admiration that Conway’s self-described “loser” yearns for. As he says in one of his more honest moments, “I’m only trying to escape myself.”

Unfortunately, the filmmakers feature Malkovich’s offbeat characterization to a fault. So enamored are they with watching him work that they forget to go to the trouble of building a story to make his engaging performance mean anything. As rich as Malkovich’s Conway is on his surface, in hindsight we realize that we got to know nothing about him. Not only are the scenes where he speaks honestly played for laughs, but the film jumps right into its story, failing to explain how Conway fell into to being a con man or how he came to choose Kubrick as his alter-ego, all scenes that would have been interesting to see. Likewise, the film plays loose with what little story it has, allowing scenes to remain incomplete and characters to be introduced with little or no explanation. Meanwhile, the humorous lines the film does have, including a self-referential scene where Conway-as-Kubrick remarks that he'd like to cast "John Malkovich" in his new film, are rare enough that they do little to salvage the weak plot.

The centerpiece of the film is undoubtedly Malkovich's sometimes-funny, often-absurd characterization of Conway. So dominating is his performance that it sucks up everything around it like a black hole, to the point that the rest of story never manages to materialize, making his raucous rendering seem all the more excessive without the depth that would have been provided by a compelling narrative. Who knows? Perhaps Malkovich realized that the film’s story was severely lacking and tried to compensate the only way he knew how, or maybe he was just really enjoying himself. To say that he is showboating and overracting here is an understatement, but the undeniable joy he seems to be having while doing it is sort of infectious, and about halfway through the film I stopped waiting for a story to begin and resigned myself to watching his truly bizarre performance.

In the end, Color Me Kubrick seems to be one of those films that was more enjoyable to make than it is to watch. Malkovich is undoubtedly having the time of his life playing Conway, but his fun can only rub off on the audience for so long, and even though the film is unusually brief at 86 minutes, it ends up feeling much longer. The concept of a man impersonating a famed filmmaker, while novel, is not all that compelling on its face, and the film provides little in the way of story to back up its shaky premise. For his part, Malkovich delivers one of the oddest and most singular performances of the past few years, unfortunately for him it’s in a dragging and unexceptional film.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

Ken loach is a director known for making small, personal films about working class folks in the U.K., often with a distinct social and political viewpoint. Movies like 1998’s My Name Is Joe, starring one of my favorite actors, Peter Mullan, as a recovering alcoholic trying to rebuild his life in the poor neighborhoods of Glasgow, are his stock and trade. With this in mind, it may seem strange that Loach would try and tackle a sweeping subject like the Irish War of Independence, as such large-scale historical fare seems ill-suited to his style. But after watching The Wind That Shakes the Barley, it becomes apparent that this story of Irish brothers fighting against the oppressive rule of England in the 1920s is as much a Loach trademark as anything he has made. Rather than adjusting his style to cater to the breadth of the three-year war that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Loach, working from a script by Paul Laverty, studies the conflict on the small scale, using the struggles of the men from a single town as an absolutely captivating microcosm of the violence and devastation of war.

The surprise winner of the Palm d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, The Wind That Shakes the Barley stars Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) and Padraic Delaney as Damien and Teddy O’Donovan, brothers from the County Cork in southern Ireland. Damien is preparing to leave for London to work in a hospital, but when he witnesses British soldiers kill one of his friends in the film’s brutal opening scene, his conscience takes ahold of him. Soon, he joins the Irish Republican Army along with his brother and several of his childhood friends, and the young men begin to learn guerilla tactics that will help them strike back against the British Paramilitary troops occupying their town.

The film’s magnificently-paced second act follows this motley crew of soldiers as they begin their assault on the British, ambushing troop carriers and stealing arms to fuel the revolution. Loach effectively maintains a narrow focus throughout, allowing the triumphs and failures of the war to be experienced through smuggled notes and second-hand reports, adding an immediate quality to what could otherwise become stuffy historical filler. Meanwhile, the personal story of the O’Donovans and their comrades proves to be as riveting as it is tragic, from the group’s narrow escapes from British captivity to Damien’s difficult execution of a former friend-turned British informant. “I studied anatomy for five years,” He says in the conflicted moments before he pulls the trigger, “and now I'm going to shoot this man in the head...I hope this Ireland we're fighting for is worth it.”

Much like Melville’s Army of Shadows, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a thriller with a social conscience, alternating between kinetic action scenes-- excellently covered by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd-- and surprisingly engaging political exchanges as the newly established republican government wrestles responsibility for the affairs of Ireland away from the U.K. Loach’s liberal-socialist views are well on display in many of the character’s speeches, but he never allows his film to become weighted down with political rhetoric. When the controversial Anglo-Irish Treaty is reached and the O’Donovan brothers become split over its legitimacy, Loach wisely maintains a relative objectivity, not condemning or championing the position of either brother.

All the way from its harrowing beginning to its tragic final third, The Wind That Shakes the Barley proves to be one of the most rousing and affecting historical dramas to come out in some time. Loach’s cast, especially Murphy, is pitch-perfect, and Laverty’s script manages to be both thrilling and utterly realistic, casting a light on a conflict that most people in the States have probably never heard of. The seeds of discontent sewn in the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Irish Civil War that followed would affect the region for decades, and Loach’s heart-rending and poignantly intimate account of those early years is an absolutely essential film.

Is the WGA Strike Really Going to Work?

I haven’t made mention of the WGA strike on this blog until now, mostly because it has yet to have any effect on me. Movies are still coming out because the studios have been stockpiling scripts, TV shows still have a small back-catalogue of scripts, and Conan O’Brien remains his funny and absurd self even without a writing staff. Beyond that, I have trouble caring.

See, my own opinions on the strike are mixed. While I readily acknowledge that what the writers are asking for is entirely reasonable, I also sort of resent that the people responsible for bringing so much crap into the world want to be paid even more for it. Let’s face it, 99 percent of television is absolute garbage, and we mostly have the WGA to thank for it. And while I’d like to see all this over with as soon as possible, there’s also a part of me that would sadistically like to see it taken as far as it will go. Who knows what would happen? Maybe the independent digital video revolution that people have been talking about for years would finally happen.

I also wonder, as Bill Maher did on his first writer-less episode of Real Time last week, whether this was “the right strike at the right time.” The Hollywood studios are as cutthroat and bottom-line oriented as they come, and the general lack of quality that accompanies such a strike will be of little concern to them. They just give us American Gladiators.

Not only that, but they do so unchecked by the satirical watchdog shows like Jon Stewart's, Stephen Colbert's, and Maher’s. As Timothy Noah, a former producer of The West Wing, made mention of on Slate the other day:

“What no one's factored in here is that [the networks' resorting] to cheap reality and game programming actually advantages their bottom line—they get the same paltry rating at a fraction of the cost. And as a bonus, forced into this, courtesy of the writers, they even get to do so without having to withstand critical opprobrium. … [This is] why the Guild leadership utterly miscalculated the effectiveness of this job action.”

Exactly. Why would the major studios ever make a fair deal with the WGA when they don’t have to, when American audiences will still devour whatever filler is offered to them in the interim?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Death Proof (2007)

To call Death Proof bad is not necessarily to criticize it. After all, Quentin Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse, a paean to the car chase films of the 60s and 70s, was never intended to be a “good” film. A pastiche of cult classics like Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point (which is quoted and referenced ad nauseum), Death Proof is intended to be no more than an ode to the no-budget films that frequently played in sleazy, dilapidated downtown theaters prior to the age of the multiplex. It so follows that every one of the film’s weaknesses, from its rambling dialogue and shoddily constructed plot to the intentionally annoying missing scenes and color shifts, could conceivably be considered part of its charm. This presents a unique challenge to anyone who finds cause to criticize Death Proof-- but I’m still going to try.

See, Death Proof doesn’t ingratiate itself to the viewer with its half-baked plot and a healthy dose of sex and violence the way the classic B-pictures of yore did. It doesn’t work because it’s not honest. Those films were fun because the viewer knew that they had been made by novices with a severe lack of time and money, and the bad acting was tolerable because the actors were clearly not professionals. Here, the acting and the production values are incredibly weak, but not for want of funds or talent. It’s simply the result of a terrible script that I can’t imagine Tarantino worked on for more than a weekend, and that he certainly didn’t rewrite.

The story (or so you would think) follows a group of girls who are planning a trip to one of their father’s lake house for a weekend of alcohol drinking and marijuana smoking. Before they leave, they stop at a seedy Austin bar for a preliminary party. Little do they know they’re being stalked by the maniacal Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, looking very much like Snake Plissken), a former movie stunt guy who uses his “death proof” car for acts of vehicular homicide. After interminable scenes of dialogue that seem more at home on a episode of MTV’s “The Hills” than in a film written by a celebrated screenwriter, Stuntman Mike kills the girls by running head-on into them as they drive down a deserted road. We are an hour into the movie by this point.

Every B-movie about a psycho-killer includes the requisite murder scene early on in the plot-- it establishes who the bad guy is and his preferred method of execution. It’s one of the of the most obligatory scenes in all of cinema and even the worst directors know that this should take place at the very least in the first twenty minutes of the movie. Not Tarantino, though. In a film that runs 1 hour and 50 minutes, he uses his first hour as a prologue, and then begins a completely different story afterwards. Perhaps he was trying to follow the example of his pal Eli Roth (featured in an utterly terrible cameo), whose excremental Hostel featured nearly an hour of filler before the actual story started. Unfortunately though, and like that film, Tarantino’s dialogue up until the point of the killing has been so stilted and one-dimensional that it’s almost impossible to care one bit about the quartet of female victims.

The script problems don’t end there. There are also countless plot holes and throw-away characters that are introduced and then abandoned without so much as a single line of dialogue (Roth’s, for instance. I was glad to be rid of him, but where the hell does he go?), although these are more forgivable and can certainly be written off as more cult film kitsch. But Tarantino’s sense of pacing and the way he has chosen to structure the film, with its slow start and inexplicable plot detours, is inexcusable. It simply doesn’t work, especially not as well as his irresistible script for Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn did with its abrupt shift from crime film to drive-in-style monster movie. In fact, that film is an infinitely better example of the grindhouse style than is Death Proof. Tarantino would’ve been better off turning in that script and hoping no one noticed.

After this interminably long opening, the film shifts to a year later, and a new quartet of potential female victims are introduced, this time a group of movie stuntwomen and a ditzy actress. Both the dialogue and the actors are better in this half of the film, but the plot continues to be no more than a formality. Suffice to say, there are a lot of car crashes, but even these were much less exciting or engaging than I expected them to be, especially after hearing Tarantino proclaim in interviews that he wanted to make “the greatest car chase movie of all time.”

Still, although the car chases and Tarantino’s script are big disappointments, there are a few entertaining elements that prevent Death Proof from being a complete failure. The main highlight of the second portion of the film is undoubtedly Zoe Bell, the Kiwi stuntwoman that doubled for Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill movies. She plays herself here, and pulls off a few genuinely thrilling stunts, including one sequence where she is stuck on the hood of a car as it flies down a road at full speed running from Stuntman Mike.

Likewise, Kurt Russell is a treat to watch as Mike, doing a great amalgam of Evel Knievel, John Wayne, and Freddy Krueger. He spends the majority of the film doing nothing but look like a badass, but he shines every time he’s given the chance, the best example coming near the end of the film when he’s shot and is shown moaning and writhing inside his car. This is a nice subversion of the genre, as we actually see the villain suffer the same indignities that his victims are so often subjected to. This is perhaps the nicest touch that Tarantino has to offer in Death Proof: the female leads, whose only job in most B-movies is to run, scream and eventually die, turn the tables on Stuntman Mike near the end of the film and make him the hunted, although even this interesting twist is ultimately undone by the tawdry way that Tarantino chooses to handle it.

In the end, Death Proof proves to be little more than a meaningless generic exercise, the kind of film that has been made countless times and often much more effectively. There’s no doubt that Tarantino relishes the opportunity to pay homage to some of his favorite films, but his tribute comes off as nothing more than a superficial gimmick. Perhaps if he and Rodriguez had been brave enough to tackle the grindhouse idea the honest way-- with nothing-budgets, unprofessional actors and a limited schedule-- then the spirit would have shone through, but as it is the film comes off as a trivial mess. Death Proof may be intentionally amateurish, but that certainly doesn’t change or excuse the fact that it’s a very bad film.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Favorite Films of 2007

2007 is over and even though I still haven’t seen some of the most praised films of the season (There Will Be Blood, Atonement, etc.), I think it was one of the better years in recent memory. For my own amusement, here, in no particular order, is a list of the films I most enjoyed this year.


Larry Fessenden continues to make underrated and thought provoking pseudo-horror stories. And any film that features Ron Perlman cannot be bad. This is probably the film that I am most looking forward to seeing again on video.


Werner Herzog is one of my favorite filmmakers, and this reworking of his documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly is one of the greatest prison-escape stories ever made. It’s also the most harrowing, kinetic film of Herzog’s career, and features a truly weird performance from Christian Bale to boot.


See review.


See review.


David Lynch is a true visionary and this film, impenetrable as it is, is still absolutely mesmerizing. Laura Dern gives perhaps the most underrated performance of the year in what is probably one of the bravest experiments by a major filmmaker in recent memory. In twenty years, I’ll be proud to say that I was one of the few people who caught this in the theatre.


I didn’t really like Shaun of the Dead at all, but this time around Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg hit the nail on the head. This one is well-shot, hilarious, and all around nicely constructed.


I don’t really have anything to say about this one that hasn’t already been said. Well made. Great sound design. Rent it.


I didn’t think I’d like this film about skinheads in 1980s Britain at all before I watched it, but once it started I was completely dragged into its world. Not a pleasant film to watch by any means, but ultimately rewarding.


The best horror-comedy of 2007 takes a tired set-up and breathes new life into it. As far as I'm concerned, the Brits are carrying the fire for horror cinema.


I just saw this one last night, and a review may be coming. This is hands-down the winner for saddest film of the year. You feel exhausted after watching it. But it is also one of the most affecting films I’ve seen recently, and if there were any justice in the world this guy Gordon Pinsent would be winning Best Actor awards left and right.

Eastern Promises (2007)

For my money, the best film of 2005 was David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. In a year that featured no stand out films, where a B-level message movie (Crash) was honored as the best of the year, the Canadian auteur’s tightly-plotted small town noir seemed woefully under-appreciated. But even though 2007 was a much better year for movies, Cronenberg’s follow-up Eastern Promises is still one of the better films of that year, once again establishing him as one of the most distinctive and uncompromising filmmakers working today.

A History of Violence’s darker urban cousin, Eastern Promises re-teams Cronenberg with the excellent Viggo Mortensen, but trades the midwestern American vistas of that film for the stone architecture of London, which has rarely looked as cold or dreary as it does here. The story centers on Anna, a London midwife (admirably played by Naomi Watts) who comes into possession of a 14-year-old Russian girl’s diary after the girl dies in childbirth. Determined to find a way to notify the girl’s family, Anna attempts to get the diary translated, but in doing so is inadvertently drawn into contact with the Vory V Zakone, a Russian mafia headed by the charming Simeon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his mercurial son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Her only ally is the mob’s mysterious driver Nikolai (Mortensen), a former thief on the verge of being accepted as a full member of the crime syndicate.

Like many Cronenberg films, Eastern Promises explores another world that exists just beneath the realm of polite society, where the “normal” person’s ways of understanding violence and cruelty no longer apply. Indeed, the more intertwined Anna becomes with the Vory V Zakone the less she and her family understand it. Upon hearing that Simeon has demanded to be given the girl’s diary, which contains several incriminating statements about he and his business, Anna’s mother exclaims “we are ordinary people!” as though in saying it she can reassert her identity as an average citizen. Nikolai, too, does his best to keep Anna away from the underworld. “You belong in there with nice people,” he says at one point after the two leave a restaurant, “stay away from people like me.”

Cronenberg’s direction is as tight and measured as ever, drawing the viewer into this dark but utterly fascinating subculture, where criminals’ histories of violence are literally written on their body in artful but threatening tattoos. These intimidating tattoos are most on display in the film’s centerpiece, a knife fight in a steam bath between Nikolai and two Chechen gangsters that becomes almost primordial in its brutality. Outside of this scene, the violence in Eastern Promises is always brief but incredibly graphic, a Cronenberg trademark. He catches an unnecessary amount of flak from critics for his depictions of violence onscreen. He is often described as sadistic or overly graphic, but his use of violence is nothing if not realistic. He is a filmmaker who realizes that above all else violence should be difficult to watch. There is never anything cool or kinetic about killing in his films, and here all the violence is committed with knives, lending a distinctly personal and intimate quality to acts that are so often portrayed as dispassionate in Hollywood films.

In addition to Cronenberg’s pitch-perfect style, Eastern Promises also enjoys an excellent group of supporting actors, chief among them Armin Mueller-Stahl as Simeon. His performance as the “godfather” of the Vory V Zakone is one of the most subtle and effective in the film, as he often manages to be both avuncular and utterly terrifying within a single scene. Vincent Cassel is also superb as Simeon’s son Kirill, a drunk and latent homosexual who has introduced Nikolai into the crime family. His character is the catalyst for a lot of the action in the film, and though he is despicable throughout, Cassel manages to instill in him some real humanity.

Still, this film belongs to Mortensen, who pulls of the role of Nikolai flawlessly. He has proven himself one of the more consistently excellent actors working today, and his role here is no exception. He has the gift of being both brutal and surprisingly gentle, and this lends an inordinate amount of realism to every film he appears in. Eastern Promises hinged on the believability of the character of Nikolai, and after watching Mortensen in action its hard to picture anyone else playing the role.

Eastern Promises is not a Great (that’s with a capital “G”) film, but part of why it works so well is that it never intended to be. The film is effectively a closed system, content to operate in its own world under its own rules. One of Cronenberg’s great gifts as a filmmaker is his modesty; he never tries to elevate his material above what it is on its surface, and is comfortable working within the worlds he creates. While this may be a part of why he as a director has never been adequately recognized, it is ultimately the reason why his films are so tight and well-constructed.