Monday, March 31, 2008

George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (2008)

In a world where soulless horror of the Hostel variety is king, fans of the old school of the genre should rejoice at the release of Diary of the Dead, George A. Romero’s latest look into the end of days. A return to the director’s low-budget roots and a radical stylistic experiment-- the film purports to be “found footage” culled from security cameras, the internet, and the recordings of a group of film students-- Diary of the Dead is the fifth and most audacious look into Romero’s zombie universe.

Like his other films, Diary of the Dead follows a small group of characters fighting to survive hordes of flesh-eating zombies amidst societal demise, and as a purely filmic experience it’s a near-masterpiece. The low-fi approach adds a kinetic, free-form tension that was lacking in the last two films, and the gore is as sickeningly creative as ever. Where the film lags is when it tries to serve up a side order of cultural critique along with the dismemberments. Unlike the subtle but admittedly amorphous satire that has filled Romero’s previous efforts (the critique of consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead being the most popular, with the undead returning to a shopping mall purely by instinct), his attempt to criticize the information age in Diary is disappointingly maladroit, and while the ideas that he plays with are interesting and worth considering, the way that they relate to the story and its director’s overarching point is ultimately a bit muddled.

The film begins in the woods on the set of film student Jason Creed’s senior project, an amateurish-looking mummy movie. When news of the dead coming back to life begins to fill the airwaves, Creed and his friends, along with their urbane but perpetually drunk professor, abandon the film project and take off on the road in a Winnebago to try to reunite with their parents. Armed with a digital camera, Creed resolves to film the calamity happening around them for posterity. This idea annoys the others, particularly his strong-willed ex-girlfriend, Debra, but it quickly escalates to a full-fledged quest for truth when Creed realizes that the reality of the situation is not being adequately represented by the media.

Unlike the previous living dead films, which have all been confined to specific locations (a country house, a shopping mall, an underground bunker, a skyscraper), Diary of the Dead is very much a road movie. While the group travels across Pennsylvania, the film becomes a sort of twisted travelogue as they encounter zombie cops, a deaf amish zombie-killer, and a thieving troop of National Guardsmen. In what amounts to the film’s most memorable dramatic sequence, the students are rescued and taken to a well-stocked safe house guarded by a ragtag group of African-American survivalists. Locked behind steel doors and monitored by security cameras, these survivors have managed to rise above the hysteria and panic and band together, amassing a stockpile of gas, weapons, and food. “For the first time in our lives,we got the power,” the leader tells Debra, “because everybody else left.”

Scenes like this one, along with the sequence where National Guardsmen rob the students of all the supplies that the group of blacks gives them, hint at the kind of subtle social commentary that fans have come to expect from Romero. But the film, through Debra’s deadpan narration, becomes overly didactic when it begins to skewer the media and the so-called “YouTube Generation.” Romero’s script--which is otherwise extraordinarily well done-- is often heavy-handed in its critiques, and it’s sometimes contradictory as well. One minute he seems to be hinting that while the mainstream media attempts to spread fear, young students like Jason Creed and the world of podcasters and bloggers are the true purveyors of reality, and the next he has Debra comment through her narration that in a world bogged down with information “the truth becomes even harder to find.” Romero shows us a wealth of newsreel footage, myspace pages and cellphone camera videos, and he’s obviously trying to say something with it, but as the film stands it comes dangerously close to typifying the very information-saturation it's trying to critique.

This complaint aside, Romero does pull off a rather stunning technical feat with Diary of the Dead, and one shouldn’t allow a few thematic shortcomings to overshadow the film's substantial visual accomplishments. In weaving together all these different kinds of found-footage, from Creed’s shots to security camera footage and faux-YouTube clips, Romero manages to give the zombie menace an immediacy that was lacking in the older films without sacrificing any of the soul that made them so watchable. It often worries me in today’s world of internet video and cell phone cameras that handheld, low resolution, shoddily framed film has somehow become so synonymous with reality that directors use it as a crutch (“Look! He’s shooting documentary style!), but Romero manages to pull off this conceit with exceptional elegance. Diary of the Dead is destined to be compared to The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, but Romero’s approach differs greatly from those headache-inducing efforts. His shots are crisp and nicely framed, and because he saves the shaky-camera for moments when it’s really necessary, it manages to be quite effective.

When all is said and done, Diary of the Dead is nothing if not a welcome addition to Romero’s pantheon of zombie films. His social commentary has become a bit overbearing with old age, but at least he’s still trying to deliver something to his audience beyond the usual blood and gore (of which he is still an undisputed master-- a final scene showing rednecks using zombies for target practice is among the most disturbing things he’s filmed). I’ve never been one for sequels, but the way that Romero has breathed new life into a genre that has been suffocated by imitators is astonishing, and I can only wonder if he’ll find the need (if not the money) to add to his epic series, which I consider to be among the best of the horror genre.

(P.S., I realize that I’ve made no mention of the quality of the acting in this film. Suffice to say, it’s pretty bad, but never in such a way that it took me out of the story. If there are unwritten rules in the movies, one of them is that horror films are generally exempt from needing good acting. If the atmosphere is constructed well enough, it’ll fill in the gaps. I’ll respectfully place Diary of the Dead in this category.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Inner Life of Martin Frost (2007)

Paul Auster’s The Inner Life of Martin Frost is a feature film based on a segment of The Book of Illusions, his haunting and expertly crafted novel about a bereaved intellectual’s search for a reclusive silent film director. In the book, The Inner Life of Martin Frost is one of the master director’s short films, and Auster’s protagonist sketches out a stream of consciousness description of it as he sees it for the first time. It’s a masterful sequence, one of the best things Auster has written in his lengthy career, and from the vivid and detailed way it is described in the novel one could be forgiven for assuming that it would make a great film.

Unfortunately, Auster, in his attempt to expand the content of what should be a short film to feature length, sullies the beauty of the original story and creates a film that is meandering, pretentious and ultimately meaningless. By building a narrative around what should be a brief and mysterious tale, he manages to downplay its strengths and exacerbate its faults, to the point that by the end of the film one wonders how they ever could have thought such a story would work onscreen.

The plot starts out simple enough. Martin Frost (David Thewlis, uncharacteristically awkward and wooden), a depressive and mildly successful writer, has just finished a new novel and retreats to a friend’s country house to decompress and relax, “to live the life of a stone.” But not long after he arrives he formulates an idea for a short story, forty pages or so, and resolves to remain in the house until it is finished. After beginning his story, he is surprised one day when he wakes to find the mysterious Claire Martin (Irene Jacob) in bed with him. After some initial tension, the two begin a romantic relationship, and we come to realize that the perplexing Claire is a kind of spiritual muse come to Martin Frost to inspire his creativity and help him write his new story. (That she seems to do this solely by having sex with him is disappointing, if not expected).

The remainder of the film intends to be a meditation on creativity and the sacrifices a writer will make for his work, as Frost realizes that as soon as he completes his story his new love will disappear, but Auster’s attempt to beef up the sparseness of the story by adding subplots-- including the introduction of Michael Imperioli as an aspiring writer with his own muse, played by Auster’s daughter, Sophie-- robs the film of whatever inertia it had in its first half hour, and The Inner Life of Martin Frost quickly becomes a lumbering mess.

For his part, Imperioli manages to be immensely likable and interesting as Jim Fortunato, a heating and air conditioning tech with a penchant for writing bizarre short stories, but one can’t shake the feeling that he seems to have walked into the story from another (probably better, less pretentious) film, and his place in this particular story never manages to materialize. As for Auster’s daughter, I'll only say this-- haven’t filmmakers realized by now that casting your children in your film is always a bad idea? Paul Auster, god bless him, clearly thinks his daughter is talented, but her introduction as a muse “with the voice of an angel” completely takes the viewer out of the film (especially since her singing is mediocre at best), and plays exactly like what it is-- the cringe-inducing boastings of a proud parent.

If Auster had dispensed with the subplots and filmed this story as it should have been-- as a short film-- then it would likely retain some of the magic and palpability of the written version. As it is, he seems to be over-explaining and over-analyzing every tiny part of the story to the point the he sucks the life out of it. The mystery of where Claire has come from remains unexplained in the written version, but here she is given lines about an otherworldly “they” that is responsible for when and where and with whom she materializes, which quickly conjures up absurd images of some clandestine committee of muses that only serves to highlight the inherent silliness of the situation. Throughout the latter half of the film it is apparent that Auster is trying to inject some kind of overarching meaning into the story, but there simply isn’t anything to give that wasn’t already there in the first third. All these new dimensions do is introduce a number of troublesome plot holes and unanswered questions about the nature of Claire’s role as a muse that bog the film down.

The story Martin Frost finally writes is 37 pages long, and that’s how many minutes the film stays interesting. From then on, The Inner Life of Martin Frost devolves into an affected, solipsistic, and ultimately masturbatory exercise. Which is not to say it doesn’t look great. The film was made in Portugal and shot by French cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne, who manages to weave some truly interesting images into the story, but his attempts to hint at depth through imagery only increase the sense of vapidness that seems to radiate from most of the characters.

It might be unfair not to judge the Inner Life of Martin Frost on its own terms and instead compare it to its source material, but I simply can’t reconcile this flawed vision with the infinitely better version that already exists, the version that Auster should have set out to make. What I can do is recommend that you read The Book of Illusions right away, and try to forget that this unfortunate attempt ever existed.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

“The train is lost,” says a character near the midpoint of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. “How can a train be lost?” says Jack, one of the three upperclass brothers (played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) who’ve come to India on a spiritual quest, “It’s on rails.” This line, which in Anderson’s world passes for dry humor, is a strangely apt metaphor for the film itself, which had until this point been mildly promising. Unfortunately, the brothers are soon booted off the train and the film, Anderson’s fifth, effectively falls of the rails and succumbs to the familiar pitfalls that have plagued all of the director’s post-Rushmore oeuvre. By the time the trio saves some impoverished Indian children from drowning in a river and journeys to a remote Himalayan convent to reunite with their mother (Anjelica Huston), it becomes apparent that Anderson’s aesthetic preoccupations and frustratingly offbeat storytelling style have led him to squander yet another interesting premise.

Much like Anderson’s undeniably awful The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited finds a group of clueless characters stuck together in transit, this time onboard a train, as they try to reconnect and work through the ennui that seems to inevitably follow a life of privilege and comfort. The Whitman brothers, Francis (Wilson), Peter (Brody), and Jack (Schwartzman), have not seen each other since the tragic death of their father a year earlier, and have rendezvoused in India at Francis’ request to try and find themselves. Jack has spent the previous months hiding out from his girlfriend in a swank Paris hotel room, a backstory that is constructed in the plodding and ultimately unnecessary short film Hotel Chevalier, which sometimes played before the movie during its theatrical run, and Peter is coming to terms with the upcoming birth of his first child. Francis, the oldest brother, is still recovering from a near-deadly car accident, and spends the majority of the film with his head wrapped in bandages. With the help of his personal assistant, Brendan, he has planned an extensive itinerary of spiritual experiences that he hopes will bring the three together again as brothers.

Regrettably, this is the extent of what we get to know about the Whitmans, as Anderson seems much more concerned with having them wear unusual clothes and quibble with one another than he does with any kind of character development. Meanwhile, what is ostensibly the story of an estranged family trying to reunite is repeatedly hijacked in favor of insipid subplots like Jack’s affair with an Indian train employee, or Peter’s buying a poisonous snake, all of which slowly reveal themselves to be contrived plot devices designed solely to speed the Whitmans' expulsion from the train. Even a scene that flashes back to the day of their father’s funeral wastes its opportunity to provide some insight and falls back on tiresome attempts at humor. Anderson’s writing seems to have been on an increasingly downhill slope for the past few years, starting with the charming Rushmore and then moving from the overly-stylized The Royal Tenenbaums to the downright bad The Life Aquatic, and it may have reached a low point with this film, which was co-written by Schwartzman and Roman Coppola. It’s as though their notes for who these characters were consisted entirely of what kind of clothes they would wear and what music would play in key scenes, and the plot was a mere formality to get these bumbling characters from one quirky situation to another.

Wilson, Brody, and Schwartzman do what they can with the vaguely-sketched Whitman brothers, and it’s to their credit that they only become annoying about halfway through the film. Owen Wilson does his patented Owen Wilson character-- dumb and sometimes offensive but well-meaning, but it doesn’t work as well here as it has in Anderson’s other films. For his part, Jason Schwartzman probably understands what film he is more than any of the principles, and maintains a kind of melancholy distance for the duration, while Brody’s character is the least-developed of all and seems to have been included solely to balance the polar opposites Jack and Francis. It’s just that kind of movie.

Stylistically, The Darjeeling Limited isn’t much different from the rest of Anderson’s work, and whether or not that’s a good thing is almost entirely a matter of personal preference. There is a wealth of tracking shots, pop songs, and bright colors, and the mise en scene is crammed with the detritus of the Whitman’s upperclass lifestyle, from Jack’s portable i-pod player to their Louis Vuitton luggage, which is carried behind them throughout their journey by a collection of Indian porters.

For me, these technical gimmicks and Anderson’s obsession with trivial objects and tidy, symmetrical framing were exhausted in Rushmore and quickly became tired thereafter. It’s an old and oft-expressed complaint about Anderson, but his tendency to fill his frame with offbeat colors, patterns, costumes and objects is only a superficial screen to compensate for what is in the end a lack of dramatic depth. He undoubtedly possesses a gift for composing interesting shots, but he doesn’t know what they mean or why they matter, and here more than ever it seems like he’s just going through the motions of what he assumes to be his personal style.

The Darjeeling Limited posed a unique opportunity for Anderson to move out of this comfort zone by changing the milieu to India-- even if he did take his usual cast of aristocratic New York eccentrics along for the ride-- but he failed to grasp it. Not only has his visual style become more suffocating than before, but the fresh and believable characters that made Rushmore rewarding have been replaced by paper-thin caricatures. That the film is amusing for its first third is no doubt thanks to Anderson’s vibrant style, but once it becomes apparent that it’s all we’re going to get, The Darjeeling Limited becomes yet another exercise in his particular brand of triviality.