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.