Monday, December 21, 2009

Crank as the Ultimate Video Game Movie

I’ve finally ended my reign as the last American male who hasn’t seen the movie Crank. I don’t remember the original or its even zanier sequel getting all that much attention when it first came out, but it seems that both have attained minor cult status on video, and it’s easy to see why: like all the best genre movies, both Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage relish their B-movie status, throwing all verisimilitude, logic, and dramatic pretensions out the window in favor of pure, anarchic fun. It’s the kind of attitude that made this year’s Zombieland work so well, and it’s the formula that many of the most beloved action and horror films, from the Evil Dead series to the cream of the Hong Kong action crop, do so well. It’s such a simple plan that it’s surprising it’s not employed more often: start your movie off with a bang, and then don’t let up ‘til the credits roll.

I’m a little late to the party on this one, so I’m not going attempt to review or discuss either of these films in the more traditional sense. I do want to try and tackle their style, though, because while watching them it occurred to me that these two films seem to encapsulate the so-called “video game aesthetic” as well as anything I’ve seen. In the past, a “video game” movie was something like 1995’s Mortal Kombat, or 1994’s utterly forgettable Street Fighter (which has the depressing honor of being Raul Julia's last movie); that is, movies adapted from video games. In recent years, though, some directors have started employing the feel and construct of games as a recognizable filmmaking style. Crank appears to be the exemplar. Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are using this aesthetic at every turn throughout both movies, and while the effects are probably jarring or even confusing to people that didn’t grow up with Nintendo, for those that did, it’s too obvious to ignore.

Right from the beginning, Neveldine and Taylor cue their audience in to the kind of style they’re using. The opening credits are done in a blatant arcade game mode, complete with old school 32-bit graphics and Donkey Kong-style sound effects. When they finally do cut to the first scene of the movie, it’s a point-of-view shot of hit man Chev Chelios (Jason Statham, proving why he deserves two action movie franchises) waking up in his apartment to find that he’s been injected with the “Beijing Cocktail,” a mixture of decidedly un-groovy drugs that is slowly stopping his heart.

This opening scene works like a video game in two ways: the first is that it’s the classic “cut scene” that seems to open every action video game. That is--introduce the hero, let us know what his problem is, and then on to the ass-kicking. Some movies have used this method--Commando comes to mind--but traditionally they require a lot more throat-clearing in the form of character introductions and exposition before they really get down to business. Video games have always eschewed that kind of backstory out of necessity, since anything the person playing the game can’t control is really just filler, and needs to be dispensed with as fast as possible. The fact that Crank does the same is a definite clue as to what kind of movie you’re about to experience.

The second key aspect of the opening scene is that it sets the stage for a particular style of framing--establishing Statham as a video game hero who is essentially being “played” by the movie--that the filmmakers are to use throughout both films. For the rest of Crank, and in Crank 2, he’ll often be shot in a very deliberate and almost intentionally stilted style that is designed to recreate the look of a character within a game. Here, the idea is point-of-view, the kind of style used in so-called “first-person shooter” video games. But Neveldine and Taylor often employ a third-person style, as well, in the form of tracking shots that follow just behind Chelios as he walks down the street. Of course, the whole of both movies is not shot in this fashion, but even when they’re not using a particular type of video game framing, both Crank films take a cue from the particular set-design and set up of action video games.

The most notable example occurs at the beginning of Crank 2, when Chelios, still alive but now sporting an artificial heart with the battery on empty, escapes from the Chinese gangsters who were holding him hostage. He makes his way out into a kind of industrial park, where a collection of shipping containers have been stacked and arranged in such a way as to create a makeshift maze. Naturally, there are roving groups of armed guards, who Chelios both avoids and guns down at will. This kind of situation--where equal amounts of stealth and fighting are required--is found time and again in video games, and the style of filming, which again employs a healthy dose of centered third-person framing, is one of the franchise’s most obvious nods of the head to the arcade aesthetic. The shipping containers are also a nice touch. I’m not sure what it is, but in my experience every action video game--and quite a few movies, as well--have at least one sequence in a compound filled with shipping containers.

There are plenty of other video game elements to Crank worth studying, from the Godzilla-inspired fight sequence in the second film to the movie’s use of a map--courtesy, apparently, of Google Earth--to zip from one location to another throughout Chelios’ frenetic dash to get revenge, but I’ll let them be for now. The overall point is that these movies, juvenile though they may be, do seem to represent a small step forward for filmmakers interested in trying to mix media, whether it’s with music videos, computer animation, or video games. In the past, a “video game movie” was a movie that just borrowed hackneyed characters, plot lines, and elements from titles out of the Sega Genesis catalogue. But now it might refer more to a particular style, feel, and tone that’s more referential--oddly postmodern, even--than it is anything else. The purist in me wants to say that anything that contaminates the precious style of movies as they are is a definite step in the wrong direction, but as long as this kind of stuff is here to stay, it might as well be done right. And Crank, for whatever else you might say about it, gets the genre of the absurd, R-rated action movie oh so very right.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The New Great American Director?

Recently, I finally got a chance to see Goodbye Solo, the third movie from director Ramin Bahrani. Like both of his previous films, Chop Shop and Man Push Cart, it’s gotten rave reviews from all the major critics, including Roger Ebert, who proclaimed Bahrani “the new great American director” in the intro to this excellent interview from March of this year.

Whether or not Bahrani is going to go down as a pioneering filmmaker is too early to say, but Goodbye Solo certainly isn’t going to hurt his chances. Like Chop Shop, it’s a marvelously realized movie that attaches the heaviest of implications to what might seem like a small, simple story. It’s all buoyed by a mesmerizing performance from Souleymane Sy Savane as the title character, an immigrant cab driver who forms an unlikely friendship with an embittered old man, played by (no kidding) former Elvis bodyguard Red West.

There’s certainly no denying Bahrani has only gotten more accomplished with each movie he’s made, and after only three films he’s already established a recognizable style and set of preoccupations. Watching Goodbye Solo I kept thinking of the final scene in Dirty Pretty Things, another movie that followed the plight of immigrants, in which Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character describes himself and others like him as “the people you don’t see.” That seems as concise a definition as any of the kinds of films Bahrani makes. He follows food cart operators, poor families, and cab drivers, and finds in their stories the kind of poetry that usually only shows up in the work of other so-called “great” directors like Herzog and Bresson.

The most interesting thing about Bahrani is that he’s built his reputation solely on his brilliance as a storyteller. Usually, the young directors with the most heat on them are those with the flashiest style or the most audacious plot structures. Bahrani’s plots are audacious, but only in their elegance of execution. Whether you like his movies or not, those are the kinds of films that tend to stand the test of time. And while I still wouldn't proclaim him the next great thing in American movies, he’s certainly making the case with each film he puts out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In The Company of Men (1997)

Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men follows two mid-nineties corporate types--complete with wacky ties--who’ve just been dumped by their longtime girlfriends. To collectively get back at the opposite sex, they come up with a particularly devilish plan: while on a six-week business trip in fly-over country, they will simultaneously begin dating the same woman, gain her affection, and then unexpectedly blow her off and skip town (it may be juvenile, but I couldn’t help being reminded of The Dennis System). It’s the kind of thing that inadvertently happens in countless relationships, but the kicker here, of course, is that the two bastards are doing it on purpose.

The duo involved in this nefarious scheme couldn’t be more different. Chad, played with a really despicable gusto by Aaron Eckhart, is an unapologetic misogynist who sees people as pawns and dupes to be played for all they’re worth. He puts off the impression of being just a fast-talking, opportunistic jock--the kind of guy whose handshake is always a bit too strong--but by the end of the movie your not likely to think of him as anything other than an out-and-out sociopath. Howard (Matt Malloy), meanwhile, is an unassuming, bookish-looking middle manager, but LaBute establishes early on that he likes to think he’s every bit the smooth operator that Chad is. Together, they decide to take on the task of breaking the heart of Christine (Stacey Edwards, who is terrific), a shy, good-hearted typist who works in their building and--oh yeah--also happens to be deaf. No one could accuse LaBute of pulling any punches when it comes to taking his comedy extra black.

This may all sound too dark to take, and at times it is, but on the whole LaBute manages to balance the woman-hating style of his lead characters with a healthy dose of satire, not only of masculinity and the vampiric nature of some modern relationships, but of corporate culture in general (Chad, for one, seems like he would fit right in with Patrick Bateman and company from American Psycho--which would make a fitting, if not uncomfortable, double feature with this film). It all amounts to an unusually good exploration of why bad people do the things they do, which is a much tougher trick to pull off than it sounds. I remember once hearing a critic say that this movie encapsulates the whole notion of “the banality of evil” as good as anything outside of the Coen Bros. canon, and I think they have a point. LaBute seems fascinated by the duplicitous behavior that outwardly upstanding people are capable of, and it's something he’s explored throughout his career. In fact, his recent effort The Shape of Things seems nothing if not an expansion of the ideas he’s playing with here. (That film, interestingly, is told not from the point of view of the victimizer but of the victim, who, even more interestingly, happens to be a man.)

My only problem with In the Company of Men, outside of the grating-but-sparse jazz score, is LaBute’s visual style. It’s become sort of a joke at this point that no director who comes to film by way of theatre (as LaBute did) can ever display even the most minimal deftness of visual style, and he’s no different. The film is all static shots and takes so over-long that the actors occasionally stumble over their lines. I wish I could say that this insular style allows us to focus in on the gleefully mean-spirited nature of LaBute’s dialogue, but really it's just off-putting and sometimes a bit tedious. Still, In the Company of Men provides more than enough substance to get over its lack of style. This includes a real killer of an ending--the kind of scene that’s bound to stay with you, probably for a few days longer than you’d like it to.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Whatever Works (2009)

Woody Allen’s Whatever Works is based on a script he wrote in the seventies and never filmed, and he supposedly made it on the quick right before the SAG strike (which, of course, never actually happened). Critics were hard on the movie, and in many ways it’s easy to see why: it’s got that haphazard quality that so many of Woody’s movies (Anything Else, Hollywood Ending, Melinda and Melinda) have had in recent years, and what interesting points it does make have arguably already been covered in better movies of his like Manhattan and Annie Hall. Yet for all these criticisms (most of which are entirely valid), Whatever Works still manages to, well, work, thanks in part to its lovely tone and feel. There’s no denying that it’s a resoundingly imperfect effort, but it still only serves as further proof of the argument that, for all his faults, Allen still makes the most watchable, breezy films of any modern director.

In classic Allen fashion, the film traces the story of Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), a misanthropic New Yorker who abandoned his old life as a near-Nobel laureate physicist to live in a shabby apartment and teach chess to children, who, like everyone else, he refers to as “morons” and “inchworms.” Boris’s insular life takes a strange turn when he decides to let Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a young runaway from Mississippi, crash at his place while she searches for a job. Even though he insults her constantly, the impressionable young Melody takes a strange liking to Boris, and soon the two strike up a very unlikely romance.

Like all Allen movies, Whatever Works is much more about character than plot, but what is strange about it is which characters end up being the most compelling. The film suffered from a pretty terrible trailer that served up the particularly egregious Southern accents of Wood, Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr. (as her fundamentalist parents) front and center. To watch it, you would’ve thought that David’s classic Allenian cynic would be the film’s only saving grace, but the reality turns out to be quite the opposite. It is Wood and Clarkson who turn out to be the funniest characters as the naive Southern belles transformed by the culture of New York City, and David, for all his obvious talent, seems left rushing to catch up. He looks the part of the elitist genius just fine, but his performance here seems the final proof that his particular brand of comedy is best absorbed in thirty minute installments on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like his famous collaborator Jerry Seinfeld, it’s pretty clear he’s no actor, but he works around this fault whenever he’s in the looser construct of his own show. The same cannot be said for his work in this film. He’s funny. He reads his lines well. But that’s just it--for a guy who’s true skill is improv, everything he does here ends up feeling just a little too rehearsed.

David doesn’t get much help from Allen, who affects one of the most flat directorial styles of his career to tell his story. This was a problem of his in the nineties, but you would have been forgiven for thinking he’d turned a corner with recent work like Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Unfortunately, his go-to method here is to shoot everything like a stage play. It’s a style he no doubt does better than most, but all it does is highlight David’s shortcomings and add a dangerous air of shallowness to every philosophical statement--and there are many--that his script tries to make.

All these faults are much more apparent than they should be, but the film miraculously manages to stay afloat thanks to the twisted positivity of Allen’s world view. It seems odd to say it, but Whatever Works, for all its talk of the hopelessness of humanity and suicide (which Boris attempts twice--to comic effect), is one of the most feel-good movies I’ve seen in a long time. Allen has always positioned himself as one of film culture’s most staunch neurotics, but if this film proves anything about him, it’s that he’s also a hopelessly positive person, well aware of what he sees as the gentle indifference of the world, but also aware that this means the impetus for happiness is always in the hands of the individual. As the title suggests, for Allen the key to happiness is for each person to find and hold on to whatever small bit of goodness works for them. This idea is reflected throughout the movie, which only manages to get away with having such mean-spirited (Boris) and dim-witted (Melody) characters because it refuses to judge them. That it does it all with Allen’s trademark clever dialogue and razor sharp wit is what really makes it special. There is certainly a danger that goes hand-in-hand with this approach, as it’s easy to worry that Allen could be starting to skate away from the kind of material that made something like Crimes and Misdemeanors so good and toward a style that is just...pleasant. For the time being, though, it’s enough to keep me coming back for more.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

The Men Who Stare at Goats opens with a title card that reads: “More of this is true than you would believe.” I’ll admit that this kind of playful hedge is a great way to start a movie whose centerpiece is a military unit that trains its soldiers to read minds and walk through walls. It works because at the same time that the story told here strains all possible levels of credibility, anyone who knows anything about our government’s history of whacked out secret research and black ops knows that when it comes to wasting tax payer dollars, those in charge are forever outdoing themselves.

With such a solid, satire-ready backdrop (courtesy of a book by the English writer Jon Ronson) and a cast of old pros, it would seem that the makers of The Men Who Stare at Goats were halfway to an interesting movie before they even shot any film. But director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan disappointingly decide just to let the momentum of their larger-than-life premise--that in the early 80s, the U.S. Army attempted to build a unit of super-soldiers with psychic powers--carry their film. Time after time, they go for the easy hooks and the obvious jokes, seemingly so enamored with the oddness of their pitch that they forget to ever construct a story worthy of living up to it. This is an approach that was destined to produce a good trailer--which The Men Who Stare at Goats most certainly has-- but the end result can only be described as one of the most conventional movies about an unconventional subject ever made.

The story starts by introducing Bob Wilton, a small town reporter played by Ewan McGregor, who still hasn’t quite mastered that American accent he keeps getting forced to use. After Wilton’s wife leaves him for his one-armed editor-- a plot point that this film finds to be absolutely hilarious-- he takes off for Iraq with vague aspirations of becoming an embedded journalist. While languishing in a Kuwaiti hotel, he encounters Lyn Cassady (Clooney), an eccentric soldier who claims to have formerly been a part of the “First Earth Battalion,” a top-secret Army project to turn everyday grunts into what he calls “Jedi warriors.” Thinking this could be just the story he’s looking for, Wilton takes up with Cassady, who explains that he’s there on a mission, and the two head off into the desert toward Iraq.

Right from the beginning, The Men Who Stare at Goats sets up more than a few roadblocks for itself. The first is that it relies extensively on narration from McGregor’s character, who begins the film in cringe-inducing fashion by introducing himself and his story (“my name is Bob Wilton...), and then goes on to relate Cassady’s tale of government experimentation and new age military tactics. Rather than helping to create context or giving the film a chance to crack a few wry jokes, as I’m sure it does in Ronson’s book, all the narration ultimately does here is muddle up the plot and keep things at an arm’s length from having any real impact or meaning. It necessitates using a great deal of flashbacks, linear shuffling, and cut scenes, and these only succeed in making the film superficial and cursory, as though every scene has been severely cut down to size. For example, the story of how the First Earth Battalion’s stoned-out, hippie leader Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) conceived of the idea for the unit after being shot in a rice paddy in Vietnam could have been one of the funniest, most interesting parts of the film, but all we’re given is a clich├ęd montage showing him tuning in, turning on, and dropping out by frolicking through a field in a sari and doing yoga. I suppose it’s worth saying that Bridges is still great, as he always is. He gets all the best lines here and succeeds in building an interesting character, but the film’s superficial handling of his part of the story forces him to the periphery, and what could have been a legitimately funny character ends up feeling like a half baked version of The Dude.

If the flashbacks of the First Earthers and their training never gets going, the film’s present day story is even worse. Subplots are introduced left and right--Cassady and Wilton are captured by Iraqi’s, Robert Patrick shows up as the head of a mercenary company--but all it amounts to is the cinematic equivalent of running in place. We don’t get any meaningful insights into Clooney’s character’s story from these scenes, and all each additional minute spent with McGregor does is prove how shoddily carved a character Bob Wilton really is. McGregor is doing his best to keep up, injecting a little fire into the role whenever he can, but his character is an audience proxy if there ever was one. The characters eventually get back on track with their quest, and all this somehow culminates in a clash with Kevin Spacey, who is introduced as a late substitute for an antagonist and given very little to do. A rushed attempt at a plot is forged, but it’s definitely a case of too little too late.

What’s strange about The Men Who Stare at Goats is that no part of it is that offensively bad, poorly acted, or even boring-- it’s just that there’s nothing to it. I could have written off the paper-thin story and the boggy narrative if the film had been funny--satire is often about small moments and individual scenes-- but that just wasn’t the case. Heslov and company’s default mode is to go with the obvious and inoffensive, which ultimately amounts to ninety minutes of them pointing at their characters and saying “Hey! Aren’t these guys weird!?” They’re happy to take a swing at anything that comes right down the middle of the plate, from cold war hysteria and hippie idealism to modern day government contractors, but they never try to move beyond the soft and the slapstick. What the film needed was an edge or a stylistic audacity that matched the wackiness of its story, but the filmmakers are too satisfied with their killer premise to be bothered with things like character or narrative inventiveness. It is a good premise, to be sure--good enough that it deserved a better movie.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Revolutionary Road (2009)

Last year’s Revolutionary Road, which garnered several Oscar nods despite getting a somewhat mixed reception, is based on a 1961 novel by the writer Richard Yates. It’s a book I’ve read and enjoyed, insomuch as anyone can enjoy a book about the “hopeless emptiness” of 1950s suburbia, but I read it so long ago that I was hoping to be able to take the film on its own terms. Unfortunately, like many movies based on beloved works of literature, Revolutionary Road is a film that exists very much in the shadow of its source material. On the outside, it’s a gorgeous looking, expertly acted piece of work, but unlike Yates, director Sam Mendes lacks the kind of incisive, incendiary storytelling skills to truly exploit the material for all its worth.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler, a married couple on the verge of their thirties. The two have always considered themselves exceptional-- immune to the soul-crushing monotony of meaningless jobs and a safe life in the suburbs. Yet as the film opens, Frank has found himself pushing paper at the same machine company his father once worked for, and the couple now have two kids and a simple, pleasant house on the street that gives the story its name. The disappointment of this existence has started to weigh on their marriage, and in a momentary flash of inspiration, the two hatch a wild plan to uproot their family and move to Paris, as they had dreamed of doing in their youth. This plan, which seems doomed from the start, briefly reinvigorates their relationship, but it brings along with it wholesale problems that force the two to question themselves and their ambitions.

As the content might suggest, Yates’ book is narratively audacious, heartbreaking, and distinctly American, and yet it’s these strengths that only help to highlight the problems with the film, which is rigorously classical and so stylistically unambitious that the only reaction it gets from the viewer is one of overwhelming ambivalence. Normally, this points to a number of problems, but in this case the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the director. Mendes’ style here is relentlessly cold and detached, and for a story that is rooted in the American experience, oddly British. Many of the sequences are reminiscent of some kind of English chamber piece from the 40s or 50s--the scenes are well-composed and gloriously acted (especially by Winslet), but the style is stagey, stuffy, and too reliant on dialogue over action.

The thing is, you almost can’t blame Mendes for taking this approach. The book he's working from is full of small, wonderful moments, and he has a stellar cast and the hottest cinematographer in the business (Roger Deakins of No Country For Old Men fame) at his disposal, so it’s easy to see why he’d want to make the movie he did. The problem is that Yates' book has always fallen under the same “unfilmable” umbrella as novels like Catcher in the Rye or The Moviegoer for a reason. It’s a cerebral novel, almost experimental in the way it mines the contents of different characters’ psyches in order to build a story out of a scattered collection of events. Mendes has the unenviable task of trying to construct a film out of a book that is largely made up of characters’ thoughts and internal monologues, and outside of using constant narration (which, thankfully, he doesn’t) there’s not a lot to work with. You’ve got to give him points for trying, but the results don’t work, because when it all comes down, all the great moments in the novel of Revolutionary Road spring from the pseudo-omniscient asides by Yates, the embittered, eternal cynic, and not from the dialogue of his characters, whom he goes out of his way to portray as petty, feeble, and misguided. Mendes has to rely entirely on the outward actions of Frank and April to tell his story, and the results are naturally much more sympathetic to their foibles.

This would almost be excusable, but the real sin Mendes commits here is in not using his camera to create some--any-- kind of stylistic dissonance between what is being said by the characters and the real dramatic truth of the story. He’s much too content to film the couple’s domestic squabbles and heartbreaks from a safely removed distance, and this somehow becomes as exhausting as it is dull. Mendes has a background in the theatre, and he clearly loves actors (especially in this case since he’s married to Winslet), but he focuses on performance over action, movement, and meaning to a fault, and ends up turning what was a sad, ironic kind of satire into something more closely resembling Greek tragedy. Maybe it was the only choice he had when working from such an “unfilmable” novel, or maybe he’s just incompetent. Either way, as much as I hate to use the cliche, the results pale in comparison to the source material.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Zombieland (2009)

Right from the opening credits, Zombieland lets it be known that it doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a fun, uncomplicated ride. Instead of a quick montage establishing how the world came to be overrun with zombies, or menacing shots of the undead walking the streets, the film starts with a series of ultra-slow motion shots of people frantically running from hordes of flesh-eating cannibals. One guy desperately tries to carry a kid while being chased by an army of the things. Another is only steps ahead of a naked zombie stripper. In my personal favorite, a guy wearing a tuxedo straight out of Fantasy Island shoots an AK-47 right at the camera as a group of the walking dead converge on him from all angles. Oh yeah, and this all set to “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica.

If that doesn’t make it obvious enough, this is a film that desperately doesn’t want to be taken seriously, and I’m happy to say that it succeeds admirably in this regard (just take a look at the several cut scenes featuring the “zombie kill of the week”). Lots of movies have advertised themselves as being exactly what Zombieland is, only to weigh down the fun of their premise with absurd melodrama, halfhearted social commentary, and insulting attempts to “push the genre further” (see the Dawn of the Dead remake). Thankfully, the filmmakers behind Zombieland, specifically director Ruben Fleischer, know that’s not why anyone goes to see a zombie film when it’s not directed by George A. Romero. With this in mind, they never sell out on the built-in hook of their premise--in short, that zombies are as scary as they are inherently goofy, and that it's damn good fun to watch Woody Harrelson (who's having the time of his life here) take to them wielding a banjo as a weapon. Fill that out with some sharp one-liners, some interesting stylistic choices, a killer soundtrack, the always hot Emma Stone, and one of the most wonderfully ridiculous cameos in recent memory, and you’ve got what everyone wants from this genre-- a solid, unabashed B-movie.

Naturally, this is not to say that there aren’t faults here. Some aspects of the aesthetic Fleischer employs don’t quite work, like the rules for staying alive that the main character Columbus (played by Jesse Eisenberg with that endearing awkwardness that seems to be the trademark of his generation of actors) follows unerringly throughout the film, and which are flashed on screen each time they come into play. It’s a fun idea, but the rules aren’t half as creative as they should be, and by the fifth time the one about always shooting a zombie twice makes an appearance, it’s a bit more than stale. It’s these aspects of the film that get most frustrating, and this is only because Zombieland’s premise is so wide-open (thankfully, the cause behind the zombie apocalypse is left unexplained) that there are infinite avenues the story could have gone down at any particular turn, and not every one of them is guaranteed to satisfy every viewer.

But in saying this, I’ve already started overthinking this movie, which is as much a carnival ride as it is a film (it’s no surprise the main characters are on their way to a theme park). This film is certainly not making any headway in raising the genre back to the artful level of something like Night of the Living Dead, but that’s clearly not something Zombieland even pretends to be interested in. This is a movie that happily eschews all logic and faux-complexity in favor of showing Woody skid a car around a corner while gunning down zombies with an Uzi, and it’s all the better for it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Gangsters, Murderers, and Detectives

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog arguing about how the French films of the 1940s and 50s are more consistently excellent than those of the New Wave. Well, here’s more proof. I’ve just recently caught up with three films by some of the major French directors of the era, some of which are minor classics, some nearly forgotten. They all deal with crime and intrigue in some form or another, and all of them exhibit the kind of expert control of pacing, style, and content that I think is the trademark of that era of cinema.

Quai des Orfevres (1947)

Literally translated as Quay of the Goldsmiths, this was the first film Henri Georges Clouzot made after a brief period of blacklisting in the wake of the controversy surrounding Le Corbeau. The film is a character-driven murder mystery/police procedural that follows sultry singer Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) and her pianist husband Maurice (Bernard Blier). As the story opens, the drab and mild-mannered Maurice is becoming increasingly jealous of Jenny, whose burgeoning stardom is starting to attract the attention of wealthy and powerful characters like Brignon, a debauched elderly businessman whose hobby is wooing young women with his ability to help their careers. The story really kicks into gear when, following a secret rendezvous with Jenny in which they plan to “discuss her future,” Brignon ends up dead inside his mansion with a head wound. In what amounts to some sensational plotting, both Jenny and a distraught and vengeful Maurice, who was planning to murder the old man, think themselves responsible, and the couple soon start to unravel as they feel the police closing in on them.

This might sound like enough plot for a whole film, but Clouzot fits this all in to the first thirty or so minutes by using his trademark razor-sharp attention to detail to establish it all with a remarkable economy of scenes. From here, the tone of the story shifts rather dramatically with the introduction of Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), a world-weary police detective who is assigned to Brignon’s murder and soon begins investigating Jenny and Maurice. Even though he’s not introduced until well into the story, and even then only in a supporting role, Louis Jouvet flat out walks away with this film. His Antoine is not your typical movie detective, tenacious and driven to solve the case by any means necessary. Instead, he is a slow-moving, avuncular kind of guy who would much rather spend time with his adopted son than catch criminals. In one of the film’s best moments, Antoine is given a chance to make the classic determined detective speech to one of the other characters, but shrugs it off with a simple “I don’t give a damn.” That’s the kind of great character moments that a director like Clouzot brings to this kind of material. Throughout the story, he constantly subverts the easy, plot-driven style of the suspense genre in favor of these little touches, always striving to avoid the cliched and superficial. This style, along with the cool, restrained presence of Antoine, proves to be the perfect antidote to the hyperbolic (and admittedly sort of annoying) performances of Delair and Blier, and helps drive the film home to a rather clever conclusion.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954)

If Jouvet’s Inspector Antoine was a clever reversal on the typical police detective, then Jean Gabin’s performance in Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (Don’t Touch the Loot) does the same thing for the stereotypical criminal character. Gabin’s Max, the cool-as-ice thief at the center of the film, is an aging gang leader in search of the proverbial “last big score.” Unlike a lot of movie criminals, though, Max isn’t just trying to strike it rich, he’s really just sick of the game. In every scene, Becker goes out of his way to make it painfully clear just how tired of the criminal lifestyle Max is, whether showing him listlessly walking into his sparsely-furnished apartment, or just brushing his teeth. He has the perfect vessel for this world-weariness in Gabin, who looked quite a bit older than his 50 years when this film was made in 1954. He, along with Rene Dary as his right hand man Riton, make for two of the cinema’s most unlikely gangsters with their gray, slightly thinning hair and expanded waistlines. But this all just helps sell the the idea that these are thieves whose glory days are well behind them, and who now seem more at home eating crackers at the dinner table (as they do in one of the film’s more memorable scenes) than they do taking down scores. This idea is reflected in Becker’s style and plotting as well, as the director avoids showing us a number of the requisite crime movie scenes (most notably the unexplained heist that drives the whole story) in favor of the kind of small moments that help put the story in perspective. When it does come in the film’s final few scenes, the action is indeed well choreographed and exciting, but the fact that it's perpetrated by characters whom Becker has so lovingly established as past their prime makes the situation (and, for that matter, the film genre in which it takes place) all the more shocking and absurd.

Elevator to the Gallows (1957)

Louis Malle is a director I usually associate with slightly rambling character-driven dramas like the brilliant Atlantic City, so I was surprised to find that Elevator to the Gallows, his first film, is a tense, irony-filled crime movie. The story follows businessman Julien (Maurice Ronet), a former legionnaire and hero of the Indochina war, who is having an affair with his boss’s wife, Florence (Jeanne Moreau). The couple resolve to kill the husband, a crime that is ingeniously depicted in the film’s opening sequence when the athletic Julien scales the outside of his building with a rope, guns down the man, and scales back down, all the while maintaining his alibi that he was quietly working in his office. He executes the crime with stunning precision, save for one crucial piece of evidence, and when he goes back to retrieve it, he inadvertently becomes trapped in the building’s elevator. While Julien spends a desperate night trying to escape, Florence, convinced she’s been ditched, wanders the city streets frantically looking for him. At the same time, a rebellious young couple played by Georges Poujouly and Yori Bertin steal Julien’s car and take it for a joyride, eventually stopping at a hotel and committing an inexplicable crime of their own.

If that complex plot description doesn’t make it clear enough, this is a film that values multiple (often absurdly flawed) perspectives of the same event, and it is the way these character’s fates and paths become intertwined that helps drive the story forward. In many ways, the film seems to exhibit several of the tendencies of the existentialist movement that was still prominent in France at the time of its release, as whole plot points are brought on by random and cruel bits of chance. Similarly, every character at some point or another is forced to act on the flawed or incomplete knowledge brought on by their skewed perspectives, and the result is a hilariously ironic series of exchanges where all the principles eventually incriminate themselves and each other. Moreau’s Florence is one of the major players in this regard, as her desperate search for her lover ends up being his undoing, but she is just one part of a tangled web of misunderstanding and coincidence that eventually becomes almost tragic in its implications. Like all the other actors in the film, she isn’t really given much juicy dialogue-- this is a film that prizes action above all else-- but Moreau’s screen presence here is formidable, and provides us ample evidence of why she would eventually become a major star. Likewise, her lonely walk through the Paris streets at night gives Malle a real chance to flex his directorial muscles, and he provides some of the best looking location shooting you’re likely to see this side of the New Wave, all of it accompanied by a now-famous improvised jazz score by Miles Davis. This great style, coupled with the film’s rich themes of chance, fate, and consequence, amounts to a truly superior film. This is the kind of movie that directors like Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino have strived to make throughout their careers, and you could make an argument that neither has ever pulled it off with this kind of simplicity and elegance.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Rogue Film School

In a book of interviews with him, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog once said that he'd like to open a film school that ignored all the traditional rules and styles of teaching and focused on the kind of real world experience that would help make students "good soldiers of cinema." Herzog being Herzog, he says these skills would include learning languages, lock picking, document forgery, and hand-to-hand combat. I'm still not sure if this website is legit or not, but if it is, then it seems Herzog has made this bizarre academy a reality. The famed director and professional eccentric is set to host a series of seminars on filmmaking under the title "Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School." The seminars will teach a lucky group of students Herzog's personal philosophy of self reliance and the pursuit of "the ecstasy of truth." According to the website, for $1450 you too can learn such life changing lessons as the virtue of traveling on foot and "the exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully." Applicants need no professional or scholastic credentials, just a ten-line statement of intent and a short film sample.

A lot of people have in the past accused Herzog of veering dangerously close to becoming a parody of himself, and it's a safe bet that this will do little to calm the criticism. I am a hopeless fan of the guy (he could start a cult and I'd want to join), but I still think this is a pretty fun idea. I have the feeling he's probably a natural (if not hopelessly cryptic) teacher. The $1450 entry fee is a bit disturbing, but I still doubt he'll have trouble finding enough applicants. Either way, if you ask me it's been too long since he's done something off the wall crazy.

Check out the website for more great one-liners like this one, my personal favorite: "Censorship will be enforced. There will be no talk of shamans, of yoga classes, nutritional values, herbal teas, discovering your Boundaries, and Inner Growth."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Literary Soundtracks

Lately I’ve been addicted to listening to a short album I bought called The Last Pale Light In the West. It’s a solo album by Ben Nichols, the lead singer of the excellent rock/country band Lucero. Stylistically, it’s not so different from the kind of songs Nichols makes with his usual band-- it’s full of tough, twangy southern music with a built in edge courtesy of Nichols’ trademark scratchy vocals-- but it is a bit more subdued than usual. The interesting thing about the album, though, is that it’s completely inspired by famed writer Cormac McCarthy’s devastatingly violent Western novel Blood Meridian. Every song is named after one of the characters, from “the Kid,” the novel’s young protagonist, to “the Judge,” the murderous figure at the book’s center, who is frequently described as “the devil himself.”

I’m sure it’s been done tons of times before (though I can’t think of any other examples off the top of my head), but this idea of writing a kind of unsanctioned soundtrack for a book strikes me as a boldly unique, if not inherently problematic, idea. At first blush, it seems that unlike writing music for a film or a play, there’s no way Nichols’ album will ever have more than a tenuous thematic relationship to McCarthy’s novel. The mediums are too at odds with one another. Books, as the philosopher Plato used to always say, are “dead.” The words on the page require a person to come to life, and even then they exist only in the nebulous reaches of the reader’s own head. Music is the same way to an extent, but it is temporal and fluid in a way that writing can never be, which allows it to be much a more free form and evocative medium. But if you’ve read McCarthy’s book, and then listen to Nichols’ album, an interesting thing happens. The lyrics and music start to call up images from the novel, and pretty soon it’s as though you can see the whole thing unfolding as if it were a movie. This is something that always happens when one reads a book, of course, but rarely does music evoke the same kind of mental imagery. What Nichols has essentially done is write the soundtrack for a movie based on a book that hasn’t been filmed. Or, rather, has yet to be filmed.

Movies have always struck me as a perfect meld of the so-called “temporal” (music) and “spatial” (painting, sculpture) arts, and this is nothing if not a perfect example of this idea at work. The music, along with any knowledge of the story it’s based around, conspire to create this imaginary play in the listener’s head, and the language of film seems to provide a bridge to make that experience possible. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it is an interesting idea, especially when you consider that Nichols’ album is no less than the second work of music to owe a debt to McCarthy. The band Calexico’s 1998 album The Black Light actually thanks the writer in the liner notes, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to picture their Western-themed instrumentals as the soundtrack to a film version of one of McCarthy’s books. I’m not really sure what all this adds up to, but it is an intriguing thread to follow. If anything, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out The Last Pale Light in the West. And if you haven’t read Blood Meridian, then by all means do so as soon as possible.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Real Film Realism

The relationship of movies to "real life," and how well they portray that reality on screen is a constant source of debate. It began as soon as people started talking about movies and continued with critics like Bazin, Kracauer, and Arnheim up through the 50s--what is now remembered as the golden age of "neorealism" abroad--and into the 60s. Since then, it's been less of a dominant issue, but it still resurfaces every few years in a different form (see this year's debate over neo-neorealism), and some critics have argued that American independent film is currently experiencing a blessed reconnection with photorealism.

In the midst of such preoccupations, it seems strange that the questions asked and challenges made against the proponents of realism have always been so incomplete and poorly framed. Whether or not recreating the drama of everyday life should be the ultimate aspiration of movies is a philosophical question that is way too unwieldy for me to address in a few paragraphs. But what is worth discussing is how flawed and problematic the definition of what movie "realism" is has been, and whether or not it's time to retool our idea of just what it is that filmmakers should be aiming for.

During the heyday of Italian neorealism, films like Open City and The Bicycle Thief were hailed as the exemplars of a new kind of cinema that sought to document the struggles and tragedies of everyday life by way of using a static, unadorned shooting style. This, thanks to critics like Andre Bazin, essentially became the definition of what film realism was. They praised the use of nonprofessional actors, location shooting, long takes, and small stories about working class people, the idea being that presenting reality for its own sake was an end unto itself. Any other approach, for these critics, drew too much attention to the filmmaker as a creative force and was bound to taint the "truth" of the film with ideology and politics.

These ideas, which were all the vogue in the 1950s, have managed to be one of the longest running and most returned-to arguments in all of film theory. Watch any modern independent film by Kelly Reichardt or Ramin Bahrani that has been described as "well-observed" or "gritty" and you're likely to get a lot of long takes, unadorned editing, and location shooting. This in itself is perfectly fine--if those directors see that as the best way of achieving realism, then good for them. But the notion that this is the only way to achieve it is dangerously off base. Realism does not come from a particular shooting style or subject matter, it comes from a rare kind of consistency and harmony among all the aspects of a film, chiefly from the writing and the performances, but also from camerawork, editing, set design, the presence or lack of music, and a hundred other variables. If all of these aspects follow the same internal logic and are working toward a similar goal, then the result-- along with, more often than not, a decent product-- is a certain level of verisimilitude and, ultimately, realism.

Some classical theories of film realism would have you believe that anything other than the style of movies like the Bicycle Thief or Umberto D (which, don't get me wrong, are great and important films) results in failure, but their arguments have always been full of holes. First of all, a "style-less" approach of long takes and invisible editing is itself a style, no matter how simple it might be. And no matter how unobtrusive a filmmaker tries to be, their presence will always be felt. What angles they choose, the order of scenes, the length of individual shots-- all of these things still point to a director at work. On a similar note, location shooting is great, and stories of the common man are an admirable subject matter, but to brand them as resulting in a finished product that is more "real" is a mistake. Sparseness of style or subject matter will never equal realness, and in the context of a motion picture it will always be as much of a stylistic choice as anything else, especially when it's obvious that the director has gone out of their way to achieve it. As a rough example, take Technicolor film, the advent of which was met with much skepticism from audiences that had come to accept black and white as the only way to watch a movie. On the surface, this seems counter-intuitive. Life, after all, takes place in color. But you have to consider how, at the time, most color film was cartoonishly oversaturated, like looking at a photograph that had been painted over as an afterthought. It was still unequivocally a closer representation of everyday experience, but black and white was sharper, cleaner, simpler, more subdued, and therefore more real.

Filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica, who made many of the most famous works of Italian Neorealism, undoubtedly achieved something important and, yes, realistic, but to say they did it because of a few small stylistic choices is to shortchange them. Every choice in those films helped create the feeling of realism that made them so great. If anything, critics who push neorealism as a theory are mistaking the work of uniquely talented filmmakers as a patented style that could be easily recreated. The same can be said of Bahrani or Reichardt, both of whom are undoubtedly among the more interesting directors currently working, and it also applies to any director who is able to find that perfect balance of story, theme, and style that makes their audience feel like they've witnessed something that reflects everyday life. In the end, perhaps all the style proposed by the neorealist critics does is make that balance a little easier to find, and only then because they've stylistically stripped the film down to its barest parts. But realism comes in many forms, and there will always be way more than one path to take in getting to it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Inglourious Allusions

One of the things that most fascinated me about Inglourious Basterds was how seamlessly integrated and evocative the allusions to other movies were, which is not something I've ever before accused Tarantino of pulling off. There are now a number of lists floating around the web that try and catalogue all these references, and this one seems to be the most ambitious. A lot of them are a bit of a stretch (just because it resembles a movie in theme doesn't imply an intentional reference), but if you've seen the film it is a pretty interesting read.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

(Re)Writing History With Lightning: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino is undoubtedly a polarizing filmmaker, but I can’t say I’ve ever been that consistently strong of an apologist for him or critic against him. Simply put, some of his movies are really good (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), and some are outright terrible (Death Proof, Jackie Brown). I will say that, not unlike a lot of guys my age, I was completely enamored with his work when I was 15, but since then he’s become more of a curiosity than anything. Which is part of why I was so pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds, his wickedly funny, expertly shot, and oddly philosophical new film. Watching this movie was like (to use an aspect of its plot) being bashed over the head by Tarantino’s love for cinema with a baseball bat. And I somehow mean that in a good way. When it was over, I found myself remembering why I used to think this guy was a genius.

One of the big criticisms of Tarantino, which I myself have been wont to employ, is that he’s more concerned with winking at his audience about the cleverness of his dialogue and dropping references to 70s trash cinema than he is with telling a decent story. His movies always reflect a unique and refined taste, but never in a way that adds up to anything truly worthwhile for the purposes of the script. But with this film, I think he’s finally made a movie that reverberates--hell, radiates-- with his love for cinema in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to the larger point of his story. Whereas movies like Death Proof and Kill Bill ventured into the realms of lazy pastiche and outright thievery, with Inglourious Basterds it seems like Tarantino has finally made something truly original out of his influences, a movie not just informed by other movies but about them in the grandest sense possible.

This isn’t to say that he doesn’t still have an inveterate penchant for name-dropping. In addition to meeting Churchill and the whole Nazi high command, we get mentions of Chaplin, Max Linder, G.W. Pabst, Henri Georges Clouzot, King Kong (in one of the film’s best scenes), Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and even a cameo from Emil Jannings. But these pop culture references are imbued with a meaning that wasn’t present in the idle chatter of even something like Pulp Fiction. Take the Clouzot reference, which we get when we see the French auteur’s name on the marquee of a movie theatre showing Le Corbeau. As I mentioned in my discussion of it a few days past, Le Corbeau is a movie with a huge amount of social significance to Vichy France, as Clouzot was later accused of being a traitor simply for making it. The fact that it makes an appearance in Inglourious Basterds just before a scene in which a French woman is drawn into an involuntary collaboration with the Nazis is certainly no coincidence. It’s a rare instance of one of Tarantino’s references being added in the service of his movie rather than at its expense, and throughout the film we get countless delightfully obscure moments like this. They add an invaluable amount to the story as a whole, which, as Glen Kenny recently mentioned on his blog, is told with a remarkable economy in no more than sixteen(!) extended scenes.

I’m convinced that the reason this style works so well is because Inglourious Basterds is a period piece, which forces Tarantino to ground his references in a certain time and place. Getting out of his trademark So-Cal milieu was probably the best thing he could have done for his work, and he seems to embrace the shadowy cellars and wide open fields of the French countryside with real relish. His visual style here is impeccable, making effective and often hilarious use of cut-scenes, fantasy sequences, camera moves, and cross-cutting to make a movie that is made up of small moments that add up to way more than the sum of their parts. Say what you will about the guy, but there’s no denying Tarantino has improved as a visual storyteller with every film he's made. Here we get several scenes of wickedly drawn-out suspense (most notably the scene in the tavern) that display a masterful control of pacing and language. As for the dialogue, it’s as sharp and idiosyncratic as ever, especially when it’s being delivered by Brad Pitt (whose shamelessly terrible Tennessee accent provides all of the movie’s funniest moments) or Christoph Waltz (who deserves the Oscar nod he’ll undoubtedly get for playing the gentlemanly sociopath Col. Hans Landa). I could have done without the somewhat annoying Eli Roth as the baseball bat-wielding “Bear Jew,” or the often intentionally anachronistic music, but these are small complaints, and outside of a few unusual moments (a montage set to David Bowie?!), the score is actually a real pleasure to listen to.

The big debate among critics on this film seems to be whether or not it’s disrespectful toward the struggles and atrocities of WWII, and many reviewers have dismissed it as outright offensive. Whether or not the idea of creating a revisionist revenge fantasy about the Nazis is in bad taste is another argument for another day. I’m not sure it’s an issue that Tarantino is even that concerned with, as there are much more interesting, less polarizing ideas in play. To my mind, the real statement here is self-referential and self-reflexive. This is a film not just built from other films, but literally about the cinema and its role as a social and historical tool. As has already been said by many others, Tarantino seems to be using film as a means of exorcising the demons of history in order to rewrite it with a perversely violent and oddly triumphant vigilante ending. But there’s even more going on than that. All of Tarantino’s movies play like love-letters to the cinema, but Inglourious Basterds takes it to a new level and tells us not just what movies the director is into but why he loves movies in general. Consider a scene near the end of the film where a woman guns down a man in a projectionist’s booth, only to look at the movie screen and see his face still flickering there in some kind of momentary immortality. And then for him to seemingly rise from the dead directly afterward, almost as though the magic of cinema is enough to be able to bring him back to life. It’s perhaps the film’s best moment, and it’s a huge statement about the power of movies not only to re-write history, but to have a hand in creating it (it’s no surprise that a propaganda film is at the center of the story). Whole articles and Masters theses could be (and probably will be) undertaken about the meaning of such a scene, and it takes a true love of cinema to even recognize it, let alone to have written it. For what it’s worth, I have trouble thinking of any other modern American director who could or would create a moment like that.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Alive In Joberg

District 9 was finally released yesterday, and so far it's been getting some pretty stellar reviews. The movie is based on an excellent short film called Alive In Joberg that director Neill Blomkamp made a few years back. Everyone's probably seen it by now, but if you're like me and are always behind the times on this stuff, then check it out. If District 9 is half as interesting as this film, it's sure to be worth seeing.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Kids These Days...

There's a great post called "young and dumb versus old and in the way" currently up on film critic Glenn Kenny's consistently interesting blog Some Came Running. It dovetails nicely with my ramblings about the culture industry from a few days ago and this whole idea that, as Kenny implies, culture isn't necessarily any more in jeopardy now than it's ever been. I'm not sure if I truly buy that argument, but it's an interesting read nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sleep Dealer (2009)

Sam Peckinpah once remarked that he made Westerns because they were the best medium through which to comment on the state of the modern world. Watching his movies, it’s easy to see his point, but I would argue that science fiction is an even more effective genre for delivering social commentary. I think that Alex Rivera, whose excellent film Sleep Dealer follows a collection of marginalized Mexican workers who literally “jack in” to the world economy to remotely do the jobs Americans won’t, would probably agree with me. The film uses the speculative nature of its eerily familiar backdrop to make an expansive statement on the future of technology and the world economy. Working on a shoestring budget, Rivera has managed to create one of the most cutting, hypnotic, and worryingly plausible science fiction films I’ve seen in some time, and along with the recent Moon, Sleep Dealer bodes well for the future of the genre.

One of the first SF films that truly fits the bill of being “cyberpunk,” Sleep Dealer takes place in a dystopic near future that resembles something William Gibson might have dreamed up. In Rivera’s future world, first world nations like the U.S. have been completely walled off from Mexico, where the story takes place, and multinational corporations have taken a controlling interest in natural resources. The story follows Memo, a young man who lives with his family in a small Mexican village where the water supply is managed by one of these nameless companies. When his father is killed by fighter plane drones that protect the company’s interests, Memo is forced to become a new kind of itinerant worker. Distraught and vaguely desiring revenge, he heads for the border town of Tijuana, a technological dust heap where migrant workers get their bodies implanted with “nodes” that allow them to jack in to a worldwide network and perform blue collar jobs across the border. Soon, Memo is regularly working at a “sleep dealer”-- the slang term for the companies that set up the jobs-- and remotely building skyscrapers hundreds of miles away in San Diego.

The social implications of the story are patent, but Rivera is good about letting his character’s struggle speak for itself. The film never becomes too didactic, and what little reference it makes to the modern day is exceedingly clever. For example, when Memo’s sort-of girlfriend, Luz (a futuristic writer who makes her living selling virtual reality recreations of her memories on the internet), takes him to get some illegally implanted nodes, the guy who puts them in is called a “coyotech,” a shrewd allusion to the modern coyotes who lead immigrants across the border. Rivera uses small details like this one to help immerse the viewer in his future world. The film uses extensive narration from Memo, which does allow it to cut some corners, but overall Rivera is quite adept at using small bits of set design, editing, and clips from fake TV shows (Memo finds out about his father’s death by catching it on a reality TV show that follows the exploits of drone fighter pilots) to quickly establish the world he’s trying to create.

Sleep Dealer’s
special effects certainly aren’t going to win it any awards, but they are completely serviceable. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they so quickly draw the viewer into this world that you aren’t likely to notice the effects aren’t ILM-worthy. In many ways, the budgetary constraints here have shaped the movie in a positive way. Rivera’s future world is gritty, organic, and oddly familiar (Blade Runner comes to mid), which gives everything a touch of immediacy and surreality. Too many science fiction films give us an antiseptic and metallic world completely different from our own, but the world of Sleep Dealer is just different enough to sell the future premise, and just familiar enough to let the ideas really hit home. Rivera’s world is one augmented by technology but not completely transformed by it. Characters in Mexico still drive cars, farm vegetables, and work outside, but they do so amid the constant glow of flat screen TVs and holographic computer screens.

Sleep Dealer
has been criticized for being a small story about ordinary people in the service of a wider critique of political, social, and technological issues instead of vice versa. It's true that the story is relatively A-to-B, but never in a way that becomes boring or trite. Like the world it presents, this is a film that prizes experience and atmosphere above all else, and Rivera does such a great job of building his environment that it helps to carry the story along in its wake. As for the commentary, this is not a film that overtly preaches to its audience or falls into the realm of polemic. Quite the opposite, in fact. Like the best science fiction, Sleep Dealer is more concerned with asking questions than it is with providing answers or making statements. Thankfully the questions it asks--about the moral implications of immigration policy, the possible effects of mass globalization, and the price a society pays for prizing technological “connectivity” at the expense of personal relationships-- are endlessly fascinating.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Culture Industry

Going back and re-reading some of the film criticism from the 1920s and 30s is always an interesting experiment. If anything, it’s fascinating to see how prescient guys like Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin were with regard to the possible directions film could take. From the very beginning, cultural critics (many of them Marxists) were arguing about the problematic nature of film as a cultural tool. Especially troubling to some of these critics was the cinema’s propensity to be used as some kind of mass marketing device that would homogenize culture and encourage complacency and conformism. If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’re still having this debate today, perhaps more with regards to television than film, but these critics were writing before the television was even invented. The similarities are still there, though. Ask anyone who doesn’t own a television why and they’re likely to cite a very similar argument.

It is pretty compelling, though, to see that from the very start of sound film people were worried about its cultural placement as a product. Because of financing and other monetary constraints involved in getting a movie made, critics were concerned that film would never be able to be as “difficult” a medium as literature. Here, they weren’t able to anticipate that digital technology eventually would make it easy for anyone with a credit card to start making art films in their garage, but this is another issue that’s still alive and well in contemporary film culture. Every film snob in the world (myself included) has at some point lamented the way movies have become so mass-produced and easy to swallow, and they often point back to the golden age of cinema as a better, simpler time. If reading the criticism of the early 30s (or taking one look at the old studio system) proves anything, it’s that this belief is completely misguided, because before narrative film had even come into its own, people were already complaining about the lack of real artistry and the tendency to avoid taking risks. These critics, in particular a group known as “The Frankfurt School,” even had a name for it: The Culture Industry. This applied to all pop culture in general, but it seems to fit film and television the best. In short, it means a constructed culture full of mass-produced and palatable copies of the real, spontaneous art that springs from “average” people (again, most of these guys were Marxists). Take what you will from it, but to imagine that people were making these kinds of claims in a world before Transformers 2 and “Must-See TV” is pretty amazing, and you can only wonder what they’d be saying if they were still around today.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Le Trou (1960)

French films from the fifties have always held much more of a fascination for me than those of the New Wave. Filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut, and Resnais undoubtedly made huge contributions to cinema, but they often did so at the expense of telling a good story. Don’t get me wrong, I love many of their films, and had I been around in 1960 I would have championed them as much as anyone else. But from a modern perspective, it seems they reach a point of experimentation that now seems a bit tedious, and many of their films, unclassifiable as they are, seem oddly dated. This has never been the case with the class of filmmakers that directly preceded them. Directors like Jean Pierre Melville, Henri Georges Clouzot, Robert Bresson, and Jacques Becker were taking equally bold stylistic risks in the 1950s, but they always did so in the service of their narrative. Whereas Truffaut and Godard eventually just made films about film, movies like A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, Les Diaboliques, Bob Le Flambeur, and The Wages of Fear were all about process and experience. They detailed the ways people would go to extremes in order to survive, and they were always just as entertaining as they were inventive and political.

Case in point: Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (The Hole). One of the all-time great prison break movies, this film revels in the details of the ways five Parisian convicts plot and scheme to escape from their jail cell. Le Trou is based on a true story, and in a bold move, Becker even cast one of the actual participants in the real-life jailbreak to play a character in the film. The rest of the cast were all nonprofessionals as well (some of whom would go on to have respectable acting careers), but you wouldn’t know it to watch the film. If anything, the lack of dramatic training is what makes these characters, who are cool and professional to the core, seem so believable.

Becker’s fascination with the minutiae of prison life and the small details of the prisoners’ plan pervades the whole film. It’s all a part of the preoccupation with the process of performing complex and dangerous tasks that seems to be a running theme of filmmakers like he and Clouzot. Here we get to bear witness to every small part of the convicts' scheme, from the way they build a periscope from a tooth brush and a shattered piece of glass so they can spy back on the guards, to how they construct an hour glass with sand smuggled from one of the guards’ ashtrays in order to keep track of time. Beyond these tasks, their days are filled with the monotony of prison life, which sees them assembling boxes, sleeping, and eating food sent to them by their relatives (there’s a great early scene of the prison’s inspector expertly and shamelessly cutting apart one prisoner’s items to check them for contraband), but at night they band together to institute an ingenious and very audacious escape plan.

In the early running, Becker maintains an airtight control of space and pacing, to the point that it seems many of the scenes play out in real time. This is one of the most-discussed aspects of Le Trou and Becker’s filmmaking in general, what has been called his seamless “control of temporality.” Here, he uses it to immerse the viewer in the gargantuan task these men create for themselves, and from the very beginning of the breakout there is a palpable sense of tension. Take, for example, the first step of the plan, which requires the men to hammer through the stone floor of their cell in order to reach a tunnel directly beneath it. As the men take turns chiseling the floor of their cell with a crudely fashioned hammer, Becker simply lets his camera roll, eventually creating a four-minute take of the floor being broken apart. The effect is that we become completely immersed in their struggle as though we are the sixth member of the team, and Becker’s refusal to cut away to show the guards just outside the cell only heightens the suspense. This stress-inducing scene is only the beginning of a massive undertaking that will see the men tunnel through rock, file metal bars, pick locks, and chisel through cement, and all while avoiding roving guard patrols.

Le Trou
culminates in a stunning sequence of two of the men finally making their way to the city’s surface and getting a glimpse of the Paris street and the outside of the prison walls. It’s an amazing and evocative sequence, considering how hermetically sealed the film’s environment has been up to this point, and it speaks volumes about the film’s themes of freedom, responsibility, and loyalty, especially since the two then return to the prison in order to collect the rest of the group. What follows is a painfully nerve-wracking ending that hits about as hard as any you’re likely to see.

Le Trou was the last film made by Becker, who died shortly after filming, and its release in 1960 coincided with that of Godard’s Breathless and the start of the New Wave. Directors like Melville would continue the tradition of hard-boiled, realistic film that was started in the 40s and 50s, but it seems that Le Trou stands as a kind of turning point in French cinema. The bold style and medium-shattering experiments that followed were certainly a necessary step in film history, but it does seem a shame that the tradition of taut, athletic films like Le Trou was briefly lost along the way.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Inner Space By Way of Outer Space: Moon (2009)

As science fiction continues to become less and less distinguishable from action and adventure movies, it’s getting harder to find anything resembling the heady, speculative style of classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris and Silent Running. Even the better efforts from the last few years, like Pitch Black and 28 Days Later, rely more on action and horror than they do hard science, and you only need to look at the recent remake of Star Trek-- which, don’t get me wrong, was a lot of fun-- to see that this trend isn’t going away. But all this only helps to highlight the intelligence of a film like Moon, the superb debut from director Duncan Jones. It’s very much a throwback to the slower, more contemplative science fiction of the 1970s, and like those films it uses its far-out, technological backdrop to explore very grounded and very human themes.

The film stars Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, an astronaut coming to the end of a three year contract for Lunar Industries, a company that mines the surface of the moon for an energy resource used back on Earth. Bell has been working alone on the company’s small base for too long, his only companion a helper robot called GERTY, and when we first meet him it’s clear that the isolation is starting to get to him. Although he’s anxious to be reunited with his wife and daughter back home, he’s become jittery and accident-prone, and worse yet, he’s starting to see things.

If that sketchy synopsis didn’t already make it clear enough, Moon is a difficult movie to review without giving too much away, because so much of its plot hinges on a number of big reveals that happen relatively early on in the story. This is one of the film’s major strengths, and it lets the audience know straight away what kind of movie Jones intends to make. Any other director would’ve saved these twists for the final ten minutes and used them as the big “aha!” moment of the film, but Jones is smart enough to know that to do so would only be telling half the story, and he’s less interested in getting his audience to ask “what just happened?” than he is in giving them the time to think and speculate about the very complex and, yes, very philosophical ideas he’s presenting to them.

This conceit is reflected in the technical style the filmmakers employ, as well. Jones uses a matter-of-fact shooting style that employs a lot wide shots and longer takes, but he has a gift for giving away just the right amount of information in every one of his shots, always keeping the audience in uncertainties when he needs to. Meanwhile, a number of scenes end with slow fades to black, and in others, the sound from one scene is allowed to bleed into the one that precedes it, creating an odd sense of interconnectedness and inevitability. In each case, (and thanks also to writer Nathan Parker’s script) the story is allowed to breathe and unfold deliberately. The filmmakers want us to constantly be second-guessing our assumptions about what is going on, but they let the complexity of the ideas take care of that for them rather than planting unnecessary red herrings throughout the story. Jones supposedly has a Master’s degree in philosophy, and no doubt understands the power of a good paradox.

Moon will almost certainly be both criticized and praised for its uncanny kinship with films like 2001 and Blade Runner, and it does employ many of the stylistic and thematic elements of those films. Let’s be honest-- this film is certainly not blazing any new intellectual territory, but at the same time it does engage with its ideas in a much more direct and astute manner than most films of this kind. Jones doesn’t go out of his way to skirt around the specter of his influences, but he doesn’t let the movie ever reach the level of homage, either. In many ways, it seems as though he and Parker are making use of the expectations the audience brings to the movie. Take GERTY, Bell’s friendly helper robot (voiced by Kevin Spacey in one of his coolest performances in some time). With his monotone voice and vaguely human personality, GERTY immediately conjures up memories of HAL in 2001, so from the start we ascribe sinister motives to him. This ready-made belief helps play a big part in the great deal of suspense that builds throughout the story, and all without any real effort on the filmmakers’ part, as GERTY, in what comes as a delightful plot twist, seems to have been designed with Asimov’s three laws of robotics clearly in mind.

I haven’t mentioned Rockwell yet, but it should be said that he gives a career performance here, the kind that should be earning him huge accolades. He’s always been hit or miss for me, and I’ve criticized him for being a bit over the top in the past, but here he won me over once and for all. He’s truly carrying the film, and the poignancy and warmth he brings to Sam Bell helps to ground the personal, human aspects of the story. The fantastic, haunting music by Clint Mansell, who scores all of Aronofsky’s movies, is also worth mentioning. His music really helps to set the mood here in a subtle, non-intrusive way, often adding even more levels of suspense to what is already a pretty eerie atmosphere.

Moon is not a movie that will win the hearts and minds of the fanboy sci-fi crowd, but it’s very hard to see how anyone who appreciates the old-school, cerebral brand of hard science fiction would not find a lot to like here. Even though it gives away its plot secrets relatively early, it plays its intellectual cards decidedly close to the vest, and this only helps to make its themes and its story all the more rewarding. Few movies have the audacity to really explore ideas like what it means to be human, or how much we can truly trust the validity our emotions and our memories. And beyond the unanswerable, there are scenes, ideas, and motives I’m still reviewing and questioning-- what, for example, is going on in those video messages from Sam’s wife?-- that have me eager to see Moon again. Refreshingly, this is not because I’m still trying to piece its narrative together, but because I want more time to consider its ideas. That, if anything, will always be a sign of good science fiction.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Frost/Nixon (2008)

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that Ron Howard is the most innocuous director in Hollywood. The guy doesn’t make bad movies, on the whole, but outside of Apollo 13 he hasn’t made anything truly great, either. Frost/Nixon is yet another workmanlike effort from him, and it might as well be a metaphor for his entire career: It’s well-acted and competently shot, but it’s also frustratingly arbitrary and uninteresting (I can remember few Best Picture nominees that were any less discussed or controversial). Probably the only question raised by Frost/Nixon is why this movie--or, for that matter, the play it's based on--exists at all. Did we really need a dramatization of the famous interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon, especially when everyone who’s interested in the subject has either already seen the real thing or can easily seek it out? Sure, it’s fun to watch Frank Langella do a Nixon impression, and he does it well, but all the movie as a whole amounts to is a slightly clumsy reenactment of something that most people already know about.

Howard’s way of getting around this issue is to shoot the movie in faux-documentary style, with characters frequently addressing the camera in confessional interviews and recounting their experiences as a part of the two research teams. In addition to just being a tired technique, these interviews also come off feeling like a cheat-- an all too easy way for the film to tell and not show--which ironically breaks the first rule of the kind of “good journalism” that Frost/Nixon is trying to champion. And this is too bad, because the backroom preparation, dealing, and politics that helped make the interviews happen are the only story really worth telling here, and these scenes should have been where the movie really shined. Instead, we get one cliche rolled out after another, where the characters sit around tables littered with papers and coffee cups and name-check all of Nixon’s greatest hits, from the “Checkers speech” to his unfortunate debate with JFK. Outside of this, the movie is also notable for featuring what might be the most half-assed romantic subplot in recent memory, in the form of Frost’s relationship with his girlfriend Caroline, herself a journalist. Why a talented actress like Rebecca Hall would lower herself to playing what amounts to little more than set dressing is completely baffling.

Not surprisingly, the movie only really gains steam when it gets to the unscripted bits: the actual interviews between Frost and Nixon. In what amounts to a real intellectual fencing match, Frost is initially outdone by Nixon, who controls the tone and speed of the interview like the slippery customer that he is, and it’s only when they reach the subject of Watergate that the tables begin to turn. Still, these few exhilarating moments only succeed in highlighting the question that’s hovering over this entire movie: Why watch the recreation of an interview when the real thing is readily available, and now on YouTube, no less? Regrettably, this is a question that Frost/Nixon and its director are never quite able to answer.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Le Corbeau (1943)

On its surface, Henri Georges Clouzot’s noir Le Corbeau (The Raven) is simply an expertly crafted suspense film. Made in 1943, the film follows the controversy that erupts in a provincial French town after an anonymous author starts sending caustic letters revealing the citizens’ darkest secrets. Near-riots ensue, innocents are imprisoned, and at least one person turns up dead. There is a laconic leading man with a dark past (Pierre Fresnay), a lascivious young woman after his affections (Ginette Leclerc), a colorful cast of supporting players, and a cracking mystery at the center of them all. And while all this might not seem that extraordinary, the circumstances under which the film was made, along with its rich subtext and the consequences it had for its creators, certainly were.

Le Corbeau was made during the reign of the Vichy government, when France was still very much under the control of Nazi Germany. The film’s script had been around since the early thirties, but some of its incendiary content-- that Fresnay’s character, Dr. Germaine, performs abortions for desperate women is not only alluded to but stated outright-- had prevented it from being produced. Clouzot, who only had one other major work to his credit, was only able to get the film made by collaborating with the Continental Film Company, a production outfit that had been started by the Nazis as a means of making popular entertainment for occupied France, as all American movies had been banned. Ironically, at the time, filmmakers working for Continental were allowed to work with little censorship and larger budgets than those working for the French companies, and this freedom helped Le Corbeau become a wide success.

It was only after the war and the occupation ended that the controversy started. The film’s actors and crew were accused of collaborating with the Nazis, and Clouzot was initially banned for life from making films in France. This ban was eventually lifted after much debate about the content of the film, but it would be four years before he worked again.

Seen today, the most puzzling thing about the firestorm created by Le Corbeau is how both the censors at Continental and those who decried the film as an act of treason so clearly misread its message. If anything, the film’s story of an anonymous writer of inflammatory letters now seems a bold statement about the culture of informing and back-stabbing that was going on in France during the occupation, when the Vichy regime and many citizens even went so far as to help the Germans organize raids to capture Jews and other undesirables to the Nazi Party. Le Corbeau, both through its characters and the way it deals with questions of morality, repeatedly condemns this behavior, showing the ways that it can tear a community (or a country) apart. The war is never once mentioned during the film, but it hovers over everything like a fog, and the message is there. Still, it would take some time before a number of prominent writers and filmmakers recognized Le Corbeau for the parable of life under occupation that it is.

That this message was so subtly delivered means that Le Corbeau works on many levels, and it can also be enjoyed as the pure entertainment that Continental meant it to be. On a stylistic level, it’s hard to believe that this was only Clouzot’s second film as a director, because he employs such a confident visual style. His compositions are as impeccable as they are economical-- every shadow, every object in the frame is there for a reason. He relies on his camera to express his themes as much as he does dialogue, most notably in a scene where the avuncular Dr. Vorzet, a psychiatrist in Germaine’s hospital, discusses the nature of good and evil, all while a light bulb swings overhead, casting alternating patterns of shadow and light over the two characters. It’s a powerful scene, and this motif of moral ambiguity is one that Clouzot would return to throughout his career, especially in his two masterpieces, Les Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear. It has been said that Alfred Hitchcock would eventually consider Clouzot to be one of his chief rivals for the title of “master of suspense,” and after watching his work here it’s easy to see why.