Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Willful Suspension of Disbelief

This is pretty good. An American physicist has become so annoyed by bad science in movies that he wants to limit Hollywood filmmakers to just one scientific "gimme" per film. Such a claim is patently ridiculous, but what's funny is that this very rule is supposed to be a part of screenwriting 101--you get your one chance to stretch, and from there you're supposed to stick to real-world logic. Of course, you can't expect your average Hollywood screenwriter to stick to classical story structure, let alone to what's scientifically plausible. To be honest, at this point I'd be happy if half the movies that came out managed to follow their own internal logic...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The House of the Devil (2009)

Last year’s The House of the Devil plays like an unreleased Tobe Hooper flick from 1980—the kind of movie he might of made in that forgotten period between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist. I don’t just mean that it apes the style of those films. I mean that it tries to present itself as one of them, right down to its retro poster and opening titles. In a humorous nod to the later 80s, there’s even a Footloose-inspired dance scene (set to none other than The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another). While it’s good for a laugh, all this can easily be written off as Grindhouse-style homage, yet another chapter in the increasingly annoying modern obsession with 80s culture. What’s surprising, then, is how well The House of the Devil manages to match those late 70s/early 80s horror classics in tone and style. Those directors (Hooper, John Carpenter, Wes Craven) prized suspense and build-up above all else. They were always giving the viewers a chance to scare themselves before they allowed the movie to do it for them. The House of the Devil picks up where those old masters of the genre left off—when was the last time somebody actually made a “stuck in a scary house” movie?—and the result is a surprisingly creepy little artifact of a film.

In keeping with the old-school horror style, The House of the Devil is downright slow for its first third. We follow Sam (Jocelin Donahue), a college student who’s dealing with the very everyday problem of having an annoying roommate. She’s found her dream apartment, but she only has a matter of days to get money for the down payment. Her desperate situation leads her to seek out an “easy” gig as a babysitter along with her best friend Megan (mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig, whose feel for meandering, realistic conversation actually fits into this milieu quite perfectly). These first 30 minutes do move by pretty uneventfully, but when the two arrive at the house for the babysitting gig—a byzantine mansion that looks more like a life-sized dollhouse than a place anyone would actually live—only to find that the couple in question doesn’t even have a kid, we know things are about to get weird.

This slow-burning approach is a big part of what makes The House of the Devil work so well. Like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, this is a film that wrings a lot of creep out of characters finding themselves in situations that slowly move from just plain old socially awkward to quietly terrifying. This is most apparent during Sam’s meeting with the owner of the house, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), an impossibly tall old man whose strangely passive demeanor only makes every pleasantry and overly polite remark he makes sound like a veiled threat. Noonan’s an old pro, and he’s perfectly subtle in the role, to the point that you don’t even blame Sam for eventually taking the job—especially after Mr. Ulman ups the pay to a few hundred bucks for an evening’s work.

Once Sam is left alone in the house—except for “Mother,” that is, who may or may not be sleeping in a bedroom upstairs—is when The House of the Devil really comes into its own. The film was produced by Larry Fessenden’s (The Last Winter, Wendigo) production outfit Glass Eye Pix, and like Fessenden, director Ti West has a real gift for pushing tension and mystery as far as it can possibly go. In this regard he owes as much to Hitchcock and Polanski as he does to guys like Carpenter and Romero, especially in the way he makes use of classical suspense (that is, the things the audience knows that the characters onscreen don’t) as way of building a sense of dread. He also manages to get an absurd amount of mileage out of some well-worn horror gags, from power outages and unsourced sounds to everyone’s favorite, the obscenely loud telephone that rings at just the right moment. Using every trick to its full potential, West manages to create one of the best 30 minutes of old-fashioned big screen horror I’ve seen in a long time. It's a movie that prizes atmosphere and suspense over gore, where every little bump in the night carries with it some real dramatic weight. Of course, when the violence does come, it’s quick and downright brutal, not unlike the first appearance of Leatherface in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Like most movies that work on suspense, The House of the Devil inevitably brings on a bit of a letdown when it finally lays its cards on the table. This is disappointing, but at the same time it’s a testament to how well West and company were able to build atmosphere: there was simply no way they could ever live up to the creepy bar they set for themselves. Still, none of this takes away from the kind of wonderfully low-budget horror this film achieves. It’s a classically made movie that deserves credit for not just stealing from the old school, but for taking ownership of the kind of style and approach that made those movies great. It harks back to the days when directors like Romero, Carpenter, and Hooper were king, and for horror fans there’s no way that can be a bad thing.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tommy Guns, Fedoras, and...Digital Video: Public Enemies (2009)

Just caught up with Johnny Depp and Michael Mann’s latest, Public Enemies, which very well might be one of the most cursory period piece/biopics I’ve ever seen. For a film based on such a revered and well-researched book (Bryan Burroughs’ Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34), Public Enemies chooses to gloss over nearly all of the details of what made its subjects tick, to the point that they might as well be cardboard cutouts wearing trench coats and fedoras. We get to know nothing about John Dillinger, who is supposed to be flamboyant and larger-than-life, but whom Johnny Depp can’t help but make just a touch too dark and brooding. This is all summed up in a scene early on where Dillinger meets Marion Cotillard’s character Billie Frechette (who, by the way, is the only actor in the film who succeeds in seeming like a real person), and immediately tries to get her to run away with him. When she protests that she knows nothing about him, he responds “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you... what more do you need to know?” It’s a good line, and would probably be enough to get any woman to drop everything and take off with Johnny Depp. But Mann seems to think that this is all we as an audience need to know, as well, and for the remainder of the film that throwaway line will stand in for character development.

This is even more egregious in the case of Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent on Dillinger’s trail, who’s played by everyone’s favorite stoic Christian Bale, who is so wooden here that you get the impression he was placed into each scene by stagehands along with all the other props. Depp has enough inherent charm and personality that he’s always able to inject a little life into an underwritten character, but Bale, who seems to have a congenital inability to emote (at least not at anyone other than his DP), is the last guy you want in that situation. We know his character is an FBI agent, and we know he wants to catch John Dillinger, but beyond that he’s a total enigma. God knows I’m not asking for the requisite domestic dispute scene where his wife, baby in hand, says something like “this case has made you a ghost in this house” (which, come to think of it, might be a line from Mann’s much better film Heat), but a little flair or personality somewhere would have been nice.

Mann’s not helping the cause stylistically, either. You would hope that he might add to the dramatic depth of the story visually, as he’s proven he can do in the past, but he insists on shooting Public Enemies (which takes place in the dust bowl!) in a jittery, handheld, and distractingly digital style. I’ve seen few movies where the lack of film texture and grain is so obvious--and so clearly missed. I'm in no way one of those people who thinks that digital video is the scourge of modern cinema. But even the high dollar HD cameras like the one Mann used are still not at the level they should be. There are still things that the traditional film format does better, and I cannot imagine a setting that is more anathema to being shot in digital video than 1930s Chicago. Everything looks too slick and hyper-real, especially considering that the settings could have looked downright sumptuous if the filmmakers has shot them in the right way.

This antiseptic style carries over into nearly every other aspect of the film, including the ways in which it tries to build dramatic momentum. The film is based on one of those sweeping non-fiction epics, and watching it, it seems like its origins are always far too apparent. It’s as though every scene is a reenactment of something that is described in a much greater and more perceptive way in Burroughs’ book. It plays like a documentary without the narration, to the point that even when the scenes are slick and well-executed, you keep waiting for Peter Coyote (is there a more ubiquitous V.O. actor out there right now?) to start talking over the action to fill in the historical details.

I’ll close by saying that, all other faults aside, Michael Mann’s feel for action is as good as it’s ever been. The bank robbery in Heat, and the ensuing gunfight in the streets, remains for me one of the most heart-pounding and tense action scenes ever committed to film, and though Mann never reaches that level here, he comes awfully close. At different points in the movie, especially in a scene that features George “Baby Face” Nelson literally going out in a blaze of glory, he delivers exactly the kind of weirdly poetic visual grammar that made Heat one of the most wonderfully operatic action films of the 90s. Public Enemies might be a misfire, but seriously, is there a film director out there more adept than Michael Mann at capturing the sheer mayhem of automatic weapons being fired off? I don’t think so.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cold Souls (2009)

Cold Souls finds Paul Giamatti joining the weird list of actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves. As such, he stars as Paul Giamatti, a melancholy actor who’s having a devil of a time pulling off the lead in a Chekhov play. The problem? His own existential fears, guilt, and neuroses are getting in the way of him delivering a true, unburdened performance. He gets the answer to his problems in the form of an absurd company that offers a most unusual service: soul storage. By some never-explained technology, they’ve found a way to literally extract the human soul (it sort of looks like a grey blob of putty), and then place it in stasis in a storage locker. Free from the weight of their mortal quandaries, a doctor played by the great David Stathairn explains, the soulless are finally able to get down to the business of really living. Although skeptical, Giamatti accepts a brief soul extraction in order to get through the stress of performing on Broadway. But as you might expect, things don’t go so smoothly.

Cold Souls is supposedly based on a particularly bizarre dream that director Sophie Bathes once had, and it would have been much better served to go down that kind of abstract path, especially considering its premise. Instead, the whole thing is played oddly straight, and this gets in the way of it ever really paying off on its promising setup. We’re left with way too many questions, and some of the more interesting aspects of the story, like what its like to be “soulless” or how the soul really shapes a person’s world view, are either glazed over or written out of the script with throwaway lines. For his part, Giamatti certainly rises to the challenge of having to carry such a tough sell of a story. He provides the movie with all of its most memorable moments, and it’s his strange mannerisms and comic timing that allows it to remain pleasant and watchable even though it’s never as interesting as it should be.

Still, despite the undeniable fun of Giamatti’s performance, Cold Souls is ultimately one of the most disappointing movies I’ve caught up with in a while, if only because the central idea of its premise was so fascinating. Discussions of the soul are a decidedly esoteric thing, and trying to tackle them in a movie that is so conventional in its presentation was bound to be problematic. It might have all been better served as a piece of literature or as a one-note short film, but as it is, Cold Souls seems like it’s always struggling to find something concrete and tangible to actually be about. That’s a problem that even some solid performances and a clever setup will never find their way around.