29 September 2006

OCTOBER 2006 MOVIE PREVIEW

Yet another disappointing month of crappy-looking Oscar bait. The good news is that I'll be spending most of the month at the Chicago International Film Festival (current schedule: 19 features and a slate of animated shorts), and so I don't have to see any of it.

6.10.2006
Marty Scorsese seems to finally give up on whoring himself out for a Best Director trophy with The Departed, in which many fine actors struggle mightily with an incoherent plot and bad Boston accents. I'm probably being too harsh on it, but it's a remake of Infernal Affairs, one of my very favorite cop movies of all time, and I'm not disposed to be generous. The only thing about thefilm that interests me is the trailer's use of a live recording of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." And y'know, that a bona-fide genius is directing it, even if he hasn't had a bona-fide masterpiece in over 15 years.

Elsewhere: for The Queen, one of my favorite British directors (Stephen Frears) teams up with one of my favorite British actors (Helen Mirren) for the first time ever, and it's to make a freaking Princess Diana movie. Keeping the faith on this one, but it seems a bit too soon (and the main character is still a bit too much alive) to have anything "actual" to say. And a prequel to the needless remake of a horror masterpiece - tasty. I've got too many good things to see to bother with it.

The less said about Jessica Simpson's new vehicle, the better.

13.10.2006
You have to admit a certain grudging respect for an action film so unashamed that it is total shit that it actual puts the requisite "He just won't die!" line right in the damn trailer. Maybe you don't have to admit it. Anyway: The Marine, which stars professional bad movie hardass Robert Patrick, whose acting I always enjoy even though it is almost always surrounded by awful.

Movies that will be bad because they have no choice: The Grudge 2 (okay, I haven't seen the original, and the trailer's nice and creepy, but the J-Horror thing is totally played out by now); Man of the Year, in which Robin Williams plays a Jon Stewart clone in a Barry Levinson film, and while Levinson is at his best with satire, Williams...isn't; Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, already a full-on flop in Britain

Movies that will be bad because they are too ambitious: John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig followup Shortbus; yay for unashamed sex scenes, boo for that "New York is the world" schtick, and way boo for the very concept of "9/11 changed how we have sex." Come again? Also Infamous, and it's totally not anyone's fault that Capote already came out as the best possible Truman Capote biopic, but that doesn't make this look any less desperate.

Movie that might well be good: Todd Field's Little Children. Best. Trailer. Ever.

20.10.2006
The only Oscar bait that I'm really looking forward to is Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, and it's not just because he's one of the best directors in American history (we can debate the script quality of Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby as long as anyone likes, but it takes balls - and insanity - to deny that they're brilliantly crafted). For literally the first time I can think of in English-language film history, there's an honest-to-God companion film coming out - not a sequel, but a retelling of the same event from a different perspective, such that each film is complete in itself, but also requires the other for full effect. This is Trois Couleurs territory, and to me it's the most exciting thing in years. Am I more excited about the concept than either film per se? Yes, and I don't see that as a problem.

Sadly, my gibbering fanboy orgasm over Clint's turn towards Euroartiness obscures one of the only other fall films I'm unambiguously excited for (although I don't see it as an Oscar film): Christopher Nolan's period magician thriller The Prestige starring the best cast of the season. Watch the trailer again and tell me you don't get weak-kneed.

Which leaves me with no energy at all for Running with Scissors and Marie Antoinette two films that I'm looking forward to with reservations: the first because it could skew very easily into wannabe Wes Anderson territory, the second because it seemingly turns a very bad human being into a punk heroine.

Lastly, the first Bobcat Goldthwait-directed film since Shakes the Clown will be opening in New York and Los Angeles. The More You Know.

27.10.2006
Can I just go ahead and admit, I am absolutely paranoid about Babel? Good Cannes buzz or not, Alejandro González Iñárritu's first film was orders of magnitude better than his second. The return of Gael García Bernal is a good step, the rest of the cast is good, and the trailer is flawless; but I'm not going to acknowledge that it might be any more than decent until I've seen it.

Phillip Noyce's Catch a Fire is being pitched as "From the director of Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger," and that has to be annoying. Still, at least the world gets another Tim Robbins liberal piety drama, because those are invariably good.

And look! Another Saw! How cute! I hate American filmgoers!

28 September 2006

WHAT OF THE HORSES?

Lend me your ears: I come neither to bury All the King's Men nor to praise it. Forget what you've heard: this is not a trainwreck of a film, it is not the most bloated and hackneyed film of 2006, it is not an incoherent film with no t a trace of political knowledge. It is perfectly functional, and is made with workmanlike efficiency. How's that for damning with faint praise?

To be fair, there is one glaring point on which the film is not merely bad but excruciating, and it's probably the film's most notable aspect, and that is Sean Justin Penn. I have not seen all of his performances, and therefore it's not for me to judge this his "worst"; but I want to so very, very badly.

As everyone in America knows, and has been ever since the movie was delayed from last November (more on that shortly), Penn plays Willie Stark in this second filmed adaptation of Robert Warren's novel. The story is familiar to anyone who ever heard of American literature, or of populist firebrand Huey Long: Stark rises from the rural backwaters of Louisiana to become governor on an idealistic far-left platform, only to allow his perfect political machine devolve into a mire of corruption when it becomes clear that there is no other way to achieve his goals.

Stark is larger than life, a man of such imposing presence that you cannot possibly ignore him. Penn, for all his intensity as a performer, is not physically imposing. In the 1949 adaptation of the novel, Broderick Crawford has presence just from standing still. Penn is a slight man, even with a ridiculous little padded gut, and to make up for it, he acts...

No, I take that back. He doesn't act. Acting requires knowledge about the choices one makes, and it really doesn't seem that Penn has any such knowledge. He's channelling all of the things he can to seem powerful and charismatic, but it turns out very poorly.

The scene that will stick with me for the rest of my life is his first major speech. To this point, Stark has been the unknowing puppet of the Powers That Be, and he claims his independence in a frank, angry moment of passion on stage in front of those he lovingly calls "hicks." To show this passion - the charisma and power that bring all those poor folks to stand in his presence - Penn windmills his arms around in opposing circles.

You may reread that clause. I'll wait. It won't change, though.

So, yes: to embody the most charming and persuasive speaker in Louisiana history, Sean Penn waves his arms around like he's in a dance on Sesame Street, while speaking with a psychotic cartoon accent that consists largely of replacing his th's with d's and t's, and never pronouncing the final consonant of a word. He flails like an electroshock patient at every major emotional moment, and the less said about his hair (which, in fairness, is probably not his fault), the better. Willie Stark does not seem like a great governor - he doesn't really seem like a human being, more like a Disneyland animatronic that hasn't been fully programmed yet.

The good news is that Penn isn't actually the main character in the film. That would be Jude Law's Jack Burden, the journalist turned Stark hanger-on who narrates the film from about 3/5 of the way through it, although he continues to narrate right 'til the end. Law is not nearly as bad as Penn, though he is far from his best work: much like the rest of the cast, his performance revolves around his accent, but unlike everyone but Penn, his accent doesn't work. Not that it's bad: just that it's not always present. When Burden turns investigator in the middle of the film, and thence becomes the focus of the story, it becomes clear that Law doesn't want to play a venal character (which he must), and the film scuttles itself, although this falsely implies that the film had been sailing smoothly up to this point.

It's pretty easy to dismiss everyone else as wildly overqualified: Anthony Hopkins is actually better than he has been in a while, but a number of powerful actors - Patricia Clarkson, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo - fail to make any impression at all (although Gandolfini hints at how much better he would have been as Stark). Frankly, Penn steals most of the energy away from the rest of the film - he may be a babbling and incoherent slab of overcooked ham, but he's impossible to ignore for precisely that reason.

It doesn't help the actors that the film is written and directed by Steven Zaillian, whose only connection to quality filmmaking is the screenplay to Schindler's List, and watching this flaccid epic of political morality, it's easy to wonder if that film was so well written after all (behold the power of a great director). It's not that he's a hack, exactly - this seems like a personal project, and you can't fault it for lack of ambition - and it's not that he's bad, exactly - there aren't really any wrong choices made. He's just very, very uncreative. The film is very cramped, not because it should be, but because Zaillian and cinematographer Pawel Edelman (who really should know better: he's worked with Polanski and Wajda, for God's sakes) don't seem to understand how to suggest that there is a world outside of the frame. Characters are uncomfortably stuffed into boxlike shots that we've all seen hundreds of times, often in the first projects of film students. Every conversation - and this is a film made up almost solely of conversations - follows the same pattern of showing the chest and head of whomever is speaking, sometimes if we're very lucky including the other person as a framing element.

When the film was pulled, the official reason was that the score and editing weren't complete. If that's true, it's kind of justified: the editing works very well in that "don't call attention to the editing" way, although I doubt that they needed to cut every time a new person spoke. The score is a different matter entirely: as composed by professionally awful composer James Horner, it is the aural equivalent of Penn's acting: cartoonishly bombastic and disgusting. Horner uses the timpani the way that sane composers use the violin or trumpet, and rather than excite and stir the emotions, it turns the entire film into a literally thudding assault on the ear, and then through the ear right into your brain, where it feels like the timpani is lodged securely in your frontal lobe.

As for the politics...I hesitate to bring them up at all. As produced by James Carville, this is obviously meant to be a defense of extremism in the pursuit of progressivism, and I'm for that. But it's so unengaging and sleepy that I can't really bring myself to care. And besides, one terrible choice ruins the whole political angle anyway: as originally set in the '20s and '30s, the story made sense: that was the last great period of radical leftism in America. For a reason that defies rationality, Zaillian has reset it to the 1950s. The idea of someone like Stark rising to power in the Eisenhower years cannot be imagined, and it turns the film from a wistful dream to an outright lunatic fantasy. It's juuuust possible to romanticise the politcal machines of the Depression, but corruption after WWII has a much different, less poetic flavor.

Still, it could have been worse. It frankly should have been worse, and I feel a bit cheated. I wanted All the King's Men to be a miscalculation of operatic proportions, but it's far more depressing than that: it is almost totally competent.

5/10

27 September 2006

THE BIG GOODBYE

If it's true that Jet Li has starred in his last martial arts film, then it is reasonable to assume that Fearless is in part an audition for future dramatic roles. In which case, it is a very poor audition indeed.

Fearless, whose English-language title has nothing to do with the content of the film whatsoever (the original title is simply the protagonist's name, Huo Yuan-Jia), is the fact-inspired story of a great Chinese fighter who, shortly into the 20th Century, fought against the hand-picked champions of four colonial powers and won, thereby inspiring the downtrodden Chinese population to...something. From the film, his legacy seems solely limited to being famous and founding an international gym franchise.

In every way, this is precisely the film I expected it to be, and somehow it still manages to be disappointing. What it does well, it does very well, and what it does well is fight scenes: director Ronny Yu is wholly within his comfort zone here (he abandoned Snakes on a Plane to do this project). Whether digitial trickery was used to make the seemingly weightless wushu battles possible, or just the natural skill of several great martial artists, I cannot say. Certainly, Jet Li is an international superstar for great reason, and his skill is on full display in the first half-hour and last ten minutes of this film.

This leaves one hour.

That one hour is dedicated to a plot.

That plot is dedicated to proving how bad it is to engage in fighting for the voyeuristic joy of an audience.

I once encountered the theory that the worst sin Last Action Hero committed at the script level was telling a story about how Hollywood action films are stupid lies, while pitching itself at the audience for typical Hollywood action films. Fearless does something similar: it is at every level conscious of being the Last Jet Li Martial Arts Film, and it is dedicated to the idea that Jet Li martial arts films are basically immoral. Far be it from me to complain when genre films set their ambitions beyond the customary limits of that genre; but there's ambitious and then there's resenting the audience, and I can't quite decide which of those Fearless is playing at.

None of that is obvious while the film is unspooling: what is, is how damn boring and badly-made that central hour is. After violating the rules of sportsmanship and honor in a non-regulation fight that ends with a man's death, Huo Yuan-Jia travels to the country, for an idyllic stay in a small village where he learns the joys of rice-planting and falls in love with a blind girl. It is really a drama with a light romantic flavor, and it fails entirely. Jet Li cannot act it, and Ronny Yu cannot direct it. He cannot even manage a simple "watch the seasons roll by" montage, using CGI to show the passing of years over the rice paddies, making something that looks like the worst video game of 2002 rather than an actual movie (I dare you not to burst out laughing when the "snow" starts to fall). As for Li, he tries to show the move from callow youth to experienced adult largely by shrinking the size of his smile from a hideous rictus-grin in the first third to a small twitch of the lips in the middle. His chemistry with Li Sun, playing the blind girl Moon, does not exist, despite her best efforts to show how infatuated she is, which unfortunately includes the choice to gaze admiringly at him; admiring gazes are fine, but not generally considered an option open to the blind.

It's a pity that Jet Li's farewell to the genre that birthed his stardom has to be so scuttled by mediocrity, but understandable: he feels the need to say something profound and important. But film history is littered with the dead careers of action heroes who couldn't make the transition into greater things - such as convincing line readings, for example - and Li appears poised to join them. His current project is an American action film, which probably doesn't stretch him very far out of his comfort zone; but it seems depressingly likely that the future holds more polemics and half-assed morality plays, and I fear greatly for his proposed teaming with Jackie Chan, as I cannot imagine that Grumpy Old Ninjas* could be anything other than a terrible waste of them both. As Fearless was a waste; in those early scenes, when Li was at his best, I wanted to cry out: "you're good at this! Don't stop! There are so few like you!" But he did stop, and I was left alone in the dark with my bitter fanboy tears.

6/10

LEONARDO DiCAPRIO IS A COBAG

Too late to post, really, but I saw that Leo has a list of the ten best movies ever, and given that he is a reasonably bright young actor, I expected that it might be somewhat interesting...

Nope.

10. East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955)
Aww...wittle Weo wantsa be James Dean?

8. Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)
Great film, sure, but a barbarously literal write-up.

6. Yojimbo (Kurosawa Akira, 1961)
A fine film, but I think you could put together a top ten of better Kurosawa.

2. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
Suck up.

1. Ladri di biciclette (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
Fuck you, Leonardo DiCaprio.

25 September 2006

THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR

Autumn comes to Chicago, and with it the Chicago International Film Festival, whose schedule was released late last week.

As always, it's nearly impossible to navigate their website and the only way to really figure out what's going on is to have the handy paper copy. Luckily, I procured such a copy on Saturday, and while I don't have a finalized schedule yet, some of the more prominent releases (in my mind):

-The North American premiere of the omnibus feature Paris, je t'aime, easily the most exciting film at the festival for viewers of a certain temperment (mine). And yet some people are unaware of its very existence! So here's the short version: 20 filmmakers are producing 20 short love stories set in each of the arrondissements of Paris. Which is dull. The exciting part is the list of filmmakers involved, including Alfonso Cuarón, Joel & Ethan Coen, Walter Salles, Olivier Assayas, Sylvain Chomet, Tom Tykwer and so forth. Or click here.

-Manoel de Oliveira's sequel to a Luis Buñuel film.

-The newest films by Kim Ki-Duk and Matthias Glasner, neither of them with a scheduled US release.

-Renaissance, the gorgeous looking French animated film whose "limited release" consists of one theater on either coast.

-And the traditional batch of movies that will get American release within a month or two of the festival: John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, Stephen Frears' The Queen, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain.

I'll be seeing and reviewing a healthy number of films (last year was 12 I believe, and I'm looking to top that), if anyone has a recommendation, let me know in comments.

21 September 2006

I SEE MOVIES

In five years, I will be just about exactly Zach Braff's age in The Last Kiss, and if I act like he does in the film, I hope my dear friends will have the good sense to kill me in my sleep.

Based on an Italian film I have not seen (and this is the sort of material that Europeans tend to do better than Americans, but nothing in the story leads me to believe that it was ever bearable), The Last Kiss is the story of an unlikable, angsty 29-year-old who decides that it's just too scary to have a pregnant non-fiancée, and so he launches on a journey of self-loathing discovery. It reads and plays exactly as an update of Braff's overrated Garden State, right down to the annoyingly airy brunette who represents an ideal of womanhood as written by a man who has never seemingly interacted with a woman.

The scary thing is that Braff didn't write it - it's the work of Crash scribe Paul Haggis, and like that film it's an ensemble piece about many deliberately vague characters who represent just about everything other than an actual person. The protagonist Michael is ALL MEN SCARED OF COMMITMENT ON THE CUSP OF 30, and his girlfriend Jenna is ALL IMPATIENT WOMEN, et cetera. Except, of course, they're not: any time a character is self-consciously meant to be All People, it fails miserably.

An ensemble piece, and yet not a very good one - the focus is clearly on Michael, and his idiotic flirtation with a college girl, and so none of the stories of his wastrel friends comes together very well, yet far too much time is spent on their subplots. We are left with not remotely enough to like them or be interested in their lives, and yet too much to ignore, and so we just hate them for wasting our time.

The acting, across the board, is bad, although with material like this it's hard to blame the actors. Blythe Danner has the most to apologize for in her scene-chewing role as Jenna's sexually unsatisfied mother, a performance that clearly begs for an Oscar nomination. But no-one - not Braff in his whining glory, nor Jacinda Barrett as his initially absurdly tolerant, then absurdly vengeful girlfriend, and certainly not Rachel Bilson, playing a daffier version of her character from The O.C. if such a thing is possible - comes across as likeable or sympathetic. They are navel-gazers all of them, in the most alienating and disgusting way. Only Tom Wilkinson survives reasonably unscathed, and it's probably because he has the least dialogue of any major character - as Danner's estranged husband, he is largely stoic and his role is mostly to advise sucking it up and admitting that other people's problems matter more than your own. If this were Garden State, that sort of viewpoint would make him the villain, but here he's the de facto hero, as there is simply no-one else even remotely bearable.

Tony Goldwyn directed, but it's been a long time since I saw a film so utterly beholden to its script and cast, and the only bad thing I can say about the director is that he agreed to the project in the first place. It is a completely flat piece of cinema, without any interesting choices (worst moment: when the camera looks over Braff's shoulder across the water to signify Pensiveness and Yearning, or some damn thing, and it does this unironically). It's too much to say that I hated the film, but I can't be too positive about spending $9 to spend two hours with people that I so uniformly want to slap.

4/10

Two more below the jump.

What Michael Moore hath wrought, part 917: a documentary whose star is its director, and just about everything wrong with it stems from that fact. Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a muckraking exposé of the Motion Picture Association of America, and a fairly successful attack on the hypocritical and sex-phobic ratings system. Through interviews with some of the directors who have tangled with the MPAA and lost (you always lose, tangling with the MPAA), such as Kevin Smith, Matt Stone and Kimberly Peirce, Dick proves what all of us have known all along: anything vaguely kinky is bad in Hollywood, and anything showing women can possibly enjoy the sex act is really, really bad. Decapitations? They're fine.

The film suffers a bit from familiarity (does anyone need to be told that the ratings system is flawed), and yet it is valuable for providing all of these arguments, with film clips to back everything up, in one neat package. The style is a bit maddening at times, full of many bright-colored graphics with hard-to-read fonts, and it's clear that Dick is trying to make an academic subject a bit more accessible, with mixed results (worst example: a list of all the directors who received or were threatened with an NC-17, while comprehensive, is almost impossible to read, and it's frustrating to see Aronofsky and Kubrick lumped in with Stone and Smith, as though there isn't a fundamental imbalance in their films' merits).

Running alongside this commentary is an actual plot, in which Dick hires a private investigator (she is a lesbian, which the film takes some pains to make sure we notice; why this matters is unclear, but I can't think of a single explanation that isn't exploitative) to track down the anonymous members of the MPAA ratings board, on the arguement that accountability and transparency are necessary things in any censorship body in a functioning democracy. Which I agree with, and it is hard not to get angry that not one of these "typical American parents" has a child younger than high-school age. The problem is that Dick fashions himself as a iconoclastic hero for violating these people's privacy, even though it's fairly clear that his is a temporary, unimportant victory. This is the chief difference between someone like Moore and someone like Dick: both are self-aggrandizing, but Moore knows he's not making things better. Dick suffers from annoyingly sopomoric delusions of self-importance. His tone is endlessly snarky, and frankly grating. It takes a lot to make my sympathise with the people who called Eyes Wide Shut pornographic, but he comes close.

Still, the material is interesting, and some of his muckraking does have a purpose. I just wish he wasn't such a Dick about it.

I'm really sorry about that.

7/10


A singular example of a film that exists solely for its lead performance, which is brilliant, Sherrybaby is an extremely dismal experience. The plot in short: Sherry Swanson gets out of prison after three years, clean for the first time in ages, and thrilled to reconnect with her daughter. Her brother and sister-in-law are both assholes about letting her back into their lives. This makes Sherry extremely depressed, and she decides to give up on rebuilding her life.

Maggie Gyllenhaal gives the performance of her career thus far as Sherry. Her natural haziness and addled way of delivering lines work perfectly to evoke the character's detachment; the impact of her anger and frustration late in the film is possible only because of how flighty she acts in the beginning.

Everything around her, unfortunately, is textbook indie glumness. The film is shot in a verité style, handheld and grainy throughout, and the griminess of the visuals is replicated in the story. This is a world populated by grotesques, starting at Sherry's absurdly vicious family, to her bitter parole officer. That most of these characters later act in marginally sympathetic ways is less a sign of roundness and more of inconsistency.

Worse still is how rote and predictable it all is, and how very meaningless. When Sherry falls back on drugs, which we expect, it takes no apparent toll on her, and so when she abruptly reforms, which we expect as well, it does not feel like a triumph. The plot goes through its paces and then stops, without any sort of moral weight. Sherry's life is extraordinarily unpleasant, but not cathartic in the least. She just...gets better.

There's a strange schizophrenia in how much the filmmakers trust the audience. Certainly elements are left extremely vague - too much so, in the case of Sherry's apparently incestuous relationship with her father, which is touched on and then ignored - and yet many themes, particularly those concerning her feelings as a mother, are driven into the ground. Enough to ruin a good film, and Sherrybaby is hardly good. It's a chain of Sundance clichés whose ending is clear from the first scene, and whose reason for being is entirely limited to a bravura performance by a talented actress who needs an emergency lesson in picking better material.

5/10

20 September 2006

RIDING ALONE TOGETHER

All of Zhang Yimou's films, even his recent martial arts epics, are ultimately intimate stories about the individual set in contrast to society. Not necessarily in opposition; but Zhang's films usually explore the ways in which social animals are forced to behave in isolation.

This has never been more apparent than in his latest film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, in which the hero is a stranger in a land where he knows neither the customs, nor the bureaucracy, nor the government. Takata Gou-ichi is an elderly Japanese fisherman whose estranged son Ken-ichi is dying. In a desparate attempt to reconnect before it is too late, Takata journeys to China, to finish his son's project of filming traditional folk mask operas.

The film operates on multiple intertwining levels, and to pick apart how they work together is necessarily to recount the experience of watching. In brief, there is the story of a man who enters a world he does not understand and cannot function in, not because of love but because of its specific absence, and the desire to rebuild. There is the story of universal emotions and particularly the bonds of fatherhood, leading others to understand and help that man - most of the second half concerns Takata's attempt to reunite the abandonded son of an opera singer with his father. And there is a celebration of Chinese culture, past and present; the traditional opera remaining vital in a world of forms and departments, and even that communist snarl is treated on lovingly, as though Zhang takes pride in the formal elegance that it gives to everyday life.

All of these meanings come together in the title, which can be understood literally (it is also the name of the opera that Takata wishes to shoot), sincerely (Takata's linguistic and cultural isolation), or ironically (despite his isolation, Takata is surrounded by support and understanding), changing as the film requires. The success of the film lies in taking these different programmatic meanings, and effortlessly blending them. The mixture here of the social and cultural with the private and foreign is truly remarkable.

Zhang is famously a great camera director, and his work with cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (of House of Flying Daggers) is nothing shy of masterful. The primary motif of the film is segregation: using the frame to cut Takata out from the society around him, using lines and doors within the frame, or in the most common and arresting image, simply setting him alone in a vast empty landscape, and allowing the very width of the frame to show how lonely this man is.

Takakura Ken, the Japanese Clint Eastwood, plays Takata, and it is one of the great performances in recent memory. He gets his nickname from his stoic silence and granite face, and here he uses those features to express a lifetime of bottled-up emotions. Like a great actor from the silent age, Takakura can use his eyes to hint at feelings that are not even hinted at on his thin, tight mouth. As Takata's story moves through it's quiet tragedy, it is Takakura who makes us realise the cost.

Not all is well with the film; in particular it suffers greatly from Zhang's apparent doubt that we "get" it, and so the ending literalises the parallel between Takata and the opera singer's son. They share many lovely, tiny moments in the second half of the film, and it is nothing short of insulting that Takata has to verbalize what that means. It's a small note, but utterly false.

Still, it's one sour moment in an otherwise brilliant canvas. This is not Zhang's best work, but as a return to form it is thrilling and miraculous.

9/10

THAT'S GREAT, IT STARTS WITH AN EARTHQUAKE

I found myself at an astrobiology conference last night. Now, this is such a regular occurence in my life that it hardly bears mentioning, but it ties in somewhat with something else I stumbled across on the great big internet, and anyways I worry sometimes that people aren't sufficiently depressed.

The conference in question is Pale Blue Dot, an irregular workship series dedicated to sussing out new means of finding intelligent life in the universe, in particular the relationship of astrophysics and biological evolution. Last night, however, was mostly about how we're all going to die.

Dr. David Morrison of NASA opened with a lecture on "Cosmic Impacts and Evolution," which had a little bit to do with how asteroids killed the dinosaurs and led to the possibility for mammals to develop, and a whole lot to do with how scientists are trying to figure out how to prevent the same thing from happening to us, only they can't get the money for it. He was later joined on a panel by Dr. Jill Tarter of SETI, Dr. J. Craig Wheeler of UT-Austin and Dr. David Grinspoon of Colorado, nominally to talk about life developing as a result of cosmic turbulence, but actually to talk about how royally fucked we all are. The only thing missing was this video. (A really fascinating video, by the way, even though it is needlessly hyperbolic, with it's city-sized asteroid).

What strikes me is that nothing I heard was new to me. And I'm hardly a specialist. So I can't imagine what the actual scientists in the audience must have thought. Although I've since learned that the workshop is aimed not just at science professionals but also, even primarily, at journalists, and that makes it all a little more sensible: science reporters are remarkably stupid people, at least to judge from the vast sum of science journalism dedicated to burning questions such as "Evolution - is there any real evidence?" and "Do scientists get kicked out for believing in God?"

The panel, in a nutshell:
-Big things are out there.
-So are little things.
-It's the little things that are scary.
-I, Jill Tarter, inspiration for the Jodie Foster character in Contact, feel that science education is lacking.
-We need money to find the little things.
-Surely our quantitative findings will convince the governments of the world to get together and sing "Kumbaya" and provide all the funding we could ever want.

It's that last point that just about made me laugh. As was pointed out and ignored, we currently have a world-threatening disaster looming, with plenty of quantitative evidence, and we're ignoring the holy crap out of it. And that brings me to the other depressing thing I read yesterday, via Billmon:
Our global furnace is out of control. By 2020, 2025, you will be able to sail a sailboat to the North Pole. The Amazon will become a desert, and the forests of Siberia will burn and release more methane and plagues will return.
This from an interview with James Lovelock, whose previous credits include the discovery of the ozone hole. It all feels very Chicken Little-ish, but so did the ozone hole 40 years ago; the whole thing is at the Washington Post, and it's very interesting in a miserably unpleasant way.

18 September 2006

IN THIS CORNER: THE MOST NOTORIOUS UNSOLVED MURDER IN CALIFORNIA HISTORY

Who to blame for the stylish mess that is The Black Dahlia? Brian De Palma seems the likeliest candidate, as every frame drips with his stylistic tics and quirks, and it's obvious that he's not really interested in telling any sort of "story." Or perhaps Josh Friedman, whose adaptation of James Ellroy's book retains unwieldy chunks of expositional prose while making an unrecognizable hash of the denouement. Or the actors, who range from mis-cast (Hilary Swank) to simply bad (Scarlett Johansson).

Mostly, I want to accuse Josh Harnett.

Hartnett plays Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, a Los Angeles cop in the 1940s whose partner ropes him into investigating the grisly murder of Elizabeth Short, the "Black Dahlia", an aspiring actress found bisected and disembowled with her mouth slit from ear to ear. My fear that he would be unable to rise to the demands of this kind of gritty film noir was tempered by my expectation that this would be an ensemble piece in the fashion of L.A. Confidential, but this hope was misplaced: Hartnett is in nearly every scene, and for most of the remainder, we hear him intoning the painfully excessive narration. I had always realised that Hartnett, with his coal-black eyes and synthetic flesh, was unpleasant to look at; never before did I recognise how unpleasant he sounds.

My personal revulsion at the man might be overcome if he were capable of doing anything as an actor, but he cannot, and I understood for the first time watching The Black Dahlia why: he tries very hard. He stands before you on the screen, and the events of the script call for him to be e.g. "sad," and right before your eyes he goes step-by-step through the process of being sad. He scrunches his eyes. His voice quavers. He looks away. He scrunches his eyes harder. He does all of these things one at a time, and the effect is akin to watching Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation attempt to mimic human emotions he does not understand. In a way it's thrilling to see the process of acting laid so nakedly, but Hartnett does not act in experimental films, he acts in narratives, and when the narrative rests so utterly on his shoulders as it does here, all of the things that we tradtionally seek in narrative cinema, like characters and emotions, are completely absent. One pangs to imagine what a great director of bad actors like Stanley Kubrick could have done with Hartnett.

Brian De Palma is not a director of bad actors, and he is not even a bad director of actors, but you would not know that from this film, in which four main characters appear to be residing in four separate films. Of course, the film that Hartnett acts in a student film made by college freshmen who cast their friend who took an acting class back in high school. Scarlett Johansson plays Kay Lake, his love interest and his partner's girlfriend, and she is atrocious - never have I seen her so miserably reduced to merely reciting lines of dialogue and occasional moving her mouth up or down to signify an emotion that was apparently written in the screenplay directions. It's doubtful that either of them could generate chemistry with anyone, but there is most definitely nothing between them when they're together. This is deadly for a film that pivots on our investment in their relationship, which was supposed to be about their tentative attraction running aground of Hartnett's obsession with the murder case.

Aaron Eckhart plays Bleichert's partner, and it seems largely that he's just thrilled to be wearing vintage-style costumes and running around on period sets. His performance is all about energy and fun, and this too is bad: he is supposed to be consumed by the Black Dahlia, but he's much more joyful than tormented. And if I had to date an inflectionless block of wood like Johansson, I'd be happy to study a disembowled corpse, too. Hilary Swank rounds out the main cast and gives the film's only good lead performance as Madeleine, the femme fatale and a daughter of society with a strange connection to Betty Short. Sadly, however good her performance is, both she and the character seem to have stepped intact out of a Tennessee Williams play. This feeling is cemented by Fiona Shaw as her deranged mother, who in two scenes provides a Southern Gothic harpy that redefines the very concept of hamminess, and ends up so absurd and hilarious that I almost want to believe it makes the entire film a parody.

It's not an impossible idea. De Palma is famously delighted with subverting the audience's expectations, and while it may seem strange to make the vicious murder of a young woman the stuff of comedy, he's just enough fixated on the degradations committed against women that I can seem him doing it. Certainly, he doesn't take the story seriously at all, which perhaps explains why the last twenty minutes spins totally out of control, wrapping up too many threads too quickly, in the most arbitrary way. I was reminded of the climax to the crime parody A Shot in the Dark: "They were all murderers, except for Maurice, who was a blackmailer." No, De Palma prefers to focus his energies on his wandering voyeuristic camera, and here's where I start to say nice things.

De Palma, for all that he is an awful storyteller, is a great stylist, and as a purely visual experience, The Black Dahlia is brilliant. Indeed, the epic crane shot that first reveals Short's body in a field, merely one element of a wide canvas of cars and buildings and people, will likely remain as one of the most arresting images I see in a theater this year. De Palma is one of the few directors who can use slow-motion well, and his depiction of violence is rightfully praised, if disturbingly free from moral judgment. His style doesn't mean anything at all, in the end, but it's pure cinema, in love with its own filmic-ness; the heir to the French nouvelle vague in appearance if not in effect.

He's got some big guns helping him, chiefly among them production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, both of them among the undisputed masters of their craft. Both are in fine flower here: for Ferretti's part the film captures the look of the 1940's in a rare and wonderful way. It all looks stagebound, but it looks bound to a set in post-war Hollywood, not the 21st century. Zsigmond's cinematography is shockingly non-noir - shadows exist, but they are hardly omnipresent - but it's impossibly lovely, with just the right amount of desaturation. Again, it doesn't add up to anything, but it looks. So. Nice.

"Looks so nice" would be the end of discussing the film, except for one true surprise, and that is Mia Kirshner as Betty Short. She is dead (and a prop) when we first see her, but in the course of investigating, Hartnett finds a film reel containing her audition tapes. Betty Short is a terrible actress and a bad liar, but Kirshner, in a few short scenes, emdbodies her completely and gives the film a human core that none of the other actors come even close to providing. She is not innocent, but she is totally naïve, and the film comes perilously near to meaning something when she is onscreen: the corruption and destruction of something sweet and lovely. It's her eyes, really; Kirshner has the most piercing clear eyes I can remember seeing, and even in black and white it is impossible to look away. They are sad eyes, full of a grim past and an unpromising future. The great films noirs are tragic: they are the stories of the good and the pure dying in the face of the seedy and indecent. The Black Dahlia does not aspire to tragedy, but Betty Short, in those few moments, is good and pure, and in these scenes her death takes on a horrifiying aspect that De Palma seems unwilling to invest it with otherwise. Whatever is true of the morally empty film that contains her, Betty Short is a tragic heroine.

4/10

15 September 2006

YOU KILLED MY ELEPHANT. PREPARE TO DIE.

Even by the generous standards of the martial arts genre, the new Tony Jaa vehicle The Protector has an extremely silly plot:

Kham, as a young man, is trained in the traditional style of fighting that his villagers have used for centuries to protect their royal elephants. When his aged father attempts to meet the king of Thailand to present their finest elephant as a gift, he is killed, the elephant and its child are both stolen, and Kham must travel to Sydney, Australia, there to fight the villainous female head of the powerful Austro-Thai mafia, who has stolen the elephant in the hope of absorbing its royal spirit to safeguard her tenuous position leading the mafia.

It makes less sense as you're watching it.

I know as well as anyone that in any halfway-decent martial arts film, the story is only a pretext. If it provides plenty of great fight scenes, it is a success. And The Protector (or Tom yum goong, a title I prefer because it is the name of a particularly tasty soup that has nothing to do with the film) has plenty of fight scenes, and some of them are very good indeed.

But. Elephants.

A non-existent plot (such as in Jaa's previous teaming with director Prachya Pinkaew, Ong-bak) is fine. I have defended many plotless films on the grounds that they are merely vehicles for great whatever: acting, cinematography, musical numbers, fight scenes. Some of my all-time favorite movies have empty plots and perfunctory scripts.

Elephants are not non-existent. They are very large, and call attention to themselves, and when they are the centerpiece of a story, you cannot ignore the story. At every moment, you think to yourself, "this scene is in service of rescuing a mystical elephant."

Which is a shame, because there's a lot to love about the fight scenes, and they are clearly the raison d'être of the film. There are many small fight scenes, and three major setpieces, all of them are totally different, doubtlessly so that Jaa can show off his skills (which are prodigious: I'd wager that Jaa is the most skilled living martial artist whose cinematic work has been seen in this country). In the first, Jaa is chased through a warehouse, and is given many opportunities to interact with his surrondings, like a Thai Buster Keaton; this scene is particularly notable for some amazing camera movement (through a series of abandoned train cars!) and quick, MTV-flavored editing. It is the cinematic highlight of the film. The bravura centerpiece of the film sees Jaa fighting his way up a giant spiral staircase five flights high, in one uninterrupted five-minute take, and while it calls attention to itself, it's the sort of thing that deserves to. The third and final setpiece involves Jaa fighting three warriors in a burning temple; the fight choreography is brilliant, and the sequence is simply beautiful to look at, lit by flames reflected off the inch of water on the ground that splashes everywhere artfully.

Make no mistake, they are impeccable fight scenes. They are a marked improvement over their Ong-bak precursors, or just about any other fight scene I could name in the last ten years. But that's it. Everything else is elephants, and that which is not elephants is awful internal politicking by the corrupt Sydney police force, or the Austro-Thai mafia, or a very strange mud-bath striptease scene that makes whatever the opposite of sense is.

It is the very definition of a great rental film: for $4, you can spend a really fun forty minutes fast-forwarding through the non-Jaa scenes. But it is deadly in the theater. Elephants, man. Elephants.

A final word: the film has been cut by nearly 30 minuts thanks to the wisdom of the Brothers Weinstein. This has an obvious and drastic effect on the structure of what remains - I could probably point out every moment at which a scene was missing, and the film suffers greatly for it. Yet on some level, I can't imagine that any of the subplots would be any more endurable for being longer. The point being, it is not a complete film, and it is certainly less sensible now than it could be. Which is setting the bar rather low for the sensibility of the original cut.

4/10

13 September 2006

WHAT THE GOP HATH WROUGHT

A recent conversation with a taxi-cab driver my mother:

She: "I got a flyer in the mail, let me read it to you. It's about the congressional candidate [ed: David McSweeney]: he's pro-torture, he supports wiretapping, he's against abortion in cases of rape, incest and to protect the mother's health, and he supports drilling in Lake Michigan."
I: "Drilling for what? There's not actually oil under the Great Lakes?"
She: "It doesn't say. But what a jerk. 'Paid for by Melissa Bean for Congress." So..."
I: "That means that Melissa Bean's campaign sent it out to show what this guy is against."
She: "So I should vote for Melissa Bean?"
I: "I certainly hope so."
She: "Whether she's the Democrat or not."
I: "Anyone who supports wiretaps and is against choice is most certainly a Republican. And hey, you're not pro-choice."
She: "Well...I don't like it."

Followed by a conversation where I effortlessly convince her of the wisdom of unfettered abortion rights.

The point is this: my mother lives in the Illinois 8th District. It is solidly purple - a place where a pro-torture, pro-wiretaps candidate has an uphill battle, but gay rights and abortion are considered icky (hyper-moderate Bean took the seat away from a 26-year incumbent). Not for nothing is this one of the most significant races in the 2006 elections: the 8th is a perfect model of a swing district. And my mother is a perfect model of the typical 8th District citizen.

I've known her my entire life, and I know that she has internalized the right-wing talking points on abortion. "They use it like birth control, think of the innocent life." And while I would like to take credit that my amazing rhetoric swung her, I think it has more to do with something else.

Most Americans don't follow politics. They are not partisans or idealogues, and do not give much thought to why this is good or bad, the first argument that reaches their ears is the one that takes precedence.

But some narratives trump that. Nixon did in 1973. And Bush is doing it now. Nobody with insurance cares any which way about universal health care, outside of the blogsphere and Beltway; but they care very much that "the president is spying on us." And because political belief is to most people fundamentally arbitrary, it can be changed for arbitrary reasons.

In my mother's case, she has turned over a lifetime of staunch anti-abortion belief because she doesn't want to be caught agreeing with Bush on anything. No ideology, no logic drive her. Her political worldview is informed solely by her dislike of the president.

I put it forth, that my mother is not rare in this, and in fact represents a majority of the American electorate. Voters simply do not understand how politics work - notice above that my mother did not realise that her representative was a Democrat - and issues boil down to a question of charisma. Conventional wisdom in the abstract, but shocking to witness it in action.

This is why I have hope for the coming election. The Democrat strategy is to make the midterms a referendum on national politics, and this will work; but it will not happen naturally. There needs to be a constant message that Bush = The Republican Party. And I'm pleased that I see that very message happening. Not consistently, and not always well, but it is a simple and easy message that resonates not with the voters' sense of moral rightness, but with their hatred of having the wrong friends. The election is high school, and we need to make sure people realise that Bush and the GOP are part of the same loser pothead clique.

12 September 2006

IN THIS CORNER: HOLLYWOOD'S MOST NOTORIOUS UNSOLVED MYSTERY

The first thing to do is ignore the advertising that makes Hollywoodland look like the latest in a long string of Los Angeles period mysteries. To be sure, it is a period piece, and a great one at that; and one of its two protagonists is a classically cynical gumshoe who's only interested in the money. But far from being a whodunnit - indeed the overarching question of "what happened?" doesn't even have an implied answer - this is a story about two men who got eaten up by two very different faces of Los Angeles, one of them dying for it and one finding inspiration in that man's wasted life to better his own.

But I get ahead of myself.

The film opens in the middle: the event that one man's story inexorably leads to, and the event that will launch another man's eventual quest for self-knowledge. On June 16, 1959, George Reeves, star of the television series Adventures of Superman was found in his bedroom with a bullet in his brain. A day or two later, a venal little detective named Louis Simo is put in contact with Reeves' mother, who refuses to believe that her son shot himself. So begins an investigation.

I said it's not much of a mystery, and I stand behind that, but I'm not sure that was the intent. On one hand, it really does seem that Simo is meant to follow in the tradition established by Jake Gittes. But the plot really doesn't bear that out much: we know what Simo learns, because we see the last decade of George Reeves' life played out in flashbacks, but we never really find out how he learns it - he does precious little detectiving for the first two thirds of the film, and he knows details that do not suggest his canny investigation so much as they imply that he is watching the film that he's starring in.

That quibble aside, Louis Simo has one important characteristic he shares with the heroes of virtually every masterpiece of detective cinema: he's a parasite and he knows it, and by and large he's not bothered by it. He makes his money stringing along paranoid spouses, he takes the Reeves case largely to get his face in the papers, and he ends up with an innocent death on his hands.

It's not immediately obvious even though the film is structured to take advantage of it, but Simo's story is essentially a parallel to Reeves': he starts as a struggling matinee player, carefully placing himself wherever the camera will find him, and in this way he stumbles across Toni Mannix, the wife of MGM's general manager. They strike up a passionate affair, with Toni glad to have a gigolo to combat her husband's string of mistresses, and Reeves ultimately lands the role of Superman, dooming his career to a life of typecasting with the very first decent job he's landed.

Both stories are ultimately about lives wasted: and it is only by witnessing the toll that it took on Reeves that Simo can pick himself out of the sordid gutter that he's been lying in for so long. The relationship between the two men is curious, a sort of homosocial twist on Laura, the detective becoming obsessed with a dead man. Throughout they are contrasted: Reeves is already a big man before the Superman suit, Simo is mocked for trying to puff up his scrawny frame to look like a tough guy; Reeves stops smoking (in flashback) shortly before the gum-chewing Simo scrabbles for his emergency cigarette; Reeves disdains children, while Simo, we ultimately find, is torn up above all else by his separation from his son.

It's difficult to think of Hollywoodland as anything other than a character study, not because it is deficient in other ways, but becasue the film is dominated, surprisingly, by Ben Affleck's performance as George Reeves. It was a brilliant casting choice, and far less intuitive than it seems: one rectangular actor of negligible ability playing another. Affleck's performance is nearly flawless: he totally embodies the frustration of a man who cannot help but watch how quickly life is passing by. This isn't the first wave in a full-fledged Affleck revival, but rather the moment an actor finds precisely the role he is perfect for.

In fact, it is almost a problem how fully Affleck realises his character, because it leaves the non-Affleck scenes empty by comparison. Adrien Brody is a fine performer, and he gives one of his better performances as Louis Simo, but it is unmistakably a performance, and it isn't anywhere as interesting as his co-lead's. His scenes are largely an exercise in waiting for Ben's next appearance. Diane Lane fares much better, as Toni Mannix; she naturally has the exact look of a fading '50s starlet, and here she couples that with a pragmatic recognition that she is aging, doubtlessly a familiar feeling for a woman whose made it her business to snap up all the good roles for women Of A Certain Age. Bob Hoskins rounds out the leading cast in the small role of Toni's husband, giving him little to do but appear gruff, something he cannot help but do well.

The film captures the look of the 1950's surpassingly well; the decade has been experiencing a bit of a cinematic revival lately, but not even the immaculate Good Night, and Good Luck. has such a lived-in feeling to it. Every set and every costume looks worn and tired, incidentally making this the best film in recent years to describe the exhaustion at the end of eight years of Eisenhowerian white-bread pageantry. Perhaps regrettably, the cinematography does not follow suit; unlike GN&GL or The Notorious Bettie Page, for example, this looks like a film shot in the 2000's. Competently-shot, mind you - especially some very fine late-game night scenes - but it does detract a bit from the otherwise flawless recreation (and I suppose that a truly '50s-style photographic language would have lessened the impact of color; Reeves moves from brightness to dim shades, which is where Simo spends the whole film).

Nor is that the only flaw. Besides that, and Brody's inability to keep up with Affleck, Hollywoodland is roughly the 300th consecutive film for which I must complain that it's too long, and as usual it's in the end: as Simo gets further into the mystery, it becomes more of the Chinatown-wannabe that it so delicately avoided in the beginning. And if the cinematography is merely workmanly, the editing is sloppy: in the worst cases it is impossible to tell where people are standing relative to each other, but throughout there are far too many places where a scene feel to end a beat before or after the point that it actually cuts to the next scene; and plenty of those scene transitions, especially when a flashback is involved, are distracting and confusing.

Small complaints. This is one of the best character-driven pieces of the year so far, and while it is perhaps dubious as a Reeves biopic or historical inquiry, its translation of reality into fiction leaves it one of the most clear-eyed depictions of losing oneself to one's work that recent cinema has produced. It is perhaps less than it wants to be; but what remains of it is remarkable.

8/10

11 September 2006

A RUSH OF BLOOD TO THE HEAD

On paper, and just about everywhere else (including, once upon a time, this weblog), it's pretty easy to dismiss Crank as "D.O.A.-meets-Speed." There's no question as to why this should be the case: a hitman wakes up to find a DVD informing him that he's been poisoned, and if his adrenaline drops too low, he will die. The big problem with that is that it treats on the story of a movie uniquely disconnected from narrative.

In fact, if Crank has any clear precursor in cinema history, it's Tom Tykwer's Lola Rennt. Like that film, Crank has much less in common with cinema - even action cinema - and infinitely more with the aesthetics of a video game. The movie knows this extremely well: the opening credits are straight out of a 1980's arcade game, and the end credits are followed by footage from the mobile game based on the film.

Indeed, it's halfway tempting to call it an adaptation of Grand Theft Auto. The dying Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) can grab a car seemingly at whim, he gets health in the form of cocaine, sex and Red Bull, property destruction is represented in a decidedly amoral fashion. The plot is somewhat confusing and totally immaterial: it is a pure MacGuffin, present only to give a pretext for non-stop set pieces (much as the only part of Lola's "plot" that matters is the part about "less than 30 minutes").

What's shocking is how much fun it all is, at least until it starts to sag near the end. Crank isn't just about pointless, violent action sequences, it's about massively hyperstylised action sequences. From literally the first shot, there is an endless bag of tricks that writer-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, cinematographer Adam Biddle and editor Brian Berdan (whose last job was assisting the cut of Tony Scott's Domino) never seem to repeat from. In that first image, Chelios wakes up, groggily, from his drugged-out sleep, and the shot drifts in and out of focus, exactly as happens when one wakes up. A simple idea, but one that has never been executed so well as here. As the film progresses, Chelios's relative health is signified by his heart (again with the video game!), the camera swooping in towards his chest with the aid of CGI.

It's all very exciting, even if most of it is derivative; much of the style seems cribbed from the aforementioned Tony Scott. Why this film is playful and thrilling when his films are nauseating and inane probably comes down to tone: he wants to make crackling stories, while Neveldine/Taylor (their onscreen credit) are entirely focused on crackling. I said that the film is a pretext for the action scenes, but that's not quite right: the action scenes themselves are mostly just a pretext for wild imagery.

Watching someone else play a video game is never much fun for very long, of course, and Crank can't even sustain an 87 minute running time before it runs out of steam - probably right around the time that Chelios screws his girlfriend on the street in the middle of LA's Chinatown. It never picks up again, not in the requisite massive shootout on top of a skyscraper, nor in the oddly poetic final moments. And it's the very definition of a film that doesn't stick with you for more than a few minutes once you're out of the theatre. But it's impossible to fault it as mindless entertainment, and it's even a nice example of form and content mixing: you're excited as hell as long as you're stimulated, and then you drop dead. It's not art, but it was far more entertaining than any of the major summer blockbusters whose presence pushed it to the hinterlands of early September.

7/10

THE 5 YEAR ANNIVERSARY MOVIE

Updated below

At least a couple of people asked me what I thought about the controversy around the infamous ABC telefilm The Path to 9/11. Politics and film in one neat package! What could be a better topic for me, right? Not really.

My hierarchy of interests goes something like this: movies > politics > everything else. So my integrity as a consumer of film outweighs my partisan allegiances. And so when I look around at the bloggers foaming at the mouth over the alleged lies of the docudrama, my response, heretofore unspoken, has always been to sagely intone, "wait and see."

And while I agree in principle that it is a lie to represent Sandy Berger as an Osama-lover, and that it is despicable to depict that as a sober fact, I do not see fit to bully ABC into changing their film because of my politics. In the ever-tedious Culture Wars, liberals are not customarily the group that bleats about how disgusting Teh Hollywood is, and it's not a very flattering look for us. Reviewing movies you haven't seen is not our schtick: it's theirs, and we rightfully mock them for it. And I'm disappointed to see that sort of behavior among my liberal bretheren.

The only response worth considering is that most Americans are not immersed in the facts of politics, and that they'll take as Immutable Truth what they see on television. My response to that, in perfect 20/20 hindsight, is that it doesn't matter one damn - having actually watched The Path to 9/11, or more accurately, failed to watch it, I am fairly confident that Jane and John America are not likely to take much away from this movie other than a sore ass and a keen interest in whatever was playing on Fox at the same hour.

Much was made of ABC's decision to air the film uninterrupted. "Just a Republican informercial," people sniffed. More likely, a conscious desire to ape NBC's treatment of Schindler's List as A Television Event, something so profoundly Important and Sincere that to run ads in the middle of it would be Gauche. The lost ad revenue of today is made up for by the prestige of tomorrow. But The Path to 9/11 is shockingly boring. So boring that I - I! who never stops in the middle of a film ever! - could only pay attention for about 40 minutes, and then found myself too busy making toast and sorting my bills to really watch, and so turned it off just shy of the one-hour mark. I tend to doubt that Jane and John have more patience than this humble Antonini-loving blogger.

I would call it a procedural, except that implies a forward momentum that the film utterly lacked. In one hour, I saw something like 80 characters, one of whom was played by top-billed Harvey Keitel for two minutes, chase after the bombers from the 1993 attacks. I believe they caught him while I was eating Jelly Bellies.

The script was just a floppy mess. I will give this much to the filmmakers: they didn't want to demonize Islam. But this was expressed not by subtle, intricate means, but by thudding dialogues such as:

-FBI the first: "WHY DO SOME MUSLIMS KILL OTHER MUSLIMS!!!!"
-FBI the second: "THEY ARE TWO DIFFERENT MUSLIM KINDS!!!! SUNNIS AND SHI'ITES DO NOT LIKE EACH OTHER!!!!"

or:

-Muslim: "THEY ARE NOT MY MUSLIMS!!!! WE ARE PEACEFUL!!!! THEY ARE FUNDIEMUSLIMS!!!!"

It is odious political correctness, through and through: people trying to prove how much they don't believe things that they probably don't believe, but they really want to make sure you don't accuse them of believing it, oh my god why are you looking at me like that I LOVE BROWN PEOPLE!

This is not the only problematic notes: the tiny credit "Based on The Cell by John Miller, Michael Stone, Chris Mitchell" attempts to assuage the fear that it's not really based on The 9/11 Commission Report, but the four title cards at the beginning trumpeting that book tend to undermine that attempt.

More uncomfortably, and probably due to the screenwriter's political leanings, it is much less a film about who they are and who we are, and much more about "grr! get the enemy! they are scaryviolent!" One bomber gets a line about "Now the Americans will understand that their foreign policies are selfish and create hatred of their country," or something roughly that expository, and it's pretty clear that we're not meant to nod in agreement with that sentiment.

But mostly, it's just too long-winded and blustery and dull. In which respect it is a very faithful adaptation of the Report. I think we can safely assume that nobody will form their opinions about What Happened That Day based on this film; network presentations like this are the very reason we have things like the Food Network.

This, by the way, was the only 9/11 post I will make. I'm sure that many people still retain a great deal of trauma over that event, and it is not mine to tell them how to feel about that trauma. For the rest of the country, let the survivors mourn without tarting up a very miserable event in pagentry and patriotism. 9/11 long ago ceased to mean "the day that nearly 3000 people died," and has become a shorthand for "kill the darkies!" and I am not interested in memorializing an event that has been whored out as a bloody shirt for the darkest and most depraved impulses in the American psyche.

Update 10:24 AM: somebody says the same thing, only better.

Update 11:00 AM: Wow:
I would ask Bin Laden whether he had something special up his sleeve for the fifth anniversary. Why waste money, he would reply. The western media were obligingly re-enacting the destruction and the screaming, turning the base metal of violence into the gold of terror. They would replay the tapes and rerun the footage ad nauseam, and thus remind the world of his awesome power. Americans are more afraid of jihadists this year than last. In a Transatlantic Trends survey, the number of them describing international terrorism as an "extremely important threat" went up from 72% to 79%. As for European support for America's world leadership, that has plummeted from 64% in 2002 to 37% this year.
Via James Wolcott.

08 September 2006

QUOTE OF THE (YESTER)DAY

Here it is 3:00 PM and I'm only just getting around to reading other peoples' blogs. Have I mentioned that I hate my job? Good.

Anyway, I wanted to share a fantastically-worded observation from Ezra on the subject of the newest bin Laden tapes:
It's understood truth that the tighter terrorism's grip on the national agenda, the brighter the fortunes of the Republican Party. And yet bin Laden, whom the RNC would like you to believe blanches at the mere mention of their name, routinely plays deus ex machina each time their electoral outlook dims. To believe that bin Laden, whose network is largely online and reportedly sophisticated, cannot call up the New York Times and comprehend this electoral dynamic is the height of foolishness. So, for whatever reason, he appears intent on doing his enthusiastic best to improve the Republicans' prospects. Strange, given their belief that he fears them so.
The whole thing.

I DON'T WANNA WORK

I feel somewhat guilty every time I look over the ol' blog for the last few weeks and note how irregularly I've been posting, and how indifferent those posts tend to be. I will not excuse myself but explain this, yet again, as the result of my job - I enjoy writing but I have not yet found a way to eat off of it, and so in the conflict between the work I have to do (and this is a busy period) and the things I enjoy, the latter will always lose.I wouldn't go into all that, but it seems like a nice way to set up Factotum, the recently-released adaptation of the Charles Bukowski novel about a man who does not allow work to get in the way of what he enjoys, which is primarily alcohol.

It's the story of Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon, in his career-best performance), an educated man with some literary aspiration, who wanders from job to job looking for whatever will allow him to most freedom to avoid actually working while he drinks and writes. I have not read the novel and therefore do not know if it follows the same arc as the film (essentially, Bukowski's own life), but the film posesses an eye for the squalid details of a squalid life that can only really come out of autobiography.

I say "arc," and yet a significant, nay, overriding part of why Factotum works as a story is that virtually nothing happens. A bit of a narrative throughline concerns Chinaski's on-and-off relationship with fellow lowlife Jan (Lili Taylor), but the story functions best when it's merely looking at a slice of life going nowhere. It's in the moments between things that it's most obvious that this is a black comedy.

What's really intriguing is how the visual language of the film follows through on this idea. It was directed and written by Bent Hamer, a Norwegian, and there is a certain "Europeanness" to the look of it. It simply doesn't seem like much effort was put into making it visually adventuresome, and far be it from me to praise a film for having mostly inert cinematography and a sterile mise en scène, but it works here. The slackness of the look mirrors the content of the narrative: Chinaski's life is disaffected and joyless, the film is disaffected and joyless ("joy" here meaning and moving camera, vibrant colors and eye-grabbing lighting). It is the visual analogue to Bukowski's prose: brusque and unpolished, acknowledging that the great bulk of everything is shit.

Which is not to say that it is shoddily-made; I have no doubt that the choice of making the film so arid was deliberate. Too many scenes speak to a director with a very clear sense of what would suck the most energy out the proceedings. In particular I recall one five-minute scene containing one shot, opening with Chinaski puking in the bathroom and returning to bed, followed by Jan doing the same, followed by their first break-up. It's all very flat, as it should be; and to make sure the audience gets that flatness, the camera is mounted on a tripod and occasionally pans a little bit to keep both actors in frame. It would be boring if it weren't so self-conscious, but either way it works for the intended purpose: show how little investment these people have in anything.

The shocking twist: I didn't like Factotum much at all. Not that I think it's meant to be "liked." Perhaps the people who adore Bukowski (I don't, at least not the stories I've read) will be thrilled to see a film that so faithfully recreates his world, but on film at least it's not a very interesting world. People hate their little lives and try to escape them however they can. Yes, and? It's all well and good to hold a mirror up to the squalid world, and Factotum is nothing if not truthful, but that doesn't mean that watching filmmakers be deliberately uninteresting is a fun time. There's little point to a film that dramatizes what I experience every day, the effect if not the particulars. And then the film gets me again: of course there's no point, it's about working life. Which leads to the question: how does one argue against a film whose purpose is to be boring?

6/10

06 September 2006

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT

I don't know how I managed to be totally unaware of this film until now, but it sounds intriguing. I'd probably be a bit more excited if I had any idea who this Gabriel Range person is (he has a clutch of BBC telefilms to his name, all of which seem to be "what if" stories).

What confuses me is that this doesn't seem to necessarily be an anti-Bush film. I don't want to play the game that the Drudges of the world are playing, which is reviewing a movie I've never seen (although I bet I could have done it for Beerfest), but I just want to throw out a question: doesn't a film that makes the case that Syrian terrorist assassins are a clear and present danger tend to give credence, on some level, to the Bush Administration's constant fear-mongering? A truly anti-Bush film would instead lionize a white American assassin, non?

05 September 2006

I WENT OF MY OWN ACCORD TO THE APPOINTED PLACE AND MAN, DID I GET BURNED

Generally, I try to defend Neil LaBute from charges of misogyny, using the admittedly dubious argument that he dislikes everybody irrespective of gender. And while I will continue to insist that In the Company of Men is an example of equal-opportunity misanthropy, it's pretty hard to look at the LaBute-scripted and -directed remake of The Wicker Man and avoid the thought that he really, really hates women.

In order to understand why this is the case, it is important to consider the significant differences between this film and Robin Hardy and Anthony Schaffer's 1973 original, not because that film is better in every way (although it is) but because the changes speak to a very ugly place in LaBute's mind. In the first film, Sgt. Howie of an unidentified British police force travels to the Hebridean island of Summerisle, where he discovers a cheerful and friendly, although undefinably creepy pagan community led by Christopher Lee's Lord Summerisle. In 2006, Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) of the California Highway Patrol travels to the Puget Sound island of Summersisle, home of a vicious and nasty and untrusting and brazenly creepy pagan community led by Ellen Burstyn's Sister Summersisle.

The key difference between 1973 and now is this: not only is the pagan community led by a woman, but every significant pagan is a woman, and the men are not allowed to speak - indeed, we are led to believe that their tongues are cut out in childhood. By shifting the story from a community of nice men and women in a non-gendered nature cult to a community of horrible women worshiping a punishing Goddess, LaBute makes the argument in big, bold letters: letting women run things is a terrible idea.

As unpleasant as the misogyny is, it would be possible to set it to the side if there were a solid film underlying it. But there most certainly is not: The Wicker Man is a terrible film relative to the first, and a terrible film on its own terms. For one, it tells a nonsensical story - true, the original was hardly a model of rationality, but the remake is much worse off for trying to explain some of the stranger gaps in the plot. The great unanswered question of the 1973 film is how Sgt. Howie in particular ended up on Summerisle. The remake answers that question in the clumsiest imaginable way - by making the story more rational, it becomes infinitely less plausible. And the new film's opening scene, in which Malus has a life-altering experience watching a woman and her daughter die in a car explosion, does not connect to the greater plot in any sane way, and becomes a more gaping hole than anything in the original.

After this event seems to bring him some amount of attention, he receives a letter from his long-lost ex-fiancée, asking him to come to Summersisle to find their her missing daughter (trust me, the film does about that good a job hiding that "spoiler"). Upon arriving, Edward meets many unfriendly people and receives worse-than-useless hints from his ex, Willow (Kate Beahan, who is saddled with some of the most undeliverable lines in recent cinematic memory), and eventually ends up in the honeycomb-themed home of Sister Summersisle (Burstyn), who tells him a story that proves many things, primarily that LaBute doesn't understand how Celtic neo-paganism denotes different things in northern Scotland compared to Washington state, and the Essential Britishness of the original film is underlined more than I could hope to demonstrate.

This film has an Idiot Plot: the whole thing comes crashing down if Edward Malus has even half a brain. The original deals with this by leaving the mystery of what happened to the girl murky until Howie had been absorbed by curiosity. Here it's obvious within moments what's gone on, and only Edward's residual affection for Willow keeps him on the case. Which leaves us with an endless series of variations on the scene: Edward asks Controlling Female for help. She tells him to suck pig guts. Pointless red herrings are tossed around, such as the island's high percentage of twins and a whole bee subplot whose symbolism is totally lost on me.

Meanwhile, LaBute and cinematographer Paul Sarossy drape everything in murky blacks and stark contrast, because LaBute has decided that this is to be a horror film, never mind that the only horrifying part of the original is the last five minutes. Unfortunately, the director has always evidenced a better control over actors than over imagery, and so all that murk quickly becomes airless and repetitive rather than foreboding. And this tension - is it scary, or isn't it? - leaves the actors without a clue how to play anything, especially Ellen Burstyn, whose performance veers from sickly grandma sweet to hell-spawned demon in the space of a single line. Cage is characteristically leaden, and it kind of works, because nobody with a personality would put up with this plot for more than ten minutes.

And so we lumber to the end, which has the guts to be the same bleak event as the first film, but here it is totally unearned: first, because we have no sense of how the religion works here; then, because the theme of Christianity versus paganism, the central point of the original, has been totally eliminated; and lastly because (and I'm kind of spoiling both films, so if you haven't seen the original - and you must - skip ahead) it's infinitely less creepy when angry women scream "burn the drone" than when all the happy pagans sing "Sumer is icumen in." Then follows a coda that does nothing and goes nowhere.

It's kind of amazing: it's too close to the original to avoid comparing the two, and yet nearly everything that fails here does so because it veers too far away. I'm not sure what to blame most: the aimless direction, the clattering dialogue, the endless misogynist raving, but it all comes down to one thing: Neil LaBute is a very bad man.

3/10

01 September 2006

LIBERALISM CALLED. IT WANTS ITS BALLS BACK

It's been far too long since I spirited a column from behind the TimesSelect wall, but via Atrios I find something that's just too damn good not to share. Thomas Frank's "Rendezvous With Oblivion," after the jump.

Over the last month I have tried to describe conservative power in Washington, but with a small change of emphasis I could just as well have been describing the failure of liberalism: the center-left’s inability to comprehend the current political situation or to draw upon what is most vital in its own history.

What we have watched unfold for a few decades, I have argued, is a broad reversion to 19th-century political form, with free-market economics understood as the state of nature, plutocracy as the default social condition, and, enthroned as the nation’s necessary vice, an institutionalized corruption surpassing anything we have seen for 80 years. All that is missing is a return to the gold standard and a war to Christianize the Philippines.

Historically, liberalism was a fighting response to precisely these conditions. Look through the foundational texts of American liberalism and you can find everything you need to derail the conservative juggernaut. But don’t expect liberal leaders in Washington to use those things. They are “New Democrats” now, enlightened and entrepreneurial and barely able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone muster the strength to deliver some Rooseveltian stemwinder against “economic royalists.”

Mounting a campaign against plutocracy makes as much sense to the typical Washington liberal as would circulating a petition against gravity. What our modernized liberal leaders offer — that is, when they’re not gushing about the glory of it all at Davos — is not confrontation but a kind of therapy for those flattened by the free-market hurricane: they counsel us to accept the inevitability of the situation and to try to understand how we might retrain or re-educate ourselves so we will fit in better next time.

This last point was a priority for the Clinton administration. But in “The Disposable American,” a disturbing history of job security, Louis Uchitelle points out that the New Democrats’ emphasis on retraining (as opposed to broader solutions that Old Democrats used to favor) is merely a kinder version of the 19th-century view of unemployment, in which economic dislocation always boils down to the fitness of the unemployed person himself.

Or take the “inevitability” of recent economic changes, a word that the centrist liberals of the Washington school like to pair with “globalization.” We are told to regard the “free-trade” deals that have hammered the working class almost as acts of nature. As the economist Dean Baker points out, however, we could just as easily have crafted “free-trade” agreements that protected manufacturing while exposing professions like law, journalism and even medicine to ruinous foreign competition, losing nothing in quality but saving consumers far more than Nafta did.

When you view the world from the satisfied environs of Washington — a place where lawyers outnumber machinists 27 to 1 and where five suburban counties rank among the seven wealthiest in the nation — the fantasies of postindustrial liberalism make perfect sense. The reign of the “knowledge workers” seems noble.

Seen from almost anywhere else, however, these are lousy times. The latest data confirms that as the productivity of workers has increased, the ones reaping the benefits are stockholders. Census data tells us that the only reason family income is keeping up with inflation is that more family members are working.

Everything I have written about in this space points to the same conclusion: Democratic leaders must learn to talk about class issues again. But they won’t on their own. So pressure must come from traditional liberal constituencies and the grass roots, like the much-vilified bloggers. Liberalism also needs strong, well-funded institutions fighting the rhetorical battle. Laying out policy objectives is all well and good, but the reason the right has prevailed is its army of journalists and public intellectuals. Moving the economic debate to the right are dozens if not hundreds of well-funded Washington think tanks, lobbying outfits and news media outlets. Pushing the other way are perhaps 10.

The more comfortable option for Democrats is to maintain their present course, gaming out each election with political science and a little triangulation magic, their relevance slowly ebbing as memories of the middle-class republic fade.