13 July 2007

PLAYING CATCH-UP

(My internets were broken last night. That is my only excuse for the extreme tardiness of this post).

Remember how I said that I love July because there aren't many releases? Well, that works out pretty well for clearing out the backlog, because obviously the world has been a lesser place without my observations on the following.

The world needs more scary movies. This is a long-standing and well-known position of mine.

This is why I was initially prepared to cut 1408 all the slack it needed, even though it stars John Cusack; generally speaking, the world also needs fewer John Cusack vehicles, which is an equally long-standing although perhaps less well-known position of mine.

It therefore surprised me that, somewhere just above a third of the way in, the legitimately creepy exposition turns into relentlessly typical "haunted house" boilerplate, and Cusack's performance became the only thing holding the movie together at all.

The plot involves a semi-alcoholic writer who has separated from his wife after an initially-unspecified tragedy, abandoning his promising literary career to write a series of sensational "haunted tour guides," which consist largely of debunking the ghost stories behind haunted places & therefore would probably not be nearly as successful with their target audience as the film implies. Several unsigned postcards send him to the dreaded room 1408 in New York's Dolphin Hotel, even though his unspecified tragedy has long kept him away from that city. Strange and horrifying things happen to him in that room as the clock counts down 60 minutes, and then things end in a predictable way, leaving a rather stunning number of loose ends that you probably won't think about all that much (sample: who is sending the postcards?).

You have more than enough in that paragraph to figure out that this is based on a Stephen King story even if you didn't know that already, and while I don't intend to belabor that, it will give the movie credit for being closer to a success than just about any King adaptation in more than a decade. Because you know what? That first half-hour is damn good: it starts things off with a slow burn, introducing us to Cusack's Mike Enslin and the banal world he lives in, deconstructing the invented boogeyman stories that feed tourism. Then there is one of the great scary scenes of recent vintage, in which Cusack bargains his way into the quarantined room 1408 after a lengthy conversation with the hotel's manager (Samuel L. Jackson, given over-the-title billing for what amounts to a one-scene, five minute cameo, essentially just showing up for the growling, threatening presence that comes along with being Samuel L. Jackson). It's more unsettling than actively frightening, in the way of the best ghost stories, and if it doesn't make you twitch a little bit, you're made of sterner stuff than I.

Then Mike actually arrives in room 1408, and things cool off a bit. It's not that a film consisting of nothing other than John Cusack alone in a hotel room for an hour can't be scary (indeed, I can think of few things more bone-chilling), but not here. Here, after a few decent enough "what's going on?" moments involving mysteriously appearing chocolates and self-folding toilet paper and a radio that won't stop playing the Carpenters (one of the few things more bone-chilling than being trapped with Cusack for an hour), the room starts to go nuts. And that's when 1408 stops trying to be creepy, altogether. Instead, it abruptly switches into the mode of "things jumping out and going boo," or the even more obnoxious "loud things that are panicky and loud."

Throughout, Mike is an intriguing character, the sort of sympathetic jackass that King writes so often, and often so well, and Cusack hits all the right notes in showing this cynic's slow descent into petrified belief. But even before the desperate third act (in which a false-ending is followed by a non-ending, which is kind of neat if you think about it), the things that happen to him are not interesting, and not scary, and not really much of anything besides kind of annoying. 5/10

A different, and much scarier kind of horror film, License to Wed is the story of a religious sociopath who forces his way into the personal lives of a young couple in the month before their wedding, demanding that they perform arbitrary tricks for his psychotic amusement and keeping them under constant electronic surveillance to ensure that they never drift too far from his cruel whims.

Reverend Frank is played by Robin Williams, whose flirtation with dark characters continues in this role where he manages to turn his manic comedic sensibilities to the creation of a psychotic monster who amuses only himself and leaves the audience with a sense of abject terror and hatred...

Hold on, the research gnomes are IM'ing me.

Oh, I see.

Well, fuck a duck, apparently License to Wed is a comedy, and that changes things. Here's the interesting thing about comedies, their aesthetic quality is usually judged as a direct product of their humorous content. There are good films that are good comedies (i.e. Billy Wilder) and bad films that are good comedies which are therefore judged to be masterpieces (i.e. the Marx films at Paramount). License to Wed is not actually a very bad film; director Ken Kwapis (a veteran of everything from Dunston Checks In to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants to Malcolm in the Middle) doesn't half have a bad eye, and he's got a pretty fine sense of pacing - the film positively flies past, which is a blessing - and if he ever turned his hand to an Ordinary People-style family drama, he'd quite possibly rock it.

But License to Wed isn't an Ordinary People-style family drama, it's a bitterly unfunny romantic comedy. It's not quite as bad as some would have it (it will not, for example, kill puppies), but it is really very horrible. I've never been completely sure whether I grew out of liking Robin Williams, or if he started getting really bad at just the point where I was starting to develop a sense of taste, but either way the effect is pretty much the same: at this point in history, his shtick is aggravating and alienating and not even a teeny tiny bit amusing.

He's plopped into a film that is just barely a teeny tiny bit amusing, as well it ought to be given that it stars Mandy Moore and Jon Krasinski as the hapless engaged couple who run afoul of Reverend Frank's marriage-prep course. And somehow, Krasinski and Kwapis managed to drag along a scary number of Office ensemble players to stain their careers, turning this into a distracting "Where's Waldo?" experience: hey, it's Kevin, but he's not funny! Hey, it's Angela, but she's not funny! Hey...and so forth.

The film would be a totally inoffensive, machine-pressed romcom, but for the swarthy manchild at its center. Basically, Reverend Frank is evil (he bugs the couple's bedroom, for God's sake), and Williams's all-too-typical approach of funny voices and nerve-wracking gesticulation do not make the character any more lovable. If this was ever going to work, it was going to work because the overreaching maniac at the center was played as a sort of devilishly self-aware prankster après Jack Nicholson, but "devilish" and "self-aware" are not in Robin Williams's vocabulary, and so the film becomes a punishing exercise in joyless zaniness. 2/10

Saving the best for last, here's a movie that is properly horrifying for all the right reasons, even though it's not actually a "horror" picture. As I'm sure just about everyone knows by now, A Mighty Heart is the fact-based story of Mariane Pearl (Angelina Jolie), the pregnant French-born Afro-Cuban Dutch-Jewish journalist who suffered through an extraordinarily terrible month in early 2002, when her Jewish-American husband Daniel (Dan Futterman) of the Wall Street Journal was kidnapped by Islamic extremists at the end of the Pearls' stay in Pakistan, and decapitated by the terrorists while being filmed on video.

Your guess is as good as mine as to how this got a summer release date. But I'm glad it did. Just because it's hot out doesn't mean that we can't handle a bit of the old painful emotional catharsis.

One might think that this story, director Michael Winterbottom's first project after The Road to Guantanamo, would be used to make a political point (at least, I did), and one would be mostly wrong in thinking that. First, A Mighty Heart is a love story, showing in copious flashbacks the nature of Mariane and Danny's life together and focusing in the present on her suffering as she waits for days and weeks to learn if her husband is alive. Second, it is a police procedural, and a very taut one indeed, pushing forward with the Pakistani anti-terrorist chief known just as the Captain (Irfan Khan) as he becomes ever more torn about by the strain of his investigation. Third, and a rather distant third at that, it's about the torturous relationship between the Islamic world and the West, and the international implications of this one murder.

I'm not even so sure that I would argue that this film falls into the rather dubious path of using one personal tragedy to dramatise the crumbling of society around it. It rather seems like the film uses personal tragedy as personal tragedy, taking place within a chaotic world, and caused by it; but the director's bona fides notwithstanding, what's interesting about A Mighty Heart is not the political arena, but the individual human beings inside it.

Obviously, the primary human being in question is Mariane Pearl, and the woman playing her has come under quite as much scrutiny as any celebrity playing a real-life character in a prestige picture ever has, for no real reason. The easiest way to deflect that is by noting that Ms. Pearl was asked by the producers (one of whom was coincidentally Brad Pitt - and yes, I do think it was a coincidence) to name the actress that she most wanted to play herself in all the world, and given that freedom, she did what most of us would do: name someone incredibly famous and beautiful.

More importantly, Jolie is fantastic in the role, easily her career-best performance. I find that I am not quite "alone," but certainly not in any sort of majority for finding that I was able to forget that the most famous women in modern civilisation was onscreen, but there you have it. Her big showstopping Oscarbait moment, learning about Danny's death, is of course very BIG, but not really at all sentimentally exploitative as you might fear; Jolie's cries of pain are the sort of giant emotion that work despite seeming clichéd, largely because of the extraordinary black depths that they rise screaming from (I don't know where Jolie had to go for that moment, but it was not a happy place). But that's not what I find myself thinking of anyway; I remember the little moments scattered all through the film where Mariane is simply waiting and worrying and clutching her unborn baby.

Obviously, I couldn't get through three reviews without going all tech-geek on you, so let me end by saying how brilliant I found the editing in A Mighty Heart. Peter Chistelis has worked on several of Winterbottom's in some capacity or another, and if any director can be noted for the consistently high quality of the editing in his films, that's the one. In this particular case, it's a driving rhythm of editing established from the very first cut in the credits before the film even begins. Of course, I wasn't watching the film with a stopwatch, but my impression, based on all of the times I remembered to look for it, is that the film proceeds with a very steady pattern of cuts every few seconds (3.5? 4? I said I didn't have a stopwatch) that keeps the tension literally pulsating throughout. The immediate and best comparison to make is to a human heartbeat, constantly throbbing with anxiety, and it can hardly be a coincidence that all of the long shots, the ones that let us sit back and breathe, come during narrative moments of relative tranquility.

One giant caveat: the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film descend into all of the hagiographic sentimentality that the film had done so very, very well at avoiding 'til that point. Ah well, can't have everything. 8/10

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