30 March 2007

HOT AND BLACK AS INK

At this point in history, it seems that there are two kinds of movies about September 11, 2001:

-The first kind pokes us in the eyes and shakes us back and forth and slaps us on the face screaming "ZOMG NINELEVEN NINELVEN!" over and over again. This is the United 93 9/11 Film.

-The second kind says, "hey...9/11..." and proceeds to be unbearably schmaltzy, a movie-of-the-week kind of product that doesn't actually involve that day at all. This is the World Trade Center 9/11 film.

Reign Over Me, the dreary new film by Mike Bender, is mostly of the second kind: although there are nearly-constant mentions of 9/11 being whispered huskily in our ear like the Others from Lost when they were cool and not whiny suburbanites, it's pretty much a run-of-the-mill carbon copy of Rain Man. Don Cheadle plays Alan Johnson, a man with a boring marriage and a soul-destroying position in a dentistry practice, Adam Sandler plays Charlie, Alan's college roommate whose family was "on the plane..." on 9/11 (probably American flight 11, the first plane to hit the WTC. I bring this up only because looking for that info on Wikipedia is much more interesting than talking about the movie). Charlie is now trapped in a fuguelike state where he will not permit himself to think about his family, and the emotional pressure building up in his mind has left him as little more than a mumbly man-child. This is a perfect role for Adam Sandler, n'est-ce pas?

So here's the first of the many, many problems I have with this film's emotionally puckered worldview: the only conceivable reason for Charlie's family to have died in the attacks is to make some sort of grand statement about America's psychic reaction to September 11 - "he is all of us," that sort of thing. The movie makes no such statement. The story is too specific and too personal, and besides, if there is one sterling truth about America post-9/11, it's not that we are afraid to talk about that day, it's that we can't fucking shut the fuck up about it.

So all that leaves is the story of a stunted man trying to fix a broken man and healing himself in the process. There is one and only one facet of this most hideous of all stories that you probably haven't seen before, namely that the respective functions of Cheadle and Sandler mean that this film has perhaps the first Magical Caucasian in film history.

Binder is not exactly a terrible writer - I've seen the Compleat Werkes of Leigh Whannell, I know from terrible - but he is also very blinkered about the human condition, and this is a terrible affliction for a writer with his obvious jones to write important universal stories about society. Neither Charlie nor Alan are successfully realized, by which I mean that they are collections of traits that have been put together but not animated. At no point in time do their respective characterizations rise above a catalogue of which tepid cliché of urban maledom goes with which face. The whole movies feels like a long-ass version of the theme song to The Patty Duke Show:
Where Cathy adores a minuet,
The Ballet Russes, and Crêpes Suzette,
Our Patty loves to rock and roll,
A hot dog makes her lose control;
What a wild duet!
Except replace "minuet" with "video games published by the studio's parent company" and "a hot dog makes her lose control" with "he hates putting veneers on his rich patients' teeth."

As much as the male leads are cardboard standees, the women in the film come off much worse. After The Mind of the Married Man it should be no surprise that Binder has no concept of how to write women; although The Upside of Anger gave every indication that he'd figured it out, we should probably chalk that up to the undeniable skill of Joan Allen. And it's very much the case that the only female role in Reign Over Me that exudes any humanity whatsoever is also the film's finest performance, Paula Newsome (who, dear God please, has got to be headed for good things soon) as Alan's tart-tongued receptionist Melanie. Elsewhere, the cast of "women" includes a shockingly haggard Saffron Burrows as the crazy woman who stalks Alan in the hope of sucking him off; Jada Pinkett Smith in the hellishly thankless role of Alan's wife; and Liv Tyler as a psychiatrist with no personality at all. I blame none of these actresses for the failures of their characters - nobody in this film speaks or acts like a human should, and some of the other fine performers who are completely wasted include B.J. Novak (so wonderful on The Office!) and of all poor lost souls, Donald Sutherland as the worst judge in the history of New York civic jurisprudence.

So yeah, it's weak in all the normal ways. What's just as distressing (to geeks, like me) is how badly it's crafted. Binder is a distinct stylist, no doubt, but not a very clever one. The chief thing I take away from Reign Over Me as a visual affair is its incredible fixation with fade-outs and dissolves. These are tricky things to use properly, and some of the greatest directors in history did away with them entirely (Dreyer leaps to mind, as does Scorsese). Binder relies on them like a crutch, and it's terrifying to see. There are dissolves in the goddamn montages, which are the stuff of straight cuts if ever such a thing exists.

Oh, the montages, can't forget them. As the title implies, Reign Over Me likes the classic rock (for a given definition of "classic rock"), and it uses music like a club. HERE FEEL SAD IT'S SPRINGSTEEN, the movie screeches, HERE'S THE WHO. AND THE WHO AGAIN. It's pretty de rigeur in the modern independent American cinema to use pop music too much and with no subtly (hi, Wes), but Binder goes beyond the beyond. Which is, I guess, understandable, because there's far more emotion in "Love Reign O'er Me" than anywhere in the script.

And then there are the ways that the movie is merely poorly thought-out, but simply inept. Usually, no matter how terrible an idea is, at least it's executed properly, but in Reign Over Me, two technical realms stand out for their total lack of proficiency. The first is the cinematography: the film was shot on the Panasonic Genesis camera that was used in e.g. Superman Returns, where it was mostly good. Here, it is awful. The night scenes in particular are plagued by video noise that I would never have thought acceptable for a major studio release. Which is to say nothing of the extremely...unique?...focal choices made. This is bad cinematography in the film-school sense of "bad," where it's just fucking shamefully done. Realm two: the sound editing. I won't get into it (I can hear your eyes glazing over even through the internet), but it's not professional work. I could be persuaded to blame the print I watched, but it seems at least a bit unlikely.

But hell, it's not Dead Silence. I say that a lot these days, don't I?

4/10

29 March 2007

HILLS: MO' EYES, MO' HAVING (h/t Pat)

"The reason I did that film was that I was dead broke and needed to do any film. I would have done Godzilla Goes to Paris." -Wes Craven, on The Hills Have Eyes, Part 2 (1985)
There's no possible way to argue that The Hills Have Eyes II is not a bad movie, but it would have been so easy for it to be so much worse that I want to give it a tiny bit of credit. The sequel to the original The Hills Have Eyes was mind-rotting; this sequel to the 2006 remake is merely flavorless.

And, from time to time, it's even a little bit more than that. Regular readers know that one of my great passions in life is the quest for the rarest of all mythological constructs, the Genuinely Scary Movie, and at times this leads me to accept better-than-average mediocrity as a placeholder for competent filmmaking. Certainly, "competent" is all I have to say in praise of director Martin Weisz, the creator of the slightly infamous true-life cannibal film Rohtenberg, here making his English-language debut. But "competent" is more than Alexandre Aja brought to the table last year.

Whatever else the film does wrong - there is much of that, and I'll get to it soon enough - Weisz actually does manage to bring a pretty effective tone of dread to the first forty minutes or so of the film. The first sequence after the credits showcases the slaughter of an Army surveillance camp out in the desert, and Wiesz does a fine job of combining offscreen sound and action with some finely tuned cuts (major kudos to Kirk Morri and Sue Blainey, the editors) that keep us from ever actually seeing an attack, to build a confused and increasingly paranoid sense of "what the hell is going on?" After the first film, we presumably know what's going on, of course, but that doesn't change that this is a fine example of neither showing nor telling, and keeping the audience freaked out because of that.

I would have said a year ago that Aja did something similar in Hills 2006, but I've subsequently re-watched Wes Craven's original and found that most of the tricks that made the remake work were stolen lock, stock and barrel from the first film. Weisz's achievement is more "pure," if you will.

Another interesting quirk of the director is his lack of desire to linger over the gore effects that make the splatter genre what it is. This is clearest in the opening sequence, a crude and primal (in a good way) depiction of a naked woman chained to a filthy bed in an underground room, giving birth to a deformed, stillborn infant, and immediately getting clubbed to death. It's fucking harsh, but more to the point, it's not particularly exploitative. I mean, for what it is. This is a genre prone to lingering over both tits and blood, and both are present in this scene, and both are conspicuously not the center of attention. It's a gambit that pays off in making the scene much more painful than it could be, and after my recent Saw experience, I call that a good thing.

So anyway, this fine directorial combination leads to a first two acts (it's a four-act story) that work pretty damn well at being reasonably creepy and reasonably grim. There are missteps - the man in the latrine is particularly a scene that I will regret until I die or I forget this film exists, whichever comes last - but it's enough better than most horror films that I'm willing to let it slide. Then, inevitably, the plot kicks into high gear and the survivors head into the Lair of Evil, which fucking always makes the film less scary, but I'm not particularly interested in blaming Weisz for that. He's pretty okay. Not a genius. Never will be. But he does some interesting things.

Here's a fun timewaster: go to the IMDb message boards for this film and watch the fanboys pissing themselves over how bad this turned out compared to the original remake, like that was some all-time masterpiece or something, and moaning about how Weisz ruined Aja's brilliant scheme of things, and so forth. Of particular delight are the armies of young men calling the first one the "best horror film of 2006," which, in the year that witnessed the American release of The Descent, is like calling Lucky Number Slevin one of the all-time great caper films. I must confess, the IMDb message boards are a constant source of amusement to me. Nowhere will you find a larger, more diverse group of people who have completely lost the ability to think or write. Of course, after even a cursory trip 'round the site, you will have absolutely no faith in humanity any longer, but that is a small price to pay.

Anyway, back to Hills II: the directing is pretty damn okay for a film that is clearly not meant to be a work of art, but that is all. The acting and story are miserable. The film concerns a group of army trainees whose punishment for sucking in basic training is that they must be in the desert to something that is left undetermined. They get there, find the dead surveillance team, and then climb up a hill and back down as they get picked off by radioactive cannibals. There is not any plot worth discussing: people go into a desert, some die. The end.

The first film (either of them) had an unsubtle but completely effective binary of families: here is the All-American Suburban Team of Heroes, here are their brutal doppelgängers, now fight. This sequel, although it is not so colossally stupid as its 1985 analogue, is nothing but a slasher film full of Expendable Meat. The army kids have no meaningful differentiation in personality (except: here is the single mother, and here is the pacifist, and both of those end in precisely the way that you expect them to end). And the cannibals suffer from the same flaw as the 2006 film - they aren't nightmare versions of human beings, they're monsters. Here, we don't even learn their names.

The perpetrators of this anti-narrative, I'm horrified to say, are none other than father and son Wes and Jonathan Craven. I clearly shouldn't be. Wes Craven's career has been full of sell-out crap since the moment it first began, and sometimes we forgive him because he's directed several genuinely great films. Well, hooray. Maybe next time, Wes.

So, unlike the 2006 film, The Hills Have Eyes II is not going to end up the best horror film of the year. It's not even the best horror film of March. But it is much better than Dead Silence, and however low that bar might be, it's still all the higher a horror film needs to jump to avoid being a complete timewaster. I sometimes hate being a genre film fan.

4/10

28 March 2007

COLOURLESS

A film that liberally quotes from the stylebook of Stanley Kubrick ought to be many things before it is "forgettable," but Colour Me Kubrick, the story of a low-rent conman who pretended to be the director during the first half of the 1990s, is not just forgettable, it is the Platonic Ideal of a movie that sticks in your head for not one moment after you've left the theater.

I imagine that director Brian Cook and writer Anthony Frewin - associates of the real Kubrick - wanted to make a clever little indictment of celebrity culture, and it's not not that. The plot, such as it is, consists of a series of incidents in which Alan Conway (John Malkovich) tricks somebody into giving him money or sex or both, despite sporting a ridiculous (and ever-changing) cartoon accent and behaving in no way, shape or form like an internationally renowned filmmaker. The point is that these people are so desire to touch fame and use it to advance their own lives that they will believe the most self-evident bullshit.

That's a fine concept, although it feels something like a sketch comedy (in fact, it's like a very specific sketch comedy: Monty Python's Flying Circus and the "Fraud Film Squad" sketch), insofar as none of the plots build upon each other, and Conway is playing a different version of Kubrick in every scam. In an alternate universe where Saturday Night Live was stocked with performers from Steppenwolf, and not the Second City, I can imagine the recurring adventures of Malkovich's Alan Conway being a weekly highlight. Obviously, that's a specifically insane idea, but work with me here: the film is a collection of sketches. Okay, there we go.

What's there is funny and cute, although funny and cute only takes you so far. Of particular delight is the first scene, in which two Cockney thugs threaten an elderly upper-class couple who live in the flat that Conway left as his address; the scene is a shot-for-shot and line-for-line redo of the opening to the infamous "Singin' in the Rain" scene from A Clockwork Orange. Later scenes reference some of the other major films in the Kubrick canon: the music from 2001 is omnipresent, and I recognized the odd shot or quote from The Shining here and there. It feels a bit like a big-budget YouTube parody, however, and that's part of its essential problem. It has one plot point, and one theme, and it hits them in every scene in exactly the same way. The Kubrick parodies are just about the only thing to differentiate one moment from the next.

John Malkovich does not save the film per se although his performance is quite a thing to behold. It's not "good" in the classical sense, because he's not really playing a character with an actual psychology, he's playing a variety of camp impersonations. And it's honestly a great deal of fun to watch. Perhaps it's only my own weak spot, but there's something delightful about watching a great performer play a role as broadly cartoonish as it can possibly be played, and Alan Conway was already such a drama queen as to make this a glorious spread of scenery-chewing.

Malkovich's presence is also a bit of a distraction, however, because he's already been in a film that covers much of the same starfucking thematic ground that Colour Me Kubrick does. I refer of course to Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich, which contains virtually every idea in the present screenplay, and several dozen besides. And it was a terrible, terrible move that Frewing saw fit to steal a gag from that film almost verbatim: in one scene, ConwayKubrickMalkovich is describing an upcoming project to star none other than American actor John Malkovich, leading to the requisite confusion as to who he's talking about. In the Kaufman screenplay, that was a thematic nugget related to the film's overall deconstructing of celebrity identity; here it's just a funny in-joke.

There's a truly dismaying paucity of fresh ideas throughout the thing. It's simply not a movie, not as it stands. It's a five-minute demo reel stretched to feature length. It's not particularly surprising to learn that both the director and the writer are debuting with this film, but I do wish Malkovich had been a bit choosier. It's quite easy to see what attracted him to the role - the chance to be totally goofy - but this is not a character. It's a concept.

It's more than a little tempting to wonder what Kubrick himself might have done with a subject like this. It would have been both darker and funnier, and quite possibly more humane. It would have almost certainly been mostly unlike anything else in the contemporary cinema. And that's the rub of it: devotedly recreating his greatest hits is hardly as appropriate a tribute as inventing something completely new and unusual. This move could have been an excruciatingly insightful demolition of celebrity worship, instead of a simple-minded little vaudeville joke. There's nifty moments here and there, but the film runs out of gas almost immediately, and has nothing to thrive on after that beyond the self-satisfaction of the filmmaking team that clearly thought they had something much more intelligent than turns out to be the case.

5/10

26 March 2007

ANOTHER DAY OLDER AND DEEPER IN DEBT

First, let us confront one of the great truths of cinema that people don't typically like to talk about: the way you see a film has a significant influence on its effect. I don't just mean "big room in the dark" vs. "on TV"; print quality, the seat you're in, the speakers used for the audio, the number of people you're watching with, what you ate beforehand, so on and so forth, these have an important and undeniable affect on the movie, and this is why film-viewing is ultimately such a subjective experience. Being that film is art, it must be subjective, so this is of course a good thing.

I bring this up because of the particular situation in which I saw James Scurlock's 2006 documentary Maxed Out: in a not-so-large screening room, projected from a 4:3 DVD that was just a touch too bright, so that the letterboxed bars at the top and bottom of the image were very clearly charcoal grey compared to the black on either side, and whose 720 x 480 pixel resolution was not quite up to the task of keeping the intertitles crisp and clean after they had been blown-up. It was the best way I can imagine to see this film.

There's been an extremely strong link between lo-fi recording and passionate indignation for years, most famously embodied by punk rock but extant at least as early as the 1950s. I doubt very much that Scurlock was aiming for precisely this linkage, but he stumbled across it nonetheless, and so his very angry documentary looks very cheaply made, and that tends only to increase the degree to which it is very angry. I have no idea if every screening of the film is as barbaric as mine was, but I can certainly hope so. Meanwhile, a caveat overlays everything I have to say about the film: my experience was subjective and possibly unique, and the Maxed Out that you might see is not the Maxed Out that I saw.

What I saw was one of the most effective of the many recent agitprop documentaries, although such a statement must acknowledge how screechy and inane such documentaries typically are. Maxed Out does it's fair share of screeching, but only after it builds a fairly strong foundation. It helps as well that the film isn't meant to harangue the audience to a certain political position; rather, it's a project out of the old school, a presentation of facts and figures, with lots of human beings illustrating what those figures mean. And that's all. This is more Super Size Me than Fahrenheit 9/11: no call to action, just the statement that this is the world is right now. And in Scurlock's view, the world is pretty screwed up.

Now I'm halfway through the review, I suppose I ought to mention what the film treats upon: the credit card industry in America, and the specific ways in which banks make themselves extra-tempting and extra-damaging to the easily-impoverished members of the lower-middle class. It is a collection of endless horror stories about debt, debt that drives us to take on increasing amounts of debt to pay it off, debt that puts our entire national economy at risk, debt that (in a pair of scenes that made me cry, and that's rule number one: if a movie makes me cry, it's done something right) drives people to suicide. Intercut with these stories are the joking justifications of the credit card people and the collection agents who talk with glee about the rush that comes with getting a payment.

It's all fatalistic and unbearable, and the not-infrequent jabs of humor are as black as black can be, particularly the sardonic use of a vintage black-and-white educational short on the sensible use of credit. But it has to be: Scurlock wants to scare us silly, and four centuries of Puritanism have taught us that nothing works quite as well as chasing the sin out of an audience as a rip-snorting fire & brimstone rant. The director is unmistakably a secular liberal, but he certainly paints a vivid portrait of Hell. I, for one, made an immediate resolution to destroy my fairly modest collection of credit cards.

There are a handful of distinct missteps. The biggest is his rather complete ignorance of personal accountability. I'm not arguing that any of these people deserved debt and poverty, for God's sake, and the film does a pretty great job of arguing that banks go a long way to entice people down the garden path of high interest rates, but it's still the easiest way to attack the film from a conservative or libertarian perspective, and it would have been wise to inoculate against that. Also, the film is clumsily structured: with a huge cast of interviewees, their had to be a reasonable way to jump between them, but there's not usually much of a reason behind Scurlock's editing, which makes a really brilliant sequence, such as the crosscutting between a particularly obnoxious collection agent and the children of a women who ran away after her debt came out, all the more amazing, and one becomes quickly frustrated that there isn't more like it in the film.

And of course, some people will argue that the cheapness of the film is a liability, that it's hard to look at and unprofessional. Not I. To me the film wouldn't be a portion of what it is without that same cheapness. It's the very DIY grittiness of the project that underscores Scurlock's righteous anger and makes the film more of a primal scream than a whimper. Maybe it is unprofessional, at that, but that just makes it all the more a shot from the gut; and right in the gut is exactly where it hits.

8/10

TO PUT AWAY CHILDISH THINGS

It is not exactly the case that TMNT (to give the new film story of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles its proper, if clunky, title) destroys the fond memories of my childhood. If anything, I have a horrible feeling that it is perfectly respectful to the original comic, TV series and films in all their modes of expression and narrativity, i.e. I'm guessing that the dialogue and plots were always this shitty, and I was too young and undiscerning to notice.

Before I get to that, I just have to say, you know what's not shitty at all? The visuals. This is a sleek film, as flat-out gorgeous as any CGI cartoon I've ever watched, as dark and gothic as Tim Burton's Batman or any number of 1940s films noirs. The film's highly-stylized idea of New York City is a marvel of edges and lines, splashes of light in huge pools of darkness. Of course, it's just part of the new wave of comic films (7 years on, do we still get to call it the "new wave"?), in which being dark and dour are positive virtues in and of themselves, but damned if it isn't a particularly severe example of the style. This, I suppose, is the charm of CGI over live-action: the totality of mise en scène. We all know how I feel about movies that have incredibly stylized, self-contained worlds. Swoon.

More good news: the character design and animation are both impeccable. The turtles look like they always have, obviously - nobody's particularly interested in a fanboy revolt - but there's a certain je ne sais quois to their faces in this go round. Perhaps it is their shockingly well-rendered eyes, and perhaps it is just that, unlike the Henson Creature Shop animatronics of the earlier films, they are actually capable of expression, but somebody somewhere figured out how to communicate a great deal of emotion in these cartoon reptilian faces. As to the human characters, the film punts the same way that Pixar's The Incredibles did: they've been stylized to a degree where the incidental problems with animation are fairly easy to ignore. This is the first feature out of Imagi Animation Studios, and I must say that I'm impressed. They aren't Pixar-level, not quite, but they're quite amazing compared to just about every other CGI studio I can think of. Particularly in one fight scene, on a neon-lit roof, in the rain, literally one of the best-looking animated sequences in the last decade. There's a zest for darkness and experimentation that would be unimaginable at any US animation house, and some of that can of course be attributed to the source material, or to director Kevin Munroe, but still: goddamn fine-looking movie. I love stylized animation so much. I love it more than people.

The reason I top-loaded all of that was because I've noticed that most of the film's reception has not involved much discussion of the look of the thing, and I don't really think that's fair: it's an animated film. The rules are different. I mean, the whole point of animation is that it looks different than reality, so the visuals get extra bonus points. The script, you can ignore that. At least this is what I tell myself, especially when confronted with such an awful, awful screenplay as Munroe inflicted upon TMNT. It's never, ever a good thing when the first trouble sign of a bad story comes in the opening scene, but here it does, as the stentorian Laurence Fishburne narrates a brief recap of who the Turtles are and what they have achieved (and actually, I approve of this refusal to pander to people who might, somehow, not know the Turtles' origin story), and then backtracks to talk about their new foe who 3000 years ago blah.

It's such a simple, tiny note, but is there any conceivable way that it makes more sense to start with a 40 second intro to the Turtles when there's a five minute scene set in the far distant past that sets up the rest of the plot? It feels like a DVD menu or the title screen of a video game (which, okay, fits pretty damn well). It does not feel like a good way to open a plot. In fact, it does something completely new to me: it kills the momentum of the story before the story has even begun. That's an extraordinary form of meta-badness that I for one find rather unique and exciting.

And from there, the story...yeah. I don't actually know that the story exists. Something about ancient evil, obviously, and monsters and action setpieces, most of which are much too short (the movie really needed to be PG-13), and then it's over. There's no dramatic arc, unless it be the horribly contrived domestic squabble between the Turtles that lasts for over an hour of the not-terribly long film. It's just a lot of things happening, sometimes in relation to each other, and more often, not. And the way it sets up a sequel is obnoxious.

I will not deign to mention the dialogue.

In my heart of hearts, I know this is exactly what I should have expected because this is exactly what the old show and the old movies and the old comic used to be: squirrelly, pointless stories about teenage mutant ninja turtles. I liked high concept back in those days. I know better now. Which means, horribly, that I'm not the target audience for a cartoon movie anymore. Goddammit, don't they know that I have nostalgia that needs catering to? Plus a heightened sense of what makes a good comic book movie in the post-Singer, post-Raimi, post-Nolan world? This is really just insultingly badly written. I don't want to get into it, because it's not fun-bad. It's "they're kids, what do they care?" -bad. I want very much to hate this film.

But. I. Can't.

6/10

25 March 2007

STRANGE BREW

The popular conception of Frank Capra as a director of mindless sentimentalities doesn't hold up very well. Yes, it's wholly impossible to regard such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Mr. Deeds Goes to Town as anything but simply fables about purity overcoming corruption, but it's not as easy at it appears to apply the same framework to It's a Wonderful Life, in which Jimmy Stewart spends over an hour considering suicide, and a socially conservative morality finds itself wedged into a rather stark anti-capitalist polemic. Let's not even get started on the divine proto-screwball comedy It Happened One Night.

Which is all to say that I don't toe the party line about "Capra-corn," and yet even I was totally unprepared for the brutality of 1933's The Bitter Tea of General Yen, one of the last films the director made before breaking big in the mid-'30s and becoming a professional syrup salesman.

It was one of two surprises that the film held for me, as a matter of fact, the other being that this is a film with a balls-out crazy approach to racial and gender politics. By no means does one forget that it was made by a right-winger during a time of heightened fear of the Yellow Peril, but the mere fact that the film very directly engages and subverts the audience's expectations about that type of story is something that I have never witnessed in a film of this vintage.

In late-1920's Shanghai, near the start of the Chinese Civil War, an idealistic American named Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) has come to do good and marry her missionary childhood sweetheart, Bob Strife. Unfortunately, Megan is naïve as to just how vicious a war zone can be, and Shanghai very quickly corrects her on this matter, when her arrival into the city is christened with the death of her rickshaw-driver and the complete inattention of all passers-by - Chinese and white both - as he breathes his last.

70 years on, when the dark side of Capra is traditionally represented by Jimmy Stewart on the bridge in that Christmas movie, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is shocking and almost exhilaratingly violent. Shanghai is one of the most ghastly-looking places I've ever seen in a 1930s American film, bodies strewn all about, fires everywhere. It's clearly a soundstage, but it looks less like a normal Hollywood version of Asia and more like a German Expressionist depiction of Hell. Expressionism has its fingerprints all over this movie, in fact, and that is quite its own sort of strange.

Capra would later admit that this film was his naked bid for an Oscar, and it's exceedingly satisfying for me to learn that people were playing the "gravitas = awards" card before the Academy's tenth birthday (ironically, Capra was nominated that same year for the comedy Lady for a Day, and would eventually win three times that decade, all for comedies). But just because the harshness of The Bitter Tea Etc. has such a banal explanation, doesn't take away from its very real success. This is a nightmarish motion picture, totally unsentimental, and by the standards of the day, totally immoral. It was made during the last Pre-Code year in Hollywood, when you could do whatever the hell you wanted without fear of repercussion (note, please, Stanwyck's nipples on the poster above).

There is absolutely no way in which this chipper disregard for social propriety is more obvious or more welcome than in the film's depiction of West versus East. Now, I'm not going to oversell the degree to which this is a progressive movie. It's quite obvious that the Chinese are, to the filmmakers, inherently brutal and inherently untrustworthy. That is, indeed, the reason that the opening war scenes are so unsparing: they bank on the contemporary audience's belief that "Orientals" were capable of any depravity.

The film carves out its own niche, however, by suggesting that white people are the same. I already mentioned the death of the rickshaw driver in the film's opening, but it's clear through much of the first act that the white missionaries are incompetent at best and evil at worst. Only Bob and Megan wish to do good for its own sake; everyone else just wants to score points for the church. One reverend makes this very clear when he retells a story about how his attempt to explain the crucifixion story to a tribe of Mongols went wrong when that tribe started hanging victims on crosses. The reverend's regret? That he didn't tell the story right. Those dead folks, they're just, whatever.

In the second act, when Megan has been kidnapped by the barbaric General Yen (the unmistakably Danish actor Nils Asther), the only other American around is Jones (Walter Connolly), as crooked and immoral a white man as you could ever hope to see, and another unexpected indictment of the capitalist impulse. It was this character, with his utterly unconscionable All-Americanness, that led the MPAA to refuse to issue a certificate for this film's proposed 1950 re-release.

In short, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a world without good people; or rather it is a world in which bad people are successful until they fail, and good people are not successful at all. And as the film progresses, and Megan is less and less aware of the absence of other white people, the idea that race predisposes a man to do evil is eventually ignored, and this is ultimately because of the film's other, even more startling racial element.

The M-Word. "Miscegenation." I am at a complete loss to explain how a plot like this got on America's screens in 1933 or any time in the thirty years following, but as the movie rolls on, it becomes obvious that Yen loves Megan, that Megan is sexually fixated on Yen, and this is ultimately presented, unambiguously, as a worthy thing. There is even a dream sequence in which the two kiss, although I strongly doubt that this would have happened if Yen were played by a proper East Asian actor.

Again, I don't want to overplay the degree to which this matters. Death very neatly intervenes before the couple is able to consummate anything. But this moment is explicitly rendered as tragic for that very reason. There's simply no two ways about it: we're supposed to want the white woman and the Chinese man to be together. We recognize the rightness of that. I cannot overemphasize how monstrously rare that idea would be in American cinema over the next few decades. The Bitter Tea is amazingly, crazily brave in going out and being what it is.

It knows this, too. This film starts out with the same racist representations that every film of its generation has, and puts all sorts of lines in the heroine's mouth that ultimately boil down to: "damn them yeller folk." Then, over the next 80-odd minutes (different prints exist, thank you censors), she learns that her religious convictions are a lie, that nothing she has been told to believe is worth trusting, and that the barbarian Chinese man who kidnapped her is more passionate and honest in his emotions than a roomful of stolid white fiancés. Somehow, I don't have a hard time believing that this film flopped hard when it was released and has been forgotten in the years since; but if any Hollywood film from the '30s is positively begging to be rediscovered and treasured as a truly unique piece of craftsmanship and social commentary, this is it.

22 March 2007

AIN'T THAT AMERICA

Such a delicate film is The Namesake, and such a sweet relief from the exceptionally draining run of crap I'd gotten myself stuck in recently! It's a simple thing, but made with obvious care by the perpetually underrated Mira Nair, and its gentle humanism is like a breeze of fresh spring air. Ouch, that was a Hallmark card of a sentence. Forgive me.

But anyway, The Namesake: a lovingly observed story of a family of Bengali immigrants in New York, 1977-2002. As well as just about the worst-marketed film thus far into 2007: the trailers and posters and everything all shriek that this will be all about Kal Penn in teh drama, which is thrillingly not the case: Penn doesn't even appear until somewhere around the thirty-minute mark. No, this is an ensemble film through and through, and one of the most well-chosen ensembles of recent vintage: Bollywood stars Irfan Khan and Tabu as Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli of Calcutta, Penn and Sahira Nair as Gogol and Sonia, their American-born children, and a host of new-to-US-theaters faces filling out every corner. And every last damn one of them - even, I don't really want to admit, Kal Penn - are fantastic.

One of the things I've respected about all of Mira Nair's films that I have seen (not enough) is that she has so continuously avoided journeyman work. Every one of Nair's films is personal and important to her; and none so much as The Namesake. This is of course unsurprising: a story about the conflict between ethnic pride and American assimilation must cut very close to home for a filmmaker who has carved out a career of making idiosyncratic stories about social outsiders in the United States.

This is a film made with obvious care and affection, both for the specifics of the story and the broader society it depicts. Nair is a director of actors and mise en scène, and her successes are measured in the depth and warmth of the worlds within her films, not in pyrotechnic visual trickery. In The Namesake, there is a tangibility of setting that outstrips all of her previous achievements. The Ganguli residence is relentlessly physical - a movie set, yes, but far more lived-in and real than most movie sets. This is vital to the effect of the film, a grand exploration of domesticity, in which all things lead back to home.

Family is a deeply clichéd topic for the movies, and so is the idea that foreign-born communities are a sort of extended family; but The Namesake is sufficiently loving in its representation as to make those clichés easier to stomach. The world decidedly does not need any more films about the immigrant experience of America - a genre that has been exceptionally well-explored by everyone from Martin Scorsese to the schmuck who made My Big Fat Greek Wedding - but somehow, Nair's enthusiasm for the world of her film, and the extraordinary skill with which it has been carried off, manage to convince me that this one time, it's okay to have another one of the goddamn things.

Compressing 25 years and the entirety of the immigrant experience into two hours is a daunting thing to do, and Nair and her frequent collaborator, screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala attack the problem with some particular innovation. The word "elliptical" has become heavily overused to describe films in the last couple of years, but I can't think of another word for The Namesake, which comprises five years into a single cut, while following a few days for many uninterrupted minutes. It's a challenging way to structure a narrative, but it adds to the film's overall effect of hazy memories and lost time. The back-and-forth of the story is almost like an alternating series of deep and shallow breaths, the film's way of gathering oxygen for the places it matters most (disclosure: I haven't read the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri that the film is based on, and I'm not likely to, so I don't know if it has the same elliptical structure).

So that's what the film does well: capturing a precise space, and capturing the way that time is slippery and can't be captured. Now it's time for what the film doesn't do well, which is remain not hideously boring.

False endings are a dangerous, deadly thing that kills the strongest narrative. The Namesake has, by my count, three. And the first of these isn't just a momentum-killer: it's the legitimate end of the film, the place where all of the arcs have closure and the emotional conflict that drives the plot up to that point is over. But that would make the film just about a single family, and of course the point is to be the great Bengali-American story (which I'm theoretically okay with), so the last quarter of the film - a full quarter! - is dedicated to what amounts to a great huge epilogue that introduces strands just to have something to tie up. It's much like the last hour of The Return of the King, or to keep things in the realm of epics about South Asian families, it's much like World of Apu, the third film in Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, in which the great dramatic arc that covers the first two films has resoundingly ended, and the entire film is just a needless parenthesis.

It doesn't help matters a tiny bit that this is also the point where Kal Penn steps up from being an ensemble member to the dramatic hub of the story, and this is more than he can handle. When Gogol is a simple character with the shallow dreams of a suburban youth, Penn is great. When he becomes a deeply conflicted adult, Penn is not as great, and much, much worse than the great Khan and Tabu, whom he begins to replace. It's extremely difficult to stay emotionally invested, and the film up to now has been a master class in emotional investment.

But with or without a draggy fourth act, the film is a success, especially for the time of year, and it has an honest humanism that's much more satisfying than the cookie-cutter variety that tends to mark American films about families. A masterpiece? No, but it doesn't really have to be.

7/10

21 March 2007

I THINK I DO NOT LOVE THIS MOVIE

In I Think I Love My Wife, director Chris Rock's remake of a film by Eric Rohmer-

...

I'm very sorry, I appear to have thrown up in my mouth a little bit.

Oh, I kid Rock, the film's not all that terrible. And it's also not all that good. Which still puts it pretty far ahead of the curve compared to 300 and Dead Silence and most of whatever else is playing in a theater near you.

Basically, it's exactly what it looked like from the trailer, the title and the premise: a roly-poly CBS sitcom, only with more liberal use of the word "fuck." And the occasional surprisingly sharp nugget of observation about race in America, such as one absolute gem of a scene (the only one in the movie) in which Rock's Richard Cooper is the only black man in an elevator full of white men, and the only person genuinely nervous when a second black man enters humming a song about "killing the crackers."

Honestly, though, most of the racial humor is smeared thinly on top of the scenario, in which Rock and the vastly under-appreciated Gina Torres are just about the only black couple in their Westchester neighborhood and Rock is the single black businessman at a vast investment firm. The first of these tidbits is mostly used for a series of cheap gags about how the Coopers need more black friends, and the second is basically ignored. The good bits of satire - and they are decent enough in number, if not exactly overwhelming - tend to be wedged in without any particular reason for being beyond "that's Chris Rock's schtick," but they are after all the good bits, and I am perfectly willing to let such things slide.

Most of the film's comic bent is unhappily aimed at suburban ennui, as it manifests itself in the Coopers' sexless marriage and Rock's passionate flirtation with the overly-named Nikki Tru, played by the sometimes-fantastic Kerry Washington, who gets to have a lot of fun vamping without the bother of playing an actual character. Indeed, actual characters are in pretty short supply 'round these parts, especially in the case of the women, who are kind of like cardboard, only without the fantastic degree of mystery that a really great sheet of cardboard can sometimes possess. Certainly, writers Rock and Louis C.K. are very much men, and very much unaware of what women are like.

I must confess my lack of due diligence; I have not seen Rohmer's 1972 film Chloe in the Afternoon, upon which I Think I Love My Wife is based. I suspect, however, that the French film similarly lacks any real plot and similarly concerns itself with the shallow needs of the petite bourgeoisie. I suspect as well that it lacks Viagra jokes. And here we begin to see what drives I Think I Love My Wife onto the shallows of Mediocre Comedy Atoll. It's about the needs, both just and narcissistic, of the common suburbanite, and yet it's full of the kind of stoopid humor that stems from the assumption that we're all thirteen-year-olds who believe that when a beautiful woman says "fuck" a lot, well that is comic gold.

And then there's the somewhat bigger fact that a lot of it is just not funny. In many scenes there is not a single gag or laugh line, just Rock prodding the "story" forward. In other places, we go five minutes in which all of the humor is hoary mirthless battle of the sexes boilerplate. It's obvious what's going on: Rock thinks he has one hell of a great exploration of the differences between men and women, and so he wants to make an anti-comedy in the style of e.g. Manhattan. I am so unhappy that I referenced Woody Allen.

It was inevitable, though, because I Think I Love My Wife is such an Allen-lite experience. After all, the writer is the director is the star, and the film is poorly directed. The primary difference being that Rock is an actively poor director, whereas Allen is fairly upfront about how his direction is strictly utilitarian, so that nobody else can ruin his screenplays. And he still makes the occasional Deconstructing Harry or Match Point.* Rock's last film was Man of the People.

Not that there aren't directorial flourishes, because there are many: the voice-over, the dream sequences, the goddamn weird musical finale that makes me half wonder if I was on a bad acid trip. It's like he watched a lot of New Wave films in preparation for remaking Rohmer, but didn't have any idea what anything meant. Actually, this makes him the anti-Allen, whose style has always been very precise and minimal.

And you know, for all that, it's mostly harmless. There's so much that's bad, insultingly bad, or immorally bad right now, that an unfunny comedy with some good setpieces is pretty hard to complain about. Loudly.

5/10

20 March 2007

I HAVE A VERY BAD FEELING ABOUT THIS

To the surprise of no-one at all, the new romantic time-travel thriller Premonition fails in almost every way, but there is one particular way in which it is extremely good and important: it is the English-language debut of director Mennan Yapo, whose name is fantastic. There should be more fantastically-named filmmakers.

But as a drama, as a work of cinema, as a vehicle for expressing theme: on all these counts, Premonition blows mightily. Walking out of the theater, I didn't understand what I was supposed to have taken away from the film: not that I didn't understand the plot, mind you, I was not sure what emotion I was expected to feel at the end of the film, nor did I have any idea what Yapo and his merry men were trying to say about fate and free will, or love, or quantum physics.

The plot involves AIEEE YARGGGGH T3ERQWT[W -KJ70=45IG7Y TWJG0SD NRB7! That was the representation of my brain cramping when I thought back upon the plot of Premonition.

Take it away, IMDb editors! "A housewife is shocked when her husband dies in a car crash and reappears the next day. She realizes it was a premonition and tries to avoid the tragedy." The housewife in question is Linda Hanson, played by Sandra Bullock, who really ought to know better. Think back to the hazy summer days of 2006, when a little picture called The Lake House was floating around the multiplexes. In that film, Bullock played a woman communicated two years into the past with Keanu Reeves via the Letterbox of Magical Realism, and the logic of cause-and-effect goes off and has a nice sit-down by the pool with a pitcher of mojitos. And yet it's a model of rigidly controlled speculative fiction compared to Premonition, which is all about Linda's quest to figure out what happened on each day of a very bad week, only to find answers that are internally inconsistent. Here is a mini-drama exploring just one thread of a very battered tapestry:
Enter Bloggre, a critick
Blg: "The movie begins on Thursday, and all is well."
The movie rattles on
Blg: "Zounds, on Saturday, this terrible injurie has occurr'd!"
The movie rattles on
Blg: "Here it is Tuesday, and we see the injurie in progress! Yet, sinse it has already been establish'd that all is well on Thursday, surely some great misterie will be discoueréd."
The movie rattles on
Blg: "Endeth the film without explaining why Thursday is fine if the injury was on Tuesday. I shall maintain the hope of an end-credits sequence twist."
The credits rattle on then stop, raise house lights
Blg: "Cunt."
Exeunt
That happens many times.

Plot holes happen, yeah, but when the exact specific point of your film is the uncovering of a mysterious chain of events, it would make sense to have that chain of events make a damn nugget of sense. And these aren't the quibbles of hours spent pondering the film. I counted at least a half-dozen similar cock-ups while I was sitting in the theater. And if I could count that high in 96 minutes, surely screenwriter Bill Kelly could have figured it out sometime in the days and hours it took him to write the damn thing.

Poor Sandra Bullock. Or not. She could have learned. But it shocking to me how all of a sudden she's a pretty good actress and she's wasting herself on mindless banalities like this. Consider this: between The Lake House and Premonition, she rocked the hell out of Harper Lee in Infamous, easily the best part of that film. And consider next that Infamous was delayed a year, and so she actually made the two timefuck movies right in a row. And don't get me wrong, she's personally very good in both of them - if Premonition had a core, it would be all because of her - but why ever can't she make a project that doesn't piss all over narrativity and then point and jump up and down while shouting, "Lookit how I pissed all over narrativity!"

What about my dear Mennan Yapo? Oh, that his directing were good as his name! But it's not. It's deeply serviceable. Except for some aerial shots that are really bad. Except for one aerial shot that's really fantastic, and I have absolutely no idea how it was done, but it's got this thing where the front side of a church is twisting one way and the back side is twisting another, and it looks like the church is folding in on itself. Anyway, this is profound hackwork: the camera keeps moving because static shots are boring or some such, not a single cut "means" anything, other than "oops, it's been six seconds!" And there's a storm sequence that is WAY TOO LOUD, because that is how you show that something is intense in a thriller. I hate having to review serviceable hackwork. There's not a goddamn thing you can say about it - "well, it sure is in focus! And there are no noticeable dips during zooms, like in the last Sandra Bullock time-travel picture! B+!" That's why I'm actually grateful for the screenplay: at least it's balls-out crazy enough that I can snark.

Anyway, the net effect of all this crushing mediocrity is that the film doesn't have any meaning. Not just because it's bad. Because at the very end, it's very obvious that there wasn't any point to anything. Is it about fighting fate? Not really. Is it about the loss of faith, as is very strongly suggested twice, including once in the last 60 seconds? Only if you ignore the plot, or redefine "what you want most" to mean "what you do not want at all." Is it about your husband is a cheating jerk and you deserve better? Only if you skip from the first reel to the last scene. Is it about moral choice? Only because Sandra Bullock is a much better actress than Yapo and Kelly deserve. God knows it's not about clever mind tricks, because an eight-year-old could out-think this movie.

Still: I am thankful to the movie. Because of Premonition, I have a new mantra to replace "snakes on a plane." Mennan Yapo.

Mennan Yapo.

Mennan Yapo.

3/10

19 March 2007

SO BAD. I JUST...SO DAMN BAD

There are many little flaws in writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan's Dead Silence and one great: this great flaw is that the film stakes everything upon our native fear of ventriloquist dummies. This is a classic gambit to take: many films and TV shows over the years have banked on the exact same fear, and with the single exception of a genuinely creepy episode of The Twilight Zone, none of them have been remotely frightening or good in any way. I might flatter myself that this is evidence of my cast-iron resistance to being scared, but then I must consider how a nearly-full movie theater erupted in incredulous laughter during the first major horror scene, and presume instead that Dead Silence is just a really shitty movie.

In the beginning, Jamie and Lisa Ashen (Ryan Kwanten, whom you haven't seen, and Laura Regan, whom you wouldn't recognise) are young and in love. Their New York yuppie idyll is broken by the arrival of a mysterious box containing a dummy named Billy. Despite the fact that there is no name or return address, despite the fact that we shall shortly learn that both Jamie and Lisa have a particular reason to fear random ventriloquist dummies, neither of them are particularly nonplussed, and so they go about their flirting and ordering of Chinese take out. Jamie wanders into the rainy night to pick up the food, and when he returns his wife has been viciously killed in one of the very worst scenes I have ever seen in a respectably-budgeted horror film. It involves the psychokinetic force of the dummy blowing her through a door. Pretty nifty.

Along creaks the plot: Detective Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg, bringing his superstar energy to this film as he did to the creators' Saw II. Oh, and there is no indication that his name is a deliberate joke on infamous celebrity hand-jobber James Lipton) thinks that Jamie must have dunnit; Jamie wisely flees to go to Lisa's funeral in their hometown of Ravens Fair. There he tangles with his estranged father and new stepmother, wanders around creepy locations - only at night, of course - and asks wizened old villagers about the Dark and Terrible Story of Mary Shaw, the ventriloquist whose ghost is said to still haunt these here parts. Lipton and Billy the dummy show up as need to provide plot momentum and shock scenes, respectively.

It's awful. It eats your soul, it's so awful. I didn't expect much of Whannell and Wan after the notorious Saw, but somehow that trilogy hadn't communicated to me how badly they understand the basics of story. Of course, those films were all about elaborate death 'n' gore, and the story was just a skeleton for that. In Dead Silence, they're apparently aiming for a creepy old ghost story feeling, but the story is a disaster. It is a series of non-happenings that only form the illusion of movement once you are past them and look back. And it's certainly not to anyone's credit that the entire plot hinges upon Jamie's convenient form of ignorance, in which he either knows a great deal about the legends of his hometown, or nothing whatsoever, based entirely upon the requirements of that particular scene. He knows of Mary Shaw, then he knows that she was a ventriloquist, then he's never heard of her, then he remembers that there is a schoolyard rhyme about her, then he doesn't. He knows exactly what he must in order to end up at just the right time in remote & decrepit locations after night falls.

It should not be a surprise that Jamie is a complete and utter idiot: he has been written by Leigh Whannell, who here even more than in the Saw trilogy has proven himself the heir to the Edward D. Wood, Jr. mantel of dialogue-writing excellence. Too many bons mots to share, although one that stands out in my mind for its particular expository brilliance is the exchange: "You've changed." "A stroke does that to a man." I find myself scraping to invent words to describe Whannell's dialogue, and I have come up with "fucktrocious": a good word because it combines "atrocious," one of the worst adjectives something can be, with a vulgarity, because vulgarities make me feel better.

Nothing good could come out of this script, but Wan doesn't hedge his bets - his direction sets fire to the script and salts the earth that remains, so that no hint of pleasant cinema should creep through. The film has been subjected to a digital post-production process that is often used for good, but here reduces everything in the film to a washed-out shade of slate blue, except for things that are red, which are REALLY FUCKING RED. To quote the incredibly jaundiced high-school girl sitting next to me in the theater: "That's so red. Why is his car so red? God, that is so red!"* To be perfectly honest, the technique is pretty much exactly the same as Eastwood & Co. used in Letters from Iwo Jima, down to the super-saturation of the color red; except there it wasn't unspeakably ugly, and it made sense.

I shouldn't have to criticize the performances, right? They suck. They have to suck. They are cursed with Whannellogue.

Fair's fair, there's actually one genuinely scary moment, and it relies extensively on the color red, and it uses strobe light in a rather noir-derivative way that is nonetheless effective. Dare I say, it actually uses the elliptical nature of editing to a great success. It is also present in the trailer, and hence you could just watch that on Apple's website and save yourself some money.

Also: the opening credits are awesome. They are designed to look like century-old footage with all sorts of dust and damage, being run through a cheap projector at a bad angle. They imply a terrifying, dangerous film to follow. They are easily the best opening credits I have seen in a film this year. So congratulations, you fucktrocious, fucktarded fucks.

1/10

18 March 2007

ALMOST A COMEDY

The good people at the Criterion Collection have struck again with the Eclipse line, a series of quick 'n' dirty non-special editions of minor works by great directors, beginning this Tuesday with a five-disc exploration of early Ingmar Bergman. Through a very tiny bit of perfectly legal trickery, I was able to pick the box up a few days early, and hence I was able to get a sneak peek at a film that's long been a sort of holy grail of mine: Crisis, Bergman's directorial debut from 1946.

At that time, the 27-year-old already had something of a reputation in the world of Swedish drama, serving as the artistic manager of the Helsingborg City Theatre, which was turned into one of the country's great municipal theatres under his leadership. It should not then be surprising that Crisis evinces an undeniable lack of cinematic adventure: it is plainly the work of a writer-director whose training had been exclusively theatrical up until that point.

Bergman acknowledges this rather playfully in the opening of the film, in which a stentorian narrator (whom I believe I recognize as Bergman himself, although the truth of this matter seems to have been swallowed up by history) sets the stage and openly calls the story a play, treating on matters of no particular importance, before announcing "raise the curtain!" just as a woman pulls up a window shade. This is Ingeborg Johnson (Dagny Lind), and she is one of the three women who will figure prominently in the crisis which gives the film its title.

As soon as the narrator ceases his introduction, the film properly kicks into gear, and we are quickly treated to the most obvious sign that Crisis is the work of a newbie: there is a lot of chatter in this film. As his style matured, Bergman would learn to use silence as a precision tool, most notably in the oppressively quiet Cries and Whispers of 1972. None of that yet: the cast of Crisis simply can't shut the hell up. It's the surest indication that this was based on a stageplay, Moderhjertet by Leck Fischer, in which the intimacy of the cinematic close-up is trumped by the need to play to the back seats, and lengthy silence is as likely to be the result of an actor losing his or her place as it is to be a distinct directorial grace note. And the dialogue is stage dialogue, although I can't begin to explain what that means if it's not immediately obvious.

Bergman's familiarity with the stage had at least one good effect, however, and that is his skill with his cast. I am not the first person to suggest that he may be the greatest director of actors in the history of cinema; what I would never have suspected was that this skill was so fully formed at the start. The quartet of performances that drive the film include Lind as an ill piano teacher; Inga Landgré as her foster daughter Nelly; Marianne Löfgren as Nelly's mother, the beauty salon operator Jenny; and Stig Olin as Jack, the homme fatale whose mysterious past ultimately wrecks multiple lives. Each of these performances is essentially perfect: Landgré stands out for being only 18 at the time of shooting and still holding her own, but there's not a false note amongst the four. That Bergman could coax out such greatness despite his documented tensions with the actors, particularly Lind, is a sign of the same skill that would ultimately help him raise figures like Liv Ullmann, Gunnar Björnstrand, Harriet Andersson Erland Josephson and Bibi Andersson to the very highest pantheon of international cinema stardom.

Thanks to those four great performances, Crisis largely works, despite its uneven screenplay. Like Bergman's earlier script for Alf Sjöberg's Torment, it is unabashedly melodramatic and even soap-operatic; but Bergman was not apparently much interested in melodrama. Torment was a confusing and often dramatically inert allegory for Nazism that worked because of Sjöberg's almost campy embrace of the material's excess, turning pulp into an almost-parody of film noir. Even in 1946, however, Bergman was clearly attracted to the chamber drama/heightened realism that would identify all of his great films after the breakthrough The Seventh Seal, and he is mostly unwilling to follow his own script to its logical ends. There are certain scenes, such as the film's violent climax, in which he strives for a foggy magical realism (and, it must be confessed, he fails), but mostly the film is remarkably close to his ultimate stylistic calling card: clean lines, empty spaces. The melodrama and the mise en scène are not compatible, and Bergman at this point lacked the imagination to use that conflict to his advantage, as he would later do in a film like Fanny and Alexander.

But the human core of the drama survives the director and his relative inability to direct (he was aided by the veteran Victor Sjöstrom who would later star in Wild Strawberries; one shudders to think what would have happened if he'd been all alone), and Crisis survives, although it does not thrive. It is a play on film, lacking a full visual language - but it is a good play. In one way especially, it speaks to the concerns that would circle around all of the director's future works: as the narrator tells us almost pridefully, this is not a story of particular importance. Despite the alarming title, Crisis is a tiny domestic fable. And that is the key to all of Bergman's films: they do not treat on the fates of the many, but on the extremely personal suffering and pain of a few. Moreover, he has never been interested in suggesting that his stories are "really" stories about the great hordes of mankind; his characters represent only themselves. It is a peculiar sort of humanism, but not ignoble. And whatever other flaws he would have to work out of his system before becoming one of the greatest of all filmmakers, for that humanism alone he was an exceptional man even at the start.

16 March 2007

FURTHERMORE, I DO NOT UNDERSTAND ALL OF THE CONSTANT REFERENCES TO THE GRADUATE

It is the traditional order of things that movies set in college, and also movies that are set in the mid-1980s and scored entirely with New Wave singles, will be high-pitched and manic. So I do admire the British rom-com Starter for 10 in this way, at least: it possesses a low-key, laid-back energy that captures the existential being-ness that I for one encountered in school, rather than the endless hedonistic fantasias customary to the genre.

The attentive reader will recall that the phrase "low-key" is something I only trot out when I'm looking for a polite euphemism for "goddamn boring." So perhaps it would be well for me to rephrase my first paragraph: Starter for 10 is goddamn boring. Ah, isn't it good to be honest!

I don't just mean it has a boring story, although it sort of does, but rather that the whole project, head to tail, is completely lifeless. I do not know this Tom Vaughan who directed, but I can say with certainty he did not enter the motion picture industry out of fiery passion to stretch the boundaries of the medium. Maybe he discovered that the long set-up times on a film set make it a good place to take naps. I'm really not sure. All I have to go on is this, his debut film, and it says to me that he does not think much about what makes movies fun to watch.

Having gone to film school, I should be capable of more specific and astute commentary than what I'm about to say, but: the film looks tired. It's lit that way, the camera moves that way, and the sets have all been designed that way. There is an utter lack of visual energy at every turn, like every single take in the final cut was the last shot on that day of shooting.

The scene where this becomes impossible to ignore occurs early on (unfortunately), during a theoretically raging party with pulsing lights and New Order booming on the soundtrack. I tell you this, my dear readers, I would have called it an impossibility for any scene in a movie set to "Blue Monday" to feel airless, but I would have been altogether wrong. In part, mind you, this is because "Blue Monday" has been woven into the soundtrack so quietly, and is so fuzzy. But even so there are many things it would have to overcome: a shockingly tiny number of extras, ugly-ass colored lights that strobe too slowly, claustrophobic compositions.

And, it must be said, the actors, who (probably as a result of being surrounded by all of this sleepiness) are uniformly distant and flat. This is particularly discouraging in the case of the film's lead, James McAvoy, who was so recently so brilliant in The Last King of Scotland, holding his own against the phenomenally over-the-top Forest Whitaker. It doesn't help one little bit that the 27-year-old (now 28) McAvoy looks far too old to play his 19-year-old character, but between the overall anemia plaguing the movie, and probably McAvoy's knowledge that he's on a track for better things than tossed-off romantic comedies, he gives no spark, unless it is that his eyes are unnaturally clear blue that looks arresting even when the rest of his performance is a dull slog. The rest of the largely unknown cast doesn't have the opportunity to be disappointing, but that doesn't make them any good. I won't go through them one by one, because they all have the same problem: there's simply no energy anywhere in Starter for 10, and while none of the performers are inherently bad (I've seen all but one of the leads in at least one other project), none of them are good enough to generate heat where there isn't any.

It's a huge shame, because the script, which David Nicholls adapted from his own novel, is actually sweet and cute and a little amusing. "But wait," you cry, "didn't you earlier call the story 'sort of boring?' Explain." Well, it's predictable in the extreme. And it evinces little to no understanding of human psychology. These are both boring things for a screen story.

But for a college-set romantic comedy, it hits more than it misses. It concerns the arrival of Brian Jackson at Bristol University, where he wishes to learn cleverness, join the Quiz Team and get laid, in approximately that order. Yada yada yada, he ends up as the hinge of a triangle involving an angry feminist secular Jew (Rebecca Hall) and a hottie on the quiz team (Alice Eve). Life lessons and coming-of-age, mistakes are made and corrected, lots of The Cure is played.

For all its efficient hacksmanship, there are actually some very sweet notes in Brian's interactions with the girls, that even the actors' lack of vitality can't quite smother. It's much more delicate and much less sex-soaked than an American film in the same style, and for that I suppose I am thankful, even if that delicacy means that the film drifts into a soporific mess.

The one thing that really, really makes Starter for 10 a curiosity, and goes a long way to explaining its missteps, is the fact that it's not properly a British film. Oh, there's some BBC money in it, but this film was financed largely in America, and so we have the bizaare sight of a British team making an American comedy. With that in mind, it's altogether less surprising that the tone is so drained: this could never hit the heights of e.g. a great Richard Curtis comedy because it was being directed at the wrong audience from the ground up. There are so many British trappings in the screenplay, and all of them confusingly expressed: that must be why. It's much easier to understand why the cast and crew were having so little fun making the movie if they were ultimately not even sure what country they were making it for.

6/10

15 March 2007

GETTING THEIR IRISH UP

"If we dare to tell the truth about the past, perhaps we shall dare tell the truth about the present." -Ken Loach, 2006 Cannes Film Festival

"A bullet pierced my true love's side in life's young spring so early
And on my breast in blood she died while soft winds shook the barley.
"
-Robert Dwyer Joyce


The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a brutal fucking film.

This is exactly as it needs to be, for it is the story of a brutal topic: the war that first ended England's occupation of Ireland in December 1921 and the civil war that broke out months later, and the random depravities conducted by all sides in all the conflicts. Therefore, if I speak of feeling hollow and exhausted at the end, I mean this as the most sincere of compliments. This is a film that makes us feel bad and is supposed to make us feel bad, because at least in its native country, there hasn't been much feeling bad over the blood shed in the Anglo-Irish wars. It is a success along the model of Schindler's List: deeply moving yet painful to watch.

This is established from the very first scene, in which a game that I am too American to identify is interrupted by the Black and Tans, the British soldiers assigned as peacekeepers in Ireland. They line the Irish men against a wall and demand their names, and when one man refuses (cannot?) to answer in English, they beat him to death.

So begins an assault against our basic sense of decency, never to let up for the remaining two hours of the film. It's been famously argued that no movie can be truly anti-war, for movies make war seem exciting; The Wind That Shakes the Barley makes war seem like a sickness - in scene upon scene we are confronted with moments that are not so terrible in their imagery, but completely inhumane in their tone. It is a film with few heart-pounding thrills, few laughs, and a great many sequences that make you want to cry.

The story broadly follows an IRA cell that formed in the aftermath of that first beating, and it rather more closely follows two brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Padraic Delaney) who baldly represent the tensions of a country torn against itself. This is hardly an original idea, but in this case it is not any less successful for that. Damien and Teddy spend some 20 months from mid-1920 to early-1922 being tormented by the British and committing moral crimes in the name of freedom.

Most of the controversy surrounding the film has concerned the fact that an English director has taken it upon himself to remind his entire country of the villainy they have perpetrated in the not-so-distant past, and it's impossible to view it without recognizing that Ken Loach is squarely on the side of the Irish Republicans, and rightfully so. But that absolutely does not mean that he gives the whole IRA a free pass. One of the great scenes of the film, perhaps the finest moment in Cillian Murphy's thus-far admirable career, involves Damien shooting an informant who happens to also be a lifelong friend. This act is so vile to Damien that he becomes physically sick in response to it; yet there is no doubt that it was necessary to the survival of the Republicans. Terrible acts that must be done are not therefore made less terrible.

The particular obsession of this film is on idealistic passion, and the ways in which people find meaning by giving themselves over complete to a cause. History, perhaps, is on the side of the Free State supporters whose plan was to slowly remove the English from Ireland, and the film recognizes that while nevertheless sympathizing more with the radicals, the Republicans who wanted to force all traces of Englishness from their country, and according to this film at least, install Socialism. It is not at all practical, yet it is beautiful, because it is based in the conviction that all this suffering must have some justification, and those who do not fight to their last breath are giving up on finding that meaning. They are fools, perhaps - if there were meaning in brutality, it would maybe not be called brutality - but they are very human in their foolishness.

Just as unsparing as the narrative is, so is the film's visual scheme. I have seen nothing of Ken Loach's other films so I can't say how The Wind That Shakes the Barley fits into his career; but I can observe that it is stripped of all but the simplest cues. There is much camera movement, but none of it elaborate (and thank God to once again see a film from the European Union with something less than 25% handheld camera!); nothing framed poetically and no flourishes in the lighting. There are a very few elements of production that are stylistically brave, chiefly the sound design, which is full of overlapping dialogue that fades into pure noise as it gets ever more layered, and the strange intensity of the film's very limited color palette - greens, greys and browns. And as strange as it is to consider an intense grey, that is the very thing we see much of in Barry Ackroyd's cinematography. Even so, these moments of bravado accent the film's general simplicity rather than counter it; for when taken together all of this makes the film itself a brutal tool, intense when it will overwhelm us, and cold and harsh for the rest of it.

As emotionally overwhelming as The Wind That Shakes the Barley so often is, it's not a perfect film. Most noticeably, the score by George Fenton ranges from pleasantly clichéd to insultingly on-the-nose. I've said it so often: I only tend to notice the score when it's bad. And I noticed it. The greater problem is the structure of the story itself: it covers not quite two years but it's often impossible to follow where in those two years we are at any given point. It lurches forward in stops and starts, hopping from one metaphorically laden moment to the next. That's not enough to derail the humanity of the film, nor dull the outrage, but it does make it a bit difficult to follow a plot that's already forbiddingly dense with political history that only Ireland can never forget, England wishes not to remember, and the rest of the world never knew.

9/10

For that post title, I shall never stop doing penance.

14 March 2007

ANYTHING WE CAN DO, THEY CAN DO BETTER

Ever since it premiered at Cannes last May, Bong Joon-ho's The Host has been the recipient of some truly glowing festival praise: "the best monster movie in decades" is not at all an uncommon sentiment.

That's over-selling it something fierce (and probably reflects the fact that Proper Critics don't really see all that many monster movies, and don't allow themselves to like the ones they see), but it's undeniable that the film is quite a treat: a near-perfect combination of gore, horror, farce, domestic drama and top-notch visual effects; probably the very best CGI I've ever seen in a movie not made on American money, in fact.

Like most of the great monster films (but not all), The Host is not about the giant creature nearly as much as it is about a small core of characters: in this case the Park family: Hie-bong (Byeon Hie-bong), the owner of a snack shop on the Han River in Seoul; his exceptionally lazy and brainless son Gang-du (Song Kang-ho); his daughter Nam-joo (Bae Du-na), an archery star; his other son Nam-il (Park Hae-il), a college-educated misanthrope; and Gang-du's teenage daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung). The action is centered almost entirely around the adults' attempts to rescue Hyun-seo after she is abducted by the beast after its first rampage.

This does not go the places it would go if this were just a standard Hollywood programmer: a rather tender-hearted, often sorrowful, more often hilarious view on the familial conflicts between generations and between siblings. I really don't know why east Asian cinema has such a monopoly on great stories about siblings, but there you go. The Host is primarily concerned with Hyun-seo's absence, and the ways in which her family tries to save her, working at cross-purposes sometimes, and sometimes working as a team, but always out of love for her and for each other. One of the greatest scenes in the film comes during a funeral service for the victims of the monster's first rampage, when the Parks get into a knock-down brawl even while they weep. It's hysterical (although my description is not), and even though it's broad it's completely honest: they behave like a family with their particular hang-ups might well be likely to act in that sort of moment of stress. They are recognizable people, and their humanity anchors a fantastic movie in the simple and the domestic. That's what makes this much different than a typical Hollywood B-picture, and in a lot of ways much better.

All that said, I don't want to give short shrift to the monster. It's simply a terrific bit of design, really one of the absolute peaks of the art form in the last several years: it has the basic sliminess of a catfish with all sorts of protuberant fins where they oughtn't be, a snakelike, prehensile tail, and a gaping mouth of distinctly, um...there's not a polite way to say that its mouth is a giant vagina, so I'll just be impolite. Oh, don't give me that, there's a long and proud history of movie monsters that are essentially modified genitalia. I'm hardly the first one to notice that the title creature of Alien is nothing but a penis with teeth. Anyway, I don't know quite what to do with such imagery other than note that it exists, and when a giant CGI vagina coughs out multiple human skeletons in one of the most arresting images I've seen in a movie this year, it's a wonderful example of what I think of as the Dayum Effect: a moment in a movie where you stop and stare and say "dayum!" in a slow mock-Texas drawl, because it's one hell of a thing you just saw - good or bad, it's hard to say, but it's somefuckingthing, and you won't get it out of your head anytime soon.

It's a tribute to Bong's skill that he can balance all of these wildly divergent tones and even make them feel like the very necessary components of a whole. It's hard to say whether the comedy is needed to offset the tragedy, or if the tragedy is meant to leaven the comedy, and whether either of those is more or less important than the horror. It all comes together so smoothly that it's frankly impossible to imagine the movie without any strand.

That's unfortunately not the same thing as saying the movie has no dead weight. After the flawless first half hour or so, the pacing gets a little wonky. Part of this has to do with the frequent absence of the monster, although it's not only that - indeed, the film is a rare success in that some of the very best scenes are not "monster movie" at all - a bigger part is that the film seems unsure as to whether Hyun-seo or her father is the protagonist, or if its both of them. And the ending, which is beautiful in its own way, only muddies that. Maybe that's purposeful, but if it is I think it backfired rather needlessly. Either way, that doesn't explain the climactic action sequence in which the Parks battle the creature, a scene with too many false beginnings (I didn't even know those existed) and not nearly the right emotional tenor.

None of that means it's not a completely fine motion picture, because it is. It's genuinely funny, moving and scary all together, and most American movies, whatever their genre, can't even manage one of those at a time

8/10

13 March 2007

TONIGHT WE VIEW MOVIES IN HELL!

I am not even a little bit interested in following the lead of the whole rest of the internets, and discussing how the film version of Frank Miller's 300 does or does not endorse the cult of violent masculinity represented by George W. Bush and the neoconservatives. That would be giving the film entirely too much credit.

Of course, I should probably admit that I wouldn't hold that against it either way. Just because a movie has a regressive and possibly unmoral perspective on masculine violent behavior doesn't make it "bad": not because of its complex moral fabric do I hold Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales as one of the very best modern Westerns. If we of the Left are going to slam they of the Right for viewing all art as propaganda and judging aesthetic value solely on its goodthink (for the second time in four posts: read this, it is perfect), then it's just damned foolish to turn around and criticise a movie for being politically disagreeable.

Anyhow, I have a better reason for not making a political argument against 300: it's not good enough to deserve it. It's just a typical stupid action movie, with an extra dollop of stupid on the side.

The original comic miniseries was not, shall we say, a triumph of narrativity: 300 Spartans fight millions of Persians, and act all virile and honorable and hawk-ey. It was essentially a pretext for Frank Miller and Lynn Varley to create several extremely gorgeous tableaux, spreading across both pages of the open book (indeed, this was its gimmick, although insulting a sincere attempt to extend the limitations of comic art with the word "gimmick" is mean-spirited). It was a triumph of the graphic, not of the novel. And triumph is exactly the right word: you'd have to go pretty damn far to find a comic book with such a high page-to-gorgeous-image ratio.

Zack Snyder's adaptation is certainly aware of this, at least as far as he obviously wants to fill the movie up with striking imagery. And to that end, he uses the same greenscreen technology with computer-generated sets and backgrounds that brought another Frank Miller book to life in Robert Rodriguez's Sin City. He does not use it as well.

Before seeing the film, I wondered if I'd be able to keep thoughts of Sin City out of my head; having seen it, I have a very hard time comparing them at all. While the earlier film used CGI to create a heavily stylized world with heavily stylized lighting, 300 looks essentially realistic, although like reality coated in the world's ugliest shade of copper. This is extremely bad, because much like Rodriguez, Snyder has largely seen fit to leave Miller's dialogue and characters untouched, and these are not remotely realistic. It was the chief victory of Sin City, perhaps, that the extremely heightened reality of the visuals was so complete as to actually make the wildly over-boiled dialogue not just acceptable but necessary. That film was a complete hyper-stylized whole. In 300, with weaker actors and much less interesting visuals, the dialogue comes off as badly as anything you ever did hear, not so much the parody of old-time epics it could/should have been, and more like listening to eight-year-olds on a sugar high playing "Spartacus."

This is a film that basically lives and dies on its visuals, and it knows that, and the visuals suck. Sorry for the briefly non-professional moment there. No, I'm not. Because the visuals suck. The are some very good shots stolen baldly from the graphic novel, which I'm honestly okay with, but mostly this is just one poorly-framed moment after another, with all of the BIG EPIC MOMENTS looking rather shockingly like actors staring at a flat wall where blatant CGI thingies were composited in later. Movies are 2-D, of course, that is their dark secret, but the best ones don't seem to be. 300 is flat, as flat as any contemporary movie I've ever seen. I'm not going to get into...okay, so I'm almost positive the reason why is because the actors were being lit and shot on a tiny greenscreen stage with more attention paid to getting them exposed properly than to the actual shape of the lighting. Another point for Sin City, which took its cues from film noir and had some of the harshest, highest-contrast lighting of any recent movie. (Another reason for the flatness is that the transition from digital video to film resulted in a simply unbearable amount of visual noise; but that might have just been my print).

Worst of all, for an action movie, 300 is pretty inert. There is such formal rigidness to Snyder's adaptation of the extremely kinetic comic that it feels more like Noh theater than a motion picture. The most egregious example of this is the constant reliance on slow-motion to stress moments of "excitement," usually just before the moment when the fake-looking CGI blood spurts out of the now-dead body. But it's more general than that: the whole film feels like an endless series of still images, and this is more or less the opposite of "action."

300 is frankly dull, and that is not something I would have ever predicted possible. But it is: dull images, dull movement. The sound design, I suppose, is not dull, but this is largely at the cost of it being shrill and grating.

Zack Snyder's only previous feature was the remake of Dawn of the Dead, which was rather surprisingly good, and successful in all the ways that 300 is not: fast-paced, full of recognizable human beings, littered with really effective setpieces and scare moments, and well-realized visually. So I hate to lay all the blame for this film on his feet; but there's nowhere else to lay it. This is a terribly directed film, slow and plodding and not nearly imaginative enough, and of course it's already become a rousing success. Nobody ever lost money betting on the tastelessness of the American public.

3/10