30 April 2007

THE LITTLE PICTURE

Talk about your refreshing changes from the ordinary! Jake Kasdan, veteran of Freaks and Geeks, has taken his unique insight into the inner workings of network television decision-making, and turned it into The TV Set, a bold new satire with the daring to tell it like it is: it's a Hollywood film that, believe it or not, goes behind the scenes - of Hollywood! And let me tell you, it's not afraid to admit that there are some warts!

...Okay, so I kid Jake Kasdan, but only because I love Jake Kasdan. After all, he directed Orange County. What have I ever done? And truth be told, The TV Set isn't at all bad. Make no mistake, it is profoundly unimaginative in its treatment of the film industry's favorite topic, the film industry, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't do a fine job of re-covering very well-trod ground.

David Duchovny stars as Mike Klein, a struggling writer with an idea for a tragicomedy series titled The Wexler Chronicles, based on Klein's own experience coping with his brother's suicide. Over the course of a couple of months during that hellish springtime ritual known as "pilot season," he is given note upon note from two executives at PDN, the "Panda Network": the glum BBC acquisition Richard McAllister (Ioan Gruffudd), and the infinitely fake and peppy Lenny (Sigourney Weaver). Thus does the bittersweet personal project become a broad sitcom with a wilfully generic title and fart jokes.

You'd swear to look at it that this is a comedy,* and that's pretty much the only word that fits, but that doesn't change the fact that The TV Set isn't particularly funny and doesn't want to be. Essentially, it's a classically-structured tragedy: Mike Klein is a great man, praised by the network for his quick mind and large talent, but through a single flaw, he is brought down. Where the ancient Greeks had hubris, Klein has a colossal lack of fortitude.

A variation on the same scene occurs over and over again: Mike declares that he must stand on his principles; the executives agree; they communicate to Mike via his terrified manager Alice (played by Judy Greer, as she more or less had to be) that they need him to compromise on this little wee point; after much dithering and shouting at Alice and his pregnant wife Natalie (Justine Bateman), Mike gives in.

It is the story of a death by a thousand cuts, by turns funny and terrifying, ending in a really great moment of performance by Duchovny when Mike realises that his long nightmare of compromise and self-loathing has done nothing more than open the door for 21 episodes of exactly the same thing. A nice guy has willingly tossed himself into a cage, selling out his basic core beliefs; it's not such a satire of Hollywood as it is a cruel joke on the many people in the world who have done precisely the same thing. For that uncomfortable truth, I salute The TV Set without reservation.

That's a matter of theme, though, and in terms of raw execution, there's no denying that these notes have been played over and over again. And let us be perfectly honest: not only has the Hollywood satire been done to death, but it's been perfected. The best that any new entrant in the genre can hope for is to add the occasional joke or observation that fits well and isn't totally clichéd. The TV Set achieves that, more often than not; my personal favorite bit is the extremely accurate sequence during the production of the pilot, when it becomes increasingly clear that the only person on set with any idea of what is going on is the cinematographer (M.C. Gainey, who since shooting this film has gained some first-hand experience with TV series foundering under creative misdirection). And perhaps the smartest single choice - it's not accurate to call it a gag - was casting Gruffudd as McAllister and Lucy Davis as his wife; no better way to establish the superiority of the British model of television production to the American model than by, y'know, reminding us of British superiority. (Justine Bateman, with her Arrested Development guest appearance, does something similar, but the filmmakers could hardly have known that at the time).

Really, there's nothing "wrong" with the film besides excessive boredom. The actors are all great, Weaver especially, but you can never shake the feeling that they're taking their cues from a dozen other characters, Weaver especially (it's a brilliant performance, that feels like a pitch-perfect clone of Faye Dunaway in Network, although I'd never hold that against the actress. It's just good to see her in a major role again). I will say this in the film's favor: it happily avoids grotesqueries in favor of a nearly documentary realism. Which of course makes the funny tragic. That's a compliment. Anyone can make us laugh at exaggeration, but looking us in the eye once we finish laughing, and making us realize that it was the stone-cold truth, that takes some modest skill and boldness. The TV Set is not a backstage film for the ages, but it manages to be a bit more useful than the vast bulk of its stablemates.

7/10

MAY 2007 MOVIE PREVIEW

The lean times are over, kind of: on the horizon I can see the outlines of that rara avis, the Tentpole Blockbuster that will also be Good. And by "horizon" I mean "this Friday."

4.5.2007
The series that made comic book movies great again comes to a well-earned close with Spider-Man 3, the one and only summer movie that I'm legitimately excited about. And why not? The first two were popcorn masterpieces of the highest order. I do think that there's a possibility of finale-itis, and the trailers certainly make it look like this film is going a bit too operatic for it's own good, but I will not let such considerations harsh my buzz. Sam Raimi has never done anything terribly wrong by me, and I don't expect that he shall begin now.

And now: the counter-programming! After months on the shelf, Curtis Hanson's Vegas-based romantic dramedy Lucky You finally gets its release on. Now, I like Hanson. I like him a whole lot. But this film looks a little bit floppy. Also: a Scottish sports hero movie, The Flying Scotsman, and while inspirational sporting movies usually give me a rash, something about the trailer here calls to me, and I think that something goes by the name Brian Cox. Also also: Peter Krause, whom I adore, is in the post-9/11 paranoia thriller Civic Duty, which has politics that I don't quite comprehend: is it wingnutty? Is it sane people? Time will tell.

The coasts: Paris, je t'aime. You lucky fucks.

11.5.2007
Here is why I think that Spidey will take the summer's box-office crown: it's the only one of the Big Three* that doesn't have a major release to compete with the week after it premieres. Viz: three monstrously unlikable actors in Delta Farce, AKA "Larry the Cable Guy Goes to War." Or, Georgia Rule, the new Garry Marshall film (WHY WON'T HE RETIRE?), in which Jane Fonda and Felicity Huffman yell at Lindsay Lohan to stop being a druggy slut. I'm sorry, that's what happened on set. I don't quite care what the movie is about.

I guess you could argue that 28 Weeks Later... is going to do well for itself, being as it is a sequel to a gin-yoo-wine cult masterpiece, but that would require that most filmgoers are like me, and I think we can all agree that isn't the case.

18.5.2007
I'm under strict orders not to say anything mean about Shrek the Third before I see it. So instead I'll talk about Shrek and Shrek 2, which were both smarmy and overly post-modern, typifying everything I hate about modern family films, and they were horribly animated to boot. But hey! The new one might be awesome, and I have no reason to assume that won't be exactly the case.

Of course I say that, and then I find that a Zach Braff comedy, The Ex, is the counter-programming. Bad week to be a film buff.

Also: Fay Grim, the sequel to Henry Fool, which I will hopefully see in the next two weeks, because that is the way I do these things. At any rate, the notion of a Parker Posey spy thriller makes me feel giddy

25.5.2007
Arr, it be Pirates 3. I've pretty much run out of enthusiasm for this one, after each and every trailer and publicity still makes it look a little more bloated and pretentious than the last. I'll still be part of its record-setting opening weekend, of course, but I shan't be happy with myself.

Perhaps wisely, nothing else is getting a big push today (although there are some likely candidates in New York and L.A., damn your eyes) except for the long-delayed Bug, which I am told is a fantastic play, and certainly, the trailer is all full up of moody lighting and high tension.

Also, it appears that Lars von Trier is trying his hand at light comedy. Because life isn't weird enough.

29 April 2007

IN WHICH I MAKE UP FOR OWNING, WATCHING, AND REVIEWING QUINTET

I am happy to present this feature's second Altman film, and the first not to hold the distinction of being the worst thing he ever made.

Robert Altman was good at many, many things, but one of his stocks in trade was the genre-bender: making a war movie, or a film noir, or a Western, and breaking just about all of the rules that one is supposed to follow.

Thanks to the Great Lord DVD, we've got another film out of that august tradition to contend with, the 1974 crime drama Thieves Like Us. Clearly financed as a cash-in on the six-year-old Bonnie and Clyde, it went someplace far different, trading in the earlier project's violence and New Wave-influenced flash for a languid study of character and space and society, a sleepy film about a motley collection of dim, but well-meaning failures. A perfect Altman film, in other words.

It usually does to begin at the beginning, and in the case of Thieves Like Us, the beginning is an epic long take that pans across most of 360° over the course of 2.5 minutes. In that time, we watch in thrilling real time as two men paddle a boat across a river and walk over to a third man in a waiting car. I kid - actually, it's quite effective, and coupled with the gently diffused cinematography, it gives exactly the sense of what the film is going to be for the next two hours: a gauzily poetic, summery sort of movie, summery in the sense that it feels much like the cinematic equivalent of lying in the shade on the hottest day of the year watching the world creep by.

Those men turn out to be escaped convicts, and that car eventually takes them to a hideout that will serve as their base of operations for a series of low-yield bank robberies. More importantly, it will lead the youngest and perhaps most nihilistic of the criminals, Bowie (Keith Carradine) to cross paths with Keechie (Shelley Duvall), an absent, confusing young woman. Love blooms, Bowie makes gestures towards reforming, et cetera.

The strength of the film is absolutely not in its story, but in it's mood and tone, and especially its setting. Generally, it is accurate to observe that Altman is a director well-suited to the feeling of place and time, and in Thives Like Us he recreates Mississippi in 1936 and '37 with more success than I have ever seen that era captured on film - indeed, Thives Like Us feels more like the late '30s than some films I've seen from the late '30s. Altman achieves this without calling any attention to himself, simply making the world full of detail in every corner. Two recurrent elements in particular: the thick-glassed Coca-Cola bottles of the era are everywhere; and you'd be surprised how important a tiny detail like this ends up being, but throughout the film, everyone refers to it as "coke," as in "You want a coke? Let's get a coke. Can I pay for this coke later?" I'm not weighing in on the great "Coke vs. Soda vs. Pop" war,* but it's worth pointing out that you don't hear the genericized trademark in the movies, like, ever. And in Mississippi in the 1930s, you most certainly would have. A tiny detail that matters a lot.

The other element is the radio. After Bowie, in fact, radios seem as though they might have the most lines of any character in the film. And they're not just noise - they're a damn Greek chorus, commenting on the action both sarcastically and sincerely (at the same time, in the case of the film's love scenes). And again, this fits the setting perfectly: it's the rural South, it's the Depression, what other access to the outside world do these people have? It makes sense that the radio is a force commenting on their lives, insofar as the radio is certainly an important element of how they understood the world they lived in.

Thus is setting; what of mood and tone? I hinted about that a bit earlier - languor and laziness and a general sleepy way of things. This is the least violent film about bank robbers that I've ever seen. One time, we follow an actual hit on a bank, but for the rest of the film it's just the convicts relaxing in their hideaway, or Bowie's idyll with Keechie. Under the director's steady guidance, this becomes almost hypnotic in its deliberately patient crawl. In fact, it calls to mind another crime film more concerned with the space between crimes, Terrence Malick's Badlands, and if the Altman film doesn't quite reach its predecessor's level of pure visual poetry, it nevertheless shares with it a celebration of quietude. This is a startlingly gentle film for Altman, and while he makes no attempt at Malick's humanism (the men in Thieves Like Us are unabashed morons, deserving not a hint of respect), he yet gives his characters space to enjoy peace.

This mood could never come about without the central love story, which puts the psychosexual tangle of Bonnie and Clyde to shame. A little bit to do with the script, and a bit to do with Carradine, and a whole hell of a lot to do with Duvall and her greatest director (the director, in fact, of her first five movies). Duvall is not classically beautiful. Fortunately, she is completely aware of this and comfortable about it, and so she makes herself, here and elsewhere, interesting. Which is, let us be completely honest, much more important. And in Thieves Like Us, she is not merely interesting. She is impossible to turn away from, a combination of sex and childishness and inhuman nymph.

The key scene in the film, holding no relationship to the plot whatsoever, occurs midway through, when Bowie watches Keetchie in the bath. It is frank and presumptively sexual, but not erotic in the least; when Duvall rises from the tub, she carries herself in such a way as to feel more like a nude in a classical painting than a naked lady. Sex is had, but sex is not what we see onscreen, anymore than we see violence during the reign of bank-robbing terror. It is almost as though Duvall is not of human flesh, but is rather some kind of spiritual force, and we see it in her face at every moment.

It's this spiritual element that makes the love story a true idyll, fitting it into the film's overall scheme of things. Sex is active and physical, but what goes on between those two lovers is just as gauzy as the rest of the film. "Lazy," I said earlier, and I'll say it again. But in the best possible way: the laziness of droning cicadas and a sluggish river and falling asleep outside. And this film was obscured by the fame of Bonnie and Clyde. Like hell. This is a film about quietude achieved and stolen away, not about morality and violence. Thieves Like Us is the story of a lazy Eden, and although Altman doesn't love his characters enough to leave them there, he just this once was willing to let his audience see that yes, it might be nice to visit for a time.

28 April 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD

It comes to pass yt every woman or man that runs a website, and will occasionally find joy in reviewing a bad movie, eventually they will come upon this thought:

"I really ought to sit down and watch the whole Friday the 13th series."

Of course, it's never, ever true that any person in the world ever ought to watch any Friday the 13th movie. Which is the conclusion that every one of those same bad movie website runners comes to right around the point that the prospect of having to watch Jason Takes Manhattan rears it ugly head.

Well, I've never been aught but a holy fool, and that is why I will spend my summer watching not just the Friday the 13th films, but also the Nightmare on Elm Street films, culminating in a glorious Labor Day extravaganza of the single movie that brought those two series together.

My expected schedule looks a little bit something like this:

5/5 - Friday the 13th (1980)
5/12 - Friday the 13th, Part 2 (1981)
5/19 - Friday the 13th, Part 3 (1982)
5/26 - Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
6/2 - Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)
6/9 - Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
6/16 - Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood (1988)
6/23 - Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)
6/30 - Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)
7/7 - Jason X (2001)
7/14 - A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
7/21 - A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)
7/28 - A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
8/4 - A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
8/11 - A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989)
8/18 - Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991)
8/25 - Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)
9/1 - Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

Why? Because I can. And I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise to each and every single reader of this blog in advance. It's going to get pretty nasty before it's over.

COMING SOON: A brief history of the slasher film prior to 1980.

THE GRAND FACADE SO SOON WILL BURN

If someone had said to me, "So there's this movie out that plays exactly like a blend of Dogme 95 and the French New Wave," I would surely not have seen that movie. And as it turns out, I would have therefore missed one of the very best films to be released in America in the first third of 2007.

Susanne Bier's After the Wedding (an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language film*) opens with a sequence that simply oozes cinema: hazy shots of children playing and suffering in an Indian slum (I believe I recall the city being Mumbai, but I wouldn't swear it) are intercut with shots of Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen), a Danish expatriate working at an orphage, riding through the slum and observing the life there, and intercut again with Jacob's conversation with the orphanage's proprietor Mrs. Shaw (Meenal Patel), and all of this overlaid with a very elliptically recut version of that same conversation, in which she informs him that he must return to Denmark to meet with a very wealthy man to secure funding for their school.

Forgive my clinician's eye for the "what" of this opening scene, but one cannot say an image, much less a sequence of images. The only way to understand the meaning of this sequence, I suppose, is to watch it for oneself, and be amazed at the rhythm and poetry of it. This is Editing 101: the non-arbitrary combination of images in sequence to create meaning out of the space between those images. In this case, that meaning is primarily emotional and not intellectual or narrative - at least, that was the case for me - and I should not be so horrid as to dictate what After the Wedding shall make anyone in particular feel.

From the very opening, we see the curious mixture that makes the film what it is: unabashedly Dogme visuals (shot on DV with little to no added light, hand-held shakycam, resolutely unfussy compositions) blended with a very particular editing schema (about which Dogme is agnostic) and an expansive, highly subjective soundscape (which Dogme views as the work of Satan his own self). Bier has been working under the Dogme banner for a few years at this point, and it's not clear to me what instigated her sudden turn to a more expansive, expressionist mode of filmmaking; but it works. God help us all, it works beautifully.

After that beginning, the focus is no longer on the Indian ghetto, of course (the film takes place almost entirely in the area around Copenhagen); and Bier's rhythmic and elliptical edits move from social exploration to a much more intimate sphere, mimicking the arc of the story itself. In this part of the film, the focus is changed to the human body, and Bier with her small army of cinematographers (four!) uses the most aggressive program of close-ups of body parts that I have seen in any movie this decade. There are lengthy shots of mouths, of arms, of hands on another's body, of eyes...

Ah yes, there are eyes. "The windows of the soul," or something like that, they tell us, and I'm damned if I can name any movie in history to use eye imagery as much as After the Wedding. Every major character has at least a couple of shots where we just see his or her eyes while a conversation rages on. It's not a reference to voyeurism, at least not that I can tell; rather, it's an attempt to burrow into the mind of the person we're observing. As in so many Scandinavian movies (the noble legacy of Ingmar Bergman), the content of what is being said matters infinitely less than the way that people react to it. Bier's eye obsession is a method of bringing us as close as possible to the characters; to go any further would mean to go inside their heads. And so we study, and we scrutinize, and we see every emotion in the human playbook flashing in four pairs of eyes.

Strange, then, that the first eyes we really see aren't even human, aren't even living. As Jacob drives to the home of Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård), the money man, he notices a dead fox by the side of the road. And it is this animal's eye that we first see filling the screen, commanding our attention. Further on, Jørgen's collection of mounted animal heads will provide a menagerie of dead eyes for Bier's frame to linger over and examine. Why these close-ups? These animals are without souls now, why should we stare into their eyes? Because of the contrast, I'd imagine. Death hangs over After the Wedding, not just in the imagery but in the story, and I think the stress given to the dead eyes of dead animals, coupled with the bright, living eyes of the human characters, makes the film "about" their alive-ness. No matter how bad things might be - and they get very, very bad over the course of the story - there is still life. Death comes; but it is not here yet.

Nothing about Dogme 95 says you can't do these things; but it still seems radical for Bier to bring such a symbolic metaphoric frame to her movie. Especially considering the ways that the film is pure Dogme: its deliberately gritty look is an attempt to grind in the realism of the film, and its implicit critique against the lives of the idle rich in the face of the suffering of the world's poor, which is never stated and always present, is perfectly in line with the political aims of a deglammed movement like this one. I don't propose to have an explanation; but it is extremely heartening that a movement which, by and large, I have hated for its pretension and it's anti-cinematic bent, can produce a work this revolutionary and perfect, and so fully aware of the possibilities of the art of film.

(This film does actual contain a narrative, but it's not really the point, to me; the point is the emotional truths the characters express, and I can't communicate that. That's what the movie is for. Anyway, it's not hard to find the plot online. A quick spin of the critics reveals that it's "melodramatic"; absolutely the truth, but I've never pretended that I dislike a fine bit of the old mellerdrammer, especially when it achieves sublimity).

10/10

26 April 2007

IT'S LIKE CSI, ONLY LESS SO

Actors are very weird people. I can say that; I have actor friends. But they're really a bit like hobbits: you can learn all of their ways in a month, and after a hundred years they'll still do something that just confuses the fuck out of you.

In other words, why oh why did Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling decide that it would be a fine thing to star in the movie Fracture? Obviously professional movie stars need to eat just like the rest of us. But Gosling has a history of being pretty damn choosy with his projects, and pretty damn indie. And Hopkins, okay, is mostly insane, but still...I mean, I can understand what makes All the President's Men appealing in the abstract, but I do not understand what makes an actor who can't really need the money to read a script like this one and say, "Good lord, I want to be a part of this project!"

This project, for the morbidly curious, runs a bit like this: a man somehow involved in aeronautical engineering (Hopkins) finds his wife is cheating on him, and he shoots her. He is arrested by the very cop she was sleeping with, confesses, and the case ends up in the lap of an assistant DA (Gosling) right on the eve of his departure for a sexy, high-paying job in corporate law. Gosling assumes this will be a cakewalk, Hopkins decides instead that it's time for fun fun cat 'n' mouse mind games.

I suspect there's a level at which this could have worked wonderfully (I also suspect that it's already been made, but I can't quite think of when), but Fracture is not wonderful at all. It's a thin little procedural without a trace of imagination to it. This becomes entirely unsurprising after a quick perusal of director Gregory Hoblit's CV: stints with L.A. Law and NYPD Blue,* and films like Fallen and Frequency (the man likes his f-words). What little bit of mystery there might have been is crushed under the heel of the unending scenes of Gosling and his compatriots flinging legal jargon at each other and the camera, or the even more unending scenes in which Gosling harangues the police detectives who can't find any evidence. This latter scenario is particularly unpleasant to remember, as it occurs somewhere between 5 and 30 times over the course of the film and each and every time it does so without a trace of variation.

Everything happens, and I can't stress this enough, exactly the way you expect it to. Procedurals in general are not noted for their structural innovation or narrative trickery. This particular procedural seeks to be the rarefied distillation of all procedurals, and at no moment does this stop feeling like an especially glossy and especially joyless episode of Law and Order, with Gosling playing both parts.

So what floors me about this is that not only are two top-shelf actors like Hopkins and Gosling mucking about in a script like this, but both of them give it everything they've got. This is quite undeniably the best performance that Hopkins has delivered in the current decade, both despite and because it feels a whole lot like a less evil, more snotty variation of Hannibal Lecter (old-school, of course. I don't roll that way). I should be clear: in no way is a "bad" thing that Hopkins is, effectively, coasting. Lecter was a great performance, after all, and I imagine that was what was appealing about this role: a chance to get back in that mode of terribly clever, urbane evil. And Ted Crawford (Hopkins's character) is certainly clever and urbane, and while his evil is a whole lot less mythological than cannibalism, it's still not the sort of role where you'll ever wonder if maybe he might be innocent.

For his part, Gosling is just damn good, now and always (although, he is dating Rachel McAdams, and this means that I shall have to kill him some day. But that doesn't change his abilities as an actor). He takes the deeply clichéd role of the "hot-shot who learns humility and morality," and turns it into something that's actually interesting to watch, mostly by keeping the character realistically flawed enough that we never quite get around to liking him very much. I mean that to be a compliment. His character is a prick, and Gosling has the sensible bravery to not hide that fact.

I shan't go someplace silly, like, "these are two of the best performances of the year," although they're both really goddamn good, and that's what makes Fracture so incredibly annoying. It's a completely uninteresting screenplay, insultingly so, but it's hardly a waste of film. It's got two great actors being great. So that makes it at least a little worthy of a recommendation, right?

...nah.

5/10

25 April 2007

MY LONG SEARCH IS OVER

I was already worried about having Psycho flashbacks just from the premise of Vacancy, in which two people are terrorized by the weird proprietor of a tiny hotel miles off the main highway in what appears to be California, so when the main titles started up, looking very reminiscent of the work of the late Saul Bass, I was prepared to give up and go home. Then it hit me: looking very reminiscent of the work of the late Saul Bass is an objectively good thing, because the late Saul Bass was an unimpeachable genius.

Writing about title design is like dancing about architecture. The short version is that the "camera" darts in and out through the words of each card, rotating and panning, kind of like the entire credits sequence was laid out on the world's largest multiplane camera. The long version is go see the damn movie.

And the reason you should go see the damn movie not just because the credits are fantastic, but because Vacancy is, all things considered, not half bad. Indeed, it's much less than half bad. To be completely honest, Vacancy is something that I've been seeking for years now: an American horror film that genuinely scared me, front to back, top to bottom, and after I was out of the theater.

This surprised me, although it should not have, and here is why: the director, Nimród Antal, is a frakking genius who made one of my favorite movies 2003, Kontroll. That film was a trippy exploration of the Budapest underground rail system, freely mixing action with romance with a murder mystery with techno-driven rave scenes. For this, he won the Cannes Prix de la jeunesse, a special award given by a panel of 18-25 year olds.

The point being, Kontroll was many things, and one of those things was a fantabulous slasher movie, and now I'm embarrassed that I wasn't willing to trust Antal a little bit more. Vacancy isn't a slasher movie (it's torture porn), nor is it exactly fantabulous (okay, I'm done with that word now), but the director still has that unmistakable knack for pacing, and for framing images in excitingly original ways, and using both of those skills to crank the tension up nice and high.

On balance, Vacancy isn't really about "horror" nearly so much as it is about "suspense": our plucky pair of heroes, David and Amy Fox (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) figure out very quickly that they've been trapped by a conspiracy of psychopaths with a yen for making snuff films, and so the film is more about "when" than "what" or "how." It does not try to surprise us and thereby scare us, but rather it gives us all the pieces and then lets us sweat. That's a reasonably simple distinction (Hitchcock articulated it most eloquently. Of course), but one that's completely lost on the great majority of American directors, who have it in their minds that all thrillers are horror films, and therefore they all rely on garish musical stings, jump scares and gore.

Antal, bless his heart, doesn't fall into that trap. There is no gore to be found in Vacancy, and while the script sets up many opportunities for "boo!" type scares, he doesn't really take advantage of them. Instead, he uses a simple assortment of techniques to keep our POV yoked to David and Amy's, and he plays up the suffocating closeness of the spaces both interior and exterior, bringing a terrifying claustrophobia to the goings-on (I couldn't list every instance in which one or both of the protagonists are "caged," by Antal's frame, or an element of framing within the mise en scène, but car mirrors, doorways, phone booths, and decorative fencing are all used at some point to increase that claustrophobia). In effect, he turns the characters into trapped animals, aware that they're being watched and aware that there's no way to escape. It's worse than scary, it's stifling; and that is terrifying, to me at least.

Thank God for Nimród Antal, because all that is completely due to his influence. Without him, I suspect that Vacancy would be just another torture porno, albeit one with a surprisingly small amount of gore. Mark L. Smith's script - his first - is fairly hollow and predictable, although it does one thing that is very rare and very welcome: it makes the main characters grown-ups with grown-up problems. Before they are sucked into the hotel's web of death, David and Amy are struggling to deal with their impending divorce. Unsurprisingly (because this is a movie), they patch things up in the course of fleeing the killers. Now, this is hardly The Descent, in which grown-ups with grown-up problems also get grown-up psychology, but at least they're a step above the generic teenagers that customarily populate the genre.

I will admit that the casting choices help to bring interesting things to the characters. Not the actors - Beckinsale is just bad, now and always, and Wilson doesn't seem to care about anything but his paycheck - but the baggage those actors carry. Luke Wilson, after all, is famous for his laid-back regular guy roles, and that Everyguy quality makes David not necessarily more sympathetic, but certainly more recognizable. And Amy's turn from ice queen to wilting flower to ass-kicker would have been a lot harder to believe if it hadn't been someone like Beckinsale (who seems to be all of those things in real life) playing her.

The real stand-out in the cast is character actor Frank Whaley, playing his role as an apparent variation on one of the most famous hotel managers in cinema history, by which I of course mean Dennis Weaver in Touch of Evil.* His villain is a creepy twerp from the get-go, and it's to his absolute credit as an actor that he never loses that twerpishness even as his violent psychosis comes to the fore. One can almost imagine that earlier in life, he was the sort of geek who was in the AV club, and that makes his character's filmmaking proclivities all the more warped.

Vacancy is not a masterpiece. It is just a successful scary movie, which makes it better than 95% of its genre bedfellows. I've been waiting for a film like this for a long, long time, and for bringing it to me, Nimród Antal has immediately jumped to the very top of my list of directors to keep an eye on.

7/10

23 April 2007

SHOOT 'EM UP, DOWN AND SIDEWAYS

Mid-autumn, 2001. Myself and a couple dozen other Northwestern University sophomores were in the midst of our first film production class, thrashing about for ideas.

My team of bright young things came upon the brilliant idea of parodying the French New Wave, of all damn things. We were film students, you must understand; it had been only six months since our entire class had seen Masculin-féminin and clips from Sans soleil. All of it terribly heady stuff, even to reasonably educated film buffs like ourselves.

The Voice of Reason, in the body of a wizened old grad student, advised us: don't do this because you think the New Wave is stupid, or silly. If you're going to do this, it has to be because you love the New Wave; it must be your favorite film style of all time.

The three of us exchanged glances...you know what, that actually sounds about right. Yes, I think the New Wave is my favorite film movement. And that is how we produced a short film that I still believe is the finest project I've ever been involved with in any capacity.

I share this story because it speaks to an important truth: successful parody does not come out of superiority. It comes out of deep affection, and encyclopedic knowledge of the thing that is being parodied. Consider Young Frankenstein, created by a man with boundless love for the Universal horror movies; then consider Date Movie, made by soulless studio hacks who apparently watch a lot of trailers.

And lastly, consider Hot Fuzz, a comic riff on high-octane cop movies made by the creative team behind 2004's Shaun of the Dead. It's a movie that is literally, painfully funny, insofar as I occasionally laughed so hard that I thought my chest was about to collapse. But why is it funny? Is it because it makes fun of cop movies for being stupid? No. Well, not entirely

It's instructive to really think about Shaun of the Dead. It's the easiest thing in the world to call it a zombie parody, but it is most definitely not. It's a goddamn homage, it is, made by people who think that George A. Romero is a genius (which is a fair thing to think, because he is), and want to do honor to his canon. If you can remember back to 2004, it was being advertised as "a romantic comedy with zombies." Which is a joke, sure, but it also happens to be accurate. It was a great zombie movie that was also a very, very funny movie. But in terms of making fun of zombie movies? Not for a minute. The zombie parts of the movie were treated with sobriety and respect, even when they were the butt of a gag.

It's a stretch to say that Hot Fuzz is a great cop movie that is also a comedy, but it's close. The jokes here are jokes that require a certain knowing nod of recognition; not "we are smarter than this, so let us mock it," but rather, "this is the sort of thing we love...that's kind of silly of us, don't you think?" It's the difference between broad humor and deep humor: it's broad if someone who has heard of Bad Boys II gets the joke, but it's deep if you have to have seen Bad Boys II, love it, and still recognise that it's total trash, in order to get the joke.

So, that was the hard part. Now comes the easy, fun part: what about Hot Fuzz, exactly, is funny?

Obviously, I'm not going to run down a laundry list of the gags. That's not interesting, and it spoils your viewing experience, which is completely unfair. This is a fantastically hilarious movie, in my opinion the best comedy since...actually, since Shaun of the Dead. So I'm absolutely going to avoid specifics.

But in the general, vague sense of things, here's what's what: Simon Pegg plays Nicholas Angel, a London police officer who is reassigned to a tiny, crime-free country town after his hyper-competence embarrasses the rest of the force. Upon arriving, he works his brand of justice on the local underage drinkers and loiterers, under the puppy-loving eyes of Danny Butterman (Shaun's Nick Frost), a pudgy cop with a love of American action pictures.

This allows for two distinct branches of comedy. In one, the filmmakers forthrightly slam absurdity and realism against each other, as Angel attempts to bring reality of bureaucracy to the world of action movies, harping tediously on about the proper semantics and paperwork to be utilised, the minutiae of the British penal code, and so forth. In the other (the more successful, I believe), he and Danny embark on a literal translation of the homosocial attraction that is a core value of just about every action movie with two male leads ever. Cop movies are homoerotic, everyone knows that, and Hot Fuzz is very happy to cast the arc by which Danny and Nick come to work together using the vocabulary of a love story. Call it a romantic comedy with guns. And straight men.

And then there's a third branch, but it's not comedy, so much as it's the best kind of fanboyism. Besides Pegg and Frost, the cast of Hot Fuzz includes such luminaries as Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Paddy Considine, and a whole boatload of character actors you'd recognise if you watch enough British television programs. There is a moment in the first five minutes of the film in which Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy and an uncredited Steve Coogan are present in the very same shot! And there is a cameo by a certain Australian actress that I will not give away (check the IMDb cast list if you're that damn curious), but will make you gawk in amazement when you hear her voice and wonder if it could be, nah, oh my God, it is. Some of these actors are funny just because they're playing against type (Dalton), and some are funny because it is the core of their soul to be funny at all times (Coogan), but there is a truly ridiculous roster of talent in front of the camera.

Comedy is a personal thing, of course, so my raves can only go so far. We laugh at what we find funny, and for me, this did it, over and over again, until I could no longer laugh because I had no air left in me. This is the comic sublime, as intelligent and stoopid and damn well executed as any comedy I can think of recently. Your mileage may vary, but I hope to God it doesn't.

9/10

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD

From the files of: "Hey, I've owned that DVD for more than a year, I should really think about watching it!"

And now, the Golden Delicious apple.

Come back with me to the late 1940s. World War II is over and America celebrates by inventing Suburbia, as both place and attitude. The ideal of this new America is the neat house with the big yard with two or three rosy-cheeked children scampering as Mom cooks and Dad comes home from his white collar job. It is false world, of course. It is a world of marketing. It is a world in which things have frilly, wonderful names, because the outer appearance is all. If something looks and sounds divine, then it has value.

In other words, the Golden Delicious apple.

The Golden Delicious hangs over every frame of Jules Dassin's 1949 film noir Thieves' Highway like an albatross. This is the story of Nick Garcos (Richard Conte), who returns home to Fresno, California after a lengthy stint in the postwar armed forces, only to find that his father, a former fruit trucker, has been cheated out of his money by a devious San Francisco produce dealer named Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), and crippled in a driving accident. Seeking revenge, Nick joins with a veteran trucker who has an inside track on the season's first crop of apples, which the two men agree will be tempting bait with which to trap Figlia. Those apples, of course, are Golden Delicious.

Although his career began as a journeyman director making romantic comedies and period pieces (and period comedies), Dassin's modern reputation rests upon the run of films noirs he made starting in 1947 with Brute Force, running into the first several years of his McCarthy-era exile in Europe,* so it is no surprise that Thieves' Highway is a dark film; but the extent to which it is dark is surprising even in the context of the surpassing bleak postwar noirs. Out of 94 minutes, perhaps 20 take place during the day. The rest is set in the blackest night, whether on the long dark highway between Fresno and San Francisco, or on the busy streets of the SF markets, or in the cheap lighting of a whore's flat. I think the word for such style is "unremitting."

Thieves' Highway is not the nastiest, darkest American film I've seen from that generation, mind you. If anything, it's full of biting sarcasm, much moreso than any other film I can name from that early in the American noir cycle. Then again, sarcasm is not "funny" here so much as it is nihilistic, and so even the film's attempts at comic relief in the form of a team of rival truckers played by Jack Oakie and Joseph Pevney turn out to be rather more curdled and acidic than humorous.

Why so exceptionally dark? The answer comes in the form of an extraordinary bit of dialogue between Nick and the prostitute Rica, embodied brilliantly by Valentina Cortese:
NICK: Hey, do you like apples?

RICA: Everybody likes apples, except doctors.

NICK: Do you know what it takes to get an apple so you can sink your beautiful teeth in it? You gotta stuff rags up tailpipes, farmers gotta get gypped, you jack up trucks with the back of your neck, universals conk out...
To me this is the crux of the entire film: it is a savage attack on American comfort. To a certain degree, this speech is redundant, for by this point we've already seen all of the indignities that Nick describes, and if that wasn't enough to make us understand that this is some tough shit here, the constant repetition of "Golden Delicious" by every character in the film until the phrase is stripped of even the slightest romance. But the point the story that the speech occupies turns it into a sort of recapitulation, a reminder of where we've been.

From the get-go, Dassin pushes the subtle mockery of suburban life, even from the opening establishing shot of Fresno, which emphasize its isolation and its smallness. Indeed, Thieves' Highway is full of shots that minimize the scale of things. The genre is, if anything, noted for the ways in which camera angles are used to intensify physical presence, but Dassin shoots nearly every scene from straight ahead, diminishing and flattening the players. The visual tension comes instead from the harsh contrasts that dominate the film after its opening beats, white figures against inky blackness. It turns this from a story of men against men (which it is) to a story of men against the world (which it also is) - in other words, a social message film noir.

But as I mentioned, I maintain that the film's primary tension is between the brand new laconic middle class and the miserable souls who made sure they got their damn apples. This is clearest in a comparison of the film's two women: Polly (Barbara Lawrence), the girl who's been waiting at home for Nick's return, and Rica, the exotic European femme who embodies all of the sexual potency that the postwar suburban milieu was specifically geared towards repressing. Polly is a reedy pill; she has no use for Nick other than as a money-making protector, and her characterization is thin and clichéd. But Rica! Valentina Cortese was just one of those actresses who smoldered at her very core, and she turns Rica into one of the great sexually aggressive women of the 1940s cinema. She is vital and alive in all the ways that Polly is not. In the film's single most memorable moment, she scratches out a tic-tac-toe board on his naked pectorals with her sharp fingernails, and they play a quick game. How this got past the censors, I'll never know, but it works beyond imagining to establish instantly their perfect chemistry. And Rica, who is constantly verbally tied to the street and not just as "streetwalker," is the embodiment of the urban poor. She is real in a way that the suburban princess Polly cannot even begin to imagine.

This core premise that America finds comfort on the suffering of the anonymous masses finds a more pervasive and subtler embodiment in Nick himself, and his delivery truck of all things. Nick, of course, was in the armed forces, during and after the war; yet he's given no respect for it. And his truck is a decommisioned army supply vehicle that hasn't even been repainted. The sight of an apple delivery truck with the US Army star painted on its doors is mildly comic at first, but every time we see it, it's a little bit less so, until we finally understand the point, that this is what the war veteran has been reduced to in a postwar America - even more tragically in this age because we know what Dassin didn't that WWII was actually the legitimate last war in which Americans fought for our own safety. The apple-eaters don't care about the GI driving the army truck. They just want the Golden Delicious. Sacrifice is for other people.

It's not a movie if there isn't some terrible flaw that gnaws at the whole edifice, and Thieves' Highway obliges with one of the cheapest cop-out endings in any film noir I can immediately name. We must not blame Dassin and Bezzerides, who both strongly objected, but Darryl Zanuck and the Fox machine, who crudely shoved a pair of final scenes that serves to endorse the status quo and flatten the film's pungent sexual energy. Wherever the blame lies, these scenes don't work. At all. And they undo much of the film's effectiveness to that point.

Even so, there's the rest of the 94 minutes to consider, and Lord above is there ever a lot to consider there. I've looked at only one thread of the film, and it's a good thread, but this is straight up a brilliant noir, with one of the most hard-boiled heroes in that genre to that point, and I tend to wonder if it might be essentially inexhaustible. This is American filmmaking at its finest.

20 April 2007

THIS FILM'S NOT MUCH ON REAR WINDOW ETHICS

There's a great big gulf separating "this Gen-Y riff on Rear Window is not nearly so bad as I expected" and "this Gen-Y riff on Rear Window is in fact good," but you take what you can get from a movie like Disturbia, which in addition to its eye-rolling premise ("a Gen-Y riff on Rear Window") possesses one of the most obnoxious titles in the 112-year history of American filmmaking.

The parts of the film that work - and yes, I kind of do mean, the parts of the film that don't not work - are surprisingly due mostly to the presence of Shia LaBeouf. It was not long ago at all that, thanks to Bobby and The Battle of Shaker Heights, I mostly hated this kid. Then, he had an interview in which he delivered the greatest quote in the history of celebrity puff pieces:
"To go from Emilio Estevez to Michael Bay is like walking out of, you know, like in a hammock in the sky, hanging out drinking Pina Coladas with Jesus and then getting smacked in the face and thrown in the devil’s shitpile and having to make a movie. I swear to God."
Now, comparing Emilio Estevez to Jesus is patent absurdity, but calling the set of a Michael Bay film "the devil's shitpile" and mentioning that he's only making Transformers for the exposure? That's gold. And yes, it does make him sound like an utter douchebag, but let us not ask that actors try to be more than God made them.

So, here's what this arrogant little man brings to Disturbia: he takes a completely gormless character who behaves in ways that are not recognizably human, and turns him into somebody that you'd more or less accept at face value if ever you encountered him in life. It helps considerably that LaBeouf has such a damn soft baby face that makes him look far younger than his twenty years, or even his character's seventeen. He really does appear to be a kid playing at being a grown-up, and that makes some of the more dizzying flights from realism that plague the story (especially in the third act) sort of kind of easy to swallow.

The other pretty good performance is David Morse as the film's villain. Morse is one of my favorite examples of the "actor who is better than every single one of his roles," and he classes up a standard-issue sarcastic psychopath by subscribing to the less-is-more school of thinking: he hardly ever speaks over a conversational whisper, and even during the film's inevitable climactic chase in the dark, he doesn't really scream, and when he says something barbarously typical like, "I wish you weren't making me do this," damned if you can't actually hear a note of apology in his voice. It's not unlike Anthony Hopkins's default "psycho" setting, if Hopkins weren't a drag queen.

The rest of the cast, not so memorable. As Shia's mom, Carrie-Anne Moss is totally wasted. It's not that she's not good in the role, it's that there's no role for her to be good in; it's a plot element, a human-shaped narrative chunk that exists solely to bat our hero around aimlessly. The rest of the young people - Sarah Roemer as the love interest and Aaron Yoo as the wacky friend - are hopeless, and not just hopeless in the sense that I don't think they quite have a handle on their characters, hopeless in the sense that they haven't quite mastered the art of reciting dialogue.

I'd really intended not to let this turn into a whole "versus Rear Window" thing, but it's hard as hell not to. I'm going to go a little controversial here, and propose that Alfred Hitchcock was pretty good at directing movies. As everybody who has ever read film criticism knows, he made Rear Window a referendum on gossip, voyeurism and the act of watching movies themselves. The slightly ridiculous conceit of the film - a wheelchair-bound photographer decides to become an amateur detective - is obliterated by the way that the film scrutinizes our cultural obsession with the way that other people live. (Do you think it is a mistake that when we first see Grace Kelly, it is on the cover of a LIFEesque magazine? No, I don't either). Speculating on whether or not our neighbor is a killer is just another degree of wondering if that couple is having good sex or not.

To the credit of screenwriters Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth, Disturbia kind of swings for a 2000s version of that theme. Many, many internet-generation toys and technologies are name-dropped and depicted, with admirable specificity: iTunes, Xbox Live, camera phones, mock ringtones and so forth (specificity not necessarily implying accuracy: "I cancelled your iTunes!" ...well, okay then). There are some indications that Kale's (LaBeouf) turn to spying and sleuthing is related to his generational difficulty in dealing with people through any means other than beeping digital junk.

But that thread is left for dead after a very small portion of the film's running time, and director D.J. Caruso never seems to have much of a handle on it, anyway. Frankly, Caruso never seems to have much of a handle on anything. It's a slack movie with erratic pacing and leaden scare moments that come along at the most predictable moments with the precision of Noh theater. I allow myself to wonder if the film might have a more discernable arc of rising dread for those members of the audience who have not seen Rear Window, but to merely acknowledge that some people might see Disturbia who have never seen Rear Window fills me with an acidic bitterness that makes it hard to breathe.

I wouldn't call the film "dull," exactly, but it's very hard to get around how much it ambles along without any real sense of urgency. Too much time is devoted to frivolous character moments that don't enhance the plot, and don't work to flesh out the characters, whose psychology is determined largely by the two word phrase that would describe them on a tarot card (The Pretty Girl; The Goofball; The Hardass Cop), and whose performers are generally not up to the rigorous standards of acting like people. Disturbia just kind of happens all over the screen, and then it stops, and then you go out for a pee.

6/10

(Also, the opening sequence, in which a father and son fly-fish, couldn't possibly feel more like a Coca-Cola commercial, and to be honest a more successful one than the Coca-Cola Company has been producing of late).

19 April 2007

AT LONG LAST

(I think you will not find that it has been worth the wait).

Like many Americans, my exposure to the films of Paul Verhoeven has been...limited. And like most Americans, I've been woefully underimpressed by the likes of Total Recall and Hollow Man. But I am not afraid to admit that I can make terrible mistakes, and it seems I've made one in underestimating the good Mr. Verhoeven, who as it turns out can direct a film that's not just good, but great. As long as it's not in English.

The film that brought me to this realization: Black Book, a fact-based story of the Dutch resistance in World War II, and a right rip-snorting old-fashioned one at that. Of course, no old-fashioned WWII film would have quite this much female nudity, including a fantastically Verhoevian shot of a woman bleaching her pubic hair with peroxide, but that is the nature of progress.

The film centers on Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish woman living in hiding in Holland during the waning days of the Nazi regime. Without giving away too many notes of the deliciously melodramatic screenplay, she ends up joining the Resistance in the capital, where she is set up as the personal secretary to the head of the local Gestapo, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). This being a Verhoeven film, that is, the work of a dyed-in-the-wool satirist, we find out in due course that Müntze is just about the least anti-Semitic person in Holland, that given the chance, members of the Resistance are just thrilled with the chance to do some Fascist dictating of their own, and that the 20th Century was really an unpleasant time to be Jewish.

It's understandable that people want to fixate on the edgier aspects of the film, the "hey, that Nazi's a swell guy. I really hope she ends up with that Nazi" aspects. The "Jesus Christ, the newly freed Dutch are celebrating by pouring buckets of human shit all over their POWs" aspects, and let me tell you, nothing reminds you that you're watching a film by Paul Verhoeven quicker than the bucket of shit.

But that's not what we're here to talk about right now. I'd instead like to focus on how perfectly Black Book works as a potboiler. We don't much go for setting thrillers in World War II anymore in this country; thanks to Brokaw, Spielberg and the rest of the Greatest Generation pimps, any film set between 1941 and 1945 absolutely must be dour and joyless, so as not to interfere with the deeply serious contemplation of What Men Lose In War. When was the last WWII film that could honestly be called "fun"?

Happily, Black Book is a great deal of fun. It follows a noble tradition of thrillers for grown-up people (another subgenre that's long been out of fashion in this country), freely mixing genuine sexiness with real-world tension with exceptionally twisty cloak-and-dagger intrigue with an exceptionally well-detailed view of the Resistance. The best part is that it does all of this without ever flagging: the first scene opens to noise and chaos, and there will never be a moment when the film's energy drops, when it takes a break from constantly moving forward. The two and a half hour running time flies by, as even the tiniest scenes are wracked with suspense.

I suppose I've always known that Verhoeven is a strong filmmaker. The monstrous screenplay failures of nearly all of his American films - I will cheerfully except RoboCop, and grudgingly do the same for Starship Troopers - distorts the reality that the director is a truly gifted pop-trash artist, wallowing in gore and sex and bad taste not because he is exploitative, but because of the vitality of those things. It's easy to find Black Book distasteful for its melodrama, and its shocking contrarianism, and the generally shoddy way the director treats his lead actress, but to me the film positively vibrates with life because of those very elements. Good taste leads to airless artifacts to be studied and contemplated, but bad taste spills off the screen into the theater; it engages us and confronts us with an ugly humanity that is nevertheless unnervingly human.

By using the Holocaust as the setting for a "mere thriller," Verhoeven and his co-writer Gerard Soeteman are breaking a significant taboo just as much as Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas did in the '90s, only with considerably more finesse and less gaudy trappings. A significant part of the "thrill" in the thriller is because we know how fucked up it is to watch a Nazi and a Jew fall in love.

I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't note that the final half-hour goes some rather different places. It grows naturally and inevitably out of what precedes it; but after the war is over, the tone switches and the moral element of the story is brought to the fore. The subtle hints that the Dutch are not particularly good people become outright plot points, and the film boils itself down to one cold theme: everybody sucks. Amazingly, it manages to do this without become draggy or unpleasant. Indeed, it does this without sacrificing the melodramatic thriller elements that have previously characterized the film; and the fact that we're laughing at the venality of the post-occupation society, rather than crying at it is simply another way in which the filmmakers draw meaning out of our own "inappropriate" reaction to their movie.

Spoilers are bad, so I can't describe the final scene. But it is important, because it is the first time that the thriller tone and the general excitement are stripped away. Without getting into particulars, I will say only that it is a black joke unto itself, reminding us that the rollicking good time we've just had was rooted in the slaughter of innocents, and that slaughter still goes on. When wars end, violence doesn't stop; it just becomes that much harder to recognize your enemies.

9/10

17 April 2007

WHAT BLACK BOOK REVIEW?

I lied a little bit.

But tomorrow, mark my words...ah, fuck it.

Apartment-hunting is God's way of saying how much he hates us.

SO HURTY IT FUNS

I think that it is easiest to begin with a statement that is probably objectively true: you will like Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters if you liked the parent series; and the more you like that show, the more you will like the feature.

To go any further is the get caught very quickly in the thickets of personal taste, and the thorny matter of surrealism. Or absurdism. Or both. This is hardly surprising; surrealism is a hallmark of the Adult Swim cartoon family (of which the series ATHF is a founding member) in general, and the Williams Street studios in particular.

This isn't Adult Swim, however; it's the multiplex, and that makes the experience of watching ATHFCMFFT (I promise not to do that again) very, very different from the series: it is perhaps more rewarding and unquestionably much harder.

There's no way around this simple fact: 11 minutes is much shorter than 86 minutes. A single episode of the show is something like a hit-and-run assault of free-form lunacy; the audience is quite ravaged by the experience, but it's over almost as soon as it's begun. There's not really much chance to ponder how bizarre the concept and execution are during the episode, only after it's finished. The movie is altogether a different beast: after a little while, it becomes quite impossible to just go along for the ride and one inevitably begins to think about what the hell is going on.

What the hell is going on, for the tragically uninitiated, is this: a milkshake named Master Shake, a hovering box of fries named Frylock and a meatball named Meatwad all live together in a dingy New Jersey suburban home, next door to the ill-tempered Carl Brutananadilewski, occasionally troubling themselves to save the world. In the particular case of this film, they are pitted against an unspeakably ancient and evil piece of exercise equipment, whose creation and purpose are mysteriously tied in with the half-dozen or so origin stories for the Aqua Teens themselves. That's really giving the plot more emphasis than it deserves. The film, as the series, is more properly regarded as a series of ephemeral gags ranging from the pop-cultural-satirical to the scatological, and often to the flat-out absurd.

On television, this comes off as...well, not "normal," but maybe something like "normalized." After all, TV is an inherently surreal medium. I'm not at all the first person to point out what a strange thing it is to have this electronic box that shows eight minutes of a narrative program followed by three minutes of thirty-second short films. Mighty tomes have been written on the nature of television's "flow," and I only differ from the majority in that I view this as an unambiguously undesirable state of things.

Compared to novels and movies and plays, television doesn't make a lick of goddamn sense. Most of us have been trained since birth to decode the medium, and I suspect that most of us are pretty good at ignoring the advertisements completely. Then again, there is the matter of TiVo, blessed be its name, which draws close to turning all television into the premium cable ideal of the uninterrupted program.

The point, though, is that TV is still a medium of profound fluidity, tiny units running one into the other. In this way, the stream-of-consciousness surrealism of Aqua Teen Hunger Force is the most natural thing in the world, a ten-minute distillation of the whole TV experience. It doesn't stand out as being unusually "weird" in a formal sense.

The movie is a different beast altogether. In general, the cinematic flow is self-contained and ordered; in most non-experimental films every moment is designed to be seen in the context of every other moment. There is a very narrow history of films that subscribe to the ATHF model of eschewing narrative completely in favor of a string of disconnected gags and incidents. Even the Monty Python films, for all that they are skits strung on a throughline, are more rigorously plotted than this. Frankly, the ATHF feature is the most pure surrealism I've ever seen in the English-language cinema: its precursors are the films of Luis Buñuel, if anything.

In other words, while the series stands out because of its content, the movie stands out because of its structure, and returning to what I said earlier, the audience has more of a chance to reflect on this because of the film's duration. In practical terms, this means that there's a long stretch in the middle where there isn't a whole lot of laughing going on. It's not because the movie isn't funny, per se. It's more like an experience I had once when trying to watch every episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus (the high water mark of televised surrealism): there came a point when I was tired of laughing, and I began responding to the goings-on with a very clinical, detached consideration of "ah, that is funny," and breaking down in my mind the reasons why. It took the Pythons some 12 hours to put me in that state; Maiellaro and Willis get the job done in thirty minutes.

The film is very, very funny; and it is very, very exhausting. I am extremely grateful that it's not any longer than 86 minutes. I feel I should go back to where I began: if you like the show, you will like the film. There is no meaningful difference between the types of jokes, although the film does occasionally play with the "epic" quality of a movie versus a TV episode in moments like the early title card, "Ancient Egypt, Thousands of Years Ago, 3 PM, 1492, New York," or the literally breathtaking opening sequence, which I will not spoil save to say that I haven't laughed with such fulfillment at a movie in a long time.

Nor will I spoil anything else. Honestly, it's not that hard to figure out if this is your cup of tea or not. If you think you'll like it, you almost certainly will.

8/10

16 April 2007

APOLOGIES ALL 'ROUND

I beg your pardons, all of you. Apartment hunting has kept me out 'til this dreadful hour, and I haven't the time or energy to properly review a film. But there will be, mark my words, TWO reviews tomorrow. A sneak peek:

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters: funny but exhausting.

Black Book: a grand old-fashioned war picture like your grandma used to make. Only with a pubic hair dyeing scene.

15 April 2007

I WANT TO LICK EVERY INCH OF YOU

For a simple gangster film, I find that there are almost too many angles by which one could discuss John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday. But one must start somewhere, and I shall start here: this is a film much concerned with keeping as much information from the audience as possible.

At the most basic level, this takes place on the level of plot: the screenplay by Barrie Keeffe opens, if not quite in medias res, far enough along in the plot that we don't quite have any idea what's going on until details are revealed sometimes far along the road. We know instinctively that the gruff Cockney businessman Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) is up to something not quite good from the moment we first see him swaggering down the halls of Heathrow Airport, but we have no idea what that is. At a cocktail reception he hosts later on for an American businessman, we see many people whose histories are unknown to us discussing the big development project Harold has planned for a certain portion of the riverfront, but the details of this plan are only hinted at. As the film progresses, we quickly learn that Harold is a gangster and the partygoers are the city officials in his pocket, and we later on learn that his great scheme is to build a state-of-the-art entertainment district in an attempt to draw the Olympic games to London. All of the film's exposition follows this model, in which the audience has no context for names or places and simply tries to juggle information until some tossed-off line provides an anchor for entire plot threads. It's exposition the hard way, which is to say, the way I like it.

As if it weren't enough that we have no idea what's going on, we also have no idea where; Mackenzie deliberately avoids establishing shots for most of the film, and we are constantly thrust into physical locations that seem to have no connection to each other or to London itself. The opening of the film takes place in a house in a field at sunrise; we never find out where this is, nor are we ever really told what goes on inside. While this is an extreme case, it's typical of the film's progression, in which action often takes place in previously undefined spaces that just seem to pop up as needed.

This is a bold and brilliant way to structure a film that is essentially the story of a man who needs information and can't find it. Harold is a big deal, perhaps the biggest gangster in London, perhaps the single force guiding the entire British underworld, and in two days - Good Friday and Holy Saturday - his empire cracks apart because of a series of apparently unmotivated attacks by persons unknown. We the audience are generally privy to a bit more information than Harold, but the trade-off, to ensure that we are ultimately just as much in the dark, is that we have to construct the film's society through randomly distributed scraps. Watching The Long Good Friday is, after a fashion, very much like living through it.

The next layer of the film - and I'm not going to pretend this is at all a natural progression from thought to thought - and then I'm going to call attention to it using the compound sentence from hell - annoyed yet? - is its religious element. Obviously a film with "Good Friday" in its title isn't particularly afraid of making sure the audience gets the Christian symbolism, but The Long Good Friday goes one step further, featuring a car bomb outside of a church and a man nailed to the ground by his palms. That's just for the literally-minded, though. For even when it's not dabbling in Mel Gibson-style anvil dropping, the film functions as bizarre religious allegory.

Good Friday is, of course, the commemoration of the suffering and death of Jesus as the culmination of his adoption of the sins of all mankind. On the particular Good Friday in the film, we see another man suffering because of his ambition to leave the world a better place. Not that Harold Shand is a Christ-figure, for God's sake; he's a murdering criminal with a bestial need for revenge. But he is a sort of funhouse-mirror distortion. His great project is not undertaken for personal gain, but because of his fervent wish to create a better future for his beloved London. He detests anarchy and violence for his own sake, and as his empire spins entirely out of control, his cry of anguish is that the ten years of peace he was instrumental in creating have broken down. Not that he doesn't get a fair cut of profit from the peace and urban growth; but it's not at all clear that this is his primary motivation.

It's probably a stretch to call The Long Good Friday a parody of Christianity, but its representation of Christ's modern-day doppelganger as a grubby little crimelord is certainly compelling. The way that the IRA is worked in first, as background noise and then as a full-fledged plot point, ties into this - after all, the explicit difference between the Irish and the English is religious above all else, and serves to reinforce, rather than deny, that the Christian religion in the modern world is a bit grubby and bloodstained itself.

So much else to talk about, that I just can't get to! Ah, well, that's the sign of a great movie. But it wouldn't do to wrap up an exploration of The Long Good Friday without paying the proper obeisance to the two Olympic figures who reign over the film, which is my hackneyed way of saying that Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren are both fucking fantastic. Mirren has the much the smaller role, of course, playing Harold's diametrically-opposed girlfriend Victoria, well-spoken, upper-class (she jokes, or perhaps tells the truth, about going to school with Princess Anne) and diplomatic where Harold is crude, lowly and violent. It's a bit hard to tell where the script ends and the performance begins, but that's always true of Mirren; and her carriage in the role is so perfect and commanding that you never permit yourself to stop and wonder how exactly a woman like this ended up with a man like that. She ended up where she did because in Mirren's performance, that is exactly where she is required.

But it's Hoskins's movie all the way. This was his first film lead, after his breakthrough in Dennis Potter's miniseries Pennies from Heaven, and he owns it like he'd been acting since the moment he first drew breath. It's terribly easy to say that an actor "disappears" into a role, but it fits here perfectly. There is not a trace of acting on screen; no sense that a man is playing at being a gangster. There is only the gangster, and while I still wouldn't call it the actor's finest moment (that would be in the grossly under-appreciated Mona Lisa), it is nothing shy of total perfection. The Long Good Friday rests entirely upon Harold and his response to the world, and Harold is above all else a triumph of Bob Hoskins. It's a spiritual thing to see a performance this good, I tells ya.

12 April 2007

ZOMBIES & TITS

The confluence of Easter and Grindhouse was not easy for me to ignore. Which is why, in looking for this week's classic movie review (and as it turns out, "classic" is used here in the loosest possible definition), I had two criteria:

-That, in honor of Easter, the movie involved resurrection from the dead.

-That, in honor of Grindhouse, the movie was sleazy.

So basically, I had to find a sleazy zombie movie, and while there are many films that meet that definition, there is one that stands above all the rest in its infamy. Anyone who reviews movies on the web and loves crappy exploitation films encounters this one eventually: Le lac des morts vivants.

Or as it's better known in this country, Zombie Lake. Or sometimes Zombies' Lake. But I thought that if I started with the French title, it might at least seem kind of respectable for a moment or two.

There is at least a small possibility that Zombie Lake is the worst film I have ever seen. Somehow, that doesn't quite fit - the worst film of all time ought to be an agony to live through, and Zombie Lake is just too shithouse crazy to meet that definition. But it is just about the most incompetent film I've ever seen. And thereon hangs a tale.

(Every review ever of this film is karmically required to include this narrative. And the great bulk of reviews are also required to point out that every other review ever already did so).

Jesus Franco is one of the truly notorious names in European exploitation cinema. According to the IMDb, he has directed 188 films - the true number is undoubtedly higher - among them such legends as The Awful Dr. Orloff, Vampyros Lesbos, A Virgin Among the Living Dead, and Female Vampire aka Erotikill akaThe Bare-Breasted Countess aka The Loves of Irina (depending on which of the many competing cuts you're watching), which is to say: here is a man who knows how to direct absolute trash.

So it's no small matter that when he was asked to write and directed a film for Eurociné, from a story by Julián Esteban, he refused on the grounds that the budget was too small. He did, however, write the script for them.

Enter Jean Rollin, no slouch himself in the exploitation circuit (his specialty was vampire lesbian porn, and I am so happy that I found a reason to type that phrase that I'm going to do it a couple of more times just for the hell of it: vampire lesbian porn, vampire lesbian porn). He was happy enough to take Eurociné's money to turn Franco's script into something more or less resembling a movie, but the end result was so appalling to his sensibilities that he had his name replaced with the pseudonym "J.A. Lazer."

Let's make sure everybody got that: Zombie Lake was an embarrassment to a director noted for his vampire lesbian porn.

Awesome!

Here is how the film that so humilated Jean Rollin begins: there are shots of nature and a bit of relentlessly cheesy muzak plays as a brunette woman (no name, and the actress is uncredited) walks to a gazebo on the shore of a lake. She glances around, and doffs her clothes, and before the 1:20 mark, we have our first full-frontal nudity, and I say first, because that is of of course one of the things that Zombie Lake is chiefly known for: lots and lots and lots of naked women.

In one of my favorite moments of the entire film, she pulls out a tiny pair of blue shorts, looks around and tosses them behind her. Why, do you ask, do I love this moment? Because it is desperately honest, I reply. If the purpose here were to make an actual zombie movie, the woman's nudity would just be a thing, without stress or comment. But Rollin teases us by threatening to take the nudity away, and then jokingly reassuring that, no worries, there's the naked lady. See? Still naked. Parading endless nude women is the cheapest and easiest way to keep asses in theater seats, and Rollin makes it impossibly clear that he's not interested in anything but the bare minimum in this instant. Shortly thereafter, the woman is sunning on a log in the lake, and we cut to a close-up pan across her body as the music swells into a choir-like crescendo. This is all before the two-minute mark.

It's an old cliché that if a movie has nudity in the first five minutes, it's not a porno, and that's entirely true of Zombie Lake, a film in which the naked female form is ogled with gynaecological precision, but without any trace of lust. The camera moves over the woman's body without any grace, and the lighting is completely flat - no sculpting to accentuate the shape of her body. I think that it is not possible to be sexually excited by this footage, unless you are teenaged or in prison.

Anyway, the vaginidyll is cut short by the presence of a green man with clay over his left eye, watching from the lake bed. This is our first glimpse of the film's zombie population, and, well:

You see, that's the other thing the movie is noted for: really, really, really bad zombie make-up. Here's another, better image to show what I mean:

(and I'm sorry that the images are a bit dark).

Is it fair to judge a movie that Jess Franco refused to direct because the budget was too small for the poverty of its zombie effects? No, it is not. But it is fair to judge it for how goddamn little the cast and crew seemed to care about what they were doing. Time for another screenshot!

Yes indeed, that is a little plastic tube filled with stage blood you see at the bottom of the frame. No, it is not part of the Nazi costume. That is what the good folks at the IMDb call a "revealing mistake." And you don't get to blame that on the low budget. I can think of one and only one way for a cock-up like that to make it into the final cut of a movie (and it's not just a flash, you can see it for something like two and a half seconds), and it goes something like this:

JEAN ROLLIN: "Okay, cut, print that, let's move on."

THE ACTOR: "Wait, the camera was rolling?"

THE CINEMATOGRAPHER: "I'm sorry, Mr. Rollin, I think you could see the blood tube at the bottom of the frame."

JEAN ROLLIN: "Fuck that, let's go for the next take. Who stole my bottle of vodka?"

Except in French.

And what the hell, here's another one. And again, dark screen grab, which I have only been able to see properly on 50% of the computers I've used to write this post:

If you can't quite make it out, what you're looking at is the bottom of the lake, with a giant blue tarp hanging over the back wall. Hey! Lakes don't have walls! Swimming pools do, though! And why someone thought that hanging a tarp over the wall of a pool would magically make it look like the bottom of a lake is a mystery that I, for one, cannot answer.

The other thing that a low budget cannot excuse is the excessively terrible story, which goes a little bit something like this: after the naked swimmer and another woman die, the residents of Small French Village, led by The Mayor (Howard Vernon, a hero of the Eurotrash exploitation genre) realize that the dark secret from the past has come to take revenge. What is that dark secret? Well, as The Mayor tells the helpfully clueless Katya (Gilda Arancio), a reporter who drifted in because to report on the killings...

During World War II, the village was a Resistance stronghold. One day, the world's smallest Nazi patrol (one jeep, six soldiers) stopped by, and one of the Germans made passionate, explicit, direly unerotic love to a local woman. The Germans were forced out by a combination of sound effects and stock footage, and the local woman learned she was pregnant. Flash forward a few months, and the world's smallest Nazi patrol returns to retake the village. They fail bad, and their bodies are tossed in the town's lake, called the Lake of Ghosts.

Here's where things get fun. The Mayor and a couple of other locals are present in the flashback, looking just exactly like they do in the late '70s. And it most certainly must be the late '70s, to judge from the clothing and VW bus and black dudes with Afros. Yet, when we meet the young girl, Helena (played by the delightfully named Anouchka), she is eleven years old. Time folds in on itself, and the world collapses. And yet Zombie Lake, like the cockroaches, survives the apocalypse.

Anyway, the aquatic Nazi zombies have gotten very bold in their attacks, leading to the film's two greatest scenes, right next to each other. First, they take down a whole team of women basketball players who decide for no apparent reason to play naked volleyball in the lake. Accompanied by music that I couldn't find anywhere on the internet, but it's full of women singing "la-la-la," and sounds exactly like the music that you'd expect out of a parody of a Swedish porn film, which is basically what this sequence is.

Then! Helena is sitting alone in her room when her zombie daddy walks in. They recognize each other instantly and have a lovely bonding moment.

This is juuust about the halfway point of the movie, and for the next forty minutes, here is generally what happens:

-The sole survivor of the basketball team runs topless into a bar screaming about zombies, faints, and is carried up by three young men, presumably to be raped.

-The zombies attack random people.

-The Mayor frets.

-Helena comes up with a plan to stop the zombies. It involves matter-of-factly asking The Mayor for a bucket of fresh blood.

-They stop the zombies.

-Helena has one howler of a final line, on par with "Nobody's perfect" in the pantheon of great final lines, and I'm not remotely willing to spoil it.

Zombie Lake is a perfect storm of bad movie. It is truly stupid, as any movie whose primary arc is the story of a Nazi zombie and his little girl bonding before she kills him must necessarily be. It is truly crass, sticking nudity in wherever it can possibly fit, and giving the world classy images like this one:

And it is, above all other things, truly incompetent. What year is it? Don't care. Make-up? Whatever. This was a film made by a team of seeming professionals who had palpable loathing for the project, and treated every frame with disdain. Not even the films of Ed Wood evince such a low threshold of mere craftsmanship as Zombie Lake. It is manna from the gods of bad movies, and I cannot recommend it highly enough, given two important points: you are not alone, and you have plenty of booze.

A last note: I was alone, and I was sober, when I re-watched this film for this review. And it hurt, but this is the respect that I hold for you, my readers (of course, I just made you read a review of Zombie Lake, which suggests that I do not respect you at all). But I did watch the DVD's original French language track, which does not include subtitles, and I found that only following every few words of dialogue made the film so much easier to stand, I can't tell you.