31 July 2007

CHECK, PLEASE

How can you possibly be disappointed by a film like No Reservations? It doesn't lie about what it is, not for a moment. "Alright kids, here's Catherine Zeta-Jones being statuesque! Here's Aaron Eckhart being goofy and charming! Here's Abigail Breslin being so damn cute! And it's all set in a kitchen!"

On the other hand, not being disappointed by a film is in no way, shape or form the same thing as finding that movie enjoyable. It just means that you have no right to expect it to be anything that it is not, such as humorous or sincere. Because it's clearly not going to be those things.

I mean to say, that when I declare that No Reservations is insulting, condescending, unimaginative and trite, I blame myself for all of those things. I should have known better and I did know better, and I saw it anyway.

It must be said that as a cinematic construction, there is nothing "bad" about the movie, nothing whatsoever. It is a product of the sort of steely, soulless competence that marks so very many films as the work of professionals who view this as a job, not an art form. It's not that director Scott Hicks is evil, or that his ideas are beneath contempt; he is on hand to make a film that specifically will not challenge or enlighten anyone. He is supposed to make sure that the script happens in front of the camera, and that is why there is not a single shot that you haven't seen in another film. Not a better film, necessarily - just another film that is probably just like this one.

Of course, there's a reason for that, which is that movies like No Reservations are not made for people who attend to things like direction and editing, people who describe the cinematography in a movie and know what they're talking about. These movies are brief distractions, stories that are meant to entertain an undemanding audience for precisely as long as the film's running time and no more. That is the level upon which they should be dealt with.

So how is this story? Just as uninflected and workmanlike as the craftsmanship, I'm afraid. Our heroine is Kate (Zeta-Jones), one of New York's top chefs at a small French restaurant owned by Paula (Patricia Clarkson). Kate has a sister who dies tragically, leaving a terribly darling niece, Zoe (Breslin), who moves in with her aunt, leading to all sorts of fraughtness involving Kate's natural lack of rapport with children. Or other human beings, as evidenced by the way she completely botches meeting the starstruck new sous chef Nick (Eckhart), who wants her body almost as much as he wants to learn the secrets of her sauces.

It is a foreboding thing when a film will not deign to give any of its characters surnames, but at least all those fare better than Kate's unnamed therapist (Bob Balaban), whose primary role in the film is to assure us that yes, Kate's cooking is that damn good.

It's a remake of the well-regarded 2001 German film Mostly Martha, which I should have seen by now but for the combined efforts of Netflix and the US Postal Service to make my life more difficult than it should be. I realize that the Europeans have been progressively moving towards an Americanized cinema of meaningless rom-coms, but it's still a little dispiriting to think that something this mechanical has its roots in the once-proud national cinema of Murnau and Herzog, Lang and Wenders. On the other hand, mechanisms can be thrilling to watch if they're built well and their operation is smooth and effortless. In the case of No Reservations, that would have required instantly lovable characters whom we identify with and want to see happy.

It does and it doesn't. Here's the big problem I had with No Reservations, far more than its simple, deterministic plot: I really quite liked Kate at the start, when she was snappish and authoritarian and lived every moment for her kitchen, rather than at the end, when she's eating pizza on the floor underneath a bedsheet tent with Charming Manmeat and The Delicate Waif.

A woman whose single drive is to be the most perfect chef she can be, who dedicates her days and nights to running a kitchen whose every product is the stuff of magic; she is not a woman that we should automatically call "unhappy" because she lacks a scruffy-haired pixie boy and a child. It seems to me that Kate is doing pretty damn fine for herself, actually, and I'm not interested in calling "sexism" on the film, but I am quite annoyed by its litany of urgent suggestions that professional success cannot conceivably lead to a fulfilled life. It's obvious that Kate is proud of the work that she and her team do, and for the movie to shake its finger and reply that no, family is the only thing that matters, this is to treat the audience like children.

It doesn't help that Kate is being played by Zeta-Jones, an imposing and beautiful woman who, if she ever possessed the ability to seem unsatisfied, lost it years ago. In most of her roles, she has the mere ghost of a shit-eating grin pretty much nonstop, and in this particular film that reads as, she likes her life and she likes being able to throw tantrums occasionally.

It also doesn't help that Nick is mostly a jerk. We meet him after he has shut down the kitchen to show off his knowledge of "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot (see, I can do it too), and this is meant to suggest that he is a free spirit, and not just flighty. He gets the traditional romantic-comedy "he's not a stalker because he's so gosh-darned earnest" exemption, and he wears goddamn Crocs in the kitchen, bright orange Crocs that, when I first saw them, just ripped me out of the movie, and it didn't help that my seatmate leaned over at that exact moment to whisper, "he's wearing Crocs." Yes he is. And it makes me want to punch him in the face. If nothing else, this demonstrates that Aaron Eckhart should not play nice men, because he wears "smarmy jerk" around him like a shroud. I'm certain he's a wonderful human being in real life, but that's not what I want to see onscreen.

So thank God for Abigal Breslin, who is just one great role away from being, legitimately, one of the great working actresses. I said it in the case of Little Miss Sunshine, and I'll say it again: she's not just good for a kid, she's good, period, and in this particular case she rips the film right away from her grown-up costars. When Breslin can capture the twisting nuances of grief and survivor's guilt enough to make your stomach knot up in a movie wherein Catherine Zeta-Jones never even cries convincingly, says something. It says primarily, "Abigail Breslin's agent needs to pick better scripts," but when you can legitimately say of an 11-year-old that you'll see her next picture just because she is in it, that means something.

Lastly: thank God as well for Philip Glass, who takes the bubbly notes of every unnoticed comedy film score ever composed, and fits them into his own, very unmistakable idiom. It's a bizarre fit, to be sure, like listening to "Also Sprach Zarathustra" on a mouth harp, but it's weird enough to be extremely compelling and engaging.

5/10

AUGUST 2007 MOVIE PREVIEW

Every summer, people bitch about how it was the worst summer for movies ever. I'm not going to do that. But I will say that it's the worst summer since 2004, in which Spider-Man 2 was the single bright light in a field of I, Robots and Troys and Catwomans.

Although there was also The Bourne Supremacy. And Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. So I don't know, maybe this was the worst summer ever.

Anyway, to my point: it's not impossible for August to redeem a whole season. Let us cross our fingers.

3.8.2007
If my count is right, The Bourne Ultimatum is the fifth "third film" of the summer, and I've gotten a little singed from the way that I've been consistently let down, so I will not allow my deep affection for the first two convince me that this will be totally awesome. It's taking some effort.

Standing in diametric opposition: Underdog, which looks like it will be high in the running for the coveted "worst film of the summer" trophy. I think that the only positive aspect of this film's opening will be that I won't have to see that damn trailer with Jason Lee voicing the (live action!) dog any more.

In El Cantante, J-Lo and Marc Antony make a vanity film biopic, and the hearts of all true Bad Movie fans flutter in anticipation. And if that's not enough hott biography axxxion for you, Anne Hathaway of Brooklyn stars as Jane Austen in Shakespeare in Love: Only with "Pride and Prejudice" Instead. Mean Girls gets remade as a tie-in to some hideous anorexic dolls with Bratz. And then there is a literal Will Ferrell cast-off, Hot Rod, designed as a trial run for the bright young thing Andy Samberg, whose name should apparently fill me with delight, if only I had a clue who he was. I'll give him bonus points for all but admitting that the reason the film sucks is that the studio specifically told him they didn't want it to be good.

7.8.2007
Flash! Ah-a! Saviour of the universe!
Flash! Ah-a! He'll save every one of us!


8.8.2007
Daddy Day Camp. I don't have the fortitude to deal with the implications of this film's existence.

10.8.2007
You know how many films Chris Tucker has been in since 2001's Rush Hour 2? That's right, zero! And do you know how much money he's making for Rush Hour 3? That's right, $25,000,000! God bless Hollywood.

Chipper indie comedy: Rocket Science. Neutered werewolf film that wasn't going to be good anyway, now on its third release date: Skinwalkers. Latest doomed attempt to make Neil Gaiman work on film: Stardust, starring everybody who exists. I should confess to really liking the source novel, as indeed I like everything that he has touched; for I am well and truly a nerd.

17.8.2007
Reasons to be excited about The Invasion: director Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall was a flat-out masterpiece; Daniel Craig is still in the honeymoon period following Casino Royale; Nicole Kidman is always easy on the eyes, although her acting is inconsistent, to be nice about it.

Reasons not to be excited about The Invasion: once the the studio gets through with it, there won't be much of Hirschbiegel's film left; if there are any more remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, they'll need their own section at Blockbuster.

Reasons to be excited about Superbad: Michael Cera! Seth Rogen! McLovin! Michael Cera! Michael Cera saying "fuck!"

Reasons not to be excited about Superbad: ...um...there must be something. I mean, the title is kind of stupid.

Also, The Last Legion: Colin Firth in a Roman warrior epic. I suppose it shall be both as bad and as hot as one would expect.

24.8.2007
WAR! Huh! Good God, y'all. What is it good for? Absolutely giving Jason Statham another chance at long-deserved stardom! Say it again!

Right, so we've got an historical film about Mormons butchering people, which really just sounds like a scandal in search of a vehicle: September Dawn. Also another Mr. Bean film, because if the first one proved anything, it's that the character could survive being exploded to feature length and remain funny rather than embarrassing and tedious and making me wonder why I ever actually liked the show. And Scarlett Johansson continues her slow drift into fluffy obsolescence with The Nanny Diaries.

31.8.2007
I don't say this with a great deal of comfort, but I respect Rob Zombie as a filmmaker. His trailer was the highlight of Grindhouse for me, and The Devil's Rejects is one of the vanishingly few films that can withstand - and even require - comparison with the great nasty horror classics of the 1970s. So it perplexes me to no end that he's putting his distinctive talent on a remake, and of all things a remake of one of the few masterpieces in the genre's history: Halloween. To be sure, the original was not flawless, but its flaws are not the sort that a remake, particularly a Rob Zombie remake, are likely to address. I am afraid of this film, but not in the proper way.

What else is getting released on the last weekend of summer 2007? Well, James Wan, that saucy auteur behind Saw and Dead Silence is making his first project without buddy and noted butcher of the English language, Leigh Whannell: Death Sentence, a revenge flick along the "Norris" model. Also: Balls of Fury, which is of course going to be sophomoric and unfunny - the title, dude - but at least it has Chris Walken delivering lines in a weird voice.

And then, the 322 day wait for The Dark Knight begins.

REQUIEM II

Okay guys, this isn't funny anymore.

Michelangelo Antonioni
29 September, 1912 - 30 July, 2007

I am neither a sociologist nor a politician. All I can do is imagine for myself what the future will be like.

30 July 2007

REQUIEM

Ernst Ingmar Bergman
14 July, 1918 - 30 July, 2007

It's a strange thing that every human being has a sort of dignity or wholeness in him, and out of that develops relationships to other human beings, tensions, misunderstandings, tenderness, coming in contact, touching and being touched, the cutting off of a contact and what happens then.

29 July 2007

RAYMOND BERNARD I: WAR

Sometimes I simply can't imagine what it must have been like to be a cinephile before home video. Yes, yes, yes, the only proper way to see a movie is on film projected in a theater, but sometimes we don't get a choice in the matter. And that is where the wonderful people at places like Home Vision Entertainment and Kino and Anchor Bay are simply invaluable: they mange to scare up some terrifically obscure films and put them out on some pretty fine DVDs.

Today I have in mind HVE's Eclipse line of "lost, forgotten or overshadowed classics." I think the time may have come to reveal a certain method behind my madness: in looking for films to consider for this feature, I have pretty consistently made use of the new Eclipse releases (and any new films in the parent Criterion Collection that I just can't keep my hands off of) as usually interesting, and obscure enough that my review might have something a little original to say.

The newest Eclipse release is a box containing two of the films produced in the 1930s by one of the great lost filmmakers of France: Raymond Bernard, who along with Rene Clair was primarily responsible for bringing sound to the national cinema, and along with Clair was almost completely forgotten once the Cahiers du Cinéma/Nouvelle vague kids came along to disparage anything in their country's cinematic history that wasn't outrageously avant garde. The last five or ten years have seen Clair's films slowly regain an audience, but I think it's fair to say that only the really hardcore '30s cinema buffs in this country were really aware of Bernard prior to this very box set (hell, I'm a really hardcore '30s cinema buff, and I'd never heard of him).

This isn't a shame: it's an outright sin against art. For based on these two films Bernard turns out to be one of the strongest craftsmen and most original thinkers of the early sound era in any national cinema. Indeed, so deep is the impression that they've left upon me, I'm going to break with tradition: instead of taking one week's review from this set, I'm going to look at both films on this Sunday and next, and thus try in my far too modest way to shine a slightly brighter light on this most unjustly forgotten artist.

First up: Pathé-Natan's 1932 answer to Universal's Oscar-winning All Quiet on the Western Front, the adaptation of Roland Dorgelès's autobiographical novel of life in the WWI trenches, Wooden Crosses, AKA Les croix de bois. A film that was snapped up by 20th Century Fox for a princely sum and used only for stock footage; a film that was lost when its studio collapsed in the run-up to WWII; a film that has only become known again in the world in the last twenty-odd years, and even then only erratically to tiny audiences.

First thing first: I adore All Quiet on the Western Front. It's the single great example of an American film that uses sound in an unexpected and compelling way in the early years of the talkies, one of my five favorite American films from 1930-35, and one of two films that I'm simply mortified to have forgotten when I was making my list of great American films back in June. I mention all this so the following statement can have the proper context for its full terrible import to be apparent: Wooden Crosses knocks All Quiet into a cocked hat.

Frankly, it's a little gross to compare the two of them, and after this thought I'm going to stop doing it. The American film works because it pushes all of the techniques developed in ten years of making increasingly passionate anti-war films to their fullest extent; the French film works because it invents techniques. I do not know all there is to know about film history, true, and therefore I do not "know" that Wooden Crosses made the particular jump that I'm about to credit it with, but that fact is that it's the earliest film I know by some 25 years to use the visual language of documentary filmmaking in an unambiguously fictional setting. Really, it's not competing with All Quiet and the like at all; what it's really doing is predicting Saving Private Ryan and its numerous clones by well over 60 years.

The film has the same plot that just about every WWI film has in one way or another: young men join up flushed with patriotism, expecting the war to last a month or two at most. Their enthusiasm is cut violently short when they arrive on the front lines to find themselves dropped in cramped, squalid, dangerous, deadly trenches, then and now the most hellish physical place that war has ever been waged. They proceed to spend a lot of time sitting around doing nothing, a bit of time visiting the nearest town to drink and dance, and more time than anyone should ever have to being shot at the young men in the opposite trench, across a particularly worthless patch of blood-soaked ground. The battles get increasingly vicious as the war wears on; or perhaps it's just the soldiers' patience wearing thing.

There are generally two ways that war films present their characters: as sharply drawn individuals, so that their suffering engages us deeply and personally; or as mostly anonymous ciphers, to underscore the awful universality of war. Wooden Crosses tends towards the latter style: broadly speaking there are three soldiers that we mostly follow, Demachy (Pierre Blanchar), Sulphart (Gabriel Gabrio) and Bréval (Charles Vanel), but other than their professions and a few random details about their relatives we learn very little about them. That's not true. We learn a great deal about them, in fact, but none of it has to do with who they are as humans but who they are as soldiers. Those two things are decidedly not identical, as the film makes very clear; when Demachy speaks of his family or Breval is given a chance to show off some tricks he picked up here and there in the decades of his life, the other characters - and by extension, the audience - are quite surprised and shaken up by this sudden reminder that there was a world before this war.

That sense of the good and beautiful parts of life losing its form in the face of seemingly endless war is the melancholic underpinning for almost all of the action within the film, which is mostly comprised of a wavy pattern of dullness and horrible bursts of violence. Generally, it's the violence that sticks once the film is over; while hobbled by the technical (and censorial) limits of early-30s cinema, the battle scenes are as terrifying and brutal as anything without a trace of blood can possibly be. Partially this is because Wooden Crosses, like its American model, uses its soundtrack as a blunt instrument to fill our ears with increasingly unbearable cacophonies of bullets and mortars and men's screams. Much more it's because, like the war films that would start cropping up in the 1980s and really hit their stride in the early '00s, Wooden Crosses uses a deeply immersive handheld camera to capture the gunshots and explosions in a way that reads instantly as "this is documentary; this is true" to the modern eye just as much as in 1932 (when audiences were quite able to remember newsreel footage of the actual war playing in movie theaters). As I said, it's a trick that Spielberg would use almost without change (save the addition of top-notch gore effects) 66 years later, although I somewhat doubt that Spielberg would have ever seen this film, if indeed he was aware of its existence.

The big centerpiece of the film is a ten-day battle coming in the final third, and lasting for something like 15 minutes (give or take 5, I didn't have the presence of mind to time it). This sequences opens with a series of title cards that could have been potential alienating: as the gunshots begin, text appears over the action: "This went on for ten days." A moment later, as the violence increases: "Ten days." And a moment later: "TEN DAYS." And endless minutes pass until the battle ends, having taken with it more than a couple familiar faces from earlier in the movie. This could have been a silly violation of our willing suspension of disbelief, but somehow, it's just the opposite: by insisting on the grinding reality of the ten days of fighting, the cards insist on the accuracy, rather than the artificiality, of what we're seeing onscreen.

If it's the battle scenes that give the film its punch, it's the moments in between that give it humanity; here are moments of poetic beauty, punctuated by haunting, Impressionist editing. There was no way to make that sentence not pretentious, and I'm sorry. But the use of the dissolve and the double-exposure and the fade-out reach titanic proportions in this film, and from the moment of the very first image, a squad of soldiers dissolving almost imperceptibly into a field of wooden crosses - hey, that's the name of the film! - it's undeniably apparent that the transition from one image to another is a matter of paramount importance to the film's effect. Specific moments literally blur into one another in Wooden Crosses, and every portion of time is set off by a gentle fade in and out that makes them feel like remembered dreams. You can't describe how this works to someone who hasn't seen it without the risk of breaking it.

But it's beautiful in an almost mystical sense, and the imagery filling the movie, when it does not strive for documentary realism, finds instead a meshing of light and dark and unexpected angles and compositions that feels like the stuff of nightmares (one of the two cinematographers, it must be noted, had studied under the German Expressionists). I'm going to break with my common practice and end with a frame from the movie, because no number of words could explain the loneliness and loss present in this moment in which a man buries a friend and compatriot, killed senselessly defending a patch of dead grass. Within this image, I think, lies the whole experience of Wooden Crosses, one of the most traumatic and meaningful anti-war films imaginable.

28 July 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: WE'RE OKAY, FALSE ALARM

Quick recap:

A Nightmare on Elm Street - the best slasher of the 1980s.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge - a typically stupid although narratively unusual '80s slasher.

Now here comes part 3, Dream Warriors, and it is very possibly the second-best slasher of the 1980s. If this goes on, I shall get whiplash.

So, here's something that I can't explain: after Freddy's Revenge brought in $30 million to the first Nightmare's $24 million, New Line Cinema didn't do as some people were doing (and I'm certainly not pointing any fingers at Paramount Studios, producer Frank Mancuso, and the F13 series), and rush out another cheapie sequel to squeeze a couple dozen million dollars on a $2.5 million investment. Instead, they listened to the complaints of the first film's fanbase that the second film was mostly crappy, and they elected to take those complaints seriously, and endeavor to make sure the inevitable third film would be as good as it possibly could be. Such humility! Such willingness to accept blame! Can it be that New Line was still too shaky and new to risk pissing off the followers of the only franchise it had going? Can it be that the New Line execs were actually good people who cared about good filmmaking?

We'll never have an answer for that one, so let's just cut to the chase: Robert Shaye, the series' producer (still one of the big dogs at New Line; his name appears as EP on such projects as The Lord of the Rings, The Golden Compass and Frequency. One of these things is not like the others) went straight to Wes Craven with an offer to write and direct the new chapter. Craven, being firmly entrenched in his "irrelevant crap" period (Deadly Friend was in pre-production, and Shocker was just a couple years away), couldn't make the time; but he did suggest a story idea to Shaye that the producer found so compelling that he commissioned Craven to write the screenplay right there. Craven and first-timer Bruce Wagner cranked out a couple of drafts before time got in the way, and the final work was done by Chuck Russell, a B-movie producer who'd been tapped to make Dream Warriors his directorial debut, and a buddy of his, some green neophyte named Frank Darabont.

You know what has been my favorite part of this summer? So many skeletons in closets!

The film that came from the screenplay that finally emerged from all this finagling is a bit of a peculiar beast. There's no denying that parts of it work extraordinarily well for a horror film of this vintage. And parts of it don't particularly work at all. That's to be expected - movies are uneven, movies with that many newbies on board particularly so. What's so strange about Dream Warriors is that the good moments and the bad moments mix in with each other a great deal, and sometimes it's literally a difference between two consecutive shots whether the film is working or not. There's one especially striking example...but I haven't even set the stage yet, have I?

In the beginning, there are credits, and they are written in what I can only think of, after Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Vol. 1 as the "Tarantino font," and I absolutely blame this 1987 film for the fact that I kept thinking of "Misirlou." Also in the beginning, we get one of those extraordinarily good moments I was talking about. Teenaged Kristen Parker (debuting Patricia Arquette - skeletons, man, skeletons!) is forcing herself to stay awake by listening to rock music and building a model house out of popsicle sticks. Her mother arrives with a boozy man in tow, and shuts that down right quick, tucking Kristen into bed not without tenderness, and turning off the lights despite her daughter's obvious discomfort. It takes only a few seconds for Kristen to nod off, and finds herself in the dark yard of a dilapidated old home that we recognize instantly as 1428 Elm Street.

The nightmare sequence that ensues is not only the best part of the film, it's easily the scariest moment in any Nightmare film thus far, and indeed one of the creepiest scenes in any '80s film I can call to mind. Children are skipping rope in the front yard, chanting the "Freddy's coming" rhyme that has popped up in every film and legitimately gets a little freakier every time, and they are being watched by a little girl in a yellow party dress who wanders in the house once she notices Kristen watching her. Kristen chases her into the dark, empty hulk, all the way into the basement boiler room, where a fire is burning brightly. "This is where he takes us," the little girl says in a very simple delivery that gives me the screaming ya-yas just sitting at my computer remembering it (scary little girl horror gets me like nothing else, and this is why The Shining alone out of all movies in existence leaves me a quivering wreck every time I see it), and Kristen now notices the children's bones in the boiler, and she hears the distinct sound of a razor-tipped glove scraping along the metal in the basement, and this is all the provocation she needs to grab the little girl and tear ass upstairs. Except that it's not so easy as that, and just as Freddy (a dark shadow now, but when we finally see him, it will still be Robert Englund) is about to grab her, she wakes up. I swear to God I don't scare easily, but this scene got me. It got me good.

Anyway, it turns out she's not so much awake as that, and when she goes into the bathroom to wash her face, the faucet handle turns into a hand, and the other handle sprouts knives, and Kristen is woken up be her mother screaming at the bloody razor that the girl just used to cut her own wrists.

Okay, so here's the first good example of what I was talking about: that opening scene, it freaked my shit, dude. Hardcore. But then the false-awakening scene in the bathroom, with its tarted-up effects, just seemed kind of silly and overdetermined. Actually, practical effects that obviously took a lot of effort and money that end up looking silly and overdetermined make up a considerable part of my problem with this film, so I'll get this out of the way now: the first two had a distinct cheapness of production that served them well, and forced the filmmakers to be creative with how they wanted to get their scare scenes in. This film, with a $5 million budget that nearly doubled Freddy's Revenge, has no such brake, and there end up being some very gauche effects coming down the pike, if you'll permit me to say so.

Kristen ends up at a never-named psychiatric hospital, with several other local teens with dream disorders under the care of Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) and Dr. Vicious Bitch (Priscilla Pointer. She has a character name, but no character, and if that's the way the film wants to play, that's how we'll play). The primary orderly for their wing is sarcastic gent named Max (Laurence Fishburne, back when he was still "Larry." SKELETONS). Most importantly, there is a new intern, fresh from college it seems, one Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), and when she notices that every single one of Dr. Gordon's patients described the same horribly burned man in a red and green sweater with a dirty old fedora and sharp slashing fingers as a regular occurrence in their dreams, she's not so quick to dismiss their "mass hysteria" as the doc.

I cannot think of one more obvious way that Dream Warriors splits with the whole bulk of 1980s slasher films than the return of Nancy and Heather. It just Was Not Done for a character to return in a primary role and be played by the same actor as before (I can only point to one other example: 1981's Halloween II). Sure, we had the unending Tommy Jarvises in the F13 films, and many examples of one film's Final Girl coming back for a quick execution in the opening credits of the sequel; but for Langenkamp to play the hero in two separate entries, that was most definitely unheard of, and given that she was one of the best actresses to ever find her way into a slasher, it's surely no small part of why this film works as well as it, does that so much of it rests on her eminently capable shoulders.

As the story proceeds, we find that Kristen is a strange sort of telepath, who can "pull" other people into her dreams, and this gives Nancy an idea: the "Elm Street Kids," as she calls the dream-haunted teens (who turn out to all be descended from the parents who lynched Krueger lo these many years ago) can band together in Kristen's dream to fight Krueger, and put an end to his evil once and for all. Meanwhile, she has convinced Dr. Gordon that the threat is real and not a mass hallucination, and he has this confirmed by a mysterious nun (Nan Martin) who drifts around the hospital doing charity work. She tells him the secret origin of Freddy: many years earlier, a young woman named Amanda Krueger worked in that hospital when it was devoted to the study of the criminally insane, and over the holidays (when for no reason that makes a damn dot of sense, everybody was gone, leaving the criminal psychiatric hospital completely unstaffed), she was accidentally locked in the wing with the most evil and dangerous men there. Days later she was found, clinging to life, pregnant with "the bastard son of a hundred maniacs," one of the finest overbaked lines ever written in a film, horror or otherwise. She continues to tell Gordon that Freddy can only be stopped if his bones are interred in sacred ground, and to this end, the doctor tracks down one of the few men who knows where those bones now reside - none other than Nancy's father, disgraced ex-cop Donald Thompson (John Saxon, also returning, although in a much reduced role).

On the level of raw narrative, there's some fine sequelling going on here, and that's why I related the plot at such length. Here we have a film that manages the two rarest of all sequel tricks: it doesn't piss all over the memory of the original or its ending, and it manages to add real depth and character to the mythology of the original. No, we still don't have a damned clue why Freddy Krueger turns into a dream-haunting ghost, but his backstory is one of the very few ever that makes the character seem more, not less menacing (compare e.g. "Freddy was a sullen teen who didn't get as much responsibility as he wanted, so he joined forces with a villainous politician/sorcerer. Also, ghosts are caused by microscopic organisms in your blood"). It's also kind of beautiful to see a horror sequel in particular involve a recurring character using her knowledge from the first film against the villain, instead of suffering from plot-convenient amnesia about what works and what doesn't. It also manages the rare fear of raising the stakes in a proper way, by incorporating the "dream warriors" subplot in a way that seems fair and even clever - each of the teens has some particular skill in the dream world that he or she explicitly lacks in reality, and so the film is a crypto-superhero movie, as much as anything - and making it a more "epic" film than just one girl against a poltergeist.

So no, on the script level I have pretty much no problem with Dream Warriors; and how often do you get to say that about a slasher? But there's plenty about the film that just doesn't work, and it's really odd and inconsistent what those things are.

I already mentioned the effects; I'll return to them. They're erratic. One of the big show-stoppers is when a giant worm with Freddy's face tries to eat Kristen, only for Nancy to suddenly appear in the dream and stop it. This is the example I was talking about before, where one cut makes all the difference: the worm is excessively stupid-looking (and apparently, it looked like a big flaccid penis before they repainted it from pink to green), and Patricia Arquette has a hard time keeping a straight face as she's pretending to be eaten by an effect to be composited in later. The moment is too attention-grabby to work on any remotely scary level; yet the instant where Nancy appears by crashing through a mirror is suddenly exhilarating, and coupled with the absence of any close-up shots on the worm, the scene plays out as intense and exciting. Another key moment, in which a puppet comes to life by the glories of stop-motion animation, and begins controlling one hapless teen like a marionette, using his tendons ripped out of his flesh as the strings. This is a back-and-forth sort of thing: the stop-motion Freddy looks squirrelly, but the tendon-ripping is honestly terrifying; then the giant Freddy in the sky brings us right back to "squirrelly." And later on, there's a stop-motion skeleton (an homage to Jason and the Argonauts, or a rip-off? Who can tell?) that actually works pretty beautifully. So it's not a matter of technical competence. It's just that Chuck Russell can't always find his tone in every scene: like the little girl with the little curl, when he is good he is very good. And when he is bad, he is...not terrible, mostly just boring and perfunctory. The first two films tried for very sober horror, and this film does too; but it also tries, a bit too often, for flashiness and even the odd touch of zany wackiness, which is just plain evil.

Unfortunately, that zany wackiness is most plainly felt in Freddy himself. In the first film, he was a shadowy monster, of course; in the second we saw less of him, but what we saw was still pretty much unleavened menace. In this film, he starts his transition to a quipster. Not that he's not menacing: dear God, that first scene. But he develops a weird tendency to crack puns when he kills people, in a most alarming way to those who would agree with me that only James Bond can do that sort of thing without seeming like a tool. I happen to know that this gets worse, so I wont' harp on it here, just...it doesn't fit, y'know? It doesn't fit at all. That first scene implies some really freaky-ass things about Krueger, and I don't really want to fit that sort of bone-chilling evil in with a character who make puns on "tongue-tied."

Body Count: A pretty unambiguous 5. It speaks to how badly the Friday the 13th series messed me up that this seems like an awfully small number of deaths for an ostensible horror movie.

Reviews in this series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)

27 July 2007

OH AKI, YOU SO FINE, YOU SO FINE YOU BLOW MY MIND

With Lights in the Dusk, I have seen two films by Aki Kaurismäki, and that makes me as much an expert on the director as 99.5% of the American population.

The remaining 0.5% inform me that all in all, this new film is not a particularly distinguished entrant in his canon, and I'm quite sure they're right, and some years from now when the long-awaited "The Every Kaurismäki Film Box Set" comes out, I'll make a point of revisiting this film and finding it lacking.

But for this moment in time, in my blissful ignorance, I'd be lying if I said that I didn't find it a pretty satisfying experience.

Most famous (insofar as it is famous at all) for being Finland's official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year before the director demanded that it be pulled from consideration, Lights in the Dusk is the third film in a so-called "Loser Trilogy," following Drifting Clouds and The Man Without a Past, and it earns the title fairly: we follow the low-key adventures of Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), a security company worker as he lets himself be taken in by Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), one of the lowest-rent con women you ever did see, who scams him out of his codes and keys, and send him upriver without a word of complaint.

The bulk of the film's slender running time (78 minutes!) is dedicated to Koistinen and Mirja's "courtship," and this is where we see just how much of a loser our hero is. The two never have sex, barely kiss, rarely do anything but sit in dead silence in diners and movie theaters. It takes only a few moments to realize that the security guard is taken in not be Mirja's charms (seriously: she is a terrible con woman), but simply by the fact that she is a human female who is willing to look at him and engage him in conversation. His simpering gratitude for this colossally insignificant gesture leads him to defend her all the way to the end, even as he is sent to prison for refusing to turn her over, when it is impossibly obvious that she was only ever using him for his access.

Throughout, Koistinen is watched by Aila (Maria Heiskenan), the owner of a small food stand that he frequents after work, who pines for him without ever finding the strength to approach him. In her own way, she's as relationally inept as he is, but she never comes across as a loser in quite the same strokes simply because she is not the story's focus. But her presence does make Koistinen that much more pathetic: he ignores that (not very) dowdy shopkeeper in favor of the (not very) glamorous femme fatale, despite the giant flashing warning lights that make it clear at every step of things that she is bad news.

A protagonist so clearly incompetent at life is a hard sell, but Kaurismäki somehow manages to turn this cartoonish sad sack into an honest-to-God sympathetic hero. His last film, The Man Without a Past, was a virtual manifesto of sympathy for the weak-willed failures of society, and in Lights in the Dusk he looks at Koistinen's tremendous lapses and servile weakness in the face of women with something like pity. Not that he leaves the character with much in the way of dignity, but he isn't cruel about it.

Instead, the film ends up turning into a cocked look at the world around Koistinen, a world that is pretty arbitrary and foolish. Lights in the Dusk is actually a comedy, albeit a mostly deliberately alienating comedy that dabbles in the arid wit that Kaurismäki is famous for. It's hard to explain how jokes that aren't can be funny, and how the specific absence of laughter can be a sign of a film's comic success, but this Bizarro World conflict is at the heart of the director's style. The best way to sum up his worldview here might be something like, "Life sucks, and then it sucks some more, and eventually you'll die. Isn't that the damndest thing?" His camera is a very flat camera, keeping everything in frame at the same uninflected depth and holding steady on essentially unimportant moments for so long that we're eventually given to realize that the joke is that nothing is happening.

That's clearly not for everybody, and it would appear that Lights in the Dusk isn't even for the people that ought to enjoy it (I've seen this film described in good faith as going too far for obvious laughs; that might be true, but that must mean that the director's other films are practically Dadaist). Well, what can I say: I enjoyed it. It's low-key to the point where it hardly exists, but it's ultimately good-natured and it is mostly honest about how most of life is just puttering around waiting for whatever is going to happen to happen, and hardly noticing that it never actually does. Sure, The Man Without a Past did the same thing better. That doesn't have anything to do with the fact that on its own terms, Lights in the Dusk is a wholly satisfying comic-existential bit of fluff.

8/10

26 July 2007

SO MUCH BUSY

I've gone and fucked up my schedule such that, barring divine intervention, I don't expect to have time to write tonight. Pardon.

Meanwhile, here are Muppets.






25 July 2007

CAN'T STOP AN AVALANCHE

[Author's note: this review was originally to have been paired with I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry in a sort of half-assed "Gay and Anti-Gay" theme day. But when push came to shove, I really couldn't bring myself to pay money to see I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and so this review must stand on its own.]

The film of the musical version of Hairspray is a film that I liked in virtually every respect, and a film which I loved in no respect. Which is without a doubt more than I expected going into it.

(Quick recap for the morbidly inattentive: Tracy Turnblad is a pudgy girl in Baltimore, 1962, who charms her way onto the the local teen dance program The Corny Collins Show. She is shocked - shocked! - to find that segregation is going on there, and she pretty much single-handedly brings racial comity to the city. Her heavily done-up hairdo is a sign of social conformity, hence "Hairspray").

To be perfectly honest, with the John Waters original still pretty fresh in my mind, I can't argue in good faith that there's any real need for this new Hairspray, but I found to be, on the whole, enough fun that (my fingers are rebelling against my brain for this next thought) it doesn't completely matter that this film isn't necessary.

Actually it's doubly unnecessary, for not only does it cover the same ground as the 1988 film only in a less interesting way, I have it on good authority that it covers the same ground as the 2002 stage production (which I haven't seen), also in a less interesting way. And certainly, it's one of those stage-to-film adaptations that leave very little doubt that as good as everything is in the film, it was consistently better on stage.

I don't mean performance-wise, because for all that these are mostly movie-star turns, they work out pretty well. In the central (though less central than in the previous film) role of Tracy, first-timer Nikki Blonsky is nothing shy of flawless. Perhaps the role is not so challenging as all that - what little edge the character used to possess has been quietly removed - but as far as gung-ho cheerfulness goes, Blonsky brings it in spades. Plus, she has a pretty much great voice, though God only knows if she could actually sing on stage.

The rest of the cast, by and large, does what you'd expect, or is just a little better: Christopher Walken, as Tracy's father Wilbur, reminds us all that yes, his career started on Broadway; Zac Efron, as the dreamboat star of The Corny Collins Show, Link Larkin, is a bland pretty boy in exactly the way that the role requires, and that High School Musical, which I accidentally saw about 15 minutes of once, suggested that he'd be great at. Et cetera, I'm not going through every cast member, except to say that I want to kiss whoever thought of putting Allison Janney in this film.

Actually, I do want to briefly say this about Michelle Pfeiffer, who does fine things with a small role that is saddled with a song that isn't "bad" so much as it is "very long and low-energy": I hadn't realized how much I missed her lo these five years, until I saw her again for the first time. First, she's as beautiful as ever, if not moreso. Second, I mean, Jesus, it's been five years, and that was White fucking Oleander. So kudos, and hoorah for the embarrassment of Pfeiffery goodness coming this summer, with two more vehicles for the actress in the pipeline.

Really, the only performance that demands a lengthy discussion is, probably unsurprisingly, John Travolta as the obese Edna Turnblad. Now, I've seen Divine in the role, and I can surely imagine what Harvey Fierstein would have been like, and Travolta is...different. The crazy thing about his performance is how very un-campy it is. Travolta's Edna is not exactly a "realistic" or "rounded" character, but she's very sincere. Which is an interesting choice for the actor, and dramatically intriguing, but I'm not sure it's right for Hairspray. This is a story that demands a larger-than-life caricature of womanhood in that role, and he is instead playing a woman. The only spot of camp in the performance is his very strange and probably ill-advised accent, sounding something like Dr. Evil doing an impersonation of Truman Capote. Except, distractingly enough, for the big finale, where he pretty much just sounds like John Travolta.

That's as may be; it's not a huge part and it's surrounded by perfectly unproblematic performances. Which leaves as the actual perpetrator of the film's sins the director/choreographer Adam Shankman, whose past work in either of those roles has been uninspiring (95% of his choreography credits) to diabolical (his directing work includes Bringing Down the House and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, among worse things). Pragmatically, Hairspray is surely the finest thing he has done in film, but even so, it bears the unmistakable mark of somebody who absolutely should not be permitted to direct.

The choreography is mostly decent, although the only number that leapt out at me as being great was "Welcome to the 60s." Shankman's big problem here is that the dances are mostly non-narrative. In the very best movie musicals, dance tells a clear story: "Never Gonna Dance" from Swing Time leaps out at me as it always does, or pick your favorite number from Singin' in the Rain. Here, that doesn't really happen. There are some fine experiments in pure choreography, but they don't do anything dramatic. The clearest example I can think of is "Run and Tell That," in which a half-dozen dancers move from a school room to a sidewalk to a bus. Why? No good reason. Particularly at the end, it feels palpably like Shankman thought to himself, "It would be fun to set a dance in a school bus," and so he did just that. This sort of thing abounds: dance because it's pretty, not because it means anything. That's fine in many contexts, but a movie musical is the wrong context.

Shankman-the-director does a terrible disservice to Shankman-the-choreographer by taking those strictly abstract dances and filming them badly. Many years ago, Fred Astaire famously declared that the only proper way to film a dance was to show the dancer's entire body, using the fewest number of takes possible, and while isolated deviations from that ideal have worked brilliantly (hello, Baz), history has tended to bear Astaire out. That is not the method that Shankman uses. His dances are very full of editing, indeed, and even worse full of close-ups, showing us Travolta's damn face during his big romantic number. The number that is by far served the worst by this is "You Can't Stop the Beat," the big-ass showstopper that brings out the whole cast for the finale. Well, Shankman sure does bring out the whole cast, and he tends to do it one at a time, so that while you're aware that there's a lot of dancing going on, it's mostly not in front of the camera.

But it's not Joel Schumacher's Phantom of the Opera, thank all that's holy.

And hey, as long as I'm closing out by complaining, let me just toss this in: I'm saddened to no end that this film (and seemingly the stage version) saw fit to cut out the original's "pothead beatniks" scene, featuring Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek of The Cars. Dammit, that was funny! And weirdly topical! And honestly, you could almost certainly get Pia Zadora to reprise that role, if you just asked.

(Okay, high 6 or low 7? High 6, or low 7? Going for a coin toss on this one)

6/10

CHATTERING CLASSES

I know literally two facts about the late filmmaker Theo van Gogh: he is directly descended from that Theo van Gogh, Vincent's brother; and he was knifed to death by a religious extremist for saying saucy things about Muslims.

Thanks to the fanboyish glee of writer/director Steve Buscemi (yeah, you read that right), I have now learned a third thing about van Gogh: he was a joyless drudge who liked stating the obvious, or at least that is what the new film Interview, a purportedly faithful remake of van Gogh's 2003 film of the same name. Here, in a nutshell, is the plot arc of Interview:

-So, this reporter, he's a bit of a dick.
-But this vapid starlet, she's pretty much a cunt.
-Nah, he's more of a dick.
-Still, she's quite a cunt.
-Hey...well maybe he's not so bad.
-Jesus, she's...that's rough. Poor girl.
-Whoa, what a dick!
-Fucking cunt.

Not that I'm not sympathetic to a movie with the colossal bravery to argue that journalists and celebrities are superficial assholes, but I really don't know why it takes 84 minutes to make an argument that's pretty much sealed up from the first scene: Pierre Peders (Buscemi) is waiting in a trendy New York club for Katya (Sienna Miller), to conduct an interview. She shows up obliviously late and refuses to apologise, he make many immature, sniping comments, and the audience shifts uncomfortably, hoping it won't actually be an hour and a half of this.

When you're a filmmaker, and you've got yourself a film with basically one plot point that just keeps reiterating itself over and over, it's incumbent upon you to bring something to the table that isn't the script. Buscemi doesn't. Not as a director, anyway. Films about two people just talking for an extended period of time are hard to make, I'm sure, but they have been done (I am here thinking especially of the films of Ingmar Bergman, mostly Scenes from a Marriage), and it's possible to cobble together a list of things they must have in order to work: exceptionally engaging dialogue, immaculate acting, a fearless cinematographer, and a patient audience. I can't really speak to the last of those (I started out patient...), but Interview comes sort of close to working in the other ways. At least, there's nothing objectively wrong about it: Thomas Kist is one of "those" European cinematographers, you know, "them": the ones who like to get the film looking as grainy under natural lighting as possible. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it's a cliché, and I think in this case it's a cliché. The dialogue is also kind of clichéd: not such that a mainstream American moviegoer would notice, but it's extraordinarily European, full of those glowering silences and massively compound sentences.

If Buscemi were a very good director, he would be able to turn this traits into strengths; but he is only barely a passable director. When I think back on Interview, I find that I am primarily thinking of some exceptionally contrived blocking, in which characters wander around from place to place for no apparent reason other than to change the background scenery. Nor does the director do well by his actors, which is kind of warped given that he is one.

Honestly, I think that both Buscemi and Miller could have done better things with better dialogue, and less fidgety stage business. Particularly Miller, who has unmistakable screen presence and a woefully underdeveloped role: she's a scandalously famous celebrity who enjoys lying to people and treating her sexuality like a cat toy, and that's that. Admittedly, there are some diverting moments, here and there, watching the actors spar with each other, a task which they dig into with great aplomb.

Ultimately, none this distracts from the essential problem at Interview's core: there is precious damn little about watching a reporter and an actress trying to outsmart each other that could possibly be described as "compelling." We already hate journalists and celebrities, don't we? So seeing this much time thrown at an argument that they're bad people feels more than a little redundant. I would love to say that the film succeeds in its attempt to say something about sexual power struggles, or star culture, but it doesn't even come close. These people are lying vampires. We get it. Moving on now.

5/10

24 July 2007

SET THE CONTROLS FOR THE HEART OF THE SUN

Science fiction in the movies has always had a rough time of it, compared to literature. Not that there aren't plenty of sci-fi films, of course; but they tend to be much more of the "ray guns and space battles" variety, and not the "speculative musing on the way that our race will function in the future" variety.

Which makes sense, because so-called "hard" sci-fi isn't really so dramatic as ray guns and space battles, and movies that aim for that noble 1950s ideal of trying to explore the "science" half of "science fiction" end up looking rather often like the noble block of wood Destination Moon. But there are exceptions to any rule, and by far the most famous and well-loved hard sci-fi in cinema history is Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which combines a rigorously prosaic exploration of the quotidian technology of a past future with some of the most gonzo neo-spiritual philosophy ever committed to film. There aren't many films like it, and the few that come within swiping distance are all either incoherent or unwatchably dull.

Well, now we've got a film that comes very close to 2001 indeed, and rather than being incoherent or dull, it's very nearly a masterpiece: Danny Boyle's Sunshine, one of the most inventive and fascinating science-fiction films in decades.

I'm not going to pretend that I'm not strongly biased in favor of this kind of movie; I cut my teeth on this sort of thing at a very young age, and most of the criticisms that could be most successfully leveled at this film - the characters are flat, the story is almost non-existent - I would meet with a shrug and the rejoinder "So what? That's the point." I mention this only to admit that my response to Sunshine is, while probably not unique, certainly idiosyncratic.

So with all that out of the way, what is Sunshine, anyway? Well, are you familiar with The Core? That's basically it, except instead of going in, they're going out. The sun, you see, is burning out, and rather than let all life perish, a team of astronauts and physicists have been sent aboard the unsubtly-named Icarus II with the sum total of the earth's fissile materials to set off the a nuclear explosion within the star, hopefully restarting its processes.

Unlike The Core, however, none of this is melodramatic bullcrap. Well, the end kind of is, but I'll get to that later. Instead, Sunshine is mostly just a fly-on-the-wall study of people working under increasingly difficult conditions, mixed in with perhaps beautiful, perhaps deranged musings on the face of God and what it means for human to look upon it. But even more than those things, it's a story of people who are very tiny in a very big universe.

The difference between "meditative" and "boring as fuck" is largely one of personal taste, but that won't keep me from saying that Sunshine is above all a meditative film: the images that linger strongest in the mind (and this is an oppressively visual film) are mostly poetic abstractions: I am here thinking of an extremely close shot of a man's eye as intense sunlight filters through his sunglasses, or an extremely wide shot of a frozen corpse drifting beyond the corona of the Icarus's solar shield and evaporating in a quick burst of flame.

Between them, these two images encapsulate pretty much the entire experience of the film: one the one hand, it is about quasi-religious ecstasy, as expressed by the mystical language certain crew members use to describe the feeling of light (in the film, the sun and God are directly linked, although it's not completely easy to say which is a metaphor for the other); on the other hand, it is an unblinking, passionless document of man's experience in space. I'd be all coy, like, "so what does that remind us of?" except that I already name-dropped it, so let me just reiterate: 2001.

Like that film, I think it's best to avoid getting caught up in the queerer elements of Sunshine's plot, and just settle in for the hypnotic pace of watching and listening. The film is surely not rooted in any sound stellar physics, but if one can get around that fact, this is a brilliantly plausible representation of humanity's future, as embodied by eight essentially anonymous souls. The eight actors brought in to play those characters are all recognizable without really being superstars, and some of them are perhaps over-qualified (Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh), whereas some of them are suddenly revealed to be pretty decent actors, after all (Chris Evans). But the characters are perhaps not so important once their basic inalienable humanity has been established. Besides a general delight at seeing Murphy in yet another film, I didn't walk out of the film thinking of the lovingly nuanced human psychology on display.

Now then: the ending. Even a dedicated post-narrative mindset bent upon a story-light film can only take you so far, and the point at which Sunshine rather abruptly turns into Alien is...unexpected (although like Sunshine, Alien is a slow-moving exposé of speculative science before it becomes a horror film). Now, we're only talking about twenty minutes or so. But it's a curious bit of weirdness anyway. Happily, it's resolved before the movie ends, and so the final moments are not a patch of annoying atonal thrills, but a quiet, meditative look at et cetera. It's a potent reminder in the middle of a particularly dreary summer of cinema's rare power to simply, powerfully, mesmerise us.

9/10

23 July 2007

THE ASSHOLE'S TALE

The natural human inclination is to assume that anything which is rare must also be of high quality, and this has led many of the few people who have been able to see Billy Wilder's long-lost Ace in the Hole from 1951 (released for the first time on any home video format last week) to declare it his greatest masterpiece. That's not a statement that I'm even a little bit comfortable with, but it is certainly is one of his masterpieces, and quite possibly the most Billy Wilder-ey of all his films. At any rate, it is a satiric dark comedy of shocking cynicism (check and double-check), neatly meeting the description one character in the film levels against the anti-hero: "I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you - you're twenty minutes."

That anti-hero is Kirk Douglas in what may well be the role of his career: Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter with a well-honed sense of self-advancement, late of the East Coast and metropolitan Midwest ("I've been fired from papers in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago..." he brags), finding himself stuck for a year at a sleepy paper covering the sleepy non-news of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Then, purely by accident, he stumbles across a major human interest story: a man hunting for artifacts in a sacred burial site called "The Mountain of the Seven Vultures" has been trapped in a cave-in, and Tatum's journalistic spidey sense leads him to realize that this is the big story he's been waiting for; and thus does he turn the story into a national media circus, taking active steps to prolong the rescue effort, bed the man's wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling).

Ace in the Hole looks like it should join Network in the annals of films about the news media that seemed like comic exaggerations in their time and now come across like documentaries; but that's not really right. For one thing, the concept is almost certainly based on the story of Kathy Fiscus, a young girl who was trapped in a mine just a couple of years prior to this film's release, and the subject during her incarceration of the most intensely focused media frenzy that any story had ever generated to that point. And besides, highly sensation news stories have always been with us: witness how many "Crimes of the Century" the last 100 years laid witness to.

I can't say that Kathy Fiscus was or wasn't a household name still in 1951, but she surely isn't now, and I suspect that Wilder and his co-writers Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman wanted their audience to assume that would be the case. The only thing surer than the preponderance of massive news stories, after all, is that whatever the next story down the pike, it will completely eradicate our recollection of the story that til now had been the center of our world. That subject was most family touched upon in the many variations of Chicago, the story of a murderer whose fame lasted about five seconds past her "not guilty" verdict: and in Ace in the Hole, it seems pretty clear from the desolate final act that only the principals will remember the trials of Leo Minosa for more than a day or two.

The important thing to bear in mind about Ace in the Hole is that it isn't really about the transience of news - it's about the rotten, corrupt soul of a man whose job is to make sure that there is always news. In short, a man who is directly responsible for the fast rise and equally fast disappearance of whatever major even he can scoop. Chuck Tatum is an American myth-maker, and his story is an indictment of the glee with which Americans absorb his myths, ghoulish and sensational as they are.

That's a story that has been told many time since, of course, but with the possibly exception of Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd and the truly poisonous Sweet Smell of Success, I'm not certain that I've ever seen it told with the beautifully rancid cynicism that Wilder brings to bear here. Obviously, the director had a certain fame for taking the most pessimistic possible view of things, but that reaches a flowering in Ace in the Hole that I would hardly have imagined possible - Joe Gillis, the amoral opportunist of Sunset Blvd. from the year prior seems like a toothless dry run for Chuck Tatum's boundless misanthropy - and it's not surprising at all that audiences in the '50s didn't give it a chance. Frankly, even on the backside of the parade of ruthless anti-heroes of the 1970s, Tatum is a particularly unlikable protagonist. It's a little disconcerting to see an all-American like Kirk Douglas playing such a role, but it bears remembering that much of that actor's career, including a few truly terrific performances, was dedicated to fleshing out some really obnoxious assholes. And Douglas thrives here, as does Sterling, a leading lady who has been mostly forgotten nowadays; it's hard to say whether her unfamiliarity is what makes her performance so shattering, or if that's just what the actress was capable of. But she's an ice-cold bitch that matches Tatum note for note, in a glorious explosion of the most self-indulgent, vicious behavior that otherwise non-sociopathic humans are capable of.

Being a Billy Wilder film, there's plenty of choice dialogue, and being a particularly acidic Billy Wilder film, almost every line draws blood. Of course, that's part and parcel of the film noir, that speaking is replaced with launching bitter epigrams at the audience; and Ace in the Hole is surely a film noir, although one of the least typical examples of that genre that you will ever see. Befitting its desert setting, almost every scene that doesn't take place in the cave is bright and sunshiny; but the moral rot at the center, and the way that sexual politicking brings that rot out front and center, that's pure noir. Indeed, if we accept that noir was primarily about showcasing the moral instability of post-WWII America, they don't get much purer than this evisceration of our culture. The word "vulture" holds an important place in the film's discourse, always used in the name of the mountain, but it takes an unmistakably wider meaning. Tatum is a vulture of course, and so is Lorraine; but so are the teeming masses that write songs about Leo's entrapment, or set up a Ferris wheel outside the cave so that everybody who came to gawk at one man's suffering have plenty of distractions to keep themselves entertained while they wait for the man to escape or die. The film's re-release title, The Big Carnival, may not be as pungent as Ace in the Hole (the scene that reveals the specific meaning of that phrase is a punch in the crotch if ever I've seen one), but considering that it was meant to make the film sound more appealing, it comes off as particularly ironic. In America, watching the misfortunes of others is a sideshow pastime, and all of us who ever stopped our lives to track the minutiae of the Lindbergh kidnapping, or the O.J. Simpson trial, or the death of Anna Nicole Smith, are just as much uncaring bastards as the Chuck Tatums who only care about those stories because they sell so damn well.

22 July 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: WELL, THAT DIDN'T LAST LONG

Where was I...ah yes, I'd just watched A Nightmare on Elm Street, and declared that it was good. Specifically, I'd declared that it was the best slasher film in 6 years, a pretty damn great horror movie in general, and Wes Craven's best film after The Hills Have Eyes. It felt good to watch a good horror film, I don't mind telling you. The Strange Adventures of Mr. Jason Voorhees, the Psycho Killer had left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, and it was nothing shy of awe-inspiring to see, once again, a horror movie that actually deserved attention and respect.

Unfortunately, that horror film was released in the 1980s, a golden age for quickie sequels that rivals the modern day, and thus it should surprise nobody even a little bit that just slightly less than a year after that film was released to theaters, the still-nascent New Line Cinema released A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, written by David Chaskin of the marketing department, ending in a script sufficiently terrible that Craven elected to work on The Hills Have Eyes, Part II instead.

I have learned, or perhaps re-learned, something very important: bad sequels to good movies are much nastier to watch than worse sequels to bad movies. To be perfectly objective about it, Freddy's Revenge is a better film than at least eight and maybe all ten Friday the 13th films, and yet I had a much harder time with it than all but the most atrocious of that series. The agony of heightened expectations.

It's even worse given that for the first 29 minutes (almost to the second), the film is a pretty good continuation of the first Nightmare. Not quite as scary, nor as well-acted, and the effects are a bit shakier despite a much-increased budget (and that's only so obvious because the opening nightmare scene has the first of the film's three shriekingly awful matte paintings), most of which probably has to do with the undistinguished gun-for-hire Jack Sholder replacing the passionate Craven; the film is a quickie cash-in, after all, and you never really forget that. But it's got a solid opening that doesn't do anything to violate the spirit of the original, while never stooping to the level of mere retread (contrast the F13 films, in which 1-4 are essentially remakes of one another).

We begin in the head of Jessie Walsh (Mark Patton), seemingly a high school junior (the 21-year-old actor looks much older than his age, poor soul), newly arrived at 1428 Elm Street, in the now-named town of Springwood. For a reason that's never satisfactorily explained, his only good friend is Lisa Webber (Kim Myers, who does look like a teenager - given that she is 19, this makes sense - but looks even more like a clone of Meryl Streep, to a degree where I kept unconsciously thinking of her character as "Meryl"), a popular rich girl who lives nowhere near 1428 Elm Street, far enough at any rate that she knows nothing about the dreadful events that happened there five years ago.

Someone who does now, however, is Ron Grady (Robert Rusler), the troubled jock who befriends and antagonizes Jessie in gym class, and shares with him the story of Nancy, whose mother committed suicide after locking the girl in the house, the day after Nancy's boyfriend was butchered in the place across the street (thank God we now know how the first one ended, at least).

The interplay between Ron and Jessie is something both odd and interesting, and I'd like to jump around a little bit to talk about it. The first time we ever see Ron, it is when he tries to rip Jessie's pants off during some ill-defined sports game, and there are several seemingly out-of-place shots of Jessie's half-exposed ass for the next few minutes. There's a strong homoerotic subtext to this scene, which would be striking enough (I've never seen an '80s slasher with a homoerotic subtext), except that it doesn't go away. In fact, it gets stronger as the film progresses, culminating in the moment when Jessie tries to hide from Krueger by hiding in Ron's bedroom. Meanwhile, Jessie's strange flirtation with Lisa goes a whole lot of nowhere, including two separate scenes in which he can't bring himself to have sex with her. Then there are the seemingly random references to the tyrannical coach Schneider (Marshall Bell) and his weakness for the flesh of high school boys, ending in a scene that...well, I'm going to hold onto that, but the point being: there are frequent suggestion that Jessie might be gay. But suggestions are all we'll ever get, and I'm not sure if Sholder wasn't comfortable with that element of Chaskin's script, or if the studio wasn't or if Chaskin himself didn't realize what he was doing. What we're left with is a potentially intriguing plot about Krueger manipulating Jessie's sexual confusion to his own ends, coupled with the violence launched against the objects of the boy's homoerotic desire, turned into a barely-developed thread of nothing.

Anyway, Ron's revelation about Nancy ties in uncomfortably with Jessie's chronic nightmares that have been plaguing him ever since he moved in, with their abstract hellscapes; eventually, he has a very specific dream of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund again, given less chance to be menacing than before) standing before him and demanding his body. The following night, Krueger leads him in a dream to the furnace room and shows him the knife glove; Jessie pops awake to find that he is in the furnace room and he does have the knife glove in his hand.

All of this reaches a head when Lisa comes over to help him unpack, and finds Nancy's old diary in a closet. They read it, and Jessie recognizes the evil man in the ugly sweater and old fedora that she describes, and he starts to realize what the audience got pretty quickly: Krueger wants to possess Jessie's body and return to the real world to do his killing once more.

Wes Craven didn't care for that idea one little bit, thinking that it made Krueger just another slasher, and that's a fair observation; but given that, it's treated initially as a reasonable extension of the series mythos as it stands. Jessie is not as strong as Nancy (nor is he written and performed as strong, alas), and it seems right that he should be easily manipulated: between his tortured relationship with his parents, his hard time fitting in at school and the weirdness between him and Lisa, he is basically a more weak-willed version of every teenager ever, and as we know, Krueger likes to stalk teenagers, especially weak ones.

Then, twenty-eight minutes and fifty-odd seconds in, something very stupid happens. Jessie and his dad (Clu Gulager) have been having an argument, as Jessie's mom (Hope Lange) covers up the family bird cage; seconds later, the cage starts rattling and the birds start chirping, and when the cover is removed, they find that one of the lovebirds has killed the other. The surviving bird breaks open the cage and starts flying around and dive-bombing the family.

That's just the stupid part. The very stupid part is that after a few minutes, once Jessie starts to attack the bird back, it blows up. Just flying around and then BOOM and feathers flutter down upon them.

I'm not sure who decided that Freddy Krueger should be able to a) invade a lovebird's dreams, b) possess the lovebird, and more importantly c) make the lovebird blow up like a little fire cracker, but somebody did, and that person is now my nemesis, because he managed to take a pretty decent sequel to a pretty awesome movie, and turn it into something pretty fucking stupid. Because from here on out, the whole movie will be just a series of exploding lovebirds: after this point, Krueger is able to force Jessie to do whatever, and apparently to project dream-reality around Jessie, for there is no other reason to explain why so many things that are so self-evidently dreams should turn into reality.

The biggest offender I can name is a scene that opens with Jessie watching lightning strike his kitchen sink, which drives him to walk to a gay leather bar like something out of Lynch (admittedly, in 1985 nobody knew what made a "David Lynch film"), meet Schneider, and then they're suddenly both in the locker room at the gym (my guess is that sex was had), and Jessie goes off to shower, while Schneider is killed by sports equipment. All well and good as a dream, except that we find out a few minutes later that it actually happened. I remember praising the first film for muddying the transition from reality to dream, but in this film the difference between the two states is not "unclear" so much as it "confusing," and it doesn't change the fact that Freddy's ability to psychokinetically fuck up the real world is above and beyond anything that makes story sense.

It never quite justifies Craven's fears that it would be just another slasher film, although it comes close in a few places: the final showdown, which both is and isn't a Final Girl sequence (it's Lisa versus Freddy with Jessie trapped inside the killer in a way that makes no sense at all); a birthday party where Freddy tears through hapless teens. But mostly, it hews close to the template established by its predecessor: an individual tries to figure out Freddy's game and get around in front of him to stop it. Except, stupider.

The primary difference between the first and second films, after the obvious change that the new writer and director didn't have the intense personal attachment to the material that Craven had, is that there's no logic here. Until the end, everything in A Nightmare on Elm Street made a whole lot of sense in the context of everything else; it was a disciplined story in which all the rules were presented fairly and followed. In Freddy's Revenge, we just get a whole lot of crazy poltergeist setpieces. Hey, Freddy's making the pool boil! Hey, Freddy's setting the toaster on fire! Why Freddy does these things or how is not made clear. It makes the film much less menacing and much more confusing.

Even so, I must give credit where it's due: this is pretty unique in its stupidity. Frankly, it pushes the limits of the "slasher" genre so far that I'm not convinced it's entirely accurate to even call this a slasher. Which is, I hardly need to state, is an objectively good thing. Also, the film has a constant undercurrent of Carrie-esque "all this is happening because of the teenaged protagonist's sexual neuroses" that is, surprisingly, almost completely absent in the slasher film. Whether my tortured "Jessie is gay" reading fits the end film or not, most of the main character's arc is centered around his sexual development, and he is ultimately turned into a tool for killing and mayhem. So here we have something much removed from the tradition sex=death slasher formula: abstain=go crazy. That's progress, after a fashion.

A last note: I was watching this film while waiting for my parents to arrive for lunch. I hadn't quite finished, and so my mother sat and watched the last few minutes, and after it was over, she seemed very confused and asked, "so what happened? Are they dead now?"

"I don't know," I replied as I shook my head in dismay at yet another infinitely predictable and yet utterly incoherent twist ending. "Nor do I care."

Body count: Seven, with an eighth one strongly implied. All but two of them take place in a roughly five-minute span.

Then there's the matter of Freddy himself: he starts out the movie dead, and he ends the movie dead, but he comes to life and dies in between those points. Do we count him? I think not.

Reviews in this series
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)

21 July 2007

SHEER TORTURE

First, I want to mention how very much it amuses me to read review after review proclaiming that Captivity is such a filthy pit of swill that not even the most stalwart masochist could possibly suffer through it, and that it so wholly lacks even a trace of invention that it surely must mark the end of the torture porn genre.

Would that it were so, my little children! But history teaches us otherwise, and given that I'm currently ass-deep in that history, I feel safe in decreeing that no, we are not on the cusp of the end of the torture film. Since 1979, remember, the slasher film has either died or looked to die four separate times: in mid-1984, in 1989, in 1995 (really, those six years were just one long death-spasm) and around 2002 or so, when J-Horror remakes and knock-offs hit the stage. And God only knows if Rob Zombie's Halloween or the proposed Friday the 13th, Part XI (GODDAMNIT) will re-ignite a fifth fucking phase of the damn things.

My point being: the torture film has only been around for four years. It has a lot of death and rebirth to come, especially with Saw IV in the wings.

I can understand, though, wanting Captivity to signify something, because even in the fetid swamp of the torture porn genre, it stands out as a particularly awful movie. Not a particularly disgusting or immoral movie; just a flat-out badly made film. Every time the moral scolds and defenders of human decency get all engorged with rage over the latest new torture film, as we saw with Hostel, Part II and we see again here, I grow a little bit less sympathetic to their whining. Are these two films pleasant? Not at all! But anyone who managed to keep quiet about Saw III doesn't get to say word one about Captivity, which is if anything the most demure film that the genre has yet witnessed, morally if not viscerally. Hell, most '80s slasher films are nastier than Captivity. That's frankly one of the problems with the new film, although certainly not the only one.

I should not be so mean to the viewers who are completely put off by Captivity, for it is Undeniably and Objectively and Needlessly gross. It has, in fact, one of the grossest scenes that I have ever seen in a movie. It's the one big "gore" showpiece in the film, and the biggest torture-porny moment; for the benefit of the less-experienced viewer, I should perhaps say that it seems to be one of the tropes of the genre that every film should have a certain baseline of torturous evil, and then one - and only one! - moment that just pushes everything into the back of beyond. Hostel, Part II had the blood-letting scene, Saw III had the brain-surgery scene, Hostel had a somewhat longish "turn the tables" scene which begins with one character strapped to a chair getting picked apart, ending with him power-tooling the fuck out of his captor.

Here is the big scene from Captivity: the evil masked torturer goes into a refrigerator, takes out several body parts (we must assume, for they are covered in blood, but the only one I would swear to recognizing was an eye, and maybe a finger), puts them in a blender, and forces the heroine-victim to drink the resultant smoothie by means of a funnel. Now, that is extraordinarily distasteful, and "ingesting horrible things" is one of my major gross-out buttons, so I will be honest: I had a bit of a time getting through that scene. But not because it was OMG TEH AWFUL IMMORAL TORTURE scene. It was because it was fucking icky. "Icky," I think, is very hard to equate with "immoral." Let us speak frankly: that is gross on the order of a pair of 9-year-old boys trying to top each other in grossing out some 9-year-old girl. And having once been a 9-year-old boy, that's not the most horrible thing I've ever imagined or heard imagined.

It is the first moment at which I had the profoundly clear thought that Captivity was being made at the mental level of a 9-year-old, but once that thought was in my head, I could not dislodge it, and it quickly spread backwards to answer all of the stupid, stupid things that had already gone on. This film, in its execution and imagination and twerpy misogyny, is precisely the film that every 9-year-old boy in history would make. That is why we do not let 9-year-old boys touch film equipment.

The film opens with a scene contrasting the really confusing death of one character, presented in all its ritualistic glory (it involves replacing blood with what appears to be diesel fuel), with the equally ritualistic cosmetic practices of Jennifer (Elisha Cuthbert, one of the least engaging actresses now living), a model/actress/perfumist. While I was watching this sequence, with its comically overdone close-ups and bizarrely arrhythmic editing, here was my exact thought: "Good lord, it's a student film!" I suppose I thought this because it bore an uncanny resemblance to an actual student film that I actually worked on once upon a time. A few moments later (it's a long goddamn scene, for something that's basically just there to show the credits over it), I felt really awful for thinking that: I know many people who were film students, who are film students, and none of them regularly produced anything nearly as cheerfully inept as Captivity.

The story that follows is a massive wreck, concerning the rather abrupt and perfunctory way that Jennifer is kidnapped by a man who keeps videotaping her in a seemingly crowded club, and then the way that she is tossed in a dark concrete room and subjected to the least-violent and most annoying torture that has ever been put inside an allegedly serious horror film. It's a terribly bad film and a terribly bad torture porno, and that's before the third act, which I shan't spoil, except to say that it feels really obvious that the screenwriters didn't have it planned out before they got there. Along the way, there are all sorts of extremely thoughtful shots of video cameras and cosmetic ads and things that I suspect are probably supposed to be part of an overarching critique of the blah blah male gaze blah blah female sexuality as commodity, and as bad as it is that none of it works per se, it's doubly awful that this has been shoehorned into a bottom-tier horror picture. Again, it feels like the worst student filmmaking ever, yet director Roland Joffé has, in a different life, given us The Killing Fields and the Palme d'Or winning The Mission. And a few pick-up scenes in Super Mario Bros.

So yes, I am offended, more than any torture film has ever offended me before, but it's not because this film is depraved - by the midway point I would have welcomed depravity with open arms. I'm offended because this is just plain old shitty filmmaking.

1/10