30 September 2007

THE COWARD ROBERT FORD

So here's what was supposed to happen: I was going to put this review up last week, as a counterpoint to Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but that magnificently-titled bastard only opened in four cities in all the world, and my sweet home Chicago wasn't among them. "No problem," thinks I, "I'll just hold it 'til next weekend." Which would have worked out a hell of a lot better if TAoJJbtCRF had opened this weekend, but apparently we in the Midwest don't get to like art-westerns. Truth be told, I thought about holding this for yet another week, but you know what? Screw it.

In 1962, John Ford, the greatest and most important director of Westerns to ever live, closed the book on his favored genre with a single, incredibly famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That line was spoken by a newspaper reporter who was not prepared to allow inconvenient truths to get in the way of a good myth.

Thirteen years earlier, the finest newspaperman in the history of the cinema had already beaten him to the punch, in a film that took one of the most enduring Western myths of them all and stripped every last molecule of romanticism out of it: Samuel Fuller, making his directorial debut at 36 years of age with the knockout B-picture I Shot Jesse James.

By the time he started working on this project, it had been some nineteen years since a teenaged Sam Fuller got a job as reporter with the New York Journal, and the skills he learned then stuck with him for the rest of his life. From Pickup on South Street to White Dog, he always had a reporter's eye for documenting the comings and goings of people, with immediacy and urgency, making movies on the quick and dirty that would seem like trash if they weren't so aggressively honest.

In I Shot Jesse James, Fuller turns that reporter's eye to two of the most notorious men of their age, and deflates them down to human scale. In popular legend, Jesse James was the Robin Hood of the West, a great hero-scoundrel, and Robert Ford was his best friend, and a vile, cowardly plotter who killed Jesse in the most shameful and villainous way possible. The film is much more pragmatic: these are two criminals, one of whom killed the other for enough money to get out of being a criminal, and he felt kind of bad about it afterwards, but mostly because it didn't turn out to his advantage. Nothing mythic, just petty human drama.

The film's opening two shots do much to drive this point home. The first image we see after the studio logo is a wanted poster with a drawing of James's profile, offering $10,000 for his capture, dead or alive. The folk singer Robin Short starts singing the opening lines of the traditional "Ballad of Jesse James," so that the first words we hear in all the film are "Jesse James was a man and he killed many men."

There are two things going on here: first, Fuller wastes no time in reminding us that the hero Jesse James is a murderer and a thief. Second, both the ballad and the wanted poster are traditional iconography - they are part of the legend. This second meaning becomes important after the credits have ended (and such credits: panning off of the wanted poster to other posters on the wall with the names of the cast and crew, ending up at the wanted poster again. Besides being interesting and different, I like how it implicates the filmmakers in the mise en scène). From the wanted poster, on which Jesse faces to the left in profile, there's a whip cut to the right, and we see Jesse himself (Reed Hadley), on the left side of the frame and looking to the right. What we've seen is the iconic image of Jesse James being essentially destroyed (whip cuts are violent, yo) and replaced by the flesh-and-blood version of the same, and the flesh-and-blood version is a mean looking son of a bitch in this moment, as the camera tracks back and reveals that he's in the middle of robbing a bank.

From that moment on, Fuller will never once traffic in myth or greatness: the whole film will be about little men. One little man in particular: Bob Ford (John Ireland), whose murder of Jesse comes quite early on, about one-quarter of the way through the story, and happens for the blandest and most pragmatic of reasons: he needs money to marry a sexy showgirl (Barbara Britton), and he can get it quickly if he kills his friend, at the same time buying amnesty for his myriad crimes.

That Ford shoots James in the back is a sign of many things, and while cowardice is one of them, it's not overwhelming. On the simplest story level, Ford is aware that James would beat him in any other circumstance, and in this particular version of the story he's really not clever enough to think about this in moral terms, about how it's not a "fair fight" (indeed, this film's Bob Ford is quite dull-minded, always - always - reacting after he shoots James, never leading. Indeed, choosing to betray his friend is the only positive action he ever undertakes). There is also a strong homoerotic subtext, as the first moment that Ford nearly kills James is when he's bathing the other man's back in an oh-so-suggestive scene, proof once again that cheap genre films could always sneak more past the censors than tony studio fare. The moment when Ford shoots James is shot in many similar angles, and it's simply impossible to watch the one scene without thinking of the other. It's surely reading too much to think that Ford acts because he is full of self-loathing over his sexual urges, but the rest of the film flows a bit smoother if we think of him killing one "lover" to make room for another.*

It's after James's death that the film becomes something truly exceptional. Until now, it has simply been a revisionist history (although in 1949, that would have made it fairly radical). It tells a familiar story in different terms than we're used to. In the remaining hour, the film focuses with intimate detail upon Bob Ford's guilt, and his anger about being seen as a villain - particularly in two of the film's key scenes, the ones that most distinctly draw the line between the film as "reality" compared to the already-entrenched myths of the day: first, Ford plays himself in a dramatic re-enactment of the shooting, but when the time comes to shoot his prop gun at the fake Jesse, he flees; second, he demands that a roving troubadour sings the entirety of "The Ballad of Jesse James," even after the troubadour realises who his audience is.

The transition between these two parts of the film is an extraordinary sequence in which almost all of the plot of the film happens offscreen during a montage. Ford paces in his jail cell, as newspaper headlines are superimposed, detailing his trial, his sentencing, his stay of execution and his acquittal. Fuller the newspaperman must have enjoyed this little part, where the final component of the myth - the coward getting away scot-free - is brought up and disposed of in a few bold black words.

Instead of that story, the film spends the rest of its time exploring Bob Ford, humanising him (which is not to say that it makes him sympathetic, at least not consistently; for to be human is to be sometimes unbearable, non?), and watching him slowly realise that what happened was more than just him killing his best friend and later regretting it; he turned a paperback superstar into a martyr. In other words, Ford learns that he is part of a myth, and he finds it very hard to square with the fact that, in his own head, he is a person. In watching that person walk through that myth, Fuller points out the absurdity of the entire concept of modern myth-making, and kicks off the grand tradition of subversive neo-Westerns.

Now, it is only fair to mention that although it is a very solidly-directed film, it doesn't look like a Sam Fuller film (he wouldn't nail his signature style down for two more films). But as a first film, this nigh unto unimpeachable, and it feels every inch a Fuller project, even if it doesn't quite look the part. He was always an iconoclastic director, and it is well that he would start out his career by exploding an entire genre. Here was born a pulp maverick, and one of the greatest film directors in American history.

28 September 2007

DIE ALREADY!

In 2002, two similar movies opened, one in the United States and one in Great Britain, both looking at the aftereffects of a virus that turns people into unstoppable cannibals, what we might call "biohazard zombie" movies. The British one, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, was a stylistically radical tone poem of a horror movie, essentially reigniting an entire subgenre. The American one, Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil, was...well, it was a Paul W.S. Anderson film, and a video game adaptation to boot, so it was clamorous and trashy.

This year, each of those films got a sequel: 28 Weeks Later was apocalyptic and shocking, while the trilogy-capping Resident Evil: Extinction is, if you can believe it, clamorous and trashy. In its favor, it is neither as clamorous nor as trashy as the original, nor 2004's Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Is everyone familiar with the saying, "damning with faint praise?" Then let's move on.

Now, there are probably people in this world who liked the first two movies, and in all fairness, Extinction does things that, to those people, would probably seem awfully clever. The opening scene starts off copying the opening scene of the first film shot-for-shot, and given our expectations from the second film, it seems more than possible that it's a flashback; then when things start to get screwy, it starts to seem more like a dream; then it turns out that we're watching a clone of our heroine, Alice (Milla Jovovich), being forced to re-enact the events of the first film as a test of her clonish abilities. When she fails, her body is tossed in a pit full of glassy-eyed Alice corpses, in the one legitimately arresting image from the film. So basically, I mean to say that this film trades extensively on the audience's assumed knowledge of the first two films to set up expectations, which it then undercuts and otherwise plays around with, and as such it is a pretty nervy thing. The default mode of the sequel is to recap and repeat the original but Extinction (and to a lesser degree, Apocalypse) instead goes for deconstruction, and that's actually sort of impressive. Unlike the great majority of sequels, you could never accuse it of being the same thing all over again. Of course, since it follows a pair of crap films it pretty much must be crap itself, but at least it's different crap.

See, while the first two strip-mined the zombie genre for all it was worth (and the Alien series, but what crappy horror doesn't?), Extinction turns to the post-apocalyptic movies along the Mad Max template, and perhaps it is just my own ignorance, but I really can't think of another Mad Max/zombie movie hybrid. It's about five years since the end of the second film, and the virus that first killed everybody in that video gamey underground lab before killing everybody in that video gamey city has gotten out (How, you ask? Because, as the narration tells us, the Umbrella Corporation couldn't keep it under control. Specific!) and turned the whole of the world into a desert wasteland (the virus, you see, evaporates water, or through some other mechanism dries up lakes and oceans. I am not making this up, and I would be embarrassed if I was). The few people that are alive, live in nomadic caravans, killing zombies and dying one at a time, except for the scientists and bureaucrats living in comfort in the Umbrella Corporation's international bunkers. We focus in on the Nevada/Utah desert, and can I just saw how bullshit it is that if you make the whole world a desert, you set your movie in one of the few places that's already a sandy wasteland? I mean, how much cooler is it to see a desert around, like, Portland? A whole lot of slightly-recognizable actors follow the lead of Claire (Ali Larter, in a role precisely tuned to her level of fame and talent) moving from outpost to outpost, always running from the undead, and eventually bumping into Alice in a leather duster and some sort leather garter belt. Eventually they're in Las Vegas, mere feet from the lair of Umbrella's chief of research, Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen) and the plot wraps up after continuing the series' noble tradition of crapping all over biological science.

So much for the screenplay, written like the first two by Anderson, with the precise minimum of story and character necessary to keep the set pieces sufficiently far apart. That's not what these films are about. These films are about fight sequences and pumping techno music and lots of gore that you can't really see through the aggressively rat-a-tat-tat editing. This film is directed by Russell Mulcahy, and if I pointed out that he is most famous for directing Highlander, would that get you a bit excited? And if I then point out that he is next most famous for directing Highlander II: The Quickening, would you start bawling like a child? Extinction isn't as bad as that second film - for what could be? - but it's along those lines. Very much like the first two films, the action is incomprehensibly shot from angles that don't mesh together at all, and the moments in between are just gotten through with no sort of art whatsoever. On the other hand, the action hasn't been shot like it's in a video game, even if it's been structured that way (in fact, the script is the most game-like of all three movies), and that makes it a little bit less annoying if still not "exciting."

On the other hand, I'd be sad if I didn't mention that Eugenio Caballero's production design is really good. I mean, really fucking good. I mean, "oh, this is the guy who won an Oscar last year for Pan's Labyrinth, and his work on this film is perhaps a step up from there" really fucking good. As I mentioned, I haven't seen every post-apocalypse film out there, but I've certainly never seen one whose post-apocalyptic world is as fully realised on every inch of every set.

Nor should I fail to mention that, just like the first two films, this provides a simply great role for Milla Jovovich. She has just one mode as an actress - look hot and kick ass - but I think it's fair to say that nobody has ever done that better than she does. I'm not sure if the world is a better place for having a great ass-kicking hottie in the movies, but I think socio-moral goodness is not the right avenue by which to appreciate Jovovich's shallow but very enjoyable skills.

3/10

27 September 2007

SHOCK AND AWE

Recall the most unpleasant film you have ever seen. Was it a particularly graphic Holocaust documentary? If not, you have never seen a film nearly as unpleasant as The Devil Came on Horseback.

Of course, that is sort of the point.

Some facts: in early 2004, former US Marine Brian Steidle took a position in southern Sudan monitoring a newly brokered ceasefire in that country's civil war, on behalf of the African Union. From the moment he arrived, he heard rumours of violence in the Darfur region in the west of the country, with the SLM (Sudan Liberation Movement) and JEM (Justice and Equality Movement) rebel organisations agitating for increased representation for Darfur in the government in Khartoum, and the government's forces, primarily an alliance of nomadic Arab horsemen known as the Janjaweed, "devils on horses."

Armed only with cameras and notepads, Steidle and his fellow monitors inched their way as closely as possible to Darfur as they could get within their officially assigned region, just as the Janjaweed began to launch a series of unfathomably violent raids on the African Muslims living in the region. In no time, their mission was revised: go into Darfur, and figure out what was going on.

As we know well know, what was going on was a brutal genocide against the Africans living in Darfur, and Steidle and his comrades were right in the thick of things, reaching village after village full of burned buildings and gruesomely butchered corpses. After six months of waiting for someone - the UN, the United States - to take the initiative in sending armed forces to defuse the conflict, Steidle went home in disgust at his impotence, where he almost accidentally began communicating with Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist noted for his Africa reporting, on the Darfur situation in particular. Without apparently trying to, Steidle became an outspoken activist, meeting with members of Congress and the Bush administration in addition to speaking in front of public gatherings, all in the name of raising awareness of the situation on the ground in Darfur.

This is the story told in the film from the perspective of late 2006, when the documentary directors Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern chose to use Steidle's personal history as a vehicle by which to do a little consciousness-raising of their own. The film they produced is certainly not flawless, but for its first half it is nevertheless one of the most direct and shattering documentaries in history, and certainly the most important film produced in this country about the current troubles in Africa.

This is done in the simplest and least cinematic way possible: the directors take a wide cross-section of Steidle's photographs, and edit them into a slideshow over his narration. I do not know if they went out of their way to choose the most visceral photographs, or if they merely chose the most representative, but I can say that either way, the collection of images that make up the first forty-odd minutes of The Devil Came on Horseback are among the most horrifying I have seen in all my life. In terms of cinema, I can only name one film, Alain Resnais's concentration camp short Night and Fog, that traffics in more unbearable imagery than this; and there aren't many places in the media that are willing to show such explicit documentary photos. At the risk of seeming hyperbolic, these are images unlike virtually anything I have ever seen.

In other words, The Devil Came on Horseback isn't much of a date movie,* nor is it a good film to check out when you're just in the mood for a picture. It is in fact not a movie that any person could ever plausibly "want" to see. But it is a movie altogether worth seeing anyway, because of how important its goals are and how well it succeeds at those goals. This film is unashamedly didactic: it wishes to educated a largely ignorant American population on the situation in Darfur, where it comes from and where it is going. I consider myself both well-educated and well-read, having followed the Darfur story on and off for three years now, and I still left the film having learned many sobering things. There are very few movies that are legitimately and objectively "important" - only one or two a year, at the very most - and this is exactly that sort of film. It is shameful that so many people have spent such a long time ignoring Darfur, and at it's finest moments this film makes it impossible to keep on in ignorance.

After all that, it seems like the most churlish thing I have ever done to turn around and complain about all the ways that the film qua filmmaking stumbles and falls. Primarily, I'm thinking about how the film rather sneakily changes focus on us, without actually changing focus. It's not obvious while you're being blindsided by one hellish image after another, but this isn't actually a documentary about Darfur: it's a documentary about Brian Steidle's observations on Darfur. As such, when it hits the point in its narrative that he came back the US, the film comes back right along with him, and we spend most of the second half hearing the story of his fruitless meetings in Washington, the times that the Sudanese government has sent plants to his speeches to try to discredit him, and his frustration watching the West drag its feet over this issue. All of which is certainly worthwhile material, and it gives some very important context about why the genocide hasn't been stopped, but it feels so terribly prosaic and procedural after the first part of the film, even as it is probably vital for our well-being that we're given a break from all that misery.

The other significant misstep, and one that is pervasive throughout, is that Sundberg and Stern see fit to tart up the production with a great deal of low-budget eye candy, I would guess to keep the audience interested in the goings-on (which, since those goings-on consist of narration and stills, is probably a fair goal). There is a CGI map of Sudan that they keep trotting out, every time that Steidle mentions a new physical location, whooshing in on whatever city or region he talks about. And since he traveled around a great deal, we see that map much too often. There are a lot of transitions like that, using piped-in sound and computer editing tricks to make the film seem more exciting, and that really just strikes me as sad, as though the directors don't trust the material to keep our attention. I truly can't imagine how anybody could drift off in the face of these photos. Look away, certainly, but lose interest? They are much to powerful and awful for that.

8/10

26 September 2007

LITTLE BOXES ON THE HILLSIDE

There are films that are great because they treat upon deep human truths with passion and sensitivity. There are films that a great because they engage with the language of filmmaking and broaden the vocabulary of the cinema. Then, there are films that are really rather good, solely because they have a luminescent performance anchoring an otherwise indifferent project.

King of California has not one, but two such performances. It is not high art, but it is better than just any old bland little nice movie due to the extraordinary work of its central duo: Evan Rachel Wood and Michael Douglas, as an embittered teenager working herself to a frazzle in suburban Los Angeles, and her wild-eyed, wild-haired father, hot on the trail of centuries-old Spanish gold and fresh from a mental institution.

By any yardstick you would care to use, these are two very good actors in general, and while neither of them is at there all-time best here, they're both extremely close. Wood, for her part, gets to play to her strengths in all the ways that Across the Universe didn't allow for: I tend to think that at her best, the actress seems to perpetually teeter between being so frustrated that she breaks down and cries, and being so frustrated that she breaks down and hits the other characters in the face with an axe. This performance, especially in the first half of the film, shows better than just about any of her other roles I can think of how well she captures that angry vulnerability that, as far as I am aware, no other actor of her generation does nearly so well.

But it's Michael Douglas who steals every single frame that he occupies, and to explain why I shall have to resort to a plot synopsis: this film is about Miranda (Wood), a 16-year-old whose mother left years ago and whose father has spent two years in a mental institution after trying to hang himself (leaving the girl to find him). After spending all that time watching the orange grove surrounding their isolated home turn into a field of indistinguishable houses and chain stores, Charlie (Douglas) returns, with a crazy beard and bright eyes and a copy of a 17th Century monk's diary of an ill-fated gold train that was lost somewhere in the valley. He convinces Miranda to help him follow the train's ancient path from backyard to golf courses to the site of a brand-new Costco, restoring her joie de vivre even as he costs her a job and a house.

Let's not mince words: Charlie is a deranged and perhaps dangerous figure on paper, destabilising the decidedly nontraditional but clearly functional life that Miranda has scraped together for herself. Douglas's performance doesn't hide that fact, exactly, but nor does he foreground it. Douglas plays Charlie as an enthusiast: he is at once all of naïve, innocent, playful, and none of them. Never for a moment does the actor of the film make the mistake of going for the invariably dreadful "crazy people are the only sane ones" card, but Douglas is so magnetic a personality that we simply must like him. I cannot help but hear echoes of James Norton, Emperor of the United States, or James Reavis, Baron of Arizona, in the title King of California: the former a well-loved character on the streets of San Francisco and the latter a scalawag who was turned into a charming trickster by Sam Fuller in a 1950 film; like Charlie, both men had a dangerous edge to them that was swallowed up by their personality and turned into something positive. Without Douglas, I cannot imagine this film being anything but sour sentimentality; with him, it is a delicate but completely successful story of a family beating the uncaring world.

"Sour sentimentality" doesn't really get it right, though. Without those actors, this would be a rather dodgy and smug indie satire, if anything. I'll give writer-director Mike Cahill this much credit: he is not afraid of pointed specificity in skewering the suburban landscape. Costco and McDonald's and PetSmart and Applebee's are all given supporting roles in the story, in place of the hyper-generic stores that usually end up in low-budget (or hell, big-budget) movies, not simply their familiar iconography, but as stand-ins for what they represent: an impersonal way of living for people who haven't much in the way of imagination. Even in the context of Douglas's attractive performance, it's hard not to be won over even more by Charlie's bubbly enthusiasm for the seemingly endless aisles of everything you might want to buy at a Costco; his reaction is contrasted sharply to the dull suburbanites who mill around the store and call full attention to its industrial warehouse elements (it helps that Charlie's scenes are all lit and framed to keep the most grotesque visual elements of the club store experience out of sight and mind).

But honestly, does the world really need another indie comedy satire of the suburban lifestyle? Even giving the film points for not taking place in New Jersey (I swear to God, I can die happy without ever seeing another film about how artificial life is in suburban New Jersey), I don't see how anybody who might see a film like King of California needs another object lesson in the materialist, consumer hell of the strip-mall and the chain-restaurant and the residential development. I can't help but recall that Evan Rachel Wood was herself in a film that covered awfully similar territory just last summer, Down in the Valley, and at least that film couched its cultural satire in a genre experiment.

On the whole, though, you can either damn King of California for that, or you can enjoy it for the rest of the things it does well. In the large, this is a nice film without being cloying, and a pro-family film that doesn't come across as insulated and conservative. It may not set the world on fire, but I can't imagine how you could use that as a criticism.

7/10

25 September 2007

THE SHADOW OF DEATH

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) has just told his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), over the phone, that their only son has been found dead in a field. She wants to come to New Mexico to see the remains, he wants her to stay in Tennessee (he knows by now that what's left of their boy isn't something that would give her any sort of comfort). He asks her to trust him, and she hurls that word "trust" right back, reminding him that she "trusted" their son would not die as he followed his dad's path into the military. All of this is shot in completely unexceptional close-ups, crosscutting as dramatic phone conversations do in the movies. Then Joan slams the phone down and the scene cuts to a shot pointing directly down on her head: we find that she has been sitting on the floor against a wall, the end table with the phone receive knocked over, and small cellophane-wrapped balls that appear to be from a candy dish scattered all around her feet. The shot holds for a few seconds, and it takes us most of that time to realise that we're seeing the aftermath of whatever emotional explosion happened when Hank told her the news.

I quote this moment from early in the second act of Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah at such length because I think it is very important: if not to the overall scope of the movie, then certainly to the development of the director's art. After the slack-jawed bombast of Crash, Haggis is beginning to learn subtlety.

Think about it: an Oscar-winning actress gets a scene in which she learns her only living child has been murdered. The director of Crash, working in obvious Oscarbait mode, surely goes for the Big Moment. But the director of In the Valley of Elah only shows the relatively quiet fallout, and he films it as vaguely as he possibly can, and this makes it far more upsetting; for it makes us imagine the mother's torment for ourselves.

Such moments do not abound in the movie, but it is the case that this is altogether a much more delicate work than most of us Crash-haters were hoping for. The story follows Hank's journey to Fort Rudd for the first week or so of November, 2004 - the run-up to the election, that is - when he receives word that his son Mike, newly returned from an 18-month stint in Iraq, has gone AWOL. In New Mexico, Hank wanders about looking for clues, finding not much of anything, when the local police find a dismembered, burned body off the side of a country highway.

There are three levels for the plot to work on, and it does so consistently throughout the film: first, it is a procedural, and a really bleak one at that; second, it is a story of a father who is filled with guilt over leading his son on the path that led ultimately to his death; third, it is a study of how difficult it can be for men in war, particularly such a grueling and pointless war as the Iraq occupation, to reacquaint themselves with normal human society once they leave the battlefield. All of these strands run throughout the film, and while it is not always clear in the moment what any given incident means, by the end we find that there is a perfectly coherent arc that ties all of the individual scenes into one great whole. I would like to say that this is therefore a film that rewards those who pay close attention, but that's not quite true: anything that's really important gets repeated at least once, and we are generally watching the dots get connected more than we are connecting them ourselves.

Not to mention, there's not a whole lot in that schematic that isn't specifically called out in dialogue, which is direct and heavy-handed after the writer's manner (I am still sad that I once thought Million Dollar Baby was the work of a top-notch writer, although to be fair I haven't had the guts to watch it since Crash). For example the reason that I can be so sure that the film is in part about Hank's guilt is because at one point his wife says (I paraphrase): "He went in the army because you wanted it," and at one point another character says "You don't have to feel guilty. Your son knew you loved him."

The script is workmanlike, but not a failure, and there are two very significant reasons that the film works above and beyond what Haggis-the-writer does well or poorly. The first of those is the acting: not Sarandon, who gets hardly any screentime, nor Charlize Theron, who gets much screentime as the civilian police detective investigating Mike's death but shuffles around with less vitality than I have ever seen her put into a performance ever. I refer to the significant cast of semi- and unknown actors playing Mike's squad, all of them perfect little studies of damaged, unguarded masculinity. And I really, really refer to Jones as Hank, one of the great underused actors playing a role that fits him as well as any role in his career ever has. For a prestige picture by a notoriously word-happy auteur, In the Valley of Elah has one of the most silent protagonists in any modern Hollywood film I can name. Hank spends most of the film sitting and looking around and thinking, and Jones takes those three actions and turns them into a heartbreaking figure who spends the entire film pretending he doesn't feel anything, and at every single moment being betrayed by the depths of infinite sadness in his eyes. There's something about men with deeply lined faces that gives them a natural fatigued sorrow, and Jones has an ability practically unmatched in his cohort for conveying emotion solely through the position of his brow. He is not perhaps at his career peak here, but it's an awfully close call.

And then there's the second reason, the cinematography, by a man who would be high in the running for the title of "best living cinematographer" if we ever wanted to compile such a list, Roger Deakins, with his first project released in this country since Jarhead over two years ago. Of the many things he does well, one of the best is externalising emotional devastation, and while his work here is not very showy, it is very desolate indeed. Not much of the film, if anything, is "pretty," but all of it is appropriately bleak, particularly the interiors lit with awful fluorescent bulbs or the night exteriors lit with awful sodium vapor bulbs. The film uses a very limited color palette, primarily earth-tones, and much of that is desaturated. This all creates a world that is kind of ugly and it is very easy to believe that ugly things happen here. The film looks like a wasteland, which is just exactly as it should be.

So all in all, this is mostly effective, if not altogether imaginative, and then CrashHaggis wakes from his slumber for the last 10 or 15 minutes (starting at the moment that we learn why Mike was killed), and he grabs his cast-iron skillet with "THEME" molded into the bottom, and he just starts hammering the audience in the face. I'll not spoil it. Let's just say that you're just beginning to regain the ability to focus your vision when the credits end, and the very final image is of a mangled body in Iraq with the words "For the children" underneath. I hate it when people that I agree with politically are assholes.

7/10

24 September 2007

DON'T SEE THIS MOVIE FOR ANY REASON. THERE. THAT'S MY PULLQUOTE.

When I say that Good Luck Chuck is not quite as funny as losing a testicle to cancer, I am not using hyperbole. At least it's possible to enjoy gallows humor during chemotherapy; during Good Luck Chuck's wretched 100 minutes, I laughed one time, and it wasn't even a proper laugh, it was one of those sad little things where you actually say "ha ha" out loud.

The gag - I remember it well, being as it was the only time I laughed - involved a fat man hitting a child in the head with a Frisbee and deadpanning "nice save" by way of apology. Now, if that's the best joke in the film, I hope you can imagine what some of the worst jokes were like. Or rather, I hope that you cannot, because only a truly unhappy, crabbed mind could possibly imagine most of these jokes.

It is a customary argument of mine - oddly, not one I use very often on this blog - that there is no such thing as a "bad idea," only an idea that has been poorly executed, but Good Luck Chuck puts that theory to the test. Charlie (Dane Cook) - only called "Chuck" one time outside of the title - is cursed at a make-out party when he is ten years old and won't show a goth chick his penis, that he will never find love. This manifests itself, 22 years later, in all of the women he sleeps with finding their soul-mate immediately after. As women start lining up to screw Charlie, his evil fat friend Stu (Dan Fogler) thinks this is the best situation in life, but all Charlie wants is the hand of the lovely, accident-prone penguin-keeper at the local zoo, Cam (Jessica Alba), and he begins looking for a way out of the curse so that he can settle down with her.

Perhaps if you hopped in a time machine with that story and a gun, and gave the one to Ernst Lubitsch while you pointed the other one at his head, he might be able to turn it into a funny movie. But we don't have Ernst Lubitsch now; instead we have people like Mark Helfrich, an editor making his directorial debut (I am always shocked by how awful editors are in the director's chair), a man whose sense of comedy seems to consist of three points:

1) Bare breasts are funny
2) Dane Cook's naked ass is funnier
3) Dan Fogler screaming sexual euphemisms is funniest

Not since the truly evil Because I Said So have I seen a film so invested in the false notion that loudness equals wit. I think that Stu might be one of the most awful characters in current cinema, a shrieking misogynist on one hand (where we are, I believe, meant to laugh with him) and an ugly fatty on the other (where we are meant to laugh at him). He is a perfect storm of lowest-common denominator frat boy "humor": tits are funny because they're hot! and man-tits are funny because they're gross! And it's all wrapped up in a noisome package that delivers every gag like an icepick into your temple. Not stabbed in-and-out, mind - the icepick is jammed in and left there, and the next joke is like another icepick added to the first, so that by the end of the film your head is full of icepicks, like the lead Cenobite in Hellraiser.

Now, while it's fun and awfully easy to mock Dan Fogler, I only do it because he has so many gags that aren't funny, and I know how to deal with that. His co-star is a trickier matter, because he has gags that aren't gags. The internet surely does not need another disquisition on Dane Cook's terminal unfunniness, and I honestly haven't got anything to say on the topic. What's to say? Arguing why Dane Cook isn't funny is like arguing why Ike Eisenhower wasn't funny: the idea of "humor" doesn't really exist in the same circle as his persona. Nothing that Cook does has the appearance, however vaguely, of being what we classically understand to be a gag, and if his given profession wasn't "stand-up comic," I don't suppose that anyone would would understand that comedy was his motivation. Instead, he just seems to consist of the most unpleasant smirk in the history of filmed entertainment, and that smirk, which apparently indicates "I am being amusing," pushes the man squarely in the rarefied field of actors that I simply can't stand to look at without wishing harm upon them.

It's a hell of a thing to make a movie that can actually, soberly be called a waste of Jessica Alba's talent, but being pitched in between those two boys, and being given the task of adding gratuitous slapstick to every third scene, these are beneath the dignity of any human being. Which isn't actually the same as wasting her talent, but it's close enough.

The slapstick, man. The slapstick. It's one thing to be a dreadful T&A sex comedy: that genre is dreadful by its nature, the work of Judd Apatow and his protégés notwithstanding. But when slapstick is done poorly - and make absolutely no mistake, it's done very poorly here, as acted and as staged and as conceived (entire scenes seem to exist only so Alba will have things to fall against) - there is quite possibly nothing in all of comedy more unbearable, as anyone who has suffered through a terrible third-tier Three Stooges knockoff from the earlier '40s can attest. So when mediocre sex comedy and bad slapstick are merged? Comedy Armageddon. It's crossing the streams, and you know what happens when you cross the streams. All life as you know it stops instantaneously and every molecule in your body explodes at the speed of light.

Meanwhile, I'd like to return your attention to the poster up top. If you have maybe not seen the image it cribs from, please click here. Please be aware that cover photo was shot the day that John Lennon was killed. Please be aware that the film's producer has justified the poster on the grounds that the original was a romantic & funny photo, which makes it a natural to parody with a romantic comedy. Are you angry right now? You should be.

2/10

Then, at the end, Dane Cook goes down on a stuffed toy penguin. A scene jammed into the film much like this sentence is jammed into the review. Good lord, I hate movies.

21 September 2007

LADY VENGEANCE

Update: Thanks to everyone who caught the weird cut-and-paste error in the sixth paragraph. I fucking hate Blogger.

Now, I loves me some Jodie Foster, and I loves me some Neil Jordan almost as much. So the general bland badness of their first-ever collaboration, The Brave One, is not just disappointing, it feels like an active betrayal.

It's not, of course. In fact, it's fairly easy to figure out what attracted everyone to this project, and why they thought it was going to turn out to be a really powerful study of violence and catharsis in America. It's just that they were wrong.

The plot is 100% pure Death Wish pablum: Erica Bain (Foster), NPR-esque radio personality and chronicler of New York's romantic history of dilapidation and decay, is out walking with her comically ideal fiancé (Naveen Andrews), when he gets beaten to death and she winds up in a coma. Three weeks later, she comes out of it and goes vigilante on the city's ass, killing anybody who makes her feel "unsafe."

Now, Death Wish is not a very good movie, but there's a zesty trashiness to its exploitation that makes it kind of fun if you're in exactly the right mood (unlike e.g. Death Wish 3, the kind of bad movie that disproves the existence of a loving God). The Brave One is sort of trashy, and it's sort of exploitative, but it is not even a little bit zesty, and this proves to be the film's undoing.

A quick glance at Neil Jordan's CV reveals that he makes one kind of movie, or perhaps I should say he makes many kinds of movies that all have the same mood: a kind of sad fatigue plaguing low-key (and typically low-class) schlubs. That's mostly what's going on here: Erica Bain is a bit too "successful New York art-type" to be a schlub, but she is awfully low-key and fatigued and sad, even before her grim encounter with the hooligans. The problem is that almost all of Jordan's films 'til now have been artsy little chamber dramas in the guise of genre films, and if there's one thing that you'd really rather keep your violent revenge fantasy from being, it's "artsy." That implies that you actually intend for people to take your film very seriously, and if you want people to take your film seriously, you had better not make a film as casually racist and morally diabolical as The Brave One.

Broadly speaking, a revenge film can come in two flavors: rousing and pandering, playing to the crowd's blood lust and giving us our sleazy thrills (I Spit on Your Grave), or hand-wringing studies of guilt and ambivalence that remind us of the terrible psychic toll of committing any murder, even a just one (Munich). Now, both of those kinds of film have their place, I certainly don't want to argue otherwise. But they are fundamentally different, and The Brave One is the work of a filmmaking team with the script for the first kind of revenge film and the desire to make the second kind. This can work - Tarantino got a lot of mileage out of flipping between modes in Kill Bill, for one - but in the current film, there's just too much thematic confusion for the end film to function as much of anything. Everything about Erica's vigilante career suggests that we're supposed to find it exhilarating - the cartoonishly evil villains, the loving close-ups of her gun - but so much of the film is given over to mournful close-ups of Erica's tormented face, and her increasingly ragged narration/radio performances which indicate an ever-growing level of disgust at the idea of vigilantism, it becomes impossible to read the film as mere entertainment. Basically, it's too unpleasantly stern to be exploitation, and too bloodthirsty to be drama. True, this means it is a dismayingly appropriate product of our country's degraded views on torture, but not a very good commentary.

(The original ending might have been enough to tip it into drama - the ending as filmed is ball-shatteringly inappropriate on every level - but even then I think it would have been a band-aid on the film, rather than a fix).

To give credit where it's due, this profound disconnect means that Erica, the primary embodiment of all this ambivalence, turns out to be one hell of a good role for a good actress, and Jodie Foster is more than good, especially in this sort of part. There's something that she does in this film that I can't entirely explain in words, but it's sort of like she turns her face off and gives the impression that her whole body is drooping, without actually doing so. The point (as the many condescending voiceovers make clear) is that "Erica" never really came out of the coma, that what remains is a sort of blankness that has had all of her sense of identity, tied to her sense of "her" New York, literally beaten out of her. That could have been the basis of a really nifty film, but all that remains is Foster's performance, and she nails it. You don't get to say, "her performance is without personality" and mean it as a compliment very often, but that's what Foster does, and it's both perfect and scary.

Terrence Howard, her co-star, is certainly a capable actor, but he's ill-served by the character he has to play, the homicide cop who gets to know and like Erica before he starts to suspect she's behind the killings in his city. There are a lot of places that cliché can go, and in this case Detective Mercer is too inconsistently conceived (he's as brilliant or as dull as the story requires for its continued forward motion), and given too many heaping spoonfuls of awkward exposition to be playable. The third act doesn't do the character a whole lot good either, continuity-wise.

On the level of raw technique, The Brave One is a competent enough affair, with some fairly invigorating compositions. So it's not a total wreck. It's just kind of flat: no energy in the direction, no urgency anywhere, really, besides its lead performance. If there's one thing that a revenge film should never, ever be, it's boring. That, much more than any moral imbalance, is where this film commits its greatest sins.

5/10

19 September 2007

VOYAGES DANS LA LUNE

I was not alive during the 1960s, but that decade has been so thoroughly strip-mined and repackaged that I sometimes wonder if I've missed out on anything.

But then, I see something like In the Shadow of the Moon, and I am reminded: I missed that. You know, that whole "Space Age" thing.

To be perfectly fair, that same cultural strip-mining has left David Sington's new documentary about the Apollo astronauts somewhat irrelevant: between the Discovery Channel (which co-produced this) and Apollo 13 (directed by Ron Howard, who "presents" this) and so on and so forth, anyone who is interested in this stuff has seen quite a lot of it, such that even a child of the '80s like myself can count himself an armchair expert on the ways and means of NASA. So yet one more documentary about the Apollo program is more than a bit redundant.

And yet. There is enough rare footage in this new project to justify its existence, and that's saying nothing of the film's primary coup: scoring interviews with every still-living veteran of the Apollo flights with the significant exception of Neil Armstrong, a notoriously camera shy individual. It's these interviews, underpinning nearly all of the film's 100 minutes, that cause it to rise from a mere compendium of Saturn V launch footage to an active and engaging look at the human side of the program; also fairly well-trod ground, but never expressed with this candor and immediacy.

The astronauts are all blandly forthright in the way of old people (the participants range in age from 79-year-old Jim Lovell to 72-year-old Harrison Schmitt), downplaying the notion that they are heroes, brushing off the poetic imagery that has accreted to their names. Michael Collins, the man who stayed in orbit when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon for the first time, tosses out-of-hand the idea that he was gripped by existential loneliness during his time alone on the dark side; Alan Bean of Apollo 12, given perhaps the largest share of screentime, turns pretty much everything into a witticism. These are sharp old men and completely unromantic, and one is glad that they were all gathered in one place like this so near to the end of their lives, and that all of them seem to have spent the last 35 or 40 years living and not being locked in like statuary at the peak of their fame. The general feeling seems to be, "sure that was a pretty amazing thing we did, but that was so long ago, and it was just kind of our job."

That makes these men human in a way that we don't get to see very often; every other filmed retelling of Apollo that I am familiar with (particularly the "fictional" versions, Apollo 13 and Howard & Tom Hanks's From the Earth to the Moon) trades heavily in the notion that these were men taken up by the winds of history, actors in a great tapestry. As we see them here, wryly thinking back on their younger selves, it's fairly clear that they viewed themselves as guys just doing what they did. Not false modesty - they don't seem to register having much of anything to feel modest about.

Perhaps because of this anti-romanticism, In the Shadow of the Moon is much more compelling as a nuts 'n' bolts version of the Apollo mission than the typical "historic" approach, and for this particular space junkie, that is a welcome point of view, indeed. Watching the footage, both distressingly familiar and completely new, with the relaxed voices of the old astronauts giving context, the images begin to lose their poetic glow and instead return to their actual function: documents of a scientific and mechanical process. Frankly, that makes them more interesting and even a bit more exciting. This is not a film about a great modern American myth, but a great American project, and that perspective is too often ignored.

There are a few conspicuous missteps. When the astronauts talk about their international reception and comparisons are made to our country's current isolationist streak, it's obvious that somebody wanted to make a political point, but it's nothing the film can't handle. When, near the end, the talk turns to global warming (and, oddly, to the conspiracy theories that all the landings were staged), it becomes a bit too shrill; yes, global warming matters and it's very "hip," but this is a movie about space travel in 1968-1972. Time and place. That's of course all above and beyond the simple damning fact that, new point-of-view or not, this is not a story that was dying to be retold.

But those are quibbles. This is still a completely energising look at one of the greatest achievements in US history, and it does something that we all need from time to time: it reminds us of how fantastic that achievement was. I was not alive during the 1960s; but sitting in the dark, watching the moon landing on a big screen, I had a fairly decent sense of what it might have felt like.

7/10

18 September 2007

IMAGES OF BROKEN LIGHT WHICH DANCE BEFORE ME LIKE A MILLION EYES

Do I feel particularly generous towards Across the Universe because I just watched Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band a few days ago? Unquestionably.

But that's not to say that there isn't a lot here to love. After all, it is third film by the hallucinatory genius Julie Taymor, whose extraordinary Titus proved that no Shakespearean play is so bad that it can't be fixed by setting it in a post-punk Nazi Rome, and whose Frida, while not remotely so visionary, was still a gorgeously acted chunk of Technicolor candy nestled in an above-average biopic. Across the Universe lies comfortably between those two projects both in terms of its surreal imagery and in terms of how much I personally felt like the film had exploded my delicate little head.

That said, it's an open question how much of Taymor's scheme for the movie made it out intact; as has been widely publicised, Revolution Studios executive Joe Roth attempted to take some 60 minutes of footage from the director's 2.5 hour cut, and the 131 minute version we've been given is a grudging bastard compromise between the two. It's very hard to review a movie that I haven't seen, so I'm going to try to resist the urge to constantly assume that every last flaw in the film would have been answered by that extra 20 minutes, but there is an unshakable feeling that some parts of the film - mostly those that deal with the development of theme - are a wee bit hollowed-out.

Specifically, I'm not certain that the film as it stands has any compelling motivation behind its central gimmick, which is of course an all-Beatles cover soundtrack. Sgt. Pepper had a motive all right, and that was "People love the Beatles, and people love the Bee Gees/Frampton! It's a perpetual money machine!" But in Across the Universe, a film of pronounced politico-cultural commentary, there is no clear reason for the soundtrack, nor for the male lead's roots in Liverpool. Obviously, the reason is to do with the strange and undeniable influence that the rock music of England, particularly Liverpool, had on the youth culture of America, leading to the rise of home-grown classic rock* and the concomitant rise of the peace movement. History demonstrates that the Beatles, more than any other group of the era, embodied pop culture in its totality, from playfully mindless bubblegum to heavy experimentation and political engagement. History demonstrates that. Across the Universe, I don't think, demonstrates that.

That's an awful lot of energy spent complaining about a film that I pretty much adored. Not that there aren't flaws. But in the grand scheme of things they're not so important as the many things that work very well. Which, in the case of a Beatles musical, largely means the Beatles songs, just about every single one of which is treated with great respect and used to great effect. It's tempting (and completely unfair) to compare the soundtrack here to Sgt. Pepper, and observe that while that film had a primarily diagrammatic approach to the music - slap the song on and make it fit however possible - that ended in places like "Carry That Weight" as a funeral dirge, all while using orchestrations as distractingly close as possible to the original recordings, in Across the Universe, the songs are used to fill out and characterise the story, and their spiritual core is often left intact. Occasionally, Taymor and company even achieve something revelatory, particularly in the case of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," transformed here from a rave-up to a genuinely heartbreaking ballad. More often, it's just a really fine performance (one leaps to mind: Joe Cocker - yes, that one - covering "Come Together" and doing it brilliantly) or a curious new orchestration that brings something fresh to the song without damaging it. The filmmakers have enough faith in the music to push it a bit, and see what new can be brought out of it. Usually, they are successful.

And then, there's the staging of those songs. I would like to propose that the theatrically-trained Taymor has (paradoxically?) one of the best minds in modern filmmaking for the things that make movies different from other art forms, and she puts that mind to work in numbers that call to mind Busby Berkeley or Gene Kelly, not because of any particular technique, but because her stagings essentially could not exist anywhere but on film. Really, praise should go to three people: Taymor, clearly, but also choreographer Daniel Ezralow (whose CV, with its Earth Girls Are Easys and its Red Shoe Diaries 17s, does not suggest this project) and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (whose CV, with its Amélies, does). The dance numbers in this film do something that is so completely basic, you wouldn't expect it to be so rare: they actively incorporate the camera, i.e. the audience, into the choreography. And they do this typically while playing around with extraordinary lighting schemes ("I've Just Seen a Face," perhaps the film's highlight) or with extraordinary Taymor-esque visual mindfuckery ("Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"), or both ("I Want You").

In between songs, the plot unwinds in an unsurprising way: boy meets girl, girl gets into politics, boy goes back to Liverpool, the entire population of Liverpool and New York sing "Hey Jude" to encourage boy to get back with girl. For the boy is Jude (Jim Sturgess), and the girl is Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood); the supporting players include Max (Joe Anderson), Sadie (Dana Fuchs), Prudence (T.V. Carpio) and JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy). Stunningly, the film fails to dub anyone Strawberry Fields, perhaps because this film's writers, unlike Sgt. Pepper's, are aware that isn't a real name. Actually stunningly, the songs for which Lucy, Max, Sadie and JoJo were named never appear in the film ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" puts in a cameo during the credits), making this even more unlike the torturous earlier film, although it does bring up one of the particularly irksome elements of this film: the in-jokes. I've no desire to list them, but they are many; they are found in both dialogue and image; and the big one at the end of the film (concert atop a fruit-named building) is obnoxiously on-the-nose and frankly stupid.

Anyway, the plot is ephemeral, but the actors are all charming enough to keep us from caring. Like Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (a film which is otherwise strikingly dissimilar), the absolute simplicity of the story is specifically designed to encourage appreciation of the director's visual flair and the sheer joy of the music. And such visual flair it is; and such joyful music. That's the important part to take away, I think. This film does not exploit the Beatles music, perhaps the finest canon in pop history; it is a celebration, and its experiments in changing the face of the music just prove how immutable those songs are. Which is of course the point: this is a guileless film made with passion and energy, above all things a labor of love for the material and the obvious culmination of a lifetime spent considering these songs and their deeply felt humanity.

All you need is love. Simple and inaccurate, but not therefore untrue.

9/10

17 September 2007

THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING

Nobody likes to call a practically perfect genre film that whirs along with the inerrant precision of a Swiss watch "hackwork," so let me instead suggest that Eastern Promises continues the evolution begun in Spider and A History of Violence whereby David Cronenberg is redefining himself as an exceptionally gifted director of essentially non-Cronenbergian films.

That hardly means that the films are any kind of bad, but when I read of the director admitting in interviews that he made Eastern Promises largely because it was the project he could get funded, I don't feel shock or disappointment so much as confirmation. This is a film that feels, except for a few choice moments, like the work of a slightly bored craftsman phoning it in. Even though, God knows, Cronenberg "phoning it in" is several orders of magnitude greater than most of his colleagues.

Eastern Promises could as well be titled A People's Glorious History of Violence; it is content to echo the director's last film in theme, with the change that this time the country whose violent psychic scars are being torn open is Russia, not America. Then again, the story takes place in the same grimy London underworld of immigrants that housed screenwriter Steven Knight's Dirty Pretty Things. Like that story, Eastern Promises centers on an innocent, the half-Russian hospital midwife Anna (Naomi Watts), through whose eyes we are introduced to the squalid mise en scène. This time we also get a surrogate on the inside, mob enforcer Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who literally carries a history of violence on his back.

If there's one thing that Cronenberg is noted for, it's his obsession with bodily mortification (particularly as it relates to sex, or at least the sex organs). In his last film, that largely meant lots of blood, but here it crops up in the metaphorically weighty tattoos that Nikolai wears across his back, chest and arms. We are told that these tattoos are given in Russian prisons, and that they tell a history of the bearer: where he has been, who he has known, what he has done. They are biography; they are the markers of a life in sin. It's typical of the director's preoccupations that the evil men do in life should take the form of corrupted, stained flesh, and the most transcendent moments in the film tend to be those which focus on Nikolai's body. It helps, of course, that Nikolai is played by someone as apeshit crazy and brilliant as Mortensen.

My God. Viggo. Ladling superlatives on his performance like he's just some Oscar chaser is the vilest kind of reduction, but the fact stands that this is a wildly successful characterisation. His character, on paper, is fairly typical and simple: a dangerous man of violence, quiet even as he strangles the life out of you. We've all seen that character. Yet Mortensen plays that character with a dispassionate intensity (which is a paradox, until you see the film) that I've never quite seen before. His bearing is not in the least threatening or overpowering, his eyes are unfocused, but he still seems incredibly brutal; owing to small things like his general motionlessness, or the way he doesn't seem to look away, or the time that he puts a cigarette out on his fucking tongue, not because it is cool but because he genuinely doesn't seem to register that there are better ways of doing that.

Mortensen is a character actor to end character acting: it was his innovation, apparently, to foreground the prison tattoos, and his seeming anxiousness to be hurt that leads to the film's absolutely most unforgettable moment. Now, this is a particularly brutal film: not so many violent scenes as in A History of Violence, but they are much harsher, from the incredibly nasty throat-cutting in the film's first minutes. But the pièce de résistance is a late fight scene between Mortensen, who is nude, and two men, who are not, in a public bath. The rawness on display here, the ugly business of flesh being gouged and punched and sliced, is as overpowering as anything I've ever witnessed in the cinema - on a level completely removed from the bored fanboyism of slasher films, and much more visceral than the hyper-cinematic violence in a film by Scorsese or the like. It would be too much to credit Mortensen, although it could not possibly work without his contribution. More that it is the simplicity of the fight (no elegant choreography here, just men whomping into each other), and the brilliantly uncomfortable addition of the naked actor, emphasising his physical essence and the damage being done to that physical essence.

Outside of that scene and that actor, Eastern Promises is actually a bit flat, truth be told. For one thing, Naomi Watts gets nothing to do. Oh, she does it as well as she is able, but this is not a great part, and no actor could make it so.

But really, there's just a lot of ennui on display. Maybe that's not the right word. I just can't feel that after the devilishly satisfying puzzle box that was A History of Violence, there's something a bit programmatic to the story here; and there's altogether less grand invention on the part of the director in most of the film. Make no mistake, it's a solid piece of thriller craftsmanship. But appreciating it is a bit too much an appreciation of technique and not the effect that technique creates.

Part of it, I suspect, is that Cronenberg has never had to work in a study of place before, which is what this is. All of his films are first about people: inasmuch as the films explore the relationship between humans and environment (and they absolutely do), it's "top-down," as it were, starting from the people's POV. Eastern Promises is very much invested in setting: and although Cronenberg does a very good job at capturing the details of place, the movie never quite makes the connection that the script wants, to describe how place influences people. Sure, characters talk about their world, but they never quite seem to be comfortable in it.

So does this film come across as a finely tuned bit of adult entertainment wrapped around a hollow core? Not exactly. Smart thrillers for grown-ups are thin on the ground, after all, and anything that proceeds with the ruthless efficiency of Eastern Promises deserves praise: it's "taut," to use one of the hoariest clichés one can use to describe a thriller. More importantly, it does have a core, just not the one that the screenplay would suggest: Nikolai, as embodied by Viggo Mortensen, an elemental force, like an angel of violence. We only partially get inside his head, but simply watching him smolder is exhilarating. It is not the mind-blowing experience that we so often get from the director, but Eastern Promises is a fine thriller anyway: brutal and relentless and exhausting.

7/10

16 September 2007

I SAW A FILM TODAY...OH, BOY

Across the Universe, Julie Taymor's third film, a musical about the tumult of the 1960s as filtered through the songs of The Beatles, opened this weekend. So in tribute, what shall I look at today: Taymor's extraordinary Shakespeare fantasy Titus, her disappointingly tame but still intriguing biopic Frida, or the last musical built around the Beatles' catalog, a film of the profoundest infamy, spoken of in hushed tones in those rare moments that it is spoken of at all?

Duh.

Like Finnegans Wake or The Waste Land, music maven Robert Stigwood's 1978 epic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is such a vast experience that one does not know how to begin discussing it: each possible thought contests with every other thought, all of them vital, all jousting for primacy. So I suppose I shall begin in the simplest way I know how: with my opinion.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a motion picture whose awfulness can hardly be imagined on a human scale; its derangement and crazy invention stretch beyond the limits of imagination. I could not possibly conceive a story as profoundly warped as this, nor executed that story with the same level of wanton insanity. This film is so terrible that it goes 'round the other side of terrible and comes back in some kind of unbearable psychotic beauty.

Here is the plot of the film. I promise I have invented nothing, not indeed that I could. In 1918, the small town of Heartland, USA sent four of their local boys to the front: Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band. Their extraordinary music stops all who listen to it from fighting, and so the war was won. The band became heroes, and for the next 25 years, they were at the forefront of popular music, becoming the most loved stars in the land. In 1944, they were sent overseas again, effortlessly stopping the Nazi menace, and returned home as greater heroes still. In 1958, at the dedication ceremony for a commemorative weather vane in Heartland, Sgt. Pepper died, but only after laying hands upon his young grandson Billy Shears (ultimately played by Peter Frampton), who was commanded to find three other boys (Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, of the Bee Gees) to be his new Lonely Hearts Club Band.

All that is narrated to us by the mayor of Heartland, Mr. Kite, in the unmistakable gravel tones of George Burns. All of that takes 5 minutes. Then the real crazy begins:

In 1978, Billy Shears and the band are found by B.D. (Donald Pleasance) of B.D. Records, and he begs them to come to Los Angeles to sign a contract. No sooner are the musicians out of Heartland than Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd), a servant of the evil F.V.B., arrives in his satellite-linked van staffed by two robot women to steal Sgt. Pepper's magical instruments, and destroy Heartland. Billy's girlfriend, Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina), journeys to L.A. to lead the band back on a quest to retrieve their instruments from the mad Dr. Maxwell Edison (Steve Martin) and Father Sun (Alice Cooper). Upon finding F.V.B., or "Future Villain Band" (Aerosmith), a battle ensues and Strawberry dies.

Then the really real crazy begins.

I apologize for the long plot recap, but I simply cannot get my mind around it in even the smallest degree. Robot henchwomen singing "Mean Mr. Mustard" on vocoders? Sure. A bandstand turned into a giant crêpe paper cheeseburger? Of course! Billy Preston shooting lightning from his hands that turns bystanders into nuns? WHY THE HELL NOT? A not-so-small part of me wonders if the filmmakers, including writer Henry Edwards (whose career consists of this and another, forgotten 1978 film) and director Michael Schultz in addition to Stigwood, who produced and instigated the whole damn thing, were aware that a Beatles disco musical was self-evidently the worst idea that could be conceived, and hence pushed the movie as far towards totally incoherency that they could manage. The other part of me then recalls that it was 1978 and there were drugs the likes of which the world has never seen since.

A comprehensive list of everything that went wrong and why would break even the strongest viewer, but I think most of us could agree that the chief problem here is the commanding lack of comprehension of the source music. On the one hand, there is some barbarically literal interpretation of the lyrics here: this is why we have characters named Mr. Mustard, Mr. Kite, Strawberry Fields and Lucy (Dianne Steinberg) and her backup group The Diamonds (Stargard, a conspicuous exception to the "all-star" part of "all-star cast"). The attention for meaningless detail extends as far as giving the Bee Gees the surname "Henderson," so that when "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" rolls around, we won't be confused by the reference to "The Hendersons will dance and sing." This obsession, it should be noted, does not extend as far as "Get Back," during which song the woman we've known throughout the film as Strawberry" is without controversy referred to as "Loretta."

But this is missing the forest for the trees. The song "She's Leaving Home" is a particularly sick joke, with its plot captured perfectly and its meaning completely lost. And even this stickling for detail only goes so far; most of the numbers in the film seem to be there mostly on the basis of the song's first line, such as the mind-splitting awfulness of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" as performed by Steve Martin in the worst moment of his career - a moment that springs from nothing other than the line "Maxwell Edison, majoring in medicine," and proceeds to come up with the worst possible explanation for "silver hammer." The scene is even worse when you recall that the Beatles already had a song, "Doctor Robert," that fills almost precisely the role that "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" was so crudely wedged into.

Then there are the songs which are just there for the hell of it, perverted almost beyond recognition: the "Golden Slumbers" medley, with the atrociously poor taste to set a funeral march to "Carry That Weight"; Alice Cooper's simply evil rendition of "Because"; or the combination bank robber/sex scene version of "You Never Give Me Your Money." Frankly, between the surrealist extremes of some of the numbers and the numbingly vanilla Frampton/Bee Gees-ness of the rest, it's not all that surprising that only one song in the entire film works at all: Aerosmith's nasty, sexy version of "Come Together."

For all that, it is not altogether fair to judge a movie simply for redesigning incredibly popular songs, even when those songs are by the Beatles. Instead, let us judge Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for being completely inane. It would be one thing if the film couched its incoherence in a balls-out zany style as does Baz Lurhmann (or, come to think of it, Julie Taymor). But the film commits another great sin: it treats the cavalcade of grotesques that make up the narrative as nothing particularly special. If the terrible acts committed against the Beatles are what make Sgt. Pepper an awful film, it's the languid ease with which those numbers are filmed that make it a chore to watch. One imagines that Schultz knew what he'd gotten himself involved with, and willfully treated it with the utter lack of respect that it so richly deserved; thus the scenes are mostly a combination of psychopathic and boring, a combination that calls to mind another great cinematic botch from 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special. Like that notorious work of evil, Sgt. Pepper is tedious and hallucinogenic in equal measure at the same time, and it is quite nearly that film's equal in badness.

There is nothing whatsoever good about this film - the acting! the costumes! the vile ending that suggests the classic album cover, with such notables as Seals & Crofts, Dame Edna and Leif Garrett! - but lest you suppose I have nothing to say good about it, let me point out that the tremendous failure of both film and soundtrack led eventually to the demise of Robert Stigwood's RSO label. I do not know Stigwood, and I do not know if he is essentially evil or not, but I do know that the mind which could conceive of something this wretched deserves punishment for it.

14 September 2007

NO LAW AT ALL IN MACAU

On 20 December, 1999, sovereignty of the Portuguese city-state colony of Macau was transferred to the People's Republic of China. At that time, Macau was a sort of semi-lawless frontier region, and it was for this reason that it makes the ideal setting for Hong Kong director Johnny To and screenwriters Szeto Kam-Yuen and Yip Tin-Shing to set their gauzy Western gangster picture Exiled.

Less a movie than a phantasmagorical dream synthesised from Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, the story here, such as it can be pinned down, centers on Wo (Nick Cheung), a former gangster who has returned to settle down with a new wife (Josie Ho) and baby, against the explicit orders of his former leader, Boss Fay (Simon Yam). Fay sends a team of hitmen composed of Wo's former friends, led by the dour Blaze (Anthony Wong), to kill the man, but their friendship quickly rekindles, and the newly reformed gang elects to spend the waning days of Portuguese rule scrabbling for whatever bounties they can find before the frontier is shut down by the iron fist of Chinese authority.

Of course, it's all very easy and obvious when it's set down neat like that, but as Exiled unreels it feels much more impressionistic than narrative. The world of the film is decrepit and anarchic, especially as embodied by two cops who drift in and out of the plot at random, and constantly refuse to involve themselves in the conspicuously illegal goings-on in front of them, counting down the minutes and hours until the handover is complete and they are no longer responsible. It's unmistakably the territory of the American West, and the romance of Westerns from The Searchers to Deadwood, where morality is an inconvenient luxury and nothing is so hateful to the men of the frontier as the overhanging threat of civilisation, of The Government coming in to impose order on the power-mongers building private kingdoms in the wild.

And while all that is true, this is also a Hong Kong crime film, and as such there are many action sequences, and they are oh-so-loud and oh-so-violent; yet they are themselves derived not from the opera of chaos aesthetic of that country's most famous son John Woo, but from the late-'60s neo-Westerns. The film's opening, in which the team of assassins comes to Wo's apartment, is particularly reminiscent of Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West: there is even a slowly simmering pot that calls to mind the earlier movie's extensive use of water noises to build tension in its classic opening scene. To builds tension in much the same way that Leone did in that and other films: men with guns, as still as statues, minutes that can hardly be counted ticking by as nobody makes the first move. Then there is an explosion of violence and noise, lasting for but a moment.

Exiled never recaptures the raw, agonizing tension of its opening twenty minutes, but that's almost to its benefit: for it's after the first gunfight, when Wo and his friends reunite, that the film stops being a simple remix of Western style and becomes something much hazier and more fluid. It's not just that the plot becomes increasingly ephemeral - though it certainly does, at that - but that the actions represented become increasingly less mechanic and more, for want of a better word, poetic. The gang turns on Boss Fay and storms their way to the coast and back, and the action sequences that take place are largely exercises in...not even "style," which I was going to say, but more like mood and tone. There are many Peckinpah-like explosions of red mist in Peckinpah-like slow motion, but this lack the brutality of Peckinpah's violence (in films both Western and not). It's rather like watching an abstract ballet.

Part of this mood, I suppose, is the look of the cinematography by Cheng Siu-Keung. The movie is not very sharp, and not very colorful, and really the only way to describe it is to say that it looks something like a faded photograph. I have a feeling that cheap film stock was part of this, but the effect is both uncanny and mesmerising, separating us from the film in the manner of a poorly remembered dream. That's the second time I felt compelled to describe the film using the word "dream." Surely that means something. Other than my lazy vocabulary.

Some films, I think, are better experienced than thought about, and this is what I find true about Exiled. It has a feeling to it, instead of being concrete. There is nothing wrong with that, of course; it is the privilege art to engage the emotions by short-circuiting the brain. But bending my brain upon the film as best I can, here is what I believe: this is a film about times past encroaching upon in its narrative (Wo and his friends before his exile), in its setting (a historical event in Macau's history being revived for a new film), and in its style (the decades-old spaghetti Westerns). In life, we call such encroachment "memory," and Exiled is a visual representation of remembering. But it is also a film about past times that were better left in the past, brought to the present because that is the way of a blood tragedy. No memory is harder to bury than the memory of violence. This is why the return of all these past times is welcomed in explosions of blood - blood begets blood, and the unresolved traumas of the past become the traumas of today.

This is a vague review, but Exiled is a vague movie, vague in the best possible way. It is a film of impressions and sensations. It is a poem in cinematic form.

8/10

13 September 2007

THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY

A documentary about video game players doesn't have the right to be any good, but that doesn't stop The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Taking a story that sounds like a bad human interest piece, it turns into an operatic tragicomedy of rivalry, jealousy, failure, and success, a tale of all-too-human men defined by their petty insecurities and their illusory victories.

It is the story of Billy Mitchell, internationally recognised as one of the greatest, if not the greatest video game player of all time, holder of a 24-year-old record score in the classic arcade game Donkey Kong; and it is the story of Steve Wiebe, a laid-off husband and father, a man of uncertain emotional stability who assigns himself to the task of breaking Mitchell's record, so that for one time in his life he will have won at something.

It is not altogether truthful; for example, Midwesterner in NYC published an interview (spoilers abound) with Mitchell that tends to put much of the film's content in doubt. On balance, while I think that it is good to acknowledge the film's limitations as journalism, there's no harm done to The King of Kong by these revelations: the story remains compelling, and frankly so what if it was partially fabricated or at least massaged by the filmmakers. Frankly, all that really means is that it is no longer mere Documentary but transcends to Art, by the strict definition of art as "that which is constructed." It is perhaps a documentary like those of Werner Herzog, which is to say the strict representation of fact is not nearly so important to the final project as the emotional depths that the film reaches in its editorialising.

The heart of the film is the simple man Wiebe, a man who has never felt success in anything, as his constantly-suffering wife Nicole observes, fighting against the cronyism and political machinations of The Establishment, here embodied by Twin Galaxies, the world's premier video-game record-keeper, its curator Walter Day, and Mitchell, the favorite son who is praised in cultishly uncritical terms for his every action. Both in the film and in the world, Twin Galaxies, with its self-proclaimed mantel of infallibility and authority, and its effortless banishment of wrongthink, comes across as a monolithically Stalinist organisation bent towards preserving the Party line - that Billy Mitchell is all - at any cost.

The pudgy Wiebe, in his nondescript chain store clothes with his tidy garage and his gormless suburban life is a striking contrast to Mitchell, thin and businesslike with a magnificently terrible mullet. For all that the film can be accused of tweaking reality in the editing room, the one thing that director Seth Gordon surely could not control was his stars' appearance, and the genial middle-class softness that Wiebe carries is as certain a descriptor of his essential decency as Mitchell's appearance, from the first frame, marks him as a shifty, loathsomely reptilian salesman, whose product is himself and his legacy.

Mitchell has a wife, he has a mother, and he has children, and I'm sure he loves them all as much as they love him, but in the world of this movie, he is a transcendent villain, as easy and fun to hate as Darth Vader or the Wicked Witch of the West or any Disney stepmother. He is the one with the power, he is the one with the extremely vicious plot to destroy Wiebe in his moment of triumph, he is the one who stands behind his records and his fame like an unassailable wall, he is the one with the apocalyptic mullet.

Honestly, it's easy to guess that this isn't the most scrupulous work of reportage; Mitchell is too perfect in his villainy to be an actual human being. But it is not therefore untruthful: the film is about Steve Wiebe's quest, and insofar as it is an accurate documentary, it is about the feelings that we as people have when we know that we are losing something rightfully ours. I cannot say that Wiebe looked at Mitchell and thought of him as Darth Vader. But I know that it is all too human that in times of disappointment we are likely to lash out and view the minor stumbling blocks in our paths as great adversaries. As much as The King of Kong is about a loser trying to make good - and that is what it's about, not the mere fact of a video game record - it makes sense that his altogether human antagonist would come across as a cardboard monster.

With all that being said, there's another layer to the film, constantly humming along and only occasionally calling attention to itself. Any story that tells great universal truths, as this one does, is almost certainly about something very specific and un-universal. In this case, professional video gaming. While it tends to be lost a little bit as the film progresses and becomes more and more nerve-wracking and emotionally draining, professional video gaming is essentially a totally meritless pursuit. And the film knows this, given how much of the first twenty minutes or so make cheap jokes at the expense of gaming culture.

I am a gamer; let that be clear. I stood in line to pre-order a Wii and I picked it up at midnight; in college I once spent five consecutive days not eating so as to spend as much time as possible playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. I don't pretend that is time well spent. It is surely not, as Mitchell proudly argues, an endeavor akin to being a great athlete: the good old "trains hand-eye-mind coordination" gambit that we all used when we were 9 years old is absolute bullshit, but nearly every person in the film trots that out as proof that only the greatest exemplars of mankind can win at arcade games. We are told, frequently, that the guy with the highest score gets the hottest chicks.

I adore video games, but I do not pretend that they are not masturbation. Fun, yes; shameful, not at all; but not something that marks you as a particularly great human. This is the quiet joke underpinning The King of Kong: Wiebe and Mitchell fight their titanic duel within a subculture that neither earns nor deserves any respect. The prize is the accolade of the saddest cabal of white guys you have ever seen on film. That makes the desperation involved all the more poignant: when you no longer can make your name doing great works, when you have been reduced to trying to justify your humanity in the world of video games, that is when you are a tragic figure par excellence. Because ultimately, we're all the same: every one of us likes to pretend that our tiny life means something important. Usually, that's not the case. Only a tiny fraction of humanity gets to change the world, and rest of us, we are all just professional gamers.

10/10