30 August 2008

REQUIEM FOR A GRUMPY OLD MAN

There've only been a couple attempts to adapt Philip Roth to the screen, but those attempts all share one characteristic: they don't result in very good movies. I'm not sure there's just one reason for that - I haven't read very much Roth, but what I'm familiar with doesn't seem inherently anti-cinematic - but there you go, things are as they shall be. It's nice to think that eventually this lesson will be learned and we'll never again be subjected to these dour works of leaden intellectualism.

Until that day comes, we'll still get things like Elegy every few years, a singularly austere version of Roth's novella A Dying Animal. It doesn't seem like there's any reason for it to be as stubbornly airless as is the case; two very good actors give very good performances, for a start. In the end, that proves to be far from sufficient to breathe life into this tale of an aging scholar whose carefully-arranged misanthropy is thrown into question by the appearance of a beautiful young woman who can't get enough of his body. That's becoming an awfully familiar story nowadays, but rarely expressed with such overwhelming dolor.

Sir Ben "Rottweiler" Kingsley plays David Kepesh, a British-born New York literature/culture professor who publishes books about topics like the buried history of hedonism in Puritanical America, spends time avoiding his bitter adult son Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), has a once-a-month fuckbuddy relationship with the emotionally distant Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), and confesses all his sins and worries to his only friend in the whole world, George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper). It so happens that one year, an extraordinarily beautiful woman in her mid-twenties takes his class: the Cuban-born Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz), and one night at his traditionally end-of-term cocktail party, Kepesh sets events in motion to seduce that beautiful young woman. Events that pay unexpected dividends when he goes and falls in love, and learns to his utter surprise that Consuela more than reciprocates, making for the first time the old man has felt love in years, perhaps for his entire life.

There's nothing about that which couldn't turn into a good enough motion picture, but in Elegy, it's all turned into Extremely Thoughtful ponderous fluff, sort of like a joke-free parody of the more serious Woody Allen films. Kepesh is a boundlessly mordant fellow who keeps explaining everything that he's feeling in the minutest detail, thanks to a maddeningly omnipresent voiceover, and he's so goddamnably intellectual about every last little thing, and the result is very much that we're talked at for almost two hours about a post-midlife crisis in the most arch language one can imagine. On begins to suffocate on the wordiness of it all - this could surely work in a novel, and I have no doubt at all that The Dying Animal is an insightful and significant look into the depressions of oncoming old age, but film is visual; film requires that we be shown, not told; and while Elegy shows a bit, it tells a whole lot more.

Oh, Nicholas Meyer. The novelist and screenwriter of the last Roth adaptation, The Human Stain, who will forever be to me the director/co-writer of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (still the best Star Trek picture), has given us one of the most discursive screenplays of the year, less full of dialogue than of proclamations. I suppose this is what it's going to look like when a man in his 60s writes a story about the tribulations of a man in his 60s: no room for subtlety, we have to make sure that everybody understands how men in their 60s can suffer as mightily as any other man trapped in a film where having a penis, at any age, means that you will never stop thinking about sex (in this, Elegy is not unlike a 40-years-older riff on Forgetting Sarah Marshall, with more furrowed brows).

And the director, Isabel Coixet - I haven't seen any of her previous work, other than one of my favorite segments from Paris, je t'aime (at the time, I think I even said how much I was looking forward to her next project. Oops), so I don't know if this is her normal style, or if the petrifying notion of adapting Roth scared her into a bad case of Prestige Picture the same way it seems to have done with Meyer, but she's made sure that Elegy is as static and devoid of emotion as the protagonist. Herein is the least-erotic shot of Cruz's naked abdomen that has ever been or will ever be committed to celluloid. Of course one cannot expect prurience from every old art film, but this is a good example of the way that the film treats every sexy moment: sex is not to be enjoyed but endured, so that we can get back to the greater thrill of talking about sex. Coixet's camera is tremendously dispassionate in all cases, full of careful compostions lit with precise gloomy intensity; the last movie I saw with such whole-hearted devotion to elegant stagnation, it was Vadim Perelman's dreary The Life Before Her Eyes.

Bringing some minute spark to the film, enough to make it simply mediocre and not absolutely wretched, Kingsley and Cruz both give performances that rank among the best of their recent careers - Cruz indeed gives the best performance she ever has in English (with her second-best English performance, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, still open for ready comparison). In both cases, they're working at cross-purposes to a screenplay that makes all of the subtle layers of their characters entirely explicit, but they both play the subtleties anyway, and paradoxically, almost save the script in doing so. Even though Kepesh tells us all about his fears and emotional chilliness, Kingsley still makes us discover those things through a slight tremble in his voice here, a worried crease of his forehead there. Cruz gets a much shallower Fantasy Woman role, but she at least manages to sell the single biggest belief-suspending element of the whole story, that Consuela would ever actually want to have sex with her professor, and when at long last the sucker-punch ending gives her something big to work with, she keeps it small and makes a giant pile of melodrama seem real and interesting.

Other than those two, Elegy is nothing but a faux-profound mess of big words, gloomy sets and typicaly male fulfillment fantasies made classy through tony New Yorkerist trappings. I don't know if this is meant to be an opening shot in the 2008 Oscarbait Season or just a last gasp of "we dumped this in August because there was nowhere better to let it die", but either way it's hard to appreciate as anything other than two actors giving far, far too much, and all by themselves making a terrifically flat movie seem marginally human.

5/10

29 August 2008

BE MY FRANKENSTEIN

Hey kids, it's time for Compare 'N Contrast!

In 1975, Roger Corman produced Death Race 2000, a freaked-out exploitation film cum satire, in which the United Provinces of America, circa the year 2000, has turned into a fascist state (and possibly a communist fascist state at that) with a fetish for Roman-style entertainment and neo-Nazism. The particular bread-and-circus that the ruling Bipartisan Party uses to keep the population quiet is an annual cross-country road rally, in which men and women with souped-up cars drive at crazy speeds across the abandoned highways, while earning points for hitting civilians along the way. Though there is probably no way to argue that it is a "good" film, it is unnaturally interesting, and almost certainly my favorite Corman film of the post-Code era.

In 2008, Paul W.S. Anderson wrote and directed Death Race, a noisy action flick, in which the privatisation of the US prison system has lead one enterprising warden, Ms. Hennessey (Joan fucking Allen, of The Ice Storm) of New York's Terminal Island, has figured out a way to turn a huge profit from her business is to broadcast semiannual races between the prisoners, races hinging on the idea that anybody at any moment might get blowed-up. The show is a smash hit, and sometime in the year 2012, Hennessey connives to have former race star Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) framed and imprisoned to replace her deceased superstar (who, predecease, is voiced by Keith Carradine, in the only neat nod to the elder film). There is probably no way to argue that it is a "good" film.

The differences between those two scenarios is vast enough that a body has to wonder why Anderson didn't just call his film something else and spare us all the indignity of a "remake". I guess he figured the title would get asses in the theater. But the biggest difference isn't in the plot, it's in the tone. Where Paul Bartel's original was a loony comedy-satire crammed full of car chases, the new one is a straight-up action film done in the grand Anderson style, which means a whole lot of noise and frantic editing that leaves it basically impossible to figure out what's going on. Anderson has never been aught but Michael Bay without the poetry, and his films tend to be as much fatiguing as they are exciting.

The closest Death Race comes to satire is in its opening crawl, where the words "private corporations" are in bold red print - that's right, it's an anti-privatisation text, though a tremendously murky one - and the frequent reference to computers and hits, indicating that some minor amount of thought went into how this world is a development of our own. Mostly, though, it's just shot after shot of heavily-modified cars screaming through a giant post-industrial prison yard. And look, I'm not one to judge quick editing harshly. I thought The Bourne Ultimatum was the next best thing to a masterpiece, and all the criticism about how the car chase in The Dark Knight is confusingly edited just makes me weep for the critics' unwillingness to pay attention. But Death Race, man, just gave me a headache.

I'll say this in the film's favor: almost all of the car chases are done practically, with real cars slamming into each other on a real set at really high speeds. So if nothing else, there's real heft to the crashes and explosions missing in something like the glossy Speed Racer. And that, in turn, sets up the film's best gag, where Anderson proves that, contra his opponents (like me), he actually does have a sense of humor: after the film fades to black, but before the credits start, there's some car-commercial boilerplate about how all this was done by professionals on a closed track.

Other than that, and the grimy, desaturated cinematography by Scott Kevan, the only compelling argument in favor of the movie's existence is Oscar nominee Joan Allen (The Contender), in what seems like it should be the least-explicable performance of her career. "Seems like", because when you actually get down to watching the movie, it's clear that she took the role because it sounded hella cool to play an unmitigated villain with lines like "Cocksucker! Fuck with me and we'll see who shits on the sidewalk." Yessir, Joan Allen (The Upside of Anger) gets to deliver that line of dialogue.

And she's having an obvious blast doing it; only Ian McKellan regularly turns in such self-satisfied performances in such dogs as Allen is doing here. I suppose that after enough films like Yes, one must decide to take a film only because playing a wholly unsubtle role is fun, and a reminder of why one got into acting in the first place. So I'll give Joan Allen this much: she sneers like a real sumbitch, and turns in one of the great Ee-vil performances of 2008.

Elsewhere in the film, Statham gives his typical Growling Brit performance that is only as good as the film permits - and has never, for my money, been this boring - while Ian McShane stands around intoning grim witticisms without putting a whole lot of energy into the script. Though it's never bad to see Ian McShane. Still, the human factor in the film isn't able to compete with the noisiness and the explodiness.

All that being said, the generally adequate quality of the noise and explosions make this the best of all Paul W.S. Anderson's films, although how much lower we can set the fucking bar, I don't know. It's like saying, "man that last herpes outbreak I had was the best one ever!" Which, upon reflection, is doubtlessly a comfort to the herpes sufferer.

4/10

28 August 2008

THE INDIE CORNER, VOL. 9: ADVENTURES IN POSTMODERN SHAKESPEARE II

Released to DVD hard on the heels of Hamlet 2's theatrical debut, here's another sweet comedy about the misadventures of people who probably would be better off not staging Shakespeare, and sticking to something more within their skill range, like vacuuming: Never Say Macbeth, starring its own writer and co-producer Joe Tyler Gold as Danny, a science teacher from Toledo who journeys to Los Angeles in the hopes of finding his ex-girlfriend. It is not strictly necessary that I bring up Gold's hyphenate relationship to the film, except that demonstrates that a) this is a film with a small budget; b) this is a labor of love.

Like all microbudget indies, Never Say Macbeth suffers from its share of flaws, including a tendency towards over-lighting, a dubious electronic score, wobbly visual effects, and its fair share of performers who maybe aren't quite great at what they're doing. But what the film has that so many of its impoverished cousins lack, mired in thickets of relationship tragicomedy, is a fairly delightful personality, and a cute story born not of anybody's conflicted relationship with sex or obsession with urban life, but of an unbridled love for live theater.

In a nutshell, the film is an exploration of the "Macbeth curse": that anyone who says the title of William Shakespeare's Scottish play is inviting doom upon the production. Danny manages to do that when he interrupts the play's casting call while looking for Ruth (Ilana Turner), the production's Lady Macbeth. Through circumstances neither more nor less contrived than they ought to be, Danny is cast as the First Witch, and gets to experience an outsider's inside view of the quirky and deranged things that theater people do. Gradually, he starts to like this strange new world, even when it's filled with things like mysterious smoke, crashing lights and ghost pirates of Penzance.

Never Say Macbeth isn't a world-changer. There's very little in here that you haven't seen in most other films about theater (a genre second only to films about films in its navel-gazing ubiquity; for people trained to pretend to be things they're not, actors sure like to play actors). But it's charming as hell, anyway, and almost indecently eager to make the audience fall in love with local theater in all its tics and eccentricities. The film constantly strikes a balance between semi-irritating caricature and "I knew this guy" reportage, in figures like the ludicrous, zodiac-obsessed director Jason (Alexander Enberg), so enmeshed in his own vision that he fails to notice that Danny can't even memorise dialogue, let alone act.

Directed by C.J. Prouty, the film is brisk and funny, without having much in the way of visual distinction (it's also a touch over-edited...by C.J. Prouty, whose aesthetic seems to be that if you can film a conversation from three separate angles, it is well to utilise all three of them with abandon). Still, he is good as much for what he doesn't do as what he does; unlike many indie directors, Prouty has managed to avoid the temptation for filigrees, never overloading the set with obsessively-collected bits of design. The film is clean and the blocking straightforward, which seem like funny things to praise until you've seen enough microbudget films.

One wishes that more indie films were this ambitious without aiming for giant themes about the totally of human existence. Sometimes, just a simple bit of good cheer is all you need; and of the two Shakespeare films of the week, I daresay that Never Say Macbeth has a good deal more of it. It's tremendously cute and pleasing, and it wants to be nothing more.

ADVENTURES IN POSTMODERN SHAKESPEARE I

A more scattershot, multiple-personality comedy than Hamlet 2 you'll rarely see, and after some thought I think I've figured out the chief reason why: it quickly establishes in bold, broad strokes that its main character is an idiotic fuck-up, and then proceeds to tell a whole story that hinges on our hope that he'll make good and show his genius to the whole world.

The fuck-up in question is Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), a failed actor who, after a series of bit-parts and herpes commercials, ends up teaching high school drama in Tucson, AZ. There he directs, semester after semester, deeply flawed adaptations of popular movies like Erin Brockovich and Mississippi Burning, starring the only two students with any interest in the theater, the supremely WASPy Epiphany (Phoebe Strole) and Rand (Skylar Astin).

By rights, Dana ought to be a tremendously fun object of ridicule: played by Coogan with a wobbly American accent that rather suggests the character's helpless attempt at projecting an image, than the British actor's inappropriate casting, our hero seems ever inch a self-deluding poseur whose great love of acting is no match for his absent talent. It's hard not to think of Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman, that merciless skewering of local acting troupes, with a whole castful of Dana Marschzes; and hard not to expect that Hamlet 2 will go down a similar path.

Which it does, kind of, sometimes. The funniest moments in the movie, outside of its magnificent finale, are those where Dana is at his most pathetic and weirdest, where Coogan gets to the play the character as an utter loser. Moments that don't sit comfortably at all next to the main line of the film, in which Dana fights to save the drama department when budget cuts and general indifference threaten to make this year's show the last he ever creates. A year in which prior budget cuts, which all but destroyed most of the school's extracurricular activities has lead to a shocking influx of minority students who don't really care to be where they are.

I wonder, if Hamlet 2 is meant to be a parody of those inspirational teacher movies. Coogan gets plenty of lines name dropping such films to suggest that this might have well been the intent; but along the way, it actually turns into one of them, for just as we're apparently supposed to cheer along his attempts to create a great original play, we're also supposed to hope against hope that he'll be able to inspire those disaffected students, particularly the sullen Latino teen and naturally gifted actor Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria) to join in the creation of Art.

The play he's settled upon is a sequel to William Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which he circumvents the problem that everybody famously dies in that play by introducing a time machine, which not only allows Hamlet to go back and save everyone from their tragic fates, but also stumble into figures as diverse as Hillary Clinton, Albert Einstein, and Jesus. It's this last person, as well as the play's tremendously inappropriate levels of sex and foul language, that turn it into a controversy and a cause célèbre that ultimately bring national attention and the ACLU to town.

The ACLU is embodied by Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler), whose bearing and dialogue suggest that another thing the film wants to do is satirize the notion that controversial art is inherently valuable - it's a sequel to Hamlet, written and directed by a moron, right? Who could defend that? Thus is another of the film's major problems: "Hamlet 2" turns out to be a kind of success within the movie, and it's not even clear to us in the film's audience that the play is an aesthetic disaster. The noted song "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" is absolutely silly and funny (the film's best gag by a mile), but it's also a helluva earbug, with an actual legitimate meaning tucked in under the lyrics (if Jesus were alive today, he'd need to sell his message of peace and goodness using all the regular marketing tricks; but that message is worth selling at any cost). And the production is damned impressive given what limitations we've seen imposed upon it. This isn't Guffman's "Red, White and Blaine", a sincere attempt gone wrong, fun because it's so bad. It's actually kind of good.

So what's going on? Is Dana a hapless buffoon or do his good intentions end up redeeming his lack of talent? If the film wants to put forth both of those ideas, it needed to work harder. What we've got is a sweet satire, that tries to make us laugh at the characters while begging us to cheer for their victory. The fact that so many jokes make it out of that comedy vortex alive is its own kind of triumph, but it doesn't change the fact that most of the humor clangs to the ground like a dead animal encased in lead. Take Elisabeth Shue: she's playing herself, as a former actor driven to become a nurse in Tucson because it was too unpleasant back in Hollywood. So what's the gag? That Shue's career went down the crapper, such that she might as well have retired? That everybody, even '90s has-beens, deserves more than being forgotten? That it's always hilarious when actors play parodic versions of themselves? God only knows; I certainly don't. And that's pretty much Hamlet 2 in miniature: wave after wave of jokes that stumble around, looking for a tone, and collapse, despite a game and talented cast, and a brilliant concept. Well, concepts don't make movies.

You know what the worst thing is? Not a single solitary joke aimed at Shakespeare junkies.

5/10

27 August 2008

BLONDES HAVE MORE FUN

From Scary Movie to, well, Scary Movie 4, you'd have to look long and hard to find a talented comedienne with a spottier resume than Anna Faris's. This is a truly horrible shame, since even in the trashiest trash, the actress herself is never less than completely charming and endearing, and in those few cases where she's chanced her way into a small role in an actually great film, like Lost in Translation or Brokeback Mountain, she's stolen every one of her scenes.

And now, she's got her first bona fide starring role with the Happy Madison production of The House Bunny, a slightly worse than routine comedy with a sharp sexist edge, which if it does nothing else useful should at least demonstrate that Faris exists, and can carry a whole movie all by herself. So hopefully in a couple of years this will trickle down into a couple screenplays written just for the actress that play to her strengths without being completely insulting.

In the meantime, this is what we get: the latest in the long line of "Let's save the frat house!" Animal House knock-offs, whose theme is best boiled down to this: remember girls, it's good to be smart but it's really important to be pretty. Faris plays Shelley, an orphan who was adopted into the Playboy Mansion family of Bunnies at the age of 18 and has grown into something like a den mother for all the little Bunnies by the time we meet her, about a week before her 27th birthday. Thanks to a jealous colleague, Shelley is forced from the Mansion on the pretext that all Bunnies are let go at age 27 (Hef apparently enjoys Logan's Run), and she eventually finds herself at the doors of Zeta Alpha Zeta, the least popular sorority at an unnamed California university. The Zeta girls have coincidentally just been told that if they can't manage 30 pledges pronto, they're going to be kicked out, and Shelley takes it upon herself to teach the seven remaining members of the sorority all about the fine art of impressing girls via impressing boys.

This goes exactly where you'd expect: a montage by which extremely pretty starlets (including Emma Stone of Superbad, former American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee, and Cheetah Girl Kiely Williams) learn that with a tiny amount of makeup and clothes that don't come from Goodwill, even an extremely pretty girl can look fucking gorgeous - and of course, at least a couple of them look nicer and more distinctive in their "ugly" garb, though maybe I just have a thing for girls with piercings. Moreover, they eventually figure out that looking like cookie-cutter bombshells is no way to go through life with dignity, and so they figure out a way to look like cookie-cutter bombshells with personalised hair styles.

As for Shelley, she goes and falls for Oliver (Colin Hanks), the manager of a nursing home, who doesn't fall for any of her porny seduction tricks, and so she attempts to become super-smart to impress him, before coming to the conclusion that it's best just to be whoever you are inside, and if they don't like it, they can go to hell. It's in the grand tradition of Happy Madison Productions that some minor attempt should be made to carve a socially redemptive message out of a film whose comedy all derives from the exact opposite of that message, but at least The House Bunny makes a better stab at it than, oh, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Still, for the great bulk of the film anything redeeming is far on the back-burner, as pornstar femininity is held up for our approval (the Playboy Mansion seems about as naughty as a McDonald's playland in this iteration). The fact that two women, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, wrote this (theirs is also Legally Blonde) frustrates me to no end. I expect it doesn't need saying that most of the gags die in the instant they're told; largely because only the most sheltered viewer hasn't seen them a dozen or more times.

Into this mess walks Faris, and my God but she turns a sow's ear into a silk purse. It would be too much to ask that she makes it a great comedy; but there are several places where she does a something, je ne sais quois, that makes a line that couldn't possibly work on paper into something which is at least funnyesque, if not quite hilarious (she even turns a dire running gag, in which Shelley remembers names by repeating them in a guttural growl the moment she learns them, into a consistent laugh-getter). And better even than that, she almost manages to make the cynical attempt at Good Morals work; she actually makes us feel for this cardboard Dumb Blonde, and make Shelley's attempts to be more than just a Bunny seem both real and touching. The scene where she realises that all her tricks aren't enough to snare Oliver, that properly grown-up men need more than just sexy theatrics to keep their interest, is a a quietly tragic moment that calls to mind no less than Marilyn Monroe, the cinema's poster girl for seeming airheads with a hidden measure of pain deep inside.

I write that, and I don't even know if I believe it: does a movie as resolutely worthless as The House Bunny actually manage to reveal that we have our very own modern-day version of Marilyn? I almost don't want it to be true, but there's Faris, suggesting otherwise. I'm officially putting her on watch: she has two years to do something worthy of her talents, and then I'll call her one of the great contemporary comediennes. In the mean time, let's just marvel that she gives one of the best performances of the year thus far in a movie that never comes within swiping distance of deserving it.

4/10

26 August 2008

THE ANGELINOS

In 1979, Woody Allen directed a film called Manhattan: half a love story about neurotic, self-obsessed intellectuals, half a gauzy Valentine to all the nooks and crannies of a city the filmmaker adored, filmed in unmentionably gorgeous black-and-white 70mm by the legendary Gordon Willis. And much as Annie Hall has been echoed consciously or subconsciously in virtually every romantic comedy to come out since, so has Manhattan influenced more movies than I could count. But never have I seen a film so obviously affected by the Allen picture as In Search of a Midnight Kiss, a Los Angeles-based indie romance from writer-director Alex Holdridge.

I'm well aware that comparing Midnight Kiss to Manhattan is quickly becoming a cliché, but it seems impossible to avoid doing it: that the film is desperately anxious for the audience to make that connection is clear from the very opening monologue, a slacker's proem set to, yes, jazz music. I should feel a crank not to indulge. The only other thing it wants to be quite so baldly is a next-gen version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, with which it shares a producer. And which are also films that have generated no small number of imitators and even a kind of subgenre: the Angsty Walk-'n-Talk.

It's not ipso facto bad that the movie doesn't really have anything in the way of originality. Just that the whole time you're watching it, you have to try really hard to not keep thinking about those other movies, which for the most part, Midnight Kiss can't compete with. And the fact that I had to qualify that with "for the most part" is its own kind of triumph. Above all else, it really does work as a paean to Los Angeles, a city where more movies have been shot than any other in the history of the world, which nevertheless only rarely ever seems to have a personality or a history to it. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white video, there are moments of true beauty that showcase an angle of L.A. that most of us have never considered, where the buildings are old but classic-looking, and the streets are filled with people who aren't movie stars. The artificial visual style makes it all seem a little unreal, and a little timeless, and by and large, this is one of the only times in history that I've felt the city looked nice enough to actually live in. Now to be fair, the film certainly looks rough-hewn (it suffers in multiple places from jutter and artifacting, banes of digital video that don't often make it into commercially released projects), but rather than suggesting cheapness, this simply makes the film seem more personal and intimate, like a home video made only for private consumption.

The city portrait isn't as important to the film as it is in e.g. Manhattan, and that brings us to the much more typical and much less exciting plot of the film. 30-year-old Wilson (Scoot McNairy, whose name I am going to assume to be a stage name, if only because the terror of parents naming a child "Scoot" does not fit into my worldview) has been living in L.A. for three months trying and failing to sell a screenplay or get over his break-up from his girlfriend of many, many years, who stayed behind in Texas. On the morning of New Year's Eve, his roommate Jacob (Brian McGuire) catches him masturbating to a picture of Jacob's girlfriend Min (Kathleen Luong), Photoshopped onto a porn model's head; perhaps incidentally, Jacob and Min encourage Wilson to consider using Craigslist that very afternoon to find a girl to spend the countdown to midnight with. Writing a post referring to himself as "The Misanthrope", Wilson ends up making plans with chain-smoking Vivian (Sara Simmonds), herself freshly off of a break-up.

Notwithstanding its quintessentially indie need to develop characters through quirk rather than, y'know, characterisation - that masturbation gag is awfully twee - the opening fifteen or twenty minutes are actually pretty great: though he has an incredible name, McNairy turns out to be an appealing actor, and his chemistry with McGuire is note-perfect; after the rancid "mumblecore" subgenre (now apparently dead) made human interaction seem like people reading Pitchfork quotes over one another's shoulders, it's amazing to see an indie movie with people who act like people again. Plus, there's a strong sense in the opening scenes that this is going to end up as a smart look at how the internet has fundamentally altered the way that people go through life (it's implied that the modern urban adult can only find love on the web), with at least a couple of ideas that haven't been fully strip-mined in the last five years.

Unfortunately, when Vivian shows up the movie goes to hell. It's not that Simmonds isn't a poor actress; she's been given an unplayable role, basically the trite Magical Pixie only horribly abusive. Before she ever meets Wilson, she informs him that she's "interviewing" three other men for her date; once they actually meet up, she warns that if he hasn't won her over by 6:00 PM, she's going to toss him aside and find somebody actually worthwhile to spend her night with, all while puffing through cigarette after cigarette and snapping over basically every opinion Wilson expresses. In time, we're made to learn that her visceral shittiness is a mask for fear and insecurity, but until that, we're left wondering what conceivable reason could drive Wilson to put up with her for five minutes let alone a whole afternoon, after which if he had any thread of sanity, he'd be grateful that she finally threw him over. But this is a movie, and so they stick together despite the fact that she is completely awful.

And that's the big problem, the one that the film never gets over: the film's idea of "romantic" is watching a boring guy with sexual problems try to flirt with a harridan (and I don't like to throw out sexist words, but Vivian is a harridan if ever I've seen one), and in the process become a better man. That's the other big problem: Vivian is tremendously flat, with character development pasted on for show, and her only function in the movie is to give Wilson some perspective. Maybe if she felt like she had an inner life, her shrewishness wouldn't be so grating (indeed, if she had an inner life, she by necessity could not be a shrew). Anyway, when the end comes, the film is all of a sudden very sweet and Vivian is gentle and human and all that, but there's an hour where we just want her to go away and stop being Angry Natalie Portman. Ah, but sexism is always alive and well in the land of the microbudget!

Even at the end, though, there's a hint of hipsterist nihilism that's not in keeping with what's gone before, and the feeling one gets is that Holdridge is not a student of life, but of other movies. At times this serves him well, but all in all it's hard not to regard In Search of a Midnight Kiss as a better-than-usual riff on a tune that's been played to death in recent years, with an unusually poor balance between the two romantic leads.

6/10

25 August 2008

TSPDT #281: JOHNNY GUITAR

Confronted with a film that seems to come out of nowhere, and do things that no other film in my experience has done in quite the same way, my brain struggles mightily to come up with some comfortably familiar framework to fit that film, and here's what I've come up with for Johnny Guitar: it's like a Howard Hawks Western as directed by melodramatist Douglas Sirk. Kind of.

Johnny Guitar is the story of Vienna (Joan Crawford), a woman who builds a gambling hall in Arizona, miles from the nearest town but right by the proposed path of a new railroad; of Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), the local moralist whose brother was killed in a robbery blamed on a gang Vienna has some ties to; of the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), the gang leader who loves Vienna and just wants to be left alone with his silver mine and his lady; and of John Logan, AKA Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), Vienna's old flame who comes at her invitation to play guitar, despite his hot temper and deadly pistol. And it is quite possibly the weirdest Western ever made by a mainstream studio in the 1950s

It's rare enough, after all, for a Western to feature two well-rounded female characters, and I'm damned if I can come up with another one that has the audacity to set those two characters up as the primary source of plot conflict. This is a story of Vienna and Emma all the way, with everybody else, even the title character, coming along merely to flesh out the edges. Admittedly, they don't resemble actual women any more than the men in the cast resemble actual human males, particularly given the film's eagerness to leap to Freudian explanations for everything that happens. But this isn't really a liability, given the outsized campiness involved, a campiness which might well alienate plenty of hard-core Western fans and modern viewers unaccustomed to the heavily stylised acting that entails, but for my money puts Johnny Guitar high in the running for the most interesting Western of the studio system not directed by John Ford.

This is the film, after all, of which Jean-Luc Godard - never a man given to hyperbole - once claimed, to love cinema is to love Johnny Guitar (a restrained comment, in its own twisted way; Martin Scorsese has said something similar about the entire corpus of director Sam Fuller). This was right in the heart of Godard's first love for the films of Nicholas Ray, a director best known today mostly for Rebel Without a Cause, but whom the true cinephile recognises as one of the all-around brashest directors of the post-war era (Ray is also a director whose supporters are given to breathless praise and phrases like "true cinephile"). I don't mean to belittle They Live by Night or On Dangerous Ground or other masterworks if I suggest that Johnny Guitar is my new favorite Ray film; at any rate, it seems like it might be the most Rayvian, with its fixation on isolation vs. civilisation and Johnny's one-line encapsulation of the director's whole career: "I'm a stranger here myself."

It's a film that hops madly from one style to another, and from black comedy to thriller and back, and never once in nearly two hours does it strain in doing so. The opening 40 minutes are a real-time introduction to the characters and the situation all on one set; yet it might also be the most thrillingly cinematic part of the whole movie, with Ray quickly dividing the cast into groups based primarily on how he films them: Vienna and Johnny in still medium shots (they are calm and in control), the Dancin' Kid's gang in handheld (or at least, unfixed) medium and medium-wide shots that typically seem to spill off the edge of the frame (they're a bit loose and anarchic), and Emma and the gang of righteous citizenry in wider shots that always emphasise the collective backing up the individual (she's authoritarian). It's almost a disappointment, in fact, when the film moves out into the open country and starts to look a lot more like every other great Western of the era, as shot by the typically brilliant Harry Stradling.

Judging from a quick spin 'round the internet, it would appear that the modern viewer tends to have a problem with the film's hammiest aspects, primarily its gonzo psychoanalytic drama (Emma is a sexually repressed prude who hates Vienna for being a liberated woman, and Dancin' Kid for being the object of her own repressed lust), and the outrageous acting involved. And certainly, the acting is pretty big in this movie: Hayden appears to have stepped untouched from a film noir, and Crawford is at her very draggiest (one character approvingly claims that she's more of a man than a woman). Maybe it's just my affection for the decade talking, but I tend to see these as positives, not negatives. The 15 years after the end of World War II were a strange time in the history of American gender roles; after supporting industry for five years, women were suddenly required to step back into the shadows and let the boys take over, and this caused no end of anxiety all over the country. Johnny Guitar tries to have it both ways, unbashedly praising female sexuality while punishing Vienna by destroying her dreams of economic power. At any rate, the Freudian tone to the film is just its extremely unsubtle way of forcing those issues right to the top of our minds; and who says subtlety is always so damned important. And about the acting...well, you either like ham or you don't. There's nothing believable about the performances precisely because there isn't supposed to be: this is the story of immovable objects and irresistable forces, not actual people. That's what "melodrama" means.

My critical faculties might not be so sharp here; it's just that I flat-out loved this movie. I loved that every character is a shitheel, and the only reason we like some of the shitheels is that they want to do their own thing in peace; the villains are the ones who want to force their own brand of shit on everybody. I loved that it has that garish soft look of 1950s color films. I love that Nicholas Ray's camera can't make up its mind if it would rather be stately or insane. I love that when Sterling Hayden says that a real man only needs a cup of coffee and a good smoke, it looks like he wants to have sex with both of those things. Sure this is all over-the-top, but it's tremendously entertaining, and brilliantly executed, and dammit, there's even a bit of raw human passion in there if you look a little bit.

24 August 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE NIGHT HE WENT TO CALIFORNIA

The last page of notes I took for Halloween H20 (on the back of an envelope, if you care), includes this observation of the film's closing minutes: "[Michael] looks confused & pathetic. Just like this film."

Somehow, history has come to regard this 1998 reboot of the Halloween franchise as the best of all the sequels, and certainly compared to the unforgivable Revenge of Michael Myers and Curse of Michael Myers, nobody sane could argue that it's the worst; but I must confess that I've apparently missed something, the part where the movie is clever and "witty", a word that gets tossed around in internet discussions of this film with a frequency that would seem excessive if for a Noël Coward play. What I did notice were a whole lot of in-jokey references to old horror movies that I'm certain were meant by co-writers Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg to gratify anyone clever enough to spot them all, but to my mind are much more tiresome than charming. Particularly since the film's idea of "clever" is to have Janet Leigh cameo as a school secretary whose first line is about a problem with the girls' shower.

Of course, we should expect nothing else from a late-'90s horror film. H20 was the first major slasher sequel produced after Scream came along and changed everything. Post-1996, slasher films were supposed to be "ironic" (god, the fucking '90s), and "knowing", and H20 certainly aims for those targets. Hitting them is the hard part, as ever; and while I appreciate Zappia and Greenberg's sincerity, I can't say that I find it funny or intelligent or revealing per se to have it pointed out that Jamie Lee Curtis's mom starred in Psycho. Which is frankly something that John Carpenter's original Halloween already did, without having to resort to making it a gag.

So before I launch into the whole plot thing, I'd like to take a moment to consider the title. As per the onscreen titles and the movie poster, the film's full given name is Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later, with H20 hovering underneath the word Halloween. I'm not certain if the intended pronunciation is "Aitch-Twenty" or "Aitch-Two-Oh", the latter giving us the still-deathless joke about calling the film Halloween Water, but either way it stands for "Halloween [at] Twenty" - and now I've gone and whet my appetite for a European anthology of slasher short films titled Halloween à vingt ans - meaning the film is in fact titled Halloween - Halloween Twenty: Twenty Years Later. Quite a long way to go for the studio to make sure we got the point, that the film was coming out as a 20th anniversary celebration. I'd have rather seen the original Halloween: The Revenge of Laurie Strode, or for that matter, Michael Goes to Hell: The Final Halloween, though I assume rights issues would have killed that one in its crib.

In addition to having a stupid title, HH20TYL opens upon a lie: it is October 28, 1998, meaning that it's really H19y,361d. The action begins in Langdon, IL, as "Mr. Sandman" plays on the soundtrack (the same ill-inspired opening as Halloween II) plays on the radio as a middle-aged woman walks home. It's not entirely clear to me when we're suppose to realise that this is Dr. Loomis's old friend Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens, for the third time), but she is; and as she comes to the front door, she notices that somebody seems to have broken in. She cautiously backs away, smack into her teenage neighbor Jimmy, scaring herself silly (Jimmy is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, believe it or not; I suspect his presence here, dead before the opening credits, was meant as H20's attempt at a Scream-style "famous star dies almost right away" moment. Assuming that 3rd Rock from the Sun was enough to make him "famous"). Jimmy, for the record, is wearing a hockey mask the first time we meet him, and it was at this point that I figured out that the film's idea of "wit" would not be cotangent with my own.

Sensibly, Marion decides to send a thuggish teen into her house to check for thieves. So in goes Jimmy, where he finds the office has been torn up, and the spring-loaded ironing board in the kitchen freaks him out so badly that he destroys everything with his hockey stick; but no burglar. He walks outside, where afternoon turned to pitch-black night in about ten minutes, and gives his report. Only a little comforted, Marion goes inside and does not see Michael Myers (Chris Durand who is - are you sitting down? - a stuntman), though she does see that somebody destroyed her photo of Dr. Loomis and stole her file on Laurie Strode. She instantly figures out what happened, and runs next door to get help from Jimmy and his friend Tony (Branden Williams), but dammit if they aren't already dead - Jimmy's skull has been cleaved with an ice skate, against all physics - and naturally, Marion gets hers after a brief stalking scene. The credits finally drift in from wherever they've been hiding and the whole Halloween saga is recapped for us by a series of news clippings and voice actor Tom Kane doing an absolutely horrible Donald Pleasence impersonation, reciting that good old "pure evil with black eyes and a heart that was two sizes too small" bit that Pleasence owned like nobody's business until the end, when he was standing about two inches from death.

If we somehow managed to avoid the deluge of advertisements, it would be right now that we learned that H20 represents an alternative continuity, in which Laurie Myers Strode Lloyd, mother of Jamie, did not marry that swell paramedic fella who might have been dead at the end of Halloween II. Instead, she went into hiding shortly after the 1978 murders, took the name "Keri Tate", had a baby by an asshole methhead, and got a job as the director of teaching at a super-duper prestigious private school in Summer Glen, California. The original story treatment (by Screamwright Kevin Williamson) actually tried to fit this film in with that continuity, and I sort of wish they'd stuck with it; if for no other reason than the fact that I enjoyed Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, like, a lot more than this, and I am sad that it no longer exists.

It's time to buckle in now, because we're in for a long stretch of nothing. It's about twelve minutes into the film when we see Laurie again (still played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who is absolutely the best element of the whole project), and it will be somewhere around minute 58 - that's in a film that runs 80 minutes before credits, folks - before anything particularly interesting happens. In the meantime, we get a whole lot of character exposition, which is tolerable in the occasional moments when it focus on Laurie - who has a son, is borderline alcoholic, and is dating the school's guidance counselor in secret - and which is fucking vicious when it's concerned with the rest of the cast and the nominal plot. Essentially, Laurie is very protective of her son John (Josh Hartnett, in his first role), and he gets sort of pissy about it, so when the whole school goes to Yosemite for a camping night out, he guilts her into letting him go, but only so he can duck out and have a private alcohol-fueled party in the school's basement with his lady friend Molly (Michelle Williams), and fellow couple Charlie (Adam Hann-Byrd) and Sarah (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe), the daughter of Laurie's guidance counselor lover Will (Adam Arkin).

This is padding of the most interminable sort, weighed down by Hartnett's infamous anti-charisma and minimal talent (though at least you can actually see his irises in this, his debut - they are brown), by the clumsy dialogue that the screenwriters saw fit to perpetrate on an unsuspecting world (when Laurie finally unburdens herself to Will about her tortured, bloody past, his response, believing her to be joking, is that it must have been "sucky"), by a wildly frivolous subplot involving the school's security guard Ronny (LL Cool J), an aspiring writer of erotica whose function to the movie around him consists almost solely of some executive's brainstorm that it would probably be possible to get LL Cool J in the movie, and the kids these days like those hippy-hoppers. He doesn't even prove to be expendable meat, like he would have in one of those good old slashers from the mid '80s where characters were trucked in with one personality trait and a target on their back; he ends up surviving in one of the most contrived "didn't really die" moments I've ever seen. Though to be fair to the ironic nature of the beast, it's entirely plausible that it was supposed to be contrived (god, the fucking '90s).

It's like every other dead teenager film of all time, but with noticeably worse dialogue. After some false scares and go-nowhere stalking scenes, the killing starts, right about the moment that Laurie makes the shocking discovery that her older sister and herself were both targeted on the Halloween of their 17th year. And guess which descendant of the Myers line is 17 years old this particular holiday? So Laurie rushes off to the school with Will in two, just a couple of minutes before the single most cock-teasing scene in any slasher film I've ever encountered. See, Charlie needed to go find a corkscrew for the apparently twist-top liquor bottle they have at the party, and he wanders up to the kitchen with Sarah; but they are separated. Having happy visions of Crispin Glover getting corkscrew'd in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, I readied myself for the first of the many references that I actually intended to enjoy. Then, it got even gaudier, as Charlie dropped the corkscrew in a garbage disposal, which he then proceeds to demonstrate through pornish close-ups on the on/off switch and the disposal's blades, is very much active. Though a hand-grinding and a corkscrew through the skull probably counts as gauche, at least it would have some energy to it, I figured. Anyway, Charlie plucks the corkscrew out of the disposal without incident, and turns to see Michael. He dies offscreen, and reappears in a dumbwaiter with his throat slit.

This is where irony turns into sheer contempt for the audience; where Chekhov's dictum of the first-act gun turns into two characters talking loudly about "THAT'S A BIG GUN." "YES, AND FULLY LOADED WITH BULLETS." "COULD YOU CLUMSILY TOSS IT TOWARDS ME?" right before, I don't know, a piano falls on them both, crushing them.

It therefore fits right in with the climax of H20, which is a twelve-minute exercise in ignoring the whole rest of the movie. Don't get me wrong, it's a fantastic climax - it's absolutely unquestionably the best part of any Halloween film since the first one. It focuses exclusively on Laurie and Michael, which the whole film ought to have done, really; and that whole big moment where Laurie realises that Michael has come back just to kill John at the appointed moment? Aside from the fact that it makes no sense and cheapens Michael's threat as a motiveless force of nature (something that this film was in a prime position to fix, after the increasingly ludicrous sequels, and at least this reveal isn't as skull-exploding bad as the Thorn conspiracy in Curse of Michael Myers), it's totally forgotten: John runs from Michael, and once Michael spots Laurie, her son never speaks another word in the film. All the agony of watching generic teens mill about and suck time away from Curtis ultimately serves no purpose except for giving Laurie an excuse to fight - something that could have been done in a dozen other ways - and to make sure teenaged asses would shuffle into the theater.

So, what went wrong?

The film began, allegedly, when Curtis hinted around that she might want to appear in one last Halloween movie, as her thank-you to the fans who made her a star (the legend continues that she wanted John Carpenter to direct, but because of good taste, or an unreasonable fee, or an unreasonable fee that was his attempt to express his good taste, he instead worked on the timeless masterpiece that is John Carpenter's Vampires). That's a noble intention, but there's this tricky point that you can't make movies out of intentions; you have to have an story that needs the telling. Laurie Strode's story had been told - there were no unanswered questions or dire foreshadowing - and any attempt to add to that would end exactly where it did: with a film that feels like those interminable Christmas letters about What Our Family Did This Year, where everything is about filling in that twenty year gap, not having anything interesting happen now.

Steve Miner was tapped to direct; and that at least was an inspired choice. Miner after all oversaw the closest thing to a good Jason Voorhees movie, Friday the 13th, Part 2, whose Final Girl sequence remains one of the most impeccably-directed scenes in slasher history. He then directed Friday the 13th, Part 3, one of the most miserable films in the series, and then his career ran headlong into episodic TV. But hey, he was good once, so maybe he'd be good again? This is what I told myself over and over again in the run-up to this film (incidentally, Miner is one of only three men to have directed entries in two major slasher franchises: Wes Craven, with two Nightmares and all three Screams is one; Ronny Yu, with Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs. Jason is the third). In the end, my confidence wasn't entirely misplaced; the Final Woman sequence is tremendously exciting, even if some of the editing is a bit confusing once it turns into a car chase. But what makes for a fine Friday the 13th movie doesn't entirely work for Halloween - the former franchise is steeped in exploitation, the latter is heavily focused on atmosphere and mood. When all is said and done, Miner's style is visually cluttered, where the film was written for shadows and dark corners. Nor does he have much luck with the arch "humor" in the script, as further evidenced by his stiff handling of Lake Placid just one year later.

At least it looks pretty good: shot by the tremendously anonymous Daryn Okada, this is easily the best-looking Halloween since the fourth, and maybe even since the second. The night photography in particular is rich and spooky, even with the tendency towards too much backlighting. The daytime scene, meanwhile, reveal that the makers of H20 had some actual desire to make it look like autumn, now that it was taking place outside of the Midwest - I don't know, maybe everybody who lives in Hollywood just think that Illinois really looks green in late October.

So much for the ballyhooed return of Halloween, three years after the main-line of films ran screaming into the ground. At least H20 isn't that toxically bad, it's just irritating. And by ending as it did - with unambiguous, un-retconnable closure - it all but guaranteed that the inevitable follow-up would have to go straight for Idiot Land to even come up with a scenario, so we can't even call it the worst possible conclusion to the Myers saga. But damn me, if this is what "for the fans" looks like, I'd rather Ms. Curtis not try and do me any more favors.

Body Count: After the Voorhesian totals reached by the first five sequels, H20 retreats to an almost dainty 6 - one of which is *cough* Michael himself, and none of which, emphatically, are LL Cool J.

Reviews in this series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chapelle, 1995)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Miner, 1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)

23 August 2008

BUSTING THE DREAM FACTORY

Part of the Movies About Movies blog-a-thon hosted at Goatdog

The great silent comedian Buster Keaton isn't typically thought of as a cultural commentator; I think most people would sooner point to Charles Chaplin, whose iconic Little Tramp stood in for all men and women trampled by those with money, power and influence. Certainly, Chaplin's social critique is nothing if not obvious, and it only intensified as his career entered the sound era - but I'm not here to pick at the happily dormant Chaplin-Keaton debate. I just want to suggest that Keaton very much did have something important to say about the world around him, and as befits his persona, his greatest social satire is about as stone-faced as they come.

The 1924 masterpiece Sherlock Jr. is a pop-culture critique from a time before the phrase "pop culture" existed, and perhaps the first example of a subgenre that has since become something of a post-modern cliché: movies about how movies are complete bullshit. The story of the 44-minute, three-reel feature (which should have been longer, except that one particularly violent stunt left Keaton unable to complete his original script after his neck was fractured - something he only discovered years later), for those who haven't seen it yet - shame on you, and change that as quickly as you possibly can - follows a young man (Keaton) who works as a projectionist at the local movie house, dreaming of becoming a detective. This boy is very much in love with a young lady (Kathryn McGuire), whose hand is also sought by a swaggering tough guy (Ward Crane), who frustrates the boy's courtship by accusing him of stealing the girl's father's (Joe Keaton) pocket watch. Cast out and angry, the boy goes back to his job, projecting the romantic drama Hearts and Pearls. As he watches the melodrama unfold, the boy falls asleep, and dreams that he enters the movie, with all the principals transformed into the figures from his day. Now recast as the world's greatest detective, Sherlock, Jr, the boy is able to live out his fantasies, both professional and romantic.

On the most obvious level, this is a poke at how movies are a form of wish fulfillment, coming up with absurdly unlikely ways to make sure good things happen to good people (and Keaton is nothing if not an absurd world's greatest detective). The Dream Factory, they used to call Hollywood, for it was the place where dreams came true. And in a fashion, the boy's dreams do come true: he's proven innocent of the theft and wins the girl, through absolutely no fault of his own. He's neither a casanova nor a detective; he's Buster Keaton, and therefore prone to clumsiness. The idealised, Hollywoodised dream has no connection at all to reality. It's especially worth pointing out that the girl finds the watch, thus clearing the boy and essentially sealing their courtship, before he ever dreams the "Sherlock Jr." sequence - the conflict has already been resolved when the boy starts to dream up his movie that resolves the same conflict.

The problem with that reading is that it misses out on most of the film, which can be easily divided into thirds: in the first part, the boy tries futilely to impress the girl with baubles despite having one dollar to his name; in the second, he tries and fails at playing detective, to find the nasty truth about his rival; the third, well, that's the movie-within-the-movie.

If the last part of the film is where Keaton is obviously poking fun at the shortcomings of the cinema as a guide to life, it's the rest where he's being a bit more subtle, a bit smarter, and a bit meaner. It is noted that Sherlock Jr. is the only Keaton feature in which none of the characters have given names; they're all credited by function. The Boy, The Girl, The Father, The Sheik (in romantic films of the time, "sheik" was the debonair, manly guy who was either the romantic hero or the bully, depending on the story's need). The polite thing to do would be to call these "archetypes"; the better thing to do is observe that they're one-dimensional caricatures.

The same "young lovers" genre that gave us the character type "The Sheik" also gave us a lot of cookie-cutter plots about gentle young men who had to prove their worth against a seemingly better match for the lovely ingénue; the first parts of Sherlock Jr. present this genre stripped to the bone. It's so damn typical, Keaton and his writers (Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Joe Mitchell) couldn't even be bothered to give the characters names.

So we've already been taken out of the movie a little bit by the absence of a comforting lie that these are real people with actual identities; that's when Keaton and company start to have a bit of fun with us, poking smaller and then larger holes in the fabric of their film. The “small town” of the main action is clearly a stage; in the sequence of the boy trailing the sheik (the only time we get a good view of the town), there is a shot of the two walking past a row of houses. Behind this is a large domed building that’s either a soundstage or an aircraft hangar; take your pick, but it doesn’t belong here. Furthermore, the three main locations that we see the two men walk through are too discordant to exist in as small a region as we are led to believe that they are traversing: from a neighborhood to the middle of a town, to a vast oil field out on a railroad track, all in less than a minute.

Then there's Hearts and Pearls, which besides being an apparently bad movie (it puts the boy to sleep, at any rate), doesn't seem to be one that could possibly exist. Once the dream starts, and the boy enters the film, he's suddenly attacked by a bad case of editing; a case of bad editing, even. As he steps into the movie, he sits on a bench which vanishes when the image cuts to a busy street; he looks down a sheer cliff just as it turns into a lion. Unless it is meant to be an avant-garde experimental piece decades ahead of schedule, I think we can assume that lions, busy streets, deserts and snowy mountains are not aspects of the diegesis of Hearts and Pearls, and this gag - this superlatively funny gag, I might add - points out the falseness of the movie which contains such a pointlessly random series of shots...and it's worth mentioning that ultimately, the film containing that series is really titled Sherlock Jr.

At a time when movies were coming to dominate American life like they never have since the 1940s, influence both dress and behavior across the country, Keaton's aim in this film appears to have been to remind us all that whatever other charms they possess, movies are at best a counterfeit of life. And not a particularly convincing one, at that. So let's please not use them as guides to life, and become human beings just as shallow as the everyboy, the everygirl, the everysheik.

It's a lesson that the boy seems to learn, in the end. The last shots of Hearts and Pearls follow the young lovers of that film falling into each other's arms, cutting to an image, some time later, of the now-married couple with a pair of babies. The last shot of Sherlock Jr. is the boy's shell-shocked face upon seeing this. It's left ambiguous whether he has no idea what kissing and babies could have to do with each other, or if he's just terror-striken at the idea of having babies of his own, but either way the same point is made: his ability to learn from this particular movie is at an end, and all of sudden the things he's seeing onscreen aren't part of his life any longer. There's a certain irony in the idea that we should learn from the boy - who, once more for emphasis, is a cliché who doesn't exist - but let's just chalk that up to Keaton's sense of humor. For God's sake, the movies are supposed to be fun, after all. That's the reason they have to be faked in the first place.

AN OLD WOMAN'S TALE

A small elderly woman walks through a train yard on a scorching hot day, looking for her ride. Eventually she comes to an armored military train, loaded with sweaty, dusty soldiers, who are glad to help the woman up into their dingy hold. As the train pulls out, the men discuss how best to afford her some measure of privacy for the long night trip to their base.

Thus begins Aleksandra, the latest film by Russian filmmaker and former avant-gardist Aleksandr Sokurov, best known to this country's arthouse crowds for his bravura 2002 film Russian Ark, a feature-length exploration of Russia's history and love/hate relationship with Europe noted for being filmed in one uninterrupted take. There's little of that film's style in Aleksandra, but they share the same overriding theme: what does it mean to be Russian in a given place and time?

The place and time presented in the director's new film is modern Chechnya, the much-disputed Islamic republic straining for independence from Russia; the setting is a military base manned by the Russian army, and the small town lying outside its walls. The figure with whom we move through this setting is Aleksandra Nikolaevna, played by 81-year-old Galina Vishnevskaya, a beloved and internationally reknowned opera diva. That she is one of Russia's living operatic treasures - and that she was once a friend of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - have very little to do with her presence in Aleksandra; far more important is her almost comic appearance, a tiny, rounded, wrinkly old lady in simple clothes and a babushka, looking kind of like every grandma who ever existed.

That's why she's traveling to Chechnya, you see; because she's a grandma. It's been seven years since she's seen her adult grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), an officer (probably, but the film never really makes it clear, because it's not really important) stationed in that country. Without any apparent motivation besides the love that grandmas have for their descendants, she makes the long journey mostly to say "hi" and poke around and look at things.

And poking around, and looking, are just what she does. If I tried to synopsise the plot of Aleksandra, I'd probably go a little bit nuts, for there's not any plot that you could tell. Instead, there are scenes of Aleksandra meeting people and talking about this and that, and frequently finding herself out of breath and ready for a sit-down, which she frequently enjoys with the old Chechen woman Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), who runs a general store in the bombed-out remains of her house, just a bit outside the base.

From this reed-thin premise, Sokurov drafts one of the few truly poetic films of the current decade. His vision of Chechnya is mesmerising and unreal, as idiosyncratic as a vision by David Lynch, though in no way comparable (I really can't think of anything to compare it to, in fact; maybe Sokurov's other films, but the only three I've seen - including Mother and Son and Father and Son - are probably more dissimilar than similar). This starts with the film's incredible appearance: processed to look almost like yellow monochrome (the eagle-eyed will pick out the odd red or green every so often, very muted), the screen is positively arid with the mercyless heat and dust of the Chechen summer. It looks nothing like a film set in a modern army base ought to look; if anything, it reminded me of a post-apocalyptic thriller, where the whole planet had been turned to desert.

That's saying nothing about the bizarre images of tiny Aleksandra moving blithely around the soldiers and their world, a homey picture of Russian tradition thrust incongruously amongst tanks and bunkers and guns. So inconceivable does this seem that the film can't help but morph into a kind of magical realism: the charming old lady crash-landed in a yellow alien world.

Aleksandra is basically a fairy tale, in the end, so the magical realism suits it (and I should perhaps say "fable", not "fairy tale"). As the fairy, Aleksandra herself is both character and symbol, the former revealed mostly in her subtle and beautiful conversations with Malika, the latter in her interactions with the soldiers. It's clear that they are more than a little delighted by her presence, rather than tolerant or ironically amused, and one might say without stretching that they all fall somewhat in love with her; she represents an unstoppable life force in the midst of death, quintessential Russinaness in a place where Russians are not meant to be, neither wanting to stay nor wanted by the locals.

This last part is the key to Sokurov's political statement within the movie, although a gentler, less-polemic political film has rarely been made. Aleksandra is essentially a film about absurdity: it's obvious though never stated outright that Aleksandra's presence in Chechnya is absurd, and she metaphorically stands in for Russia's equally-absurd presence in that place. The filmmaker is never obliged to lecture us about how very bad this situation is; it's patently obvious to us, the more we realise that nobody in the film is very happy except when Aleksandra is there to remind them of what life can be without war.

Here is what filmmaking looks like at its absolute best: a movie of bold and aggressive originality that expresses itself with the utmost delicacy. Seeing Aleksandra is like permitting Sokurov to arrange your dreams for you: it is highly intellectual and simultaneously, absolutely intuitive, like the best work of Kieslowski or Dreyer. Watching that stumpy little woman dragging her suitcase around is seeing humanity expressed onscreen in its absolute form, undoubtedly artificial but so truthful as to be overwhelming.

10/10

21 August 2008

WALKING ALONG THE RIVER ROAD AT NIGHT

As debut features go, writer-director Courtney Hunt's Frozen River is perfectly serviceable, if not particularly exceptional. Laureled at Sundance, it would be a textbook example of a solid little indie movie that gets quietly dumped in the waning days of summer because the distributor can't really think of anything else to do with, except for this: it's graced by two of the strongest performances in any film released in the States so far this year.

The film is about two mothers driven to extremes to protect their children: first up, we meet Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), whose gambling-addicted husband abandons her and their two boys shortly before Christmas, taking the money that was supposed to go towards upgrading their crappy single-wide mobile home to a less-crappy double-wide; while looking for him in the nearby Akwesasne Mohwak reservation on the New York-Ontario border, she bumps into the widowed Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), whose one-year-old baby was abducted by her mother-in-law; since this took place on the reservation itself, Lila has no legal recourse. The younger woman has been looking for a car to kickstart a sort of business smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States through the reservation, across the frozen St. Lawrence River; since Ray just so happens to own a car, it's not terribly far-fetched when the two women, both in dire need of a lot of money quickly, pool their resources to ferry as many people in Ray's trunk as they can manage without getting caught.

I'll give it this, it's not a story I've seen told elsewhere. And it's a pretty decent thriller to boot, considering what I'm sure were less-than-ideal shooting conditions. That said, Hunt seems to be aiming for a slow burn that doesn't really come off very well: instead of the sense that these women are getting deeper and deeper into a situation they can't control, it rather feels like an hour of nothing followed by a half-hour of contrivance. The big problem, I think, is in the particular story beat that shifts the story from one to the other (semi-major spoilers): Ray and Lila pick up a pair of Pakistani immigrants with a mysterious bag, and in her unforeshadowed anti-terorrist furor, Ray tosses the bag out into the snow. Lo and behold, it turns out to have contained the couple's child, and when Ray and Lila go back to find the baby, it's dead - except wait, it's not. There was no way out of this scenario, I fear: kill the kid and the movie veers into unearned miserabilism, keep the kid alive and it zips right on ahead into mawkish cliché. Then there's the end itself, which I will not spoil, other than to marvel at the way it reduces what had 'til now been an ambiguous story about lawbreakers with honest motives into a chipper - but indie-appropriately cynical - celebration of can-do American pluck. It's not an ending honest to the characters or the story, and while it's not so happy as I just made it seem, it's quite a bit more "have your cake and eat it" than Hunt had been trafficking in 'til that point.

So anyway, back to where I started: thank God for the stars. Melissa Leo is maybe not a name you've heard, but it wouldn't be a surprise if you'd seen in her in something, anyway: she was on the genre-defying TV series Homicide: Life on the Street for its first four seasons, and she's guest-starred on several procedural shows. The cinephile might remember her scene-stealing turns in 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Frozen River is her first starring role, and she's never been better: her interpretation of Ray leaves plenty of room for us to recognise that the character is crude and selfish, even as we can't help but be moved by the obvious depth of affection she feels towards her children. It's the kind of performance that's easy to overlook because it doesn't have any Big Moments, just a fictional life so fully inhabited that it never crosses your mind that you're not watching a real woman.

All the way 'round from Leo's decade-and-a-half of strong character work, Misty Upham is in the first project she's ever done that any normal human being is at all likely to have heard of. If Hollywood is just - and isn't that a naïve way to begin a sentence - we'll be hearing a lot more from her in the future. Like her co-star, she inhabits the role rather than plays it, and she does so with a sweet fragility that contrasts with her character's violent and erratic behavior. It's absolutely the best kind of coming-out performance, the sort that wedges itself in your mind so that you're even more impressed long after the movie than you are watching it. Best of all is the interplay between the two actresses; their arc from mutual antagonists to pretty much each other's only friend is a more compelling story than the film's actual plot, and most of that is to the credit of Leo and Upham, who let that development slip into their performances without any clear signposts in the script for just where that should happen.

Beyond that, it's a functional, low-key movie; Hunt wisely recognises that her story is a tiny thing that would be damaged with over-the-top stylistic whorls, and so her direction never breaks out conservative adequacy; which is more than a lot of first-timers can claim, of a certainty. But based on this evidence, there's no reason to suppose one way or the other that she's got a formally elegant movie in her. Frozen River is over quickly and efficiently, but without those tremendous performances, it would certainly be easily forgotten. Still, quiet proficiency is a major plus for an indie film in this world of overbaked quirk, and I hesitate to take Hunt's unstrained lack of ambition for granted.

7/10

20 August 2008

A LATE-SUMMER NIGHT'S SEX DRAMEDY

Woody Allen's projects aren't films so much as they are changes in the weather: sometimes delightful, sometimes annoying, nothing that anybody says or does can do much to change them, and they occur in a roughly annual cycle. With that in mind (extremely strained metaphor to follow), his latest feature, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is like a warm breeze on a hot summer day, insubstantial as all hell but refreshing and satisfying, relaxing and arousing in equal measure.

Okay, so maybe that last bit doesn't really apply to summer breezes (and anyway, I warned you it was a painful metaphor), but it certainly applies to Allen's 38th film as a director, and the fourth he's produced during his self-imposed exile into Europe. Trading the chilly shores of Great Britain for a tourist's vision of idyllic Spain, the new film is Allen's second best of the decade after 2005's Match Point and easily the most fun movie he's made since at least Small Time Crooks back in 2000; hardly a second coming for a man whose career will obviously never return to the heights of the long-passed 1970s, but a pleasing and fairly smart film that reveals an unexpected willingness on Allen's part to finally stretch beyond endless copying of the triumphs of his middle-age.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall, a young actress best known for her role as Christian Bale's wife in The Prestige) and Cristina (the Woodman's current muse Scarlett Johansson) are two Americans in some hazy post-college state that can be best described as "their mid-twenties" visiting Spain for the summer; in Vicky's case, to study Catalan culture as part of her graduate studies, and in Cristina's to find something beautiful and true in life to give her some kind of direction and meaning. Barcelona is the city where the find themselves as the summer begins, staying with Vicky's aunt Judy (Patricia Clarkson, wonderful as always but wasted in a tiny role), and it really does function as a third character; not perhaps since Manhattan has Allen been so obviously enchanted by the place in which his story occurs. It's a romantic and postcard-perfect vision of the city, I suppose, but that fits the film: Vicky and Cristina are each romantic and callow in their own ways, seduced by the surface of a life far removed from their East Coast intellectual backgrounds.

In Barcelona, the girls meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter and bohemian, who seduces them in turn, before things get complicated by the return of his unhinged and possibly homicidal ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz). By the time she shows up, Juan Antonio has bedded and moved in with Cristina, leaving Vicky to fret about her impending marriage to the noble chunk of wood Doug (Chris Messina) while her friend enters into a tenuous but apparently well-balanced polyamorous relationship.

I go back and forth on the question of whether Woody Allen making a mostly nonjudgmental film about a loving and stable three-way is shocking, or a natural outgrowth of his longstanding fascination with the intellectual side of sexual politicking. Because make no mistake, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is far more intellectual than sensual; the much-ballyhooed kisses between Johansson and Cruz occupy less than thirty seconds of the whole film. The film continues the somewhat unfortunate habit that Woody picked up sometime during the '90s, in which the characters are all stand-ins for a philosophical position or debating point, rather than flesh-and-blood humans, and the result is that the movie feels almost like an illustrated gender theory seminar, rather than living drama. At one point Cristina asks Juan Antonio wryly if he's going to take her clothes off or start a panel discussion, and I recall thinking to myself that it was ironic she should bring that up...

But given that limitation, it's surprising how emotionally full Vicky Cristina Barcelona ends up being; thanks mostly to the cast, I have no doubt, who give the material a bit more than it truly deserves (funny how often that seems to happen in Allen's films). Bardem and Cruz are the obvious stand-outs, generating tremendous amounts of gorgeous Spanish heat in every single scene where they start screaming at each other (the film's greatest sin, without question, is how little screentime it devotes to Cruz), but the relatively green Hall is pretty great in the only significant role that feels more human than rhetorical. That Johansson is the weak link is disappointing, but maybe unsurprising; her career has taken a notable dive in the past couple years, and it's apparently brought her talent along with it. But she's still the best she's ever been for Allen, even if she trips up on the arch dialogue he's written for her.

While the script's focus on talking rather than showing is very characteristic of the filmmaker, from all points in his career, there's some flourishes that set it apart from just about every other film he's made - enough so that if you dropped me in front of the movie without knowing what it was, I might not even be able to guess he directed it. Of course, Allen's aesthetic has solidified to the point where any change seems monumental, but Vicky Cristina Barcelona is positively radical for him: besides the predominate use of slightly ironic, mocking narration (provided by Christopher Evan Welch), the film also uses significantly shorter takes than anything I can recall in Allen's career, and a focus on cross-dissolves that I'm certain is unprecedented (has he ever used a dissolve before?). Plus, the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe (of Talk to Her and The Sea Inside) is actually well-thought out and significant, unheard of in a Woody Allen film; looking somewhat like a sun-washed Almodóvar film, the palette is full of colors muted into shades of gold and yellow. It's these little tricks that I think keeps the film from tipping into full-on harangue mode; it's too ephemeral and coy and pretty to be Serious. Not to mention that the actors do a fine job of treating their dialogue ironically.

All in all, it's kind of the Woody Allen equivalent of a beach read: full of over-thought weighty themes, but light and breezy despite that. August is the absolute perfect time to release this movie, in that respect: it's a completely laid-back work that asks for no real effort and promises no tremendous excitement or insight, but it is mostly fulfilling. Compared to something like the dour Cassandra's Dream from earlier this year, that counts as a success, right?

7/10

SUMMER OF BLOOD: A CURSE UPON YE

The lack of cultural memory about some things amazes me. When Halloween H20 was released in 1998, it was treated to a marketing campaign that focused on the triumphant return of the Halloween series - a series that had been dormant only three years. By that point, there had twice been six-year gaps between films in the franchise, making H20 less of a return than merely the latest example of the films' compulsively irregular release schedule. There are at least a couple of reasons why the "triumphant return" angle was valid, though: H20 represented a major shift in series continuity, for one; and it was the first Halloween film after the horror genre died and was reborn in 1996. Not to mention the fact that hardly anybody saw 1995's Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (adjusting for inflation, it had the second-worst box-office take of the series, after only Halloween 5), for the sensible reason that The Curse of Michael Myers is a tremendously awful motion picture.

This should be no surprise. In the six long years since Michael was taken from prison in a blaze of fire, the horror film, a genre already tottering on its last legs in 1989, finally dropped dead. Accordingly, the small number of slashers to come out in the first half of the 1990s were all tremendously rank little things, lacking even a flash of imagination or wit (the grand exception being Wes Craven's New Nightmare). This was probably inevitable; after all, even during the heyday of the slasher film, they were made by people who were driven much more by the paycheck they were going to get than by artistic urgency, and few hacks in the modern era of filmmaking ever made a truly worthwhile movie. But hackwork where you know that nobody is even going to want to see the film? That must be an utterly demoralising experience. Thus do we get the sour joylessness of things like the Leprechaun and Witchcraft series.

As far as the Halloween series goes, we've already had one sour film made by people who clearly wished they were elsewhere (Halloween II) and one film that could only possibly be described as a tossed-off late slasher film (Halloween 5), and I'd love dearly to say that for this, the series' nadir (I hope and pray - at any rate, it's the nadir of the first phase of the series), the creators did something crazy and outrageous; but that would have required some amount of energy and engagement. Instead, TCOMM is just another slasher, not quite as typical as its immediate predecessor, but still best regarded as nothing but a delivery system for murder and half-glimpses of naked women. More than that, though, it has a truly insane collection of plot holes and random story developments, but that's me getting ahead of myself, isn't it?

To start with, we open with the first truly frightening moment in any Halloween sequel yet. No, not the breathy woman crying "Michael, please don't hurt me" over black that begins the film. Nor the whooshing flash, for a fraction of a second, of something dire-looking. In fact, it now occurs to me that we don't "open" with it at all - the first scene is a screaming woman strapped to a gurney being wheeled through some sort of industrial space, apparently in labor. After she gives birth, the Man in Black that we never quite saw properly in the last movie takes her baby, and the credits spool up as he takes the baby to some portentous Somewhere, where there are men in robes. And what should the first credit read? I mean, besides the de rigeur "Donald Pleasence in HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS" (which is, incidentally, given in the most generic font the series has used ever since the "Every '80s Action Movie" titles in Season of the Witch)? "Starring and introducing: Paul Stephen Rudd."

I've been disappointed about the relative dearth of top-notch skeletons in the closet compared to last year's Summer of Blood, but that one name made up for all of it I swear up, down and sideways that I did not know he was in this movie - in fact, for the briefest instant, I wondered if it was actually the same actor, but then he actually starts narrating the history of Michael Myers, ending with a Pleasence-level rant about Michael's Pure Ee-vilness ("You can lock it up, burn it, and bury it, and pray that it dies, but it never will. It just rests awhile"). And sure enough, it is absolutely unmistakably the voice of Paul Rudd, the indie-comedy fixture, stalwart member of both the Judd Apatow and David Wain Stock Companies. I decided right at this moment that in order to retain my sanity, I was going to pretend that Paul Rudd and Paul Stephen Rudd were actually two different people. It worked right up until the first moment we see his face.

So anyway, we find out fairly soon that Paul Stephen Rudd is playing Tommy Doyle, the little boy that Laurie was babysitting all the way back in the first Halloween; apparently his run-in with Michael left him a touch unhinged, and he's spent most of his life trying to unlock the mysteries of the unstoppable killer. But those mysteries aren't quite unlocked yet - first we have to get back to that poor trapped woman. It turns out to be Jamie Lloyd, Michael's little niece (now played by J.C. Brandy, allegedly because Danielle Harris's $5000 asking price was too high), and how she came to be pregnant will forever remain unanswered. What happens while we're fruitlessly pondering that question is that a nursemaid, played by a howlingly incompetent actress (I can't figure out which of the anonymous figures from the cast list she is, sadly) brings the baby to Jamie, urging her to flee. Jamie does, and Michael pursues, killing the nurse in a shockingly bloody impalement; moments later, he'll kill a drifter who looks kind of like Nick Nolte (stuntman Tom Proctor) by crushing his skull with a shocking amount of blood. "That's right!" I found myself thinking, "There was that whole thing were blood became okay again after Tarantino in the mid-1990s!" Tremendous amounts of added gore do not serve Halloween well, as it turns out. Wasn't that a lesson we already learned back in Halloween II?

Before I go further, a moment's pause. Compared to all the other A-list slasher franchises, Halloween has enjoyed, if that is the word, a tremendously robust continuity, with every film adding more and more (frivolous) details about the Myers, Strodes, Lloyds, and Haddonfield. I don't know that I care for it; it makes the films more about plot than about slashing, and since none of them do plot very well, it might have been better to let it dangle. The point being, the five main films all clearly take place in a defined, consistent world, and I bring this up now because something is about to happen that would hardly bear mentioning in a Friday the 13th, but is indescribably stupid given the very different context here.

The very first shot back in Haddonfield is of a sign for Strode Realty, and we see that the old Myers place finally sold (recall that in Halloween, Laurie's father was trying to show it, and that is how she first crossed paths with the psycho who was not yet also her brother). In short order, we learn that the house is now occupied by John (Bradford English) and Debra (Kim Darby!) - named for John Carpenter and Debra Hill, of course - their son Tim (Keith Bogart), enrolled at the local community college, and their daughter Kara (Marianne Hagan), newly returned from parts unknown with her fatherless son Danny (Devin Gardner). So far, so good, but there's a little detail that the film won't provide for a couple of scenes yet, and I think the delay is the only reason this conceit comes even a tiny bit close to working: these are the Strodes, and John is Laurie's uncle. The reason he bought the house is because nobody else could stand to live with its history...and he never told his wife or children about that history. It's been 32 years since Michael killed his older sister, 17 since he came back to try and kill his younger sister, and somehow, Debra Strode never knew that her brother-in-law was trying to sell the old Myers place, nor did any of her friends and new neighbors clue her in on that fact. Much later in the film, Tim's apparently long-term girlfriend Beth (Mariah O'Brien) makes a joke about how he lives in Michael's house, and she is stunned to learn that he didn't know. And this is the absolutely intolerable contrivance that underpins the whole fucking plot.

So back to October 30, 1995. Everywhere in Haddonfield seems to be tuned to the same station, upon which the obnoxious shock jock Barry Simms (Leo Gater) holds forth on the legend of Michael Myers. Exposition will be ladled out via this radio program in the most undramatic way imaginable (here is where we learn that Paul Stephen Rudd is actually playing that Tommy Doyle), and it's charm as a mood-setting, plot-furthering device will be long since dead before it finally stops. In the meantime, we get some business involving Danny and the "Voice Man" who tells him horrible things about murdering people or some such.

As Exposition Radio - Northeast Illinois's home for plot hooks! - rolls over to a caller wondering if Dr. Sam Loomis died, the film answers in what I think might be my least-favorite scene in a highly-contested battle: the tremendously agéd Donald Pleasence (who would die very soon after shooting wrapped) looks and sounds like he's about to break, and he's asked to embarrass himself immediately by turning directly into the camera and wheezing, "Not dead. Just very much retired." Shortly thereafter, Dr. Wynn (Mitchell Ryan), of Smith's Grove Sanitarium drops in to offer Loomis his old job back, for some reason that I can't quite figure out. This weird interlude is interrupted when Loomis realises that Jamie has called into the radio show, at the same time that Tommy does, and he dashes away to Haddonfield, realising with his finely-tuned Loomissense that this means Michael is back afoot. Unfortunately, it's not fast enough to save Jamie from being chopped apart by some sort of threshing machine.

I should pause again; in the barn where Michael kills Jamie, there's a shot in which the whole inside is lit up by lightning, and she thinks for a moment that she can see him, but the next flash reveals that he's not there. It's a beautiful shot, and a well-executed idea, and very lonely in this film.

With everything basically set up at this point, all that the film has to do is spin its wheels for about an hour and then kill a whole bunch of people. Okay, that's not fair. They start dying at the half-way point. But there is quite a lot of wheel-spinning, involving Kara's indescribably awful family, especially the vile and wretched John, whose death doesn't come soon enough and is nearly so painful-looking as we'd all like. Also involving the much-too-protracted efforts of Tommy, Loomis and Kara to come together. Somewhere in there, there's also a subplot about how Haddonfield's youths are trying to bring back Halloween, which the city council apparently abolished back in 1989. Which, by all appearances, was in fact a great idea.

The big deal in all this, though, is when Tommy explains what he's learned about Michael, in a hellzapoppin' speech that finally pays off the druid hints dropped in Pleasence's infamous Samhain speech all the way back in Halloween II. Apparently, Michael suffers from something called the Curse of Thorn - Thorn being a Celtic rune that somehow turns you into a killing machine. I think I'm almost happier not getting it. For some reason, Danny is also under the Curse of Thorn, which is why he keeps seeing flashes of the Man in Black.

After what feels like a whole lot of time watching people die who committed no sin other than to dwell in the old Myers place - and some of them, not even that - the endgame begins (the film has no Final Girl sequence as such), and the whole rest of the movie goes to hell for a 20 minute climax in a hospital where apparently Dr. Wynn is trying to extract pure evil from Danny. Tommy and Kara run around, Loomis isn't even in the hospital - and why, if Wynn is part of the Thorn cult, did he bring Loomis back into all of this? Plus, if you're going to strain like to get a character back in the film, why not use him more than the 20-odd minutes that Pleasence appears in? - and Michael, for no reason, kills all the cultists. Then Tommy uses his knowledge of Michael's druidic origins to bash the killer's head in with a pipe. Which doesn't kill him, naturally, but Tommy and Kara never find that out. The questions of what connection Danny has to Michael, what Jamie's baby had to do with the plot, who fathered Jamie's baby, and whether the cult in the first scene is the same as the later cult, are all left unanswered and ignored.

The really goddamn frustrating thing? I am told that every single one of those giant goddamn plot-holes was addressed in Daniel Farrands's original screenplay; there exists a thing called the Producer's Cut, which runs about 40 minutes longer, has the numbered title Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, and features a great deal more Loomis, whose role was cut drastically because director Joe Chappelle found him "boring". I would love beyond measure to see this cut, as it could only possibly help the tattered rags of this wretched story. I even thought about tracking down a copy (this is the internet, it's not hard), but this review is quite long enough, n'est-ce pas?

But could it really fix all the problems? There's still a whole boatload of stiff, awkward performances, with the single exception of Pleasence, who appears ready to drop at any second. There would still be a laughable number of industrial-looking sets that appear to have been heavily influenced by the then-new The X-Files, which also appears to have set the tone for Billy Dickson's cinematography, which copies all of the show's murk and none of its atmosphere. Editing being what it is, I can hope that the godawful motif of cutting between scenes with a quick shot of something chaotic as the soundtrack bursts with noise (something I called in my notes a "screaming flash cut") would be gone, but would whoever prepared that cut really have the balls to remove all of the gooey gore that more than anything proves that Halloween had finally given up trying to be anything else than a run-of-the-mill slasher film, in a time when such films were at their very worst?

I mean TCOMM isn't just a bad screenplay - it's a bad movie in every single way that I can think of. It's a fitting capstone to the series John Carpenter began 17 years earlier, in a twisted, sick way: where Halloween had a smart, well-structured screenplay, great lead performances, glorious cinematography, detailed production design, and an inescapable sense that the filmmakers loved their work, The Curse of Michael Myers has the exact opposite of every one of those things. It's Halloween's dark twin.

But hey, at least it knows that Illinois in late October would be covered in orange and brown leaves. It's the first film in the series to get that right. So it must not totally absolutely suck, or something.

Body Count: 10 people die without any hint of ambiguity . There is a late scene in which Michael kills all the people in the hospital room with the baby, and I think I counted 3 deaths, but it could really be anything from one to four. Then, the very end has that dreadful implication that Loomis dies the lamest-ass death in the Halloween franchise, which I do not countenance, but we should allow it as a possibility. So basically, anywhere from 11 to 15 deaths.

If I didn't make it clear enough, this is by a giant fucking margin the bloodiest film in the series yet. Not a compliment.

Reviews in this series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chapelle, 1995)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Miner, 1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)