31 July 2009

AUGUST DIRECTOR POLL - FINAL RESULTS

With all due respect to the tireless efforts of the ballot-stuffers, I'm closing the poll a few minutes early, showing a final total of Alan J. Pakula - 378, and Miyazaki Hayao - 370. Something tells me that these are not absolutely correct figures. Something also tells me that I'm not doing a poll again anytime soon.

In my Solomonic wisdom, here is my solution: since Pakula "won", and was leading back before the numbers started going crazy, I'm giving him the victory, along with his running mate Jane Campion. That means that starting next Tuesday, I'm embarking on my Campion retrospective; Pakula follows in early September. And in deference to how close the voting was, Miyazaki will be put on the schedule for the next open month I've got, January.

Meanwhile, FUCK ALL OF YOU for letting Pedro Almodóvar, one of the greatest living filmmakers, twist in the wind like that. He's going on the schedule for the next open slot after Miyazaki.

SNOW FALLING ON NAZIS

Seven medical students are vacationing over Easter weekend in a remote cabin in the mountainous wilderness outside the small town of Øksfjord, Norway. Anxious to do some drinking, screwing and general goofing-off, they pay little attention to the crazy, creepy local man who comes along at night to warn them of the dangers in those place. But they would have done well to heed him and get the hell out of there before they met the army of dark figures hunting them through the woods: zombies! And not just any zombies; Nazi zombies!

Oh, Nazi zombies, could there possibly be a better hook to guarantee a film a certain cult following? And Dead Snow is, to its credit, easily the best Nazi zombie movie I've ever seen. Considering that the worst Nazi zombie movie I've ever seen is also high in the running - top five, at least - for the title of worst movie I've ever seen, period, you might wonder if that's necessarily a very good compliment to Dead Snow. And you'd be right to wonder: it's perfectly entertaining for what it is, and an absolute hoot to see in a room full of people who really had a yearning to see a good zombie picture, but for all that it has more than its share of problems.

Chief among them is the screenplay by Tommy Wirkola (who also directs), and Stig Frode Henriksen (who also acts), two men that obviously love horror movies and prove it by making their film as platonically ideal a horror movie as you could ever hope for, which means that the first thirty minutes of Dead Snow are virtually unendurable. After a brief opening scene in which a young woman (Ane Dahl Torp) is chased and brought down by Something in the night, we cut to two cars full of young people with virtually no distinguishing features, except as noted: Martin (Vegar Hoel) is afraid of blood, Erlend (Jeppe Laursen) is a film geek, Roy (Henriksen) is a horndog, Vegard (Lasse Valdal) has long hair, Hanna (Charlotte Frogner) has dreadlocks and is dating Martin, Liv (Evy Kasseth Røsten) is blonde, and Chris (Jenny Skavlan) is the one left over. They're all headed to Vegard's girlfriend's cabin (she's named Sara, and yes! she is the girl we saw die in the beginning), and when they get there, it takes a while for anything to happen, while we get to "know" our "characters".

Basically, Dead Snow, though it is in some ways an exemplary zombie picture, gets things started off by being a truly boring slasher film, and thanks to Erlend's encyclopedic knowledge of genre movies, we have plenty of commentary on just that fact.* Really, these seven charming young folk are just about indistinguishable from the Expendable Meat casts of any given Friday the 13th picture (though because it's subtitled it takes a bit longer to realise that the protagonists are mostly idiots), and until they start dying like flies in outlandishly bloody ways, Dead Snow is only a bit more entertaining than any given '80s slasher film. I say "a bit more," because there is a bit, in fact: Dead Snow, you see, turns out to be not just a gory zombie picture but a gory zombie comedy, and all things considered, it's a pretty successful meld of comedy and horror, not quite as good as Evil Dead II or Dead Alive/Braindead, but in a near enough ballpark that when Dead Snow sees fit to name-check those two movies - thanks, Erlend! - it's not all that embarrassing for anyone involved.

Once the movie gets going, and the Nazi zombies start making their presence felt, Dead Snow opens up like nobody's business, and proves itself just about the best old-school zombie movie in years: since Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake, easily, and I wouldn't be too quick to disagree with anyone arguing that the Norwegian film was better still. This is largely due to the exceptional quality of the make-up involved, both on the zombies' flesh (except for two or three shots, where, in good ol' Zombie Lake, Nazi zombie fashion, you can see healthy pink skin poking out from underneath clothing), and inside the bodies of various characters living and undead, as well as some well- turned directorial choices; the death of the creepy old man is particular well-conceived and beautifully framed.

I'm not going to bother here with the argument that tremendously over-the-top gore like this is or isn't a wicked thing, or a guilty pleasure, or balls-out fun; when I'm watching a movie in which the filmmakers are plainly loving their gore as much as Tommy Wirkola plainly loves gore, that is what I am going to respond to. Dead Snow is a movie made with a childlike glee for the material, which translates into marvelously playful geysers of blood. It's all so much fun, made with a minimal level of contempt for the characters that makes it far unlike so many American horror films, and for this reason the comedy in the film (which is a horror-comedy more than it is a horror film with comedy relief) actually works, better than the comedy works the vast majority of English-language horror. This is the sprightliest movie about mowing down revenants with a chainsaw that you are are ever likely to see.

Now, does the fact that the movie is such a jolly romp, with good jokes, unusually well-executed gore effects, and boundless desire to please, wipe away the fact that also suffers from a paint-by-numbers screenplay and a tedious first act? I genuinely don't know. What I do know for a mortal certainty is that only people who can confidently state that they enjoy watching bloody zombie movies, right now, without any convincing from me, are going to get even the slightest hint of pleasure from Dead Snow. As I am just such a person, I have given this film a guardedly positive review. But please, as in all cases, do let your own conscience be your guide.

7/10

Fun fact: I believe this might be the first Norwegian film I've ever seen.

29 July 2009

THE INDIE CORNER, VOL. 16

And now, a pair of movies treating on a single theme - the lack of personal security to accompany the economic implosion of 2008 - though they treat on it in wildly different ways.

Michael Covel's first film, Broke: The American Dream, is a documentary about how we got here, why we're not moving anywhere very fast, and what sorts of things you - yes, you! - should be doing to safeguard your future in a global economy that has revealed itself once and for all as being primarily disinterested in the economic well-being of individual people.

The film cleaves into two parts, and they're not really the same film, nor do they aim at the same goal, but each of them individually serves its purpose admirably. The first half of the movie is concerned with the economy as such - the shady lending practices, coupled with shocking governmental irresponsibility and widespread personal foolishness, that created an unsustainable housing speculation bubble in the first half of the '00s. Very little of this information will be, strictly speaking, "new" to anyone who has been paying close attention, but it seems fairly clear that this isn't Covel's intended audience: Broke is nothing if it's not a primer on basic economic behavioral theory, pitched to viewers who might not know all that much about banking legislation, or the behavior of currency in a free market, but who do know that they'll be fighting their own children for a job handing out carts at Wal-Mart.

And the film certainly does a good job quickly summarising the many foolish actions that were the proximate cause of this crash, in a no-nonsense, straightforward way that is resolutely pragmatic and completely apolitical. This is, I think, the best approach for Covel to take; he doesn't want to scare people or raise a rebellion, but to communicate quickly and clearly, "take responsibility for your part in this system and do whatever you can to fix things on your end - because damn, those banks sure aren't going to make life easier for you."

The second half of the film largely abandons the initial inquiries into the structural rot that brought us to this point, and emphasises the ways that average Americans can get back on their feet, which in Covel's view is largely a matter of playing the stock market in an intelligent, emotion-free way. The transition between these two phases of the film makes it somewhat invisible that there's a change happening at all: Covel rightly brings out scorn for the ad-driven media vultures that hype bull markets and offer terrible buying advice that encourages senseless, uneducated stock speculation. Jim Cramer, in this film's eyes, is one of the chief architect of our present woes; hard to disagree with the sentiment, anyway.

Now, Covel is a stock guy - he's written two books on the stock market, and he clearly wants other people, poor people, the little guys at the bottom of the ladder, to gain the same savvy that successful traders have, and thus trade with intelligence and confidence, instead of blindly following media market reporting like sheep. So it's not inexplicable that his prescription to fix the current economy would be so largely founded on stock-based solutions. At the same time, it's a bit weird and disappointing to see a film that begins with a vast study of the systemic problems affecting our economy as a society end up as a well-produced and exceedingly smart infomercial for the individual investor. Not that being an individual investor is a bad thing, necessarily, nor is the stock market a demon beast that can never make anyone wealthy ever again. But the merciless narrowing of scope down from the cultural to the personal leaves the film feeling a bit too modest and unambitious.

Excepting that - and not jumping into political considerations at all, though if I were going to do so, I'd grouse about Covel's attachment to the structures of American capitalism and wonder just what exactly it would take to show these people that the free market isn't the be-all and end-all - Broke is a well-mounted work, clearly shot on a decent budget with numerous entertaining cutaways to old educational films explaining how credit and the market works, and therefore showing that our current problems have their roots in decades-old patterns of thought; and Covel's access to whip-smart economists and traders from around the world gives the film an added layer of intellectual sincerity. If there's one significant flaw in the movie, it's the curious amount of energy spent criticising the federal government for legislating against online poker while encouraging the spread of state lotteries; I certainly agree with Covel's moral position here, but I really don't see what the function of this material is to the whole, unless he's actually trying to argue that poker-playing is a viable way to shore up one's retirement accounts.

* * * * *

Jason Baustin's short "Change Is Coming" only about the economic meltdown by implication: John, who has lost his fiancée and his job, is put on alert that he's about to lose his apartment, too, and this pushes him into a soul-searching quest, hoping to find out what (if anything) all this suffering and loss is meant to mean. As he moves from one classical source of fulfilment or enlightenment to another (religion, drugs, sex), he becomes increasingly agitated and violent at the idea that "everything has a reason". We might assume that everything does have a reason, but if that reason is unclear or make no damn sense, that's not much of a comfort.

"Change Is Coming" wears its smale-scale production on its sleeve, mostly in the none-too-realistic looking sets and the couple of stilted performances, but it has its heart in the right place, and the fairy tale tone of our protagonist's journey serves to make the somewhat unrealistic dialogue seem much awkward - this is a journy of the soul, after all, and heavy-handed conversations about fate and meaning are part of that process. And despite its cheapness, Baustin has a good eye for the camera, using close-ups on Myers's face that reveal a discomfort bordering on anguish that serves the film's themes better than all the dialouge in the world could. That the filmmaker would see fit to attack such large themes as the new loss of meaning in a world where we've all lost so much, with so few resources, speaks highly of his bravery; that the resultant film manages at times to be genuinely effective and moving, thanks to the main actor and the way his director frames him, is something special indeed.

28 July 2009

WHEN SHE WAS BAD, SHE WAS HORRID

The "evil psycho kid" subgenre of horror movies is, at all times, a delicate thing to navigate without falling into the worst kinds of exploitative traps. Not because of the subject matter per se - I'm not enough of a prude that the very notion of a child murdering people with crazed glee is a problem -but because of the very real question of where we draw the line at protecting the child actor from unhealthy or inappropriate behavior on camera. It's a fine line and a serious question, and one that the makers of Orphan seem entirely unconcerned about asking of themselves in their rush to produce a film chock full of hugely problematic moments involving a nine-year-old girl played by a twelve-year-old actress. The scene where she kills a nun with a hammer I can probably let by; much less so the scene where she makes herself up like a high-class whore to seduce her adopted father. And I really have nothing but contempt for any movie that successfully plays a scene in which a child is slapped by a grown woman as grounds for enthusiastic cheering the audience.

The orphan of the title is a little girl from Russia, named Esther (Isabelle Furhman), adopted by a family who has recently suffered the pain of a miscarriage and is seeking to rebuild their broken hearts by grabbing the first available child; apparently kids are not unlike kittens in this regard. At any rate, the Colemans - Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) and their pre-existing two children, Danny (Jimmy Bennett) and Maxine (Aryana Engineer) - have had quite enough of trauma, between Kate's miscarriage (which may or may not have been the result of her alcoholism), Max's accident-induced hearing loss (which was definitely the result of Kate's alcoholism), and John's ancient infidelity that he only recently saw fit to bring to light (which was probably the cause of Kate's alcoholism), and they hope that the bright, socially awkward, mature-beyond-her-years little orphan girl will help stabilise their home (by the way, do you like how I kept bringing up Kate's alcoholism over and over again, without the slightest pretext, including right now? If yes, you'll probably like Orphan).

Things don't work out that way. For one thing, Esther acts out her social problems through violence, which isn't necessarily inexplicable, but certainly ought to count as a red flag. Secondly, she kills a bird that Danny maimed with a paintball gun, in what is among the film's most poorly-judged scenes; it's meant to establish that Esther is creepy and murderous, but for my money just made her seem pragmatically Russian, and made Danny seem like an absolute dick. Thirdly - most importantly, she has a Dark Secret, and she'll kill and blackmail to make sure that it doesn't come out. I'll give this much credit to the movie: I absolutely did not see the twist coming. This is because the twist, which I will not give away although I'd dearly love to, is unconscionably fucking stupid.

Then again, by the time the twist comes, Orphan has been doing cannonballs into the deep end of unconscionably fucking stupid for a good 100 minutes - the film boasts an absolutely unforgivable 123-minute running time - and thus the twist isn't all that much of a disappointment. My jaw first dropped around the time that the Colemans finalised their adoption, moving from "we're thinking of adopting" to "hi kids, this is Esther, your new sister!" in the span of weeks at the most, and the editing makes it seem much more like just a day or two. Apparently kids are not unlike kittens in this regard, either. At any rate, your mileage may vary about whichever violation of common sense and story logic finally pushes you over the edge with the movie.

Even when it's not trafficking in balls-out idiocy, the film never makes any attempt to rise above the blandest kind of psycho-drama meant to give trashy horror the sheen of respectability. This drama falls flat - Orphan's writers, Alex Mace and David Johnson (the debut project for both of them), actually try to present Kate's alcoholism and the way that it resulted in Max's deafness as some kind of subject of mystery to the audience, despite the fact that nobody who has seen more than a few of these movies will take more than the first scene to figure it out. And the musty old idea of a couple trapped in a strained marriage is given a thorough workout as well, with many scenes late on consisting of Kate insisting that Esther is up to no good, and John retorting that Kate only thinks that BECAUSE SHE'S AN ALCOHOLIC! WHO DRINKS ALCOHOL! Great characterisations these are not, and since the film incomprehensibly positions itself as a character-driven thriller rather than just a straight up horror picture, that is to its deep detriment.

There is one point on which I will give Orphan some serious props, and that is its performances. No, not Farmiga, whose performance consists mostly of various looks of disgusted terror, nor Sarsgaard, who only gets one vaguely interesting scene, and ruins it with incredibly fake Oscar Clip- style crying. But Furhman, as wicked little Esther, and Engineer, as the trusting, callow Max, both give startlingly great performances, given their ages. Indeed, insofar as the abominable twist works on any level, it's because Furhman sells it so damn convincingly; while Engineer demonstrates the gradual shift from affection to fear that Farmiga ought to have been employing herself. None of this obviates the scenes that these young actresses, particularly Furhman, are obliged to play. But I don't want to seem like a moral scold.

Not when moral scolding can only add so much to a film as content to bask in tired clichés and idiocy as Orphan. And false scares! How could I forget to mention director Jaume Collet-Serra's Big Bag of False Scares? Which are unusually false in this case: at moments in the movie where there is absolutely no reason to assume that anything bad is about to happen, the score starts to pierce with that "she's coming to get you" music, and Collet-Serra carefully frames a door, and when it opens... nothing is there! This nice little trick is played at least four times, and it gets far less charming every single time. When your horror film is so unhorriyfing that you have to try conjuring scares out of nothing but literal thin air and cheap music, it's probably time to move to a less demanding genre, although what can possibly be less demanding than crappy horror is unknown to me.

3/10

27 July 2009

TEN FOR MONDAY: WHAT?!

The #1 movie in America is about genetically engineered guinea pigs working as secret agents for the U.S. government. And in honor of G-Force, may I present:

The Top Ten Movie Concepts So Preposterously Awful They Should Never Have Gotten Out of Development

10. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow, 2003)
Terrible movie sequels that completely miss the point are nothing new, of course. But there's something especially wrongheaded about this 12-years-later follow-up to James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, one of the most beloved action movies ever made. That film ended without resolution in the classical sense, but there was still a marked finality to it. So how do you continue the story? By invalidating everything that was won through blood and tears in the second film, and along the way crapping all over its theme about the ability of people to rise above whatever future fate has planned. Apparently the correct way to pitch a sequel is by leading with your flat-out contempt for fans of the original.


9. Trail of the Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1982)
With series star Peter Sellers dead at a young age, the only thing to do was quietly, respectfully retire his character and the franchise with it. Or, you could use outtake footage from the earlier movies and crudely edit them into a newly-shot narrative that features, among other things, 72-year-old David Niven looking like he's about to drop dead on set. The fact that we're here talking about this movie probably gives away which of those choices Blake Edwards went with.


8. Treasure Planet (Ron Clements & John Musker, 2002)
What makes this all the sadder is that Clements and Musker spent literally years trying to get their sci-fi adaptation of Treasure Island off the ground. But their dream project was perhaps the most ill-advised, unwatchable film released by Disney Animation in a decade where they made quite a few lousy insults to the legacy of Mickey Mouse & Co. But only Treasure Planet has so many unimaginably weird conceits - spaceships with masts, and open-air decks? - that it feels more like a nightmare you had while flipping between a pirate movie and Forbidden Planet one night on cable, than something that actually exists in the world, for anyone to watch at their leisure.


7. The Conqueror (Dick Powell, 1956)
Starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan.


6. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Willam Shatner, 1989)
It's not that there was a fifth Star Trek - a forgone conclusion - nor that they gave creative reigns to one of the series' actors - that had worked out well twice with Leonard Nimoy in the driver's seat - nor that the plot hinges around Spock's surprise half-brother taking a Mad Max-style shithole planet hostage, and then stealing the Enterprise to go to the center of the galaxy to find the planet where God lives, a series of events so unhinged that Gene Roddenberry (no stranger to wigged-out narrative concepts) suggested that it was best to regard it all as apocryphal within the larger Star Trek canon. No, the idea that really makes me wonder how any studio executive possibly saw fit to give one red cent to this insanely bad film was that in the original draft, the one that got funding, the crew didn't meet an evil alien pretending to be God; they met God Himself.


5. Psycho (Gus Van Sant, 1998)
-"Here's my idea: I want to remake Hitchcock's Psycho."
-"Um, not to be rude, Gus, but everybody pretty much agrees that the original is just about perfect already."
-"Yes, I know. You couldn't improve upon it in any way. Which is why I'm going to remake it shot for shot."
-"Brilliant! Here's a barrel full of money. Come back when you run out."


4. Jack (Francis Ford Coppola, 1996)
A heartwarming tale about a child whose body is growing up too fast, which means that we get to have Robin Williams play a fifth-grader. It's charming and funny, and a sweet delight for the whole family. Oh, did we mention that Jack will probably be dead before his fifteenth birthday? Yeah, well, hopefully nobody in the audience will think of that.


3.The Baby Geniuses series (Bob Clark, 1999/2004)
Kathleen Turner (WHY?) and Christopher Lloyd play two evil scientists trying to unlock the secrets of infant communication, because all babies know everything there is to know about the universe, until they become verbal and the knowledge is lost. The smartest of all the babies escapes due to a comedy of errors-style mix-up with his long-lost twin, and leads a baby army to fight the scientists. Correctly perceiving that there was only one way to top all of this, the writers of SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2 made the villain a Nazi.


2.The Day the Clown Cried (Jerry Lewis, 1972)
And on the subject of Nazis: Jerry Lewis plays a clown thrown in a concentration camp, and given a job leading little Jewish children into the death chambers. Or something along those lines. I'm not one of the very elite company of viewers to have ever seen this never-released film, but I know that no combination of "Jerry Lewis", "Clown", and "Holocaust" can possibly end well.


1.Night of the Lepus (William F. Claxton, 1972)
The Lepus! A deadly foe if ever mankind has faced death from some monster unknown to nature! Giant, pulsating eyes staring out from the darkness, promising bloody vengeance on the human race! And what is the Lepus?

...

The bunny rabbit.

Yes, sir, in the "nature gone amok" craze of the early seventies, someone actually got the money to film a screenplay about rabbits used in a scientific experiment, accidentally released into the wild, where they grow to the size of Volkswagens and become carnivorous. To realise this effect, normal size rabbits were let loose on scale models, and had red paint splattered on their faces ( in once infamous scene, it was a thoroughly-embarassed stuntman in a rabbit suit). And not for one second does the film have any sense of humor about all of this: it is a Serious and Thoughtful look at Scientists Tampering in God's Domain. It just happens to also be funnier than the killer rabbit scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Not only is this the worst idea for a film I've ever heard of, I have to assume that it's the worst idea that will ever be thought up.

1939: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE

A recurring theme in our year-long review of the cinema culture of 1939 has been the awareness of filmmakers in those days of the coming war, almost like people in that year could predict the coming change in the whole structure of the western world that would result. In the English-language movies we've looked at so far, this has largely manifested itself in nostalgia: stories looking back in time to a (nominally) simpler age, when we didn't have to deal with All These Problems like Hitler and his goons. There's a certain undeniable thread of conservatism to be found in this kind of filmmaking, which I don't bring up as a judgment, but simply as an observation.

We have to go across the Atlantic, to France, a country where the threat of war was a great deal more imminent than in the United States or even Britain, to find a filmmaker who comes upon the idea, "a great change is coming, where all the ways of the world that have been for generations shall be wiped away, and a new age that has forgotten all the traditions of the past will rise to power", and replies, "thank God, it's about time". Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game is many things indeed - for example, the most flawless motion picture ever made - but one of the most prominent things is that it's savage, satiric attack on the mores of upper class and upper-middle class culture in the time between the World Wars, and how specifically it was the pernicious effects of these same mores that all but guaranteed that the war rumblings that were really becoming hot in 1938 would finally erupt in 1939. So damning indeed was the film's social satire, its unwillingness to let the narcissistic idleness of the bourgeoisie off the hook, that the movie incited honest-to-God riots in France during its very brief official release there, while watching its running time progressively slashed in increasingly desperate attempts to salvage something commercial out of the material. The film, meant to be the debut for Renoir's independent company, instead sent Renoir scuttling to Hollywood in search of work, and was considered lost for many years, prior to a 1959 restoration of nearly all of the film's material. A strange start for a film that has since gained as sterling a reputation as anything else ever put to film.

I shall have to beg the reader's indulgence with this essay. You see, I do not have any particular critical objectivity about The Rules of the Game. I do not want any critical objectivity about it. This is a film that I adore and worship with religious fervor, one of the small handful of movies that I have never been able to exhaust; like Citizen Kane or Seven Samurai, I have not yet been able to watch this film without discovering something new. I say this only because what I'm about to embark on is nothing but raw fanboyism; the greatest fan of The Dark Knight cannot beat me for uncritical enthusiasm; nor has any person yet watched Star Wars and walked away so profoundly touched as I by this French masterpiece. For this I apologise. You deserve more, my loyal readers, than the breathless slavering to follow.

The essential narrative elements, derived from the tradition of French stage farce, are these: a pilot named André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) is in love with a titled lady, Christine de la Chesnaye (Nora Gregor), wife of Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio). Their past relationship is an open secret, but Christine, an expatriated Austrian, does not understand the cavalier attitude taken to marital fidelity in Paris, and has ended things with Jurieux, who stomps about like a petulant boy until his friend Octave (Renoir himself), a childhood friend of Christine's and current social acquaintence of Robert, arranges for André to come with him to a weeklong hunting retreat at La Colinière, Robert's country estate. Along for the trip are several other high society faces, including Robert's secret lover Geneviève (Mila Parély), not to mention the host of servants required to keep a country estate running. The most important for our present needs are Lisette (Paulette Dubost), Christine's fiercely devoted maid; her husband, Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the estate's gamekeeper, long-separated from his wife on account of his post so far from Paris; and Schumacher's nemesis Marceau (Julien Carette), a poacher hired by Robert to help keep the rabbits down for the hunt, who instantly and idiotically takes a fancy to Lisette, who is perfectly happy to reciprocate.

Renoir does not feel hatred towards his characters, but nor does he soft-pedal their essentially heartless dalliances and casual betrayals, all of it perfectly moral and respectable as long as nobody gossips. This is the "game" of the title, and the filmmaker clearly has no use for it. While the rich enjoy their immensely shallow lifestyles, they barely even notice the roiling lives of the men and women keeping that lifestyle alive (a dichotomy that has been appropriated many times since, most recently and famously by Robert Altman's Gosford Park) - but Renoir issues no free passes to the underclass. They're just as greedy and foolish as the lovely people employing them. Not even the two people who don't like the game and don't seem to understand the rules, Jurieux and Christine, escape some measure of blame; he's a child, and she's far too willing to give up her principles to keep the game whirring along, even if she doesn't understand it. This is the danger of being an Other in a relentlessly insular society; knowing one doesn't belong fires up the desire to belong like nothing else. The more that Renoir subtly but continuously emphasises Christine's Austrianness (particularly with her accent, a nicety perhaps lost on American audiences, though anyone can notice that she alone pronounces Schumacher's name as "Shoo-mahker" while everyone else says "Shoomashayre"), the more he stresses that she is the single destablising element - which for the story, means the vehicle for tragedy, and for the thematic thrust of the film, means the tool by which the basic hypocrisies of the game are laid bare.

The chief joy of Rules of the Game, however, is not its narrative thrust, but how uncommonly well everything in the film aligns to that narrative; it is a particularly harmonious work, every element playing off of every other. Renoir does not tell us about the world of the bourgeoisie, so much as he shows it; and if we can agree that he was cinema's finest practitioner of the moving camera, so is Rules of the Game his own most glorious moment with that tool, uniting the work of four cinematographers (among them Renoir's son Alain). Under his watchful eye, La Colinière becomes maybe the most well-defined physical space in all of film history, the camera roving like a tourist in an art gallery, soaking in detail. And at the same time, the camera moves are strictly motivated by the story, revealing those parts of the setting that are most important for that moment, as plot and as emotional state. My personal favorite moment comes during the masquerade arranged in celebration of Jurieux's aviation triumph, as the camera tracks along the faces of the audience, showing the servants peeking in through doorways and showing in the furthest distance, just behind the rest, Marceau and Lisette hide from Schumacher, hunting through the crowd to catch them in an adulterous clinch. And since I've practically just now brought it up anyway: the use of deep focus in this film is absolutely exquisite. Virtually every plane of every frame is in crystal-clear focus at all points, inviting us to consider every last element of the mise en scène as sharing equal importance.

To save everyone's time, I will not speak of the acting, though it is perfect in all regards. I would briefly praise Renoir's own performance as perhaps the finest example of a director acting in all of the movies (discounting those like Keaton or Welles or several others, who are actors at least as prominently as they are directors), at least as far as the fact that he is the film's director influences the meaning of his character, the cautious voice of reason who is at the last revealed to be a fool like everyone else.

The plot structure in Rules of the Game, though, may be its most noteworthy element. It really is, almost without exception, the most structurally perfect film I know of: the first half of the movie contains almost precisely the same number of scenes as the latter, and they "mirror" each other. Specifically, the direction of conflict in the scenes switches at the midpoint, from scenes which move through chaos to resolution, over to scenes which move from placidity to chaos. Not my observation, by the way; thank you as always to Scott Curtis of Northwestern University, the man who made me the film lover I am today.

The film's structure also privileges its extraordinary, justly-famous hunt scene, which is just a bit off of dead center in the whole (and if the missing footage was ever restored, I believe it would be precisely in the dead center. The hunt! the very key to understanding the whole movie's thesis! Where there the rest of the film is taken up with stately, graceful long takes and nice framing, the hunt is rapidly-cut, shot in the uncontrollable outdoors, the camera darting about like a bird. Along it all is pure violence - a dozen animals die on camera, and while one could wonder if that adds a level of hypocrisy to Renoir's argument, it is a sad fact that this scene and thus the film could simply not have achieved the same impact with faked animal deaths made at the state of the art in 1939. What we find are legions of gamesman, soldiering through swamp and wood, beating animals out into the open, so that rich people could should them with impunity and josh each other over who's the better hunter; practically without ever taking a single step. And they certainly don't give a damn about the animals they're killing; oh, yeah, they'll be food, but it's mostly just sport. We in the audience, animal lover or no, don't tend to share that view, thanks to the merciless way the brutality is caught on film; particularly in one of the most wrenching shots in all cinema as a rabbit is hit by a bullet and tumbles on its side, flexing its paws in its death spasm and looking for all the world like it's stretching to go to sleep. Here, more than anywhere, is the callousness of the bourgeoisie, the inordinate selfishness that could blind whole countries to the crush tide of Nazism, exposed to the burning sun.

Ah, but with one exception. The most important character in the film, though few people ever seem to make this claim, is an unnamed general played by Pierre Magnier. He gets very little to do, one of several revellers wandering about and chatting throughout the movie, but there are two points where he delivers virtually the same sentiment, and one of these is given exceptional privilege of place, as the final line of the movie. That sentiment is, essentially, "Robert is a grand old man, for he always does intuitively what makes for the least socially-awkward moment, and in this he is a great heir to the history of France". The first of these occasions is right after Robert and Christine have successfully dealt with the embarassment of Jurieux; everyone knows the score, but they're so appreciative of the couple's flim-flam that they practically break into applause. It's an ironic, amusing moment in a film rich with amusing irony, although it does point out the emotional shallowness of everyone involved. But the second moment comes after a human being has died, shot in a fit of misaimed passion; the general has nothing but praise for Robert's line of bullshit designed to make all the guests feel at ease, noble about their part in remembering the dead man. That's what Old France is about, says the general, and Renoir agrees with the fact if not the sentiment. Damn Old France, with its fixation on surfaces; damn all societies more concerned with the face of things than their inner truth. World War II wasn't the last armed conflict to come about from a culture that couldn't get passed people who knew how to say the right thing, even if everyone knew that it was a lie, you know. For that reason if not for tens of others will The Rules of the Game remain absolutely essential cinema.

And still, I have not scratched the merest surface of those things that make this a masterpiece.

26 July 2009

SUMMER OF BLOOD: NOW WITH EXTRA META

One of the dangers I have learned about with reviewing franchises, is that when you are too rough on the original it leaves very little room to maneuver if the sequel is worse, and God help you if there's a third film. Trying to apply the same rules when Ive already mixed up the first time is a sure way to seem like an incoherent boob, and now, boys and girls, you can maybe understand why I gave a 6/10 to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

Anyway, I managed to half-dodge that bullet with Scream 2, after having been rather - some might say unfairly - savage with Scream. For while I agree with the general consensus that Scream 2 is not as successful at its goals as Scream (both were directed by Wes Craven from a Kevin Williamson screenplay), I can't help but find it a great deal more interesting. That word, "interesting", how it does sneak about and imply things you don't want to come right out and say. Something's just not any damn good, and you know it, but it's so weirdly compelling and messy in its ambitions and full of crazed energy that you just can't get out of your mind. Slap that same "interesting" on it and see how it fits. Give my an "interesting" film over a "good" one any day - if an "interesting and good" film is too much to ask for. Which, I'm afraid, it typically is.

Here is the justification for this position: Scream, when all is said and done, has a fairly simple thesis. "Slasher films are quite stupid," it says, "and I (the movie) know that they are stupid, and yet I am myself a slasher film, doing the same stupid things I criticise slasher films for doing." Depending on who you listen to, this either makes it amusingly ironic, or (since you are listening to me), smugly hypocritical. Either way, it's pretty straightforward pop post-modernism. There are really just two levels of meta-narrative in it: a commonplace slasher movie is the first, "base" level, with the addition of characters who possess the awareness that they are in a commonplace slasher movie, and who therefore "watch" themselves going through the motions of being in a slasher movie (the film's very best scene adds a third layer, but only temporarily: a character in the movie is actually being watched on a security monitor, as he watches a slasher movie).

Let's put a tag right there, because to discuss what I want to about Scream 2, I'll first need to run through a plot synopsis, and quite a bit of it at that. Back when Scream Fever was everywhere, everyone already knew most of this, of course; even people who would never consider seeing a slasher movie of any thematic stripe were aware for a start that Scream 2 opened with the premiere of Stab, a movie-in-a-movie based on the events of Scream. But those days are gone by, more than a decade since. So yes, Scream 2 opens at a midnight sneak preview, focusing on a couple named Maureen (Jada Pinkett, pre-Smith) and Phil (Omar Epps). She can't begin to see the point of going to violent, misogynist movies full of white people, such as Stab; while Phil likes blood and boobs. Weirdly, while she makes a big deal about race in slasher films, I can't recall any reference being made to the fact that African-Americans are - invariably - the first to die on those rare occasions when they're in the cast at all. And indeed, Phil and Maureen, in that order, will be our first victims. The Stab screening is marked by free Ghostface costumes given out by the studio (which sounds like none of the dozen or so midnight premieres I've been to, but it was 1997...), and everyone in the audience - at least, every male - is dressed like Scream/Stab's killer, so when one particular Ghostface turns out to actually have a functioning knife that he uses to kill the couple, nobody takes much notice.

The next day, we arrive in a dorm room at Windsor College (if the location of Windsor college was mentioned, I must confess to missing it). Who should be in this room but Ms. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), our Final Girl from the last film. And with the premiere of a film based on some deeply unpleasant events in her recent past (two years ago, we're told, although only one year separates the first two Screams), she has come into some unwanted unpopularity. This is revealed in a scene that provides the only solid, laugh-out-loud gag in a series that is continuously, inexplicably praised for its humor: Sidney picks up the phone, to hear a raspy male voice ask what her favorite scary movie is. "Who is this?" she demands in measured tones. "You tell me", he replies, continuing the riff from Scream. Looking casually at her caller ID box, she answers, "Cory Gillis, 555-0176." "Shit!" yells Cory, as Sidney informs him of the criminal code pertaining to prank calls. As if this kind of thing weren't irritating enough, Sidney also catches a few minutes of Cotton Weaver (Liev Schreiber), the man she wrongly sent to prison for a year for the murder of her mom, on a talk show, reflecting on being wrongly imprisoned.

So anyway, that happens. Then we find ourselves in a film class which, conveniently, is attended by every single young person of the remotest importance for the remainder of the narrative: Sidney, her new boyfriend Derek (Jerry O'Connell), his best friend Mickey (Timothy Olyphant), Cici (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who I think is meant to be one of Sidney's sorority sisters, but I was not actually paying the closest attention possible, reflecting as I was upon how much Sarah Michelle Gellar is starting to run together in my mind between this, that atrocious Summer picture, and the fact that I've been working through Buffy these past couple of months. Last, and not least importantly, although least pleasantly, our other returning character: Randy (Jamie Kennedy), the video store geek who knows everything about everything moviewise, and gets the designated role as the one who points out how whatever particular situation is going on right then fits into X, Y, or Z paradigm for bad horror movies.

Quite a lot of time is spent on not that much plot; it's mostly character stuff that I'd just as soon not recap. Cut to the chase, and about half an hour into the movie, Cici gets pitched over a railing in the sorority house, apparently by random chance (the killer, we suspect, was hunting Sidney). It's only when the pushy reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox, also returning from Scream), the author of the book upon which the Stab screenplay was based, starts to really get her investigative juices flowing that we notice what's going on: the names of three victims - Maureen, Phil, and Cici - map onto the first three victims of the pair of killers from last time - Maureen Prescott, Steven Orth, and Casey Becker - once we learn that Phil's last name was Stevens, while "Cici" is a nickname for Casey Cooper. It's a bit tortured. But we are talking about a psychopath.

Back to that tag I marked up above. Scream has two layers: a movie, and characters with knowledge of the movie they're in. Scream 2, by comparison, has many layers, and I don't even know how to count them, since they're not all layered on top of one another. To start, let us consider the relationship between the two films and Stab: first, there is the narrative of the first film, then there is the book written by a character in both films about the narrative of the first film, then there is a movie in the second film based upon the narrative of the book, then there is narrative of the second film which is crafted by a killer to recreate the narrative of the movie within the second film. And everyone in Scream 2 is aware of every one of those narratives; arguably even the fact that the first time, when it happened to them two years ago, that it was a narrative (whether because they knew they were in a movie, or because they knew that the killers were attempting to re-create movie tropes. (By the way, the scenes we see in Stab are of generally amusing caliber, largely because of the actors brought on to recreate the original film).

Then there is the matter of Scream 2's status as a sequel; this is given the same heavy-handed treatment that the movie-as-movie theme was given in Scream in the early scene in the film class, which arbitrarily turns to a consideration of sequels, and whether or not sequels can be better than the original since they mostly only rehash the same elements, except do they always? Now, Scream 2 is a sequel to Scream, in that it follows later events than the first, and those events are materially different; at the same time, someone is trying to remake Scream (though probably not thinking of it in exactly those terms), and therefore causes Scream 2 itself to function as a remake of Scream as well as sequel. So Scream 2 is simultaneously a "good" sequel (it breaks new ground) and a "bad" sequel (it recapitulates the same actions), according to the very rules that it sets out through the designated Author's Mouthpiece, Randy. And just in case all this isn't fun enough, Williamson throws in some grace notes about the self-devouring nature of the media by giving Gale Weathers her very own reporter-stalker, Debbie Salt (Laurie Metcalf).

All in all, I don't think anyone can deny that there's a lot more going on here than in Scream, which, not to sound like a broken record, really was just coasting by on "slasher movies are stupid, which we will demonstrate by being a stupid slasher movie". So why isn't it a slam dunk? Because of the writing, which is just damn lousy in any number of ways. Kevin Williamson may be quite the post-modern pop culture theorist, but I'm sorry, he's just a fuck-awful screenwriter. In only respect do I find the screenplay for Scream 2 to significantly improve upon its predecessor: there are not so many obvious references to other movies, made by characters on the assumption that saying, "Boy, Halloween sure is a movie that exists, amiright?" is inherently clever, and given the number of people who unaccountably find all of the in-jokes in the first two Screams to be funny, this is a safe assumption to make, I guess. But anyway, there's a lot less of it in Scream 2, it's mostly about far more obscure movies than the huge targets in the first film (e.g. The Dorm That Dripped Blood instead of Jason Voorhees), and it's mostly confined to just two scenes.

Otherwise, it's just so much crappy characterisation and needless contrivance and stupidity that is all the worse for knowing that it's stupid, and sometimes just some flat-out Idiot Writing. For a man whose shtick is all about pop culture references, for example, you'd think that Williamson would have been able to do something better than the incredibly bad bit where the film class ponders what sequels were better than the predecessors: The Empire Strikes Back (as close to a consensus answer as that question has) is dismissed as proof of the speaker's poor taste, while the professor sagely ends the debate by reminding the students of The Godfather, Part II - personal preference aside, that's hardly the settled conventional wisdom.

As for the characters, there's barely anyone who's vaguely interesting enough to follow for more than a few seconds. Sidney's arc was completed by the end of Scream, leaving her with absolutely nothing interesting to do, say, or think for the entirety of the sequel; she just gets very broody and upset (at, to be fair, exceptionally upsetting things). None of her fellow students are even a smidgen interesting in any way, either because they are mere window dressing, or, in the case of her boyfriend, played by Jerry O'Connell and thus douchebaggy in ways that can hardly be expressed in written language. Really, the only character who is terribly interesting on any level is the character who least needs to be in the film, Officer Dewey Riley (David Arquette), back from Scream to protect Sidney and flirt with Gale, mostly because he was popular the first time around. He alone seems to have actually developed any because of his experience in the last movie, a more damaged and (literally) scarred figure than before.

All of this pales, however, before Scream 2's incredible failure as a psycho killer movie and murder mystery. That was one thing Scream had going for it; it was an unusually solid slasher, and whle the twist ending (two killers! ZOMG!) wasn't quite as twisty as you can tell the filmmakers wanted it to be, because it wasn't nearly as original as they thought it was, it was still fairly well executed. Oh, but none of that in Scream 2! Everything even halfway interesting or decent about the movie is over by the 60-minute mark, right before the mystery and the killing both begin in earnest, and the film becomes not just as stupid as any slasher movie; it becomes as stupid as a particularly stupid slasher movie (though still not as stupid as Williamson's I Know What You Did Last Summer), with characters who go out of their way to make sure they get attacked, and one of the most jaw-dropping examples of the Teleporting Killer ever put to film. As a mystery, it dies aborning; the fact that there are again two killers is not surprising because at this point it was expected, and their identities are tremendously easy to guess a solid 40 minutes away simply by playing the old, "who has no reason to be in this film except so that they can be revealed as the killer?" game that had been tripping up slasher films for a good 15 years by the time Scream 2 was produced.

Once again, I must register my disappointment with Wes Craven, whose work here might be marginally better than in the last film (the recording studio scene, though valueless to the narrative, is as well-staged as anything in the director's career), but not nearly enough to overcome the slack second half or awkwardly-written whole. This man, let us not forget, was still just three years past covering similar thematic ground in the self-penned minor masterpiece Wes Craven's New Nightmare (and, I must admit, only two past the soul-scraping Vampire in Brooklyn). But here he is, making a slack thriller that's much more talky than thrilling, a slasher movie with tastefully discreet gore scenes, and while you could never say it's badly made, nor is it especially imaginative and memorable in more than a few scattered moments. It's boringly competent and detached filmmaking that never does anything for Williamson's screenplay other than keep it in focus, which is not exactly the best thing for the screenplay or the movie, especially if we're meant to enjoy it as anything other than a media treatise. For a franchise that humps the phrase "scary movie" so enthusiastically, Scream 2 is curiously staid and unfrightening - it does not in fact, even clearly try to be frightening, any more than it clearly tries to be funny. On the other hand, if the reactions of the Stab audience are meant to be our guide, the Scream filmmakers apparently think that the mere sight of a man holding a knife is meant to be bone chilling all on its lonesome (sort of like in-jokes, by their nature, are meant to be hilarious. That's weak sauce for the man who made The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House on the Left, and it speaks to a certain contempt for the audience, if I do say so myself.

Body Count: 10, fulfilling Randy's rule that slasher sequels always up the body count. Incidentally, I didn't realise that Dewey survived Scream, and the body count figure for that movie was therefore off by one; I've changed it.

Reviews in this series
Scream (Craven, 1996)
Scream 2 (Craven, 1997)
Scream 3 (Craven, 2000)
Scream 4 (Craven, 2011)

25 July 2009

AUGUST DIRECTOR POLL: WEEK 3

Alan Pakula is starting to pull away, which is something I certainly never predicted, so congrats to all his boosters. It does, however, put me in a bit of a spot: since I never assumed that he'd win - assumed, indeed, that he'd come up dead last - I didn't vet his films for availability quite as hard as the other four, and while there shouldn't be any problem getting to 15 of his 16 features, his third movie, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, is being a bit slippery. It's never been released in any home video format, and all my voodoo isn't enough to find it.

The good news, then, is that it's coming out on DVD for the first time ever on September 8. The bad news is that this is an August project I had in mind. No matter, a month is just 31 days, so I am herewith announcing that if Pakula wins, I'll be postponing his retrospective just until the DVD is ready to drop. To fill the August gap, I have selected another director to give a retrospective (again, in the event that Pakula wins): Jane Campion, of whose work I have seen, shamefully, not one single thing.

So there it is, Pakula voters: two directors for the price of one. Or will Miyazaki sweep back into first? I'm keeping voting open for just one more week, until 12:01 AM on Saturday, 1 August.

Incidentally, here's how the 54 write-in votes look at the moment:

George Lucas is doing very well with 47 votes, thanks to an enthusiastic and wholly sincere supporter. The only other man with multiple nods is Honda Ishiro with 2, and while the director of Godzilla is surely worthy of more attention than he gets, there's just too much to his filmography to make a month - or even two! - sufficient to do him justice. At one vote each, we have Ridley Scott, Michael Haneke (both of them were on the long list for this poll, incidentally), James Cameron (somebody didn't notice that I specifically eliminated him as a choice; December is coming soon), Michael Bay (har-dee-har), and in a very sweet but woefully misguided bit of fandom, a Chicago-based filmmaker with one feature, two shorts and a short documentary to his credit, named Tim Brayton

24 July 2009

THE SECOND TIME AS FARCE

Armando Iannucci's In the Loop is an unbearably funny movie about a subject that isn't by itself funny at all: an act of deliberate collusion between factions within the American and British governments to trump up unsubstantiated evidence from dubious intelligence to drive both of those countries into a meritless war in the Middle East. It is a thinly-veiled look at the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003 only insofar as the character names are different, and "Iraq" is never directly identified. Now, ask any of us dirty fucking hippies who were screaming bloody murder about the war back in those days, and we'll tell you that it was not a particularly amusing time to be alive. But Iannucci, bless him, made the same realisation that Stanley Kubrick did when he was making Dr. Strangelove: when something is too absurdly awful to even contemplate realistically, the only way to treat it is as a colossal black joke. And even though the administrations on both sides of the Atlantic have changed over since then, the satire is still sharp as a stiletto; for whenever there are politicians, there will always be people who will happily send the democratic process right into the shitter if it gets them a tiny scrap of power or attention.

Cribbing some characters and a healthy number of actors from Iannucci's beloved BBC comedy series The Thick of It*, In the Loop begins when Britain's Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), states during a generally terrible radio interview that war is "unforeseeable". Though he seems to think that he's only voicing one man's opinion, his ill-chosen word runs afoul of the official position of the British Government. Which is that war is "foreseeable"? Actually, we never do quite find out what poor Simon ought to have said, but he sets off an epic shitstorm, with the Prime Minister's most able spin doctir, Malcom Tucker (Peter Capaldi), working frantically to make sure that the Americans know that the PM is still definitely behind the war, while a small cabal of anti-war Americans, including Lt. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini) and Assistant Secretary of State Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) in their battle against the man in the State Department who seems to be driving everything else, Linton Barwick (David Rasche). Let the record show that this plot summary manages to leave a good half the cast and healthy majority of the story untouched. It's just that kind of movie.

It's hard to decide which element of the script, co-written by the director and a passel of his Thick of It associates, is most praiseworthy: the impossible plausibility of the chain of events it depicts? The you-are-there realism of the politicking on display? Those things are damn good, but you'll have to count me in the increasing swell of reviewers who find themselves just absolutely taken by the film's manic, profane, poetic, logorrheic dialogue. It's really quite extraordinary, how much cumulative imagination the five writers show off in writing an endless panoply of utterly vulgar quips and dry British witticisms; and the even more particular genius of it is that the vulgarity isn't just funny on its own terms (though it assuredly is that, except for those poor souls who are bothered by the inherent fact of the word "fuck"), but that it is used in consistent and distinct ways for each character, defining them as much as their behavior or title. Malcolm is the one with the amazingly colorful and creative euphemisms, Miller is blunt and resigned, Simon's aide Toby (Chris Addison) is sarcastic but generally ingratiating, Barwick is the hypocrite who makes very certain never to say anything R-rated even as he cheerfully imagines sending thousands of soldiers off to fight a war of fuzzy goals.

Naturally, this means that there's a whole lot for the actors to gorge themselves on, and it's worth pointing out that while much of In the Loop works because of the writing, just as much is entirely the credit of the performances. If I had to pick the most effective, I'd probably settle on Capaldi (reprising his Thick of It character), Gandolfini, and Gina McKee (as Simon's more acerbic and honest and therefore unloved senior aide), with honorable mention to the great Steve Coogan (who also worked with Iannucci on the series Knowing Me, Knowing You and I'm Alan Partridge) in a small but truly wonderful small role as an angry constituent. But singling out anyone is to miss the forest for the trees; across the board, this is one of the finest casts assembled in a very, very long time, and while only a scant number of them have instant name recognition in the States, that is hardly to say that they're not all gifted in the way that only British TV comic actors can be gifted.

The script; the actors; and then there's Iannucci's direction, which underscores a truth. It is regularly said that a certain kind of film just needs a good screenplay, and a director who can stay out of its way, and that is the best thing; but In the Loop shows that it's really the second-best thing. The best thing is if the director knows exactly how to make the film fairly complex visually and in its editing, in such a way that his directing is itself part of the timing of the jokes. Iannucci puts quite a lot of effort into the look of the film, which uses the clichéd faux-documentary language of handheld cameras and grubby sets as a springboard for something much richer and more carefully assembled. The result is, frankly, one of the most mature and sophisticated film comedies in what feels like many years; certainly, it's one of the funniest, something that withstands comparisons to Dr. Strangelove not just because they have a similar sensibility, but because there's not nearly as much of a gulf separating them, quality-wise, as you might expect. This is as fine and hilarious a political comedy as any we've had in a generation.

And then, at the end, Iannucci pulls the rug out, and it's not so funny anymore, because we realise: oh wait. This happened, kind of. And the war that got put together, probably not in the same farcical way as this, but in the same spirit of lying and power-grabbing, that war is still happening ever day. Thus comedy gives way to raw truth, and it's a powerful, uncomfortable transition, that helps to make In the Loop the best movie yet about the Iraq War, even as it is not in any specific way about that war at all. Which almost revives the question about whether or not there's any real point to an anti-Blair, anti-Bush satire when both of those men are out of power, but I shall reiterate: whip-smart observation and dead-on political analysis are always welcome, season in and season out.

10/10

22 July 2009

MAN OF WAR

François Truffaut once famously suggested that there could never be a truly anti-war film, because film by its nature makes whatever it is depicting seem exciting. This generally sound theory has been violated since he first voiced it (and really, already had been before that; has anyone ever walked out of Grand Illusion thinking to themselves, "Boy howdy, it does seem to me that war is both fun and invigorating"?), but it is given a particularly interesting workout by The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow's latest attempt to make audiences give a damn about the Iraq War. This film certainly does not make warfare seem all that exciting; it seems instead to be stretched-out moments of terror punctuated by instants of blissful relief when you somehow manage to remain not dead. At the same time, it must be honest to its protagonist, an explosives expert who gets a distinct and unambiguous rush from his acts of death-defying heroism, and by yoking itself to his POV, the film allows us to experience, somewhat the same pleasant adrenaline spike. As the epigraph by Chris Hedges that opens the movie puts it, war is a drug.

Set in Baghdad in an ostensible 2004 that is positively rotten with anachronisms, The Hurt Locker is the story of a three-man Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team whose job is to hunt and eliminate IEDs, those nasty bits of business that were such a prominent feature of news stories back in the days before the war got shuffled off the front page by the economy (hah, I tease, the war wasn't infotaining enough to ever hold a secure place on the front page): Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), the uncontrollable technician whose desire to defuse bombs borders on the pathological, and puts his life in basically constant jeopardy; Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), his subordinate who is in charge of keeping an eye on the surrounding situation while James is at the bomb; and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who basically does the same thing as Sanborn but is still too shaken up from the explosive death of their previous CO, Sergeant Thompson (a cameoing Guy Pearce) to fully engage with what he's doing.

The film achieves a kind of platonic ideal: it is about nothing but the experience of being a soldier, no editorialising or hand-wringing to be found. That experience, in the film's eyes, has two facets: one can either try to play things as safe as humanly possible in the least-safe place imaginable, just trying to keep alive long enough to get home, and be like Sanborn; or one can embrace the danger of the moment and feed off it, and use that danger to inspire one to greater achievements, liek James. Neither man is vilified for his position - when Sanborn declares, apparently without a hint of sarcasm or hesitation, that he would just soon kill James as follow him yet again into a reckless, potentially lethal situation, we can understand him without agreeing that it is the right thing to do, nor finding ourselves shocked at his murderous rage. This is just the way things are, the film argues with tremendous effectiveness (the writer, Mark Boal, was embedded with an actual EOD team in Iraq), and it's all so hellish and disorienting and awful that nobody could expect to remain a placid, zen-like individual in the midst of it all. If the film has an ideological bent, it's neither pro- nor anti-war, but simply pro-soldier; agree with their mission or not (Bigelow and Boal do not even once invite us to take such a stance), but you have to respect their willingness, every day, to risk dying a violent and painful death.

The film advances this argument in two ways, one mostly successful, the other a bit less. In the first, there are its celebrated action sequences, though action is hardly the right word. I just don't know what else to call them. Basically the story of the movie is one event repeated over and over: a call comes in, the EOD team drives out to some alley or road where an explosive has been secreted, and James hops out in his bulky, restrictive suit to waddle over to the bomb and stop it from exploding. Most of the time, he does something along the way to drive Sanborn crazy, as the sergeant does not agree with their higher-ups that James is some kind of inspired hellcat (the higher-ups, of course, are not in immediate danger of blowing up along with him). It's fair to say that the bulk of this 131 minute film consists of the pregnant wait in the time between the team identifying the bomb and James successfully defusing it; agonising minutes waiting for something awful to happen. These sequences are put together with absolutely impeccable craftsmanship; my only previous context for Bigelow's direction was the faintly awful K-19: The Widowmaker, which suggested very little good about her talents, but then here she had to go and make something to prove me all sorts of wrong. What's amazing about the many tense moments in The Hurt Locker is how few of the customary tricks used to generate tension: there are no urgent close-ups or pounding drums or rapid-fire cuts. The most shocking thing about the movie, really, is how much of it takes place in lingering medium shots. Only the slightly intrusive use of hand-held camera, its characteristic wobbliness insisting "REALISM!" while just coming off as stale, threatens to puncture the uncanny effectiveness of these moments.

We're right there with the characters: it's terrifying and we absolutely know that things are going to go wrong, but it's kind of thrilling and fun anyway. I could take or leave the extended "hunt through Baghdad at night" sequence near the end, demonstrating how James's experiences have started to unravel his mind; the protracted pauses when we're waiting for the "boom" have more than done explained what we needed to know.

And that's where the film starts to wander into its more awkward territory. The filmmakers, it seems, do not believe that they are very good at their jobs; that we intuitively understand what's going on from the impact on ourselves as viewers from those masterful bomb-defusing sequences. So they explain everything, in the most explicit detail you could imagine; starting with that very same epigraph, all the way to the penultimate scene. Basically, this is one of those movies that is extremely good whenever characters keep their mouths shut; when there's dialogue, it's usually heavy-handed and leading. A shame, because the more-than-able cast - especially Renner, who has cropped up here and there in various things, and whose face communicates everything we could ever hope to know about James - doesn't need Bigelow and Boal whispering in the audience's ear to get their characters across. It's frankly damned annoying, and turns what could have been a truly marvelous war picture into a kind of harangue, at times; moments of intensity punctuated by lectures. Does it make The Hurt Locker a failure? Lord no, but it does mean that at the very best, it's a qualified success.

8/10

21 July 2009

THE DIVINE ONE

Italian politics are tremendously confusing. This is the first lesson I took away from Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, winner of the 2008 Jury Prize at Cannes. It is a marvelous and inventive and fun motion picture through and through, but none of this changes the fact that it's fairly merciless: if you don't understand the way tha the Italian government functions before going into the film - I didn't, really - pray you're able to pick up details along the way - I was, but only just enough to keep going.

The film takes as its subject the real-life politician Giulio Andreotti, elected seven times to the Italian Parliament as representative of the centrist Christian Democratic party, numerous times the President of the Council of Ministers (rendered as "Prime Minister" in the film's subtitles, to keep confusion down), and still, at 90 years of age, serving as Senator for Life. His long, wildly controversial career has seen him linked to the Mafia and officially acquitted of any such culpability; his many nicknames include "Il Divo Giulio" (a play on "The Divine Julius"), "The Black Pope", "The Hunchback", and "Beelzebub". All of these facts are given to the viewer in a flurry of title cards that one suspects were probably put in especially for us rock-stupid Americans, and for that I can only heave a sigh of relief. It's hard enough to follow the movie as it is.

Roughly speaking - and when I say "roughly speaking", I do mean roughly - the film is concerned with a reasonably brief span of Andreotti's career, beginning in 1991 with his seventh government's rise to power, and proceeding to his trial for Mafia-related killings, a case that lasted from 1996 until 1999. At the same time, Sorrentino freely includes moments from earlier, dramatising several assassinations that Andreotti may - or may not! - have been involved with, and referring often in dialogue to moments from Andreotti's past.

That being said, the main thrust of Il Divo is not to present a historical account of Andreotti's career, nor to definitively indict him for his many rumoured crimes (though it would be hard indeed to walk out of the movie without having the strong suspicion that he was involved in far more shady dealings than the average genially corrupt politician), but to present as fully as possible the character and mindset of a man who has largely succeeded in making himself the most opaque, unknowable man in Italian politics. In this, Sorrentino is aided to an invaluable degree by Toni Servillo, an actor and theater director of little renown in the English-speaking world (he was also in last year'sm well-regarded Gomorra), but who is, to judge from this one movie at least, one of the most uncannily gifted performers in the history of cinema. I'm sorry, that was hyperbole. What is not hyperbole, however, is that Servillo gives a truly exquisite performance, easily the finest seen on U.S. screens in 2009 thus far. It is rich with small details: like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, he speaks every line quietly, knowing that he will be heard and understood simply on account of being a man of great importance; while all around him is busy movement, he hardly ever moves when it is not wholly necessary, knowing that he is an anchor for reality, not the other way around; with his heavy eyelids and weirdly bent-over ears, he looks startlingly like Max Schreck in Nosferatu. Which is, I'm certain, not an accident: for if he is not the monster that his opponents accuse him of being, he is at the very least not at all like a regular, mortal human being.

I'm so passionate about this character and performance that I'm going to stop talking about them, and instead beg that if you get the chance (and thanks to the magical elves at Netflix, you can have the chance, even if it's not for a while yet), you should absolutely see this film. And if the notion of seeing one of the decade's great performances isn't enough to do it for you, how about this: Paolo Sorrentino is a visionary filmmaker, in an era when that word gets fucked around like the town whore.

There are, I'm sure, antecedents to the crazy things Sorrentino does with narrative structure and imagery in this film, but I'm drawing a bit of a blank. Oliver Stone's Nixon, clearly; in some respects, particularly his representations of violence, he seems a touch redolent of Quentin Tarantino; but the one filmmaker I find myself thinking of most of all is Wes Anderson, whose aesthetic is already a mutant version of the space between Truffaut and Godard. What leads me to this, I think, is Sorrentino's very rigorous use of centered framing, usually one of the big "no-nos" in composition, but something that works quite well here. Then, there's his extremely invigorating use of camera movement; not swooping, swooshing Steadicam voyages like Martin Scorsese likes so much, but rigidly linear dolly shots, parallel to the action or moving straight in or out. The whole film takes place exclusively along the Z- or X-axes; but it doesn't feel limited, quite the contrary. With his geometrically precise camera and compositions, Sorrentino has done a suberb job at demonstrating cinematically the same level of unblinking control that Andreotti exercises over everything he touches. There is no room for improvisation or flexibility or anything that isn't perfectly balanced in this man's world. He even exercises his grip over the movie that contains him.

And so we come back to the film's, and I hate like hell to use this word, "flaw". It was made by an Italian in Italy for an Italian audience, and so the underlying context is all assumed. The ideal audience for this movie not only understands Andreotti's world; they probably remember with crystal-clear detail the events depicted. I have loved many American movies that function the same exact way, so I cannot even begin to criticise Il Divo for doing this. But as an American writing for a largely American audience, I can't help but confess: the film's narrative is incredibly, overwhelmingly complex, and if you don't do your homework ahead of time, I guarantee you will be absolutely flummoxed. The movie has enough going on that's flat-out genius on both sides of the camera that I am almost equally willing to guarantee you will not ever be bored. But making sense of this film is hard-ass work, and I have to let that influence the number ranking I'm about to give it, which I hope you'll see fit to ignore. I mean, there's a whole damn review telling you what I thought about it. Let's not allow a thing like a number to denigrate the degree to which I want to have this movie's babies.

8/10

20 July 2009

TEN FOR MONDAY: THE FINAL FRONTIER

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the most incredible technological achievement in recorded history: the landing of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, and the steps taken by Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin as the first human beings to set foot on a planetary body other than the Earth. In recognition of that august moment, a list of ten movies and TV shows that have captured the magic, wonder and adventure of exploring space.

Le voyage dans la lune (Georges Méliès, 1902)
Not a sober-minded vision of what science might bring us to other worlds so much as a fantastic exploration of the possibilities of the cinema, the prolific Méliès's most famous work is among the most iconic films ever produced, and more than 100 years later still has the power to enchant with its maker's crazed imagination. Aliens that explode when you smack them with an umbrella, spaceships fired like bullets - and, of course, the Man in the Moon getting an eyeful of rocket ship - it may not be realistic in even the most generous sense, but it's a truly magnificent achievement, charming and inventive and full of the wide-eyed wonder that informs the best science-fiction.

Destination Moon (Irving Pichel, 1950)
Time has not been kind to this groundbreaking motion picture - if you can make it through its endless 92 minutes without getting up at least once, you've probably been drugged - but it secured its place in history by being the first honest-to-God scientific attempt to make a movie about interplanetary travel. Consider also that it marked a major leap forward in visual effects technology, and it becomes clear that this movie, for all its dramatic shortcomings, is the granddaddy of countless movies to follow, from Star Wars to some of the other movies on this very list. It's medicine for the sci-fi scholar: not very fun, but tremendously important.

The Silent Star AKA First Spaceship on Venus (Kurt Matzig, 1960)
A much more durable example of science-fiction as prestige picture, this East German effort is unabashedly a piece of Soviet propaganda, so I'm afraid you'll need to keep your "historical context" caps on while watching it. But this movie - the first adaptation of a work by the great Stanislaw Lem ever filmed - presents some very intriguing ideas about humanity's place in the stars, while also presenting a significantly more multi-national image of space travel than just about any U.S. movie from the same period I can think of. It's thoughtful and exciting in equal measure, representing the state of the art of fantasy filmmaking in 1960; but do be careful to watch the original uncut German version, available on DVD. The cut released in America as First Spaceship on Venus is a great deal shorter (to de-Communise it, no doubt), and the result is incoherent enough that it made it onto Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Star Trek (created by Gene Roddenberry, 1966-'69)
The first version of Roddenberry's vision of a utopic future is also the one that gets the most right: the sense of space as a new version of the Old West, a universe of unexplored territory just past the horizon, where anything can happen and only the bravest and smartest can survive. There's plenty to love about many of the shows to follow in its wake, but very few of them - certainly none of its spin-offs, about bureaucrats in space, a sci-fi redress of Balkanization, and whatever the hell it is that Voyager is meant to be about - capture the same gee-whiz Space Age feeling of adventure and possibility. No, space travel is never going to look anything like this, but it damn well should.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
There's a lot more to this philosophically-laden head trip of a visual effects spectacular, but one of the things that Kubrick and his invaluable FX team achieved that has never been replicated even once in the 41 years since is to capture the stately, balletic slowness of space. Massive vehicles and stations spin about with almost agonising stateliness, while "The Beautiful Blue Danube" gives their movements the elegance of, well, a waltz. And inside those ships and stations, life goes on in tiny ways, depicted with enough specificity that it almost feels more like a documentary that got sent back in time than someone's imaginative vision of the future. Just about the only thing that gives the game away is the Pan-Am signage on the space shuttle.

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Alien is a great many things, most prominently a haunted house film with a spaceship in place of the house and a slimy creature that suggests devouring genitalia as the ghost. But it's also a rare and quite successful depiction of space exploration as a matter of corporations and dingy ships, with a tiny scrap of inhabitable areas competing with acres and acres of industrial Something. Remember, the titular alien doesn't appear for a good half of the movie; prior to that, it's all blinking readouts and computers and dullness for each and every member of the crew. Space: so big that it can't help but be completely damn boring.

Cosmos (written by Carl Sagan, 1980)
Not, perhaps, about space travel per se, this is however the finest single piece of pop-science ever put before a mainstream audience, and remains an argument-ender almost 30 years later. Meet someone who thinks public broadcasting has no value? Remind them that without PBS, there'd be no Cosmos. There will never be anything put to film or video that does a better job than this monumental miniseries at demonstrating the incredible size of the universe, and our tiny place within the whole amazing span of it all. If watching this doesn't make you swoon with the grandeur of space and our ability to comprehend it from one inconvenient vantage point, you are clinically dead.

Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995)
The best proof that its director actually does have some talent, this dramatisation of the greatest near-disaster in NASA's history may play some cheap cards every now and then, and not the least of its sins is the bombastic, shamelessly jingoistic score. But when it clicks - and it's usually clicking - this is cinema's most enthralling depiction of the nuts and bolts of the space program, doubtlessly given some fictional sexiness just to make it work better, but who cares? The kind of grand adventure of human ingenuity that can make an impressionable teenager a life-long space junkie, not that I'm thinking of a particular 13-year-old who saw this movie the day it opened and still watches it almost every year even as a cynical film snob of 27.

From the Earth to the Moon
(executive produced by Tom Hanks, 1998)
Riding high off of his success in Apollo 13, Hanks wrangled a whole bunch of talented people and a large sum of money from HBO when that legendary cable channel was just starting to dip its toes into original programming, an the result was a massively entertaining and educating 12-episode recap of the moon race from the first days of the Mercury Program to the largely forgotten Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Unapologetically nostalgic, proudly American, and geeked-out to its core, the series leaves no room for doubt that the moon program was the most incredible collection of brilliant people and technical innovation in history, the best parts of humanity all working to the noblest goal possible.

In the Shadow of the Moon (David Sington, 2007)
There are sexier documentaries about the space program that I, alas, have not seen (damn you, new Criterion Blu-Ray of For All Mankind, for not being here when I needed you!). So this is, in part, an all-purpose stand-in. Which isn't to say that it's not a wonderful film on its own terms; for it certainly is that. Footage that had never before been released gives the movie a certain space-porn appeal, but the real achievement here is in treating the men of the Apollo program as men, first and foremost; not heroes, not legends, but guys who just had a job to do, and for the most part seem even a little bit embarrassed by the fame that "Apollo astronaut" has conferred on them. They didn't set out to make history, it just kind of happened by accident, and In the Shadow of the Moon is brilliant because it finds that human core: the moon landing wasn't the result of great historical impulses and inevitabilities, it was about people. Crazy, wonderful, gifted people, who wanted to do something extraordinary, and did it.