30 December 2009

Essay: "Today's Hollywood Has No Place for Personality"



"Ultimately you can't beat the studio," Richard Kelly recently told the New York Times. "They’re the bank, so you’ve got to just figure out how to work with it. I’ve learned that the smart way to go about it is to learn how to play ball." It sounds dispiritingly cynical from the director of Donnie Darko, The Box and, above all, Southland Tales, the decade's most glorious piece of batshit. But it seems an idea that more and more younger directors are embracing: Spike Jonze recently released Where the Wild Things Are with backing from Warner Bros.; 20th Century Fox just gave Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox a wide release. Michel Gondry is currently in production of Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet movie, produced by Sony and to be distributed by Columbia Pictures. David Gordon Green, whose George Washington was an indie cause célèbre less than a decade ago, is now the go-to guy for Danny McBride comedies. This could all be a great development for mainstream cinema—except, judging from Kelly, Jonze and Anderson’s latest films, the directors aren’t very good at making bankable big-budget movies with broad appeal. It promises to be a short-lived trend.

Keep reading this essay at The L Magazine

29 December 2009

A Serious Man

Written & Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Full credits at IMDb

The Coen Bros. could stand to be more serious men. But at the start of A Serious Man, an exploration not of God’s silence but of the inscrutability of His message, they’re up to their old shit again. The brothers’ problem has always been their propensity for characters that are goofier than their context allows—madcap caricatures where real(ish) people ought to be. Their last two films, though antithetical in tone, have avoided the problem: No Country for Old Men might have been called Some Serious Men, as it was as drained of all humor as their moody debut Blood Simple. (Beth Grant, in a small part, was a notable exception, but the brevity of her screen time makes it forgivable.) Burn After Reading, on the other hand, was a zany satire of D.C. politics that demanded silly performances—and got them, from A-list or top-shelf masters (Clooney, Pitt, Malkovich; Frances McDormand) who know how to be nutty without crossing That Line.

But A Serious Man opens with a Yiddish ghost story that nearly ruins the film, not only with its broad archetypes (which are never as funny as the Coens think) but with its undermining message. Thankfully, the film quickly moves to the Midwest ca. 1967, a heartland suburbia of manicured lawns and one-level houses that’s positively Wonder Years, and focuses on the Jews there trying to retain their heritage while taking advantage of America’s promise of prosperity. This is a world the Coens know—it’s the one in which they were raised—and so they bring to it a serious authenticity; even when it’s funny and silly, it’s undergirded by an emotional gravity. The Coens are comfortable here. The eccentric characters—particularly a series of rabbis—feel like they truly belong in this absurd place where religious tradition butts heads with political realities.

Michael Stuhlbarg, the great eccentric stage actor beginning his much-welcome inroads into the pictures, stars as Larry Gopnik, a physics professor and 20th Century American Job: his wife is leaving him (for the hilarious Fred Melamed); his brother (a humorously repellent Richard Kind) is sleeping on his couch; his son, on the cusp of bar mitzvah, is a stoner chased down the street by dealers to whom he is indebted; the success of his tenure-review is threatened by a series of anonymous, disparaging letters and an attempted bribe from a South Korean student; he is as deplored by his red-meat neighbors for his persuasion as A Single Man’s protagonist is for his orientation. (Though, as one scene makes clear, Jew still trumps Chink.)

Why the string of bad luck? The Coens compare humanity’s relationship-to-God to a rooftop antenna: just as the Gopniks can’t get F Troop to come through clearly, so too is humanity receiving a garbled signal they can’t decipher. Why does God supply us with the potential to ask questions when he won’t give us any answers? Why is he penalizing us when we haven’t done anything wrong? (The Coens find a brilliant symbol for this in the Columbia Record Club, which keeps charging you for albums precisely because you haven’t done anything.) The brothers cloak their bleak theology in the cover of comedy, but the pain and injustice of a world in which God only takes and does not give—in which he punishes the seemingly unoffending—is clear and deep. So why that stupid opening, which suggests we can attribute Gopnik’s trials to a 100-year-old curse? Less than establishing a sins-of-the-father theme, it merely suggests an easy answer for the complex existential conflicts the Coens do such a superb job of laying out through the rest of the film. Grade: A-


Watch the trailer:

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach
Full credits at IMDb

Miss The Fantastic Mr. Fox’s opening credits and you’d still figure out, in a matter of minutes, that this is a Wes Anderson movie; all of his trademark motifs are there: the on-screen text; the deep album soundtracking (“Heroes and Villains”!); the horizontal compositions; the astounding level of detail. But it’s also animated in stop motion, making it the divisive director’s most visually complex film yet. It’s also his funniest, his most emotionally rich, his most thematically complex, and his first political picture. It’s not only one of the year’s best movies—it’s Anderson’s long-missing masterpiece, the film for which fans have been waiting since the director followed up near-perfect The Royal Tenenbaums with a couple of (wonderful but) regressive digressions.

Adapted by Anderson and sometimes-collaborator/director-in-his-own-right Noah Baumbach from Roald Dahl’s children’s book—retaining some of the narrative shape while piling on complicating layers—The Fantastic Mr. Fox revolves around the title character (voiced by George Clooney), whose central dilemma is similar to that of Mr. Incredible: he has promised his wife he won’t do the dangerous thing he’s good at anymore—here, catching chickens—but he can’t control himself, even after having switched careers to become a newspaperman (a choice that reflects Anderson’s love of the anachronistic). It’s a classic case of the human, er, vulpine nature versus the refining forces of civilization. “How can a fox ever be happy,” Mr. Fox muses, “without a chicken in its teeth?”

He plots one last great scheme, which attracts an Old Testament-level of vengeance from the mean, nasty, ugly English farmer-barons he’s wronged, who sport the deliciously Dahlian names of Boggis, Bunce and Bean. An endless stream of one-liners and running gags—as painstakingly calculated and contained as the film’s startling mise-en-scene (because the characters and sets are constructed models, the frames are exponentially more detailed than Anderson’s usual sets; he not only revels in the minutiae here, he must)—flow through the film’s action-packed structure: one heist and scheme after another. But the film’s charmingly creaky sheen doesn’t obscure the dark emotional core; The Fantastic Mr. Fox doesn’t feign ignorance of the natural world’s violence: Anderson’s foxes eat like animals, ferociously scattering their food with their maws. An old man has a real tantrum and trashes his trailer; an unctuous, serpentine rat suffers an inglorious death. There are inter-family jealousies and humiliations (Mr. Fox’s son suffers from a cousin rivalry, as well the pains of being overshadowed by an accomplished father), welling eyes and ferocious anger. Mrs. Fox, exasperated with her husband for the trouble he has caused, scratches his face, leaving claw marks, drawing not only blood from her husband but tears. Heartbreaking tears. “Why’d you lie to me?” she asks. “Because I’m a wild animal,” he answers.

Anderson’s films have always been about self-obsessed characters, navigating their own hermetic relationships without an eye for the larger world or communities around them. Mr. Fox breaks with that tradition, largely a result of the source material. On one level, the film seems to be about animal rights—or, at least, for the rights of animals to be treated like animals. (Not in the Cartesian sense!) On another, it’s about a working class revolution against the ruling class, pitting the humble and inclusive animals against a stingy cabal of homogenous monopolizers. Anderson’s most radical suggestion—and this certainly isn’t from Dahl—might be that, between animal rights and workers rights, there’s little distinction. Grade: A+


Watch the trailer:

The Best of 2009 and The Best of the Decade



Get your read on: My Best 10 (er, 15) Films of 2009 list is up at The L Magazine. You can read it here. To cut the suspense, the top 5 are Tokyo Sonata, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Adventureland, Summer Hours and Kabei: Our Mother.



Also up at The L is my Top 20 of The Decade list, which you can read here. Again: the top 5 are Zodiac, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Elephant, Mulholland Dr., and The Royal Tenenbaums. Pretty bold choices, eh? (Seriously, though: they're all American. I love American movies!)

Crazy Heart

Written & Directed by: Scott Cooper
Full credits at IMDb

This is above all An Actor’s Showcase, and I’m so tired of those: films that think they can cut narrative corners because they make up for it with Performance. Crazy Heart is competently executed, but we’ve seen its characters before, just as we’ve tracked their journeys to redemption. Will [Maggie] Gyllenhaal inspire [Jeff] Bridges to start writing songs again? Will a doctor warn Bridges that the drinkin’ will do him in? Will a small child cause Bridges to re-evaluate his life? Etc. etc.

But there is pleasure to be had from watching Bridges work off of his fellow actors, whether it’s the sweet-smiled Gyllenhaal, the respectful [Colin] Farrell, or the grizzled [Robert] Duvall...But, you know, I respect Bridges’ performance, in which he grumbles to himself when he’s not growling at others, but I don’t really like it. Of course, it’s one of those oversized performances Academy voters love so, and it’s got a real chance of snagging an Oscar. But it’s so thoroughly conceived it starts to cross the line from messy, Method-y emotional realism into the meticulous design of Olivierian contrivance. Should we be congratulating Bridges, or the team that mussed his stringy hair and made him look positively Bukowskian (albeit with a cowboy hat)?

Keep reading my conversation with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine


Watch the trailer:

Nine

Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: Michael Tolkin & Anthony Minghella
Full credits at IMDb

When I got home from the Nine screening I attended, I started writing a short story. I felt I had to do something, no matter how small, in order to appease the gods of the arts, who undoubtedly have been affronted by Rob Marshall’s film. It might as well be called “Mambo Italiano: The Musical” because it seems to be adapted from that Dean Martin song. In fact, it’s adapted from a decades-old stage musical that itself was adapted—the gall!—from ; the show’s score is almost all flashy numbers with bold-faced motifs that signify Italianness. “Style is the new content,” a reporter for Vogue (Kate Hudson) says, and that about sums up Marshall’s filmmaking.

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine


Watch the trailer:

15 December 2009

The Headless Woman

Written & Directed by: Lucrecia Martel
Full credits at IMDb

How you receive Martel’s enigmatic The Headless Woman (La Mujer Sin Cabeza) will depend in large part on your mood: is it an arthouse soporific or a meticulous masterpiece of mise-en-scene and ambiguity? I watched half the film in a torpor and felt the former, then finished it off well rested and came around to the latter. The film requires a vigorous attentiveness—it’s best seen in a dark theater by a properly caffeinated viewer—but pays off for those willing to put in the work.

In a tremendous but subtle performance, María Onetto stars as Vero, a bourgeois Spaniard who, while driving on the eve of a storm and reaching for a cellphone, hits something with her car. Was it a dog? Or one of those innocent boys on whose antics the film opens? Vero doesn’t get out of her car to find out, and spends the rest of the movie quietly unraveling amid jarring, memory-piquing parallels. (It would almost be reminiscent of Carnival of Souls if it didn’t evoke Antonioni so strongly.) As Vero’s husband begins an apparent cover-up, Martel suggests an allegory about class dynamics that’s hard to parse—“this storm has hurt thousands of people,” one character says. “It’s not just unfortunate. It’s shameful”—but even on its most basic terms, as a portrait of mushrooming guilt, it’s a wonder.

Martel, filming in long takes, alternates between keeping the camera exhaustingly close on her protagonista and carefully composing frames that marginalize Vero, though she always seems to dominate the frame, even when just wearily smiling, awkwardly shuffling or furrowing her brow from its corners. The camera is tightly focused on her even when it seems to be ignoring her, just as Vero obsesses over her (possible) vehicular manslaughter, even when she appears apathetic. Grade: A-


Watch the trailer:

The Hurt Locker

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Full credits at IMDb

In The Hurt Locker, an a(geo)political Iraq War nail-biter, Bigelow and Boal (a catchy name for an artistic partnership!) essentially take that old “red wire or green wire?” routine familiar from countless movie bomb-squads, and ratchets it up into an entire film by reworking it again and again into a handful of cliché-defying permutations: what if the eyes of dozens of would-be assassins are on you as you work? What if one wire leads to five other wires? What if you can’t find the wires at all? In Bigelow and Boal’s Iraq, every face peering out from a terrace or rooftop is suspect, every cell phone a potential weapon, every pedestrian a potential combatant. The characters’ justified paranoia in such a setting creates tension to spare. Toss in the tightly filmed bomb-defusing and it’s unbearable.

Within that stressful setting, the filmmakers foster a portrait of masculinity-and-its-many-faces under siege, a character study of reckless bravado; Will (Jeremy Renner), an American staff sergeant and the staff deactivator, is a fearless—he even smokes cigarettes!—John Wayne type, deromanticized; he’s portrayed as irresponsible and unstable as much as heroic. “War is a drug,” according to the title-card quote from Chris Hedges that opens the film, and the film explores the mess that is soldierhood during wartime: the allure, the guilt, the addictiveness, the death. Should the U.S. be in Iraq? Did the Bush administration lie about W.M.D.s? Yawn. Save it for the Oscar-bait. “The bottom line,” as on character says, “is, if you’re in Iraq, you’re dead.”

Bravo for Bigelow and Boal for bucking the Iraq-movie trend—for ditching the somber forced-feeling of sleeve-worn liberalism—and for sticking complicated characters into thrilling and well-crafted set pieces: for chancing to allow the audience to draw its own conclusions from witnessing the realities on the ground. But the filmmakers’ intelligence wavers and, as the film progresses, the movie slips into eye-rolling clichés and manipulations, culminating in a phone call from Will to his wife in which he doesn’t say anything—and then hangs up! Bigelow is a merciless director. Boal, despite his war-reporter background, turns out to be a sucker for schmaltz. Grade: B+


Watch the trailer:

Adventureland

Written & Directed by: Greg Mottola
Full credits at IMDb

Greg Mottola directed Superbad, in which he distinguished himself as more than just a director-for-hire with that film’s final shot, the most moving in all of 2007: the camera assumes Michael Cera’s point of view, watching Jonah Hill at the head of an escalator, slowly disappearing as Cera rides down. In a single shot, Mottola expressed everything about how men grow up and grow apart that screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg had struggled to say in the previous 113 pages.

In Adventureland, Mottola directs from his own script, and therefore has 107 minutes to demonstrate the tenderness that appeared only fleetingly in his previous film, obscured beneath a nearly impenetrable layer of obscenity. (Superbad was funny as hell, but structurally it was sloppy, and is a bore on repeated viewings.) Jesse Eisenberg, doing a Michael Cera impression, plays a young adult whose dreams of spending his summer between college and grad school in Europe are dashed when his parents can’t foot the bill; instead, he stays in Pittsburgh, working the only job he can find—running games at the amusement park that gives the film its title.

The characters are broad enough to warrant the film mass appeal, but the film is never, except in Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s unsubtle comic turns, anything but stalwartly sincere, from the bumbling awkwardness of the academic to the employees’ camaraderie in shared misery, familiar to anyone who’s ever worked a shitty gig for minimum wages. The authenticity of working class desperation underlies the film: everyone’s parents have been downsized; half the kids are overeducated, the other half seeming-dropouts; the rock stars front shitty bar bands; grown-ass men still live with they moms. The dramedy builds to conflict that’s predictable as much as it’s inevitable; and yet, because of the emotional honesty in which Mottola steeps the film, it’s harrowing. The climactic reconciliation? Obvious. And fucking heartbreaking. Grade: A


Watch the trailer:

12 December 2009

35 Shots of Rum

Directed by: Claire Denis
Written by: Claire Denis & Jean-Pol Fargeau
Full credits at IMDb

In 35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums), one character informs another that the university is closing the anthropology department. Because it doesn’t see the value in it. Director Denis thinks differently, and her film serves as a testament to value of studying the everyday lives of a peoples: in this case, the mostly black working-class in a Paris suburb. While some drama seeps into the film—jealous lovers, even a suicide—for the most part, nothing happens: cab drivers gripe, a man broods over his retirement, a family cooks dinner, students debate third-world debt, friends go out for beers, a man shops for a CD, another goes for a run, and everybody rides the trains. Every scene is acted with warmth and humanity, filmed coolly yet sympathetically by Denis; it adds up to a seemingly authentic portrait of the immigrant and children-of-immigrants experience in contemporary France that puts to shame Cederic Klapisch’s recent Paris, with its melodramatic, self-pitying and predominantly white bourgeoisie. Grade: B


Watch the trailer:

Bright Star

Written & Directed by: Jane Campion
Full credits at IMDb

It’s slow going at first for Bright Star, which chronicles the Twilight-chaste romance between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and an (anachronistically?) outspoken dressmaker (Abbie Cornish) near the tail end of the poet’s life, as it seems to fall victim to the familiar pitfall of the period piece: an over-reliance on surfaces, from accents and syntax to costumes and setting. Campion’s film is certainly beautiful on the outside: the ornate outfits, the painterly frames—evoking Seurat, Rembrandt et al.—and, especially, the sumptuously lit frames, all candles and sun streams, bathing the richly colored rooms in complex layers of shadow and light. Even more impressive are the exterior shots, revealing a natural world of lush gardens and alternately ripe and barren forests, which evoke a fantasy realm, a version of earth that has since become extinct.

But does Bright Star offer any pleasures deeper than these superficial ones? At first it would seem not: aside from some competent performances (and a marvelously volatile turn from Parks and Recreation’s Paul Schneider), the film revolves around a love story stilted, pretentious and twee, essentially Garden State moved to London, ca. 1818. But the failings of the first quarter give way to a glorious middle, in which Campion pitches poetry, love and nature as a Holy Trinity, each possessing a capacity for transcendent ecstasy; Camption beautifully sums up the intersection of all three in the image of a bedroom swarming with butterflies. Meanwhile, the characters work through some complex problems: the necessity of station; the conflict between love and art, work and women. In its third act, Bright Star falls back into coasting on appearances and the familiarities of the tragic love story. But by then, it’s much easier to go along for the ride without complaining. Grade: B


Watch the trailer:

A Single Man

Directed by: Tom Ford
Written by: Tom Ford & David Scearce
Full credits at IMDb

If anyone was wondering what it’ll feel like in the future, when Vanity Fair’s ad pages contain short films on paper-thin screens rather than static images, the answer is: a lot what it feels like to watch A Single Man, which is obsessed with the styles and textures of the early 60s: the haircuts, the vending machines, the clocks, the wood-paneling at the bank. (Ford employs a palette of almost exclusively browns and grays, with some blacks and curdled greens.) I like an exquisitely aestheticized movie as much as the next guy, but Ford gets carried away here with the copious slow motion set to Haunting Strings. There’s an emphasis on the superficial here—making it the kind of movie that cuts a great trailer (see below)—that not even Firth’s layered performance can overcome.

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine


Watch the (pretty!) trailer:

[Rec] 2

Directed by: Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza
Written by: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza and Manu Díez
Full credits at IMDb

Like its nearly identical and essentially interchangeable American remake Quarantine, the Spanish horror film [Rec] was literally a thriller of escalation: as the movie progressed, and the tension mounted, our characters climbed the stairs of the Barcelona apartment complex in which they’d been, um, quarantined, the last surviving characters ultimately meeting their violent ends in the building’s penthouse. In the sequel, [Rec] 2, which in the Grand Horror Tradition of The Bride of Frankenstein and Halloween II picks up where its precursor left off, the characters move around the premises more liberally: while making a quick survey of the splattery remnants of the last film’s carnage, our heroes go straight to the top floor, then down a few flights, then back up to the penthouse, into a crowning crawlspace (for a nod to Alien, of course), and so on. The excitement follows suit: the dread in [Rec] mounted relentlessly; [Rec] 2 is a lot of ups-and-downs.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


Watch the (unsubtitled) trailer:

29 November 2009

Year-End Round-Up Part One: (500) Days of Summer, Bronson, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

It’s that time of year when screeners start piling up next to my DVD player and the magnitude of what I missed this year stares me in the face, tauntingly.



(500) Days of Summer (directed by Marc Webb; written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber; full credits)

(500) Days of Summer chronicles the ups and downs of a relationship, and does so with a delightfully freewheeling filmmaking spirit: direct address, split screens, voice-overs, diagrams, impromptu dance numbers, a jumbled chronology, and a subjective editing structure. Director Webb is like our country’s Christophe Honore, except his sensibilities are so Hollywood, masquerading as Indiewood: there’s the precocious kid, the Greek chorus of ribald pals and, worst of all, the soft music and Tender Moments that seem to conclude every scene; the formal liberation, ultimately, simply obscures an essential shallowness of content. (Webb over-relies on pop music to do the hard emotional work, so much so that when the opening notes of “Bookends Theme” sounded late in the film, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.) The boisterous charm wears off quickly.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the boy and Zooey Deschanel the girl, who he meets, loves and loses over the course of 16 months. The characters, especially Deschanel, are defined merely as a sum of their tastes: her favorite Beatle is Ringo—do you understand what that means? Because it’s really fucking significant. That these kids look and feel so familiar is the most frustrating thing of all: is this what we’ve become? In Band of Outsiders60s Godard is an obvious inspiration—the characters famously raced through the Louvre; here, our lovers run through an Ikea. Let it serve as a sign of the times. Grade: B-


Watch the trailer:


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Bronson (written & directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn; full credits)

Bronson is based on the life of Charles Bronson—not the (popular?) movie star, but the famous English inmate, who took the actor’s moniker as his nom de combat: he’s the most violent prisoner in Britain, who has spent decades behind bars thanks to the years added to his sentences for his bloody outbursts. Bronson, in a manic performance by Tom Hardy that exudes a Jack Napier-level of playful insanity, narrates the film from a dark stage, often in costume, chronicling his childhood and young manhood—marked by robbery and disproportionate violence—through his stays in various jails, psych wards, and disco-era England. (He’s briefly released.) Writer-director Refn scores the film with a blend of opera and contrapuntal rock, which heavily stylizes the gory beatings against creamy and colorful textures.

The director posits violence as art, as performance, as a talent, as a calling, as a cause for fame; think of boxing, wrestling, American football or summer movies taken down from their rarified stages, the brutishness placed back into the real world, which asks the audience to confront the cultural fetishization of barbarity. That is, Refn avoids the pitfall of adapting a real life story—getting mired in conforming the complexities of a life into the blueprint of a familiar narrative—by artfully addressing a larger, compelling theme. Until he settles into the biopic’s familiar rhythms, anyway: eventually, there’s a love interest, even an inspirational mentor-slash-foil, who actually says “you have to find the part of you that doesn’t belong here [in prison].” At least he gets a beating like everybody else. Grade: B


Watch the trailer:


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Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (written & directed by: John Krasinski; full credits)

Not-so-brief interviews with sometimes less-than-hideous men punctuate a short story collection of the same name by David Foster Wallace; a series of answers without questions, they served the book as interludes, at worst, or thematic mortar, at best. Dispersed willy-nilly into John “Jim Halpert” Krasinski’s film adaptation, they feel contrived to the point of absurdity. Who speaks so eloquently without prepared notes, let alone so frankly? Krasinski errs from the onset by inventing a flimsy narrative frame in which to jam DFW’s monologues: Julianne Nicholson, moping like an abused puppy through a one-note performance, plays a grad student (hey, Brooklyn College!) who, in the wake of a devastating dumping, has embarked on an anthropological study of sorts: how have decades of feminist advances affected the male psyche? So, sometimes Wallace’s (provocative!) monologues are spoken from long tables fitted with microphones, but other times they’re worked into Scenes From a Life. (A chat on the line for the bathroom, for example.)

The interviews usually have little to do with what’s happening in Nicholson’s life. And, anyway, the framing device is thin, a cheap excuse to parade a stream of L.A. actors in front of the camera to deliver what amount to flashy theatrical performances, rooted in gesture and intonation rather than a thoroughly realized emotional center. There are notable exceptions: Frankie Faison recounting his father’s life as the attendant in a ritzy bathroom; Krasinski’s climactic explanation of why he left Nicholson. But even if every scene were a standout, the film still wouldn’t work: this isn’t proper material for a movie, at least one too cowardly to embrace a real avant-garde structure. Maybe it would function better as a stage piece. Or, like, as a series of short stories, collected in some kind of book… Grade: C-


Watch the trailer:

27 November 2009

Horror Movie Round-Up: Last House on the Left, Pontypool, I Can See You, [Rec]

I watched a bunch of recent horror movies so you don't (necessarily) have to.


Last House on the Left
Directed by: Dennis Iliadis
Written by: Adam Alleca & Carl Ellsworth

A punishing rape scene at the thirdway point of Last House on the Left goes on for several shots too long: there’s no good reason our villain couldn’t climax more quickly, assuming such a scene was necessary at all. (It’s not.) Later, there are multiple stabbings, shootings, and thwackings with all variety of household weapons objects: fireplace poker, shower curtain rod. A man gets his hand caught in a garbage disposal before getting a hammer to the brain.

The movie is disgusting. And the violence is disturbing, too—but it’s the film’s underlying politics that really make you want to vomit.

A remake of Wes Craven’s ’72 debut—itself a (loose!) retelling of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring—the film concerns two teenagers who are abducted, ravished, beaten and left for dead by a cohort of easy-to-hate villains; with the spree of violence concluded and their car broken-down, the bad guys seek refuge at a nearby house—which belongs to the parents of one of the girls! The ‘rents figure out what’s happened and take a gruesome and splattery revenge. It adds up to a wacky conservative fantasy of law-and-order and vigilante justice: bad guys are everywhere, they have no redeeming qualities, and we need to cleanse the earth of them—we the multiple-home owning white people, that is, the perpetual victims under constant threat from criminals. (It could almost be an equally repellant terrorism allegory, if Iliadis were a sharper director.) That the parents defeat the enemy with a combination of guns, kitchen knives and found objects serves as a testament to American pluck, moxie, ingenuity, prosperity, and general badassery. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! Grade: D


Watch the trailer:


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Pontypool
Directed by: Bruce McDonald
Written by: Tony Burgess
Full credits from IMDb

Pontypool is almost entirely set in a (spacious) radio station; you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an adaptation of a play—particularly as its aesthetics evoke Talk Radio—but in fact it’s based on a novel, whose author also penned the screenplay. The theatricality and resulting claustrophobia is particularly effective: as mayhem transpires outside the basement-studio’s walls, it unfolds for the audience in phone calls, external reports of bloodthirsty and cannibalistic mobs—what turn out to be zombies. The general rule of thumb in storytelling is “show, don’t tell,” but Pontypool is stronger for its narration of the unseen: horror movies in particular thrive off suggestion, because the images conjured by our own imaginations are almost always creepier than those that can be created on screen.

But it’s not just the palpable sense of chaos, disorder and uncertainty that makes the movie so rewarding: it’s its clever political message. The rampaging zombies don’t hunt by scent or sight but by sound, infected by a virus that spreads through language (specifically the English language, in a juicy detail). Men turn to unthinking mobs, capable only of repeating others’ words. Families murder one another; houses are turned against themselves. The filmmakers’ target is Talk Radio, obviously of the kind that would (after the film was released) put together Tea Parties, the kind that makes Americans mindless with the potential to incite violence. Burgess sums up his position nicely in this on-air exchange, between the morning shock jock (the sonorously voiced Stephen McHattie) and a medical expert:
“Should we be talking at all?”
“Well, to be safe, probably not. Talking is risky. And, well, talk radio is high risk, so we should stop.”
“But we need to tell people about this. People need to know…”
“…let’s just hope what you’re getting out there isn’t going to destroy your world.” Grade: B+


Watch the trailer:


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I Can See You
Written & Directed by: Graham Reznick
Full credits at IMDb

Phew: it takes a long time for I Can See You to get going. In the meantime, we suffer through getting to know a trio of unlikeable Pete Campbell wannabes—Brooklyn ad men, on a head-clearing trip to the forest. Most horror movies, like this citykids in the woods variation, depend upon sympathetic identification with the leads, accomplished through long introductory sequences of character development. But, here, a total absence of drama, action or meaningful conflict exposes the three as little more than mean, ugly, self-consciously styled Billyburgers hustling for a piece of that evil Madison Avenue pie. Look at how littered their campsite is, how they dress for the forest like it were just one more night out at Trash Bar.

Then, around the two-thirds point, something happens (sort of), and I Can See You, at first channeling L’Avventura via The Blair Witch Project, loses all its rationality, moving past Inland Empire territory—a retro musical number, a campy TV pitchman (Larry Fessenden) lurking among the trees, a random zombie chick haunting a trail—and into the realm of pure abstraction. I Can See You makes some bold choices, maybe, but some neat surrealism can’t hide its underlying vacuity. Grade: C


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[●Rec]
Directed by: Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza
Written by: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza and Luis Berdejo
Full credits at IMDb

So, it turns out that Quarantine was a remarkably faithful adaptation of its source material, the Spanish film [Rec]—even the sets are nearly identical. Both films capture the thrilling pandemonium of a routine fire department service call gone wrong—28 Days Later super rabies meets 28 Weeks Later’s conspiratorial paranoia—in long unedited takes, filmed in the rawness of firsthand experience with a handheld camera that is disorienting and imprisoning: it puts you at the mercy of the directors, who exploit their authoritarian position to maximum effect. Tempers flare in desperation—leading to some overacting, especially from Ferran Terraza as the fireman who survives the longest—and lots of screaming, running and bleeding ensue. [Rec] is leaner, Quarantine has some better details: a medical intern in the original is a vet in the remake, and the American version has that amazing moment of murder-by-camera. In their slight variations, the two are like companion pieces, but also essentially interchangeable. Grade: A-


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Ward No. 6

Directed by: Karen Shakhnazarov
Written by: Karen Shakhnazarov & Aleksandr Borodyansky
Full credits at IMDb

Social misfits often harbor an irrational (except in tyrannical states) persecution phobia, a fear that their otherness will become punishable by law—or at least by some extra-judiciary cabal. As the circles defining artists and eccentrics tend to overlap, this anxiety frequently manifests itself in art, from the senseless bureaucratic injustice in Kafka to Hitchcock's wrong-man manhunts. But writers and filmmakers often also reveal a deeper, more specified fear of their own mental processes; a free capacity for contemplation distinguishes the thoughtful types from the masses, resulting in a worry among the former that the exposure of their private heresies will result in oppression by the institutions representing the latter: Winston Smith's struggle to avoid prosecution for thoughtcrime, Randle McMurphy herded into the folds of conformity through coerced lobotomy. Ward No. 6, Russia's bleak and vigorous submission to the Academy Awards, taps into this brand of psychological apprehensiveness, of mental-as-political repression. And, as a result, it's a deeply unsettling film.

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23 November 2009

The Box

Written & Directed by: Richard Kelly
Full credits at IMDb

The Box, a moving, mystical, metaphysical epic of illogicality, puts into narrative action the sort of absurd ethical scenarios usually cooked up only for textbooks. (I can tell you from experience that doing so is the dream of every undergrad double majoring in film and philosophy!) Based on a Richard Matheson short story, once before adapted as an episode of the 1980’s Twilight Zone revamp, the film takes off when The Great Frank Langella turns up at the doorstep of Cameron Diaz and James Marsden with a box and a moral proposition: push the big red button and you’ll get a million dollars in untaxed cash. But someone you don’t know will die.

There’s a reel of decision-making (during which I kept thinking about the History Eraser Button) but of course the couple pushes the button and of course weird shit and moral lessons ensue. The surprise, for the casual multiplex goer (how this got a wide release is beyond me), is the degree of weirdness, though any film fan who spotted Richard Kelly’s name in the opening credits should have been prepared for such batshit; the director of Donnie Darko and the much maligned Southland Tales turns a simple story of button-pressing into sci-fi madness that touches on outer space exploration, life-changing lightning strikes and extra-terrestrial possession.

Kelly tries to keep himself under some kind of control here—or, more likely, Warner Bros. was begging him to tone it down—if not narratively then at least formally: The Box’s filmmaking fireworks draw less attention to themselves than those of Kelly’s other films, though he’s still a whiz with the crane and tracking shots; he also possesses a peerless knack for gradually raising the emotional intensity of a scene through music, as well as a talent for elaborate set design: taking place in the 1970s, the film is rich with creamy earth tone textures, as well as baroque wallpaper and tiling patterns. (Kelly’s visuals betray a powerful Kubrick influence, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut in particular.) It’s a stylized setting to befit the fantastical narrative.

As bonkers as it may play out—the script’s details and revelations, like a bloody nose epidemic and mobs of eerily zombielike irregulars, do little to locate the viewer within the escalating craziness—the story is rooted in real feeling, and not only in the central couple’s heartbreaking affection for each other; as it’s set in the 70s, the film features the same sort of recessionary desperation we’re feeling now: Diaz is a teacher about to be laid off, Marsden is a NASA scientist whose astronaut application has been rejected. (One possible reading of the fatal button press is that financial hardship leads to an erosion of the basic decency upon which society is built.)

But the contemporary parallels extend beyond the economic: Kelly’s story, bearing the scars of the Bush-era, includes a government conspiracy involving the phone-tappin’ NSA, and Langella has “employees” everywhere, spying on Americans as though part of the Terrorist Information and Prevention System (they’re in fullest force at the library, a sly comment on the old Patriot Act); the aura of suspicion grows so powerful that houses are, at least for a moment, divided upon themselves.

The Box, at root and in broad terms, is a lesson about learning to care more about the group than the self. (A common lesson as of late, from Ghost Town to The Simpsons Movie.) More specifically, though, it seems a parable about The Wars, about Americans’ willingness to kill strangers in exchange for prosperity—as long as they don’t have to get their own hands dirty, of course. Kelly’s final point is that kind of violence eventually comes back around, often sooner than later. Grade: A


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Where the Wild Things Are

Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers
Full credits at IMDb

Spike Jonze accomplishes what he’s said he set out to do with Where the Wild Things Are, his meandering adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s slim, picture-book classic: he captures the visceral, mercurial nature of childhood. Jonze and screenwriter-collaborator Dave Eggers are deeply in touch with the pre-adolescent experience: the flights of imagination, the pangs of indignation: the thrill of the snowball fight, the hurt feelings when the game goes too far. Often filmed, especially at first, with a shaky handheld camera, the film reproduces the convincing and highly subjective point of view of an attention-starved child, Max (Max Records), who reacts to being wounded or ignored (by a too-cool teenage sister and a workaholic mom with a new boyfriend) by acting out. By being destructive. By being a wild thing.

After a particularly bad squabble in which he bites his mother (Catherine Keener), Max, in his ratty wolf costume, runs until he can’t, finds a small sailing vessel, and drifts into a moonlit sea until he lands upon what evokes a sylvan Skull Island. There, he meets a gang of leaderless monsters engaged in a primal Project Mayhem: destroying their nests, throwing each other into trees, demolishing forests faster than loggers in the Brazilian rainforest. (Shooting in Australia with his regular D.P. Lance Accord, among barren woods and a glaring sun, Jonze dissonantly roots his make-believe in reality; accordingly, the monsters are actors in extravagant costumes, giving the film a beautiful tactility.) Max, through the false boasting familiar to children, becomes their king, and they give each other solace in rumpus and the sharing of impossible dreams.

But, like Sad Max, it turns out the monsters are sad on the inside, and Jonze’s film soon collapses into a languorous examination of petty jealousies among bellyachers; the makeshift monster family is at loggerheads like the humanoid family Max left behind, and a number of set-pieces (strung together to make something approaching a story) in this alternate fantasy world parallel the ones we saw earlier in Max’s real life: the snow ball fight reappears as a dirt-clod war that ends in the same streams of tears. Except now Max no longer occupies the role of misfit child, but serves as the monsters’ matriarch; like the white man turned Negro in Finian’s Rainbow, Max learns through role reversal that it’s tough to walk in another guy’s shoes—here, his mother’s.

Jonze and Eggers unearth some sophisticated emotions: namely, that sometimes we hate the people we love, a fact ordinary kids’ movies don’t often acknowledge but that children themselves surely understand, at least instinctively. (The film also has a charming, childish absence of logistical detail: we never see Max eat.) The problem is that faithfully capturing the textures of juvenilia should be a means, not an end: Where’s the story? What’s the point? Where the Wild Things Are offers little insight beyond the banal: “It’s hard being a family,” as one character says. Is that really the best Jonze and Eggers could come up with? Just because it’s ostensibly a “children’s movie”—though aimed perhaps at man-childs—doesn’t mean it has to mimic a child’s inner life: emotionally rich, intellectually dim. Grade: B-


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18 November 2009

The Sun

Directed by: Aleksandr Sokurov
Written by: Yuri Arabov & Jeremy Noble
Full credits from IMDb

Alexander Sokurov is hard to love because many of his movies are so unapologetically Russian: Unlike many festival-circuit darlings, he's less concerned with making movies for the Cannes-noscenti than for his own countrymen. Of course, the director will always occupy a tender spot in the hearts of cinephiles everywhere for 2002's Russian Ark, which was not only shot in one take (the first such feature film; Rope doesn't count because poor Hitchcock had to change reels every 12 minutes), but in a single glorious, outrageous, complexly choreographed, epically DeMillian one. But that film, like Alexandra, which opened in New York six years later, proves somewhat esoteric, content-wise, for U.S. audiences not steeped in Kremlinology and Russo-social history. In contrast to a movie like Michael Haneke's upcoming The White Ribbon, whose historically specific message and moral can be reapplied to other cultures and time periods, the aforementioned Sokurov movies are political films that address a particular time, place and people. Their themes don't quite translate across regional boundaries.

But in his latest, The Sun (Solntse), the director turns his attention eastward to nearby Japan, ca. 1945, a promising development as investigations of Nihonese yesteryears don't feel as culturally hermetic as a walk through the Hermitage; WWII history is more familiar than that of the Bolshevik and Chechen Revolutions. The depiction of a declared deity doubting his divinity in defeat involves an element of universal understanding—humans have narrated the fall of kings since at least Ancient Greece—that's lacking from the chronicle of a tough and tender babushka's peregrinations through the rubble of Nokhchiin.

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13 November 2009

Please Please Me!

Written & Directed by: Emmanuel Mouret
Full credits at IMDb

Imagine if Woody Allen had followed Annie Hall with Take the Money and Run! Emmanuel Mouret, unfortunately, now joins the list of comic directors—Wes Anderson, Christopher Guest—who succeeded poignant, mere-comedy transcending near-masterpieces with follow-ups that signal artistic regression. Coming on the heels of the sumptuous and heartbreaking Shall We Kiss? (Un Baiser s'il Vous Plaît), the hilarious and handsomely shot Please Please Me! (Fais-moi Plaisir!)...is a goofy, mostly physical comedy about a day and night in the life of a man (Mouret) desperately seeking, a la Curb Your Enthusiasm’s fourth season, some girlfriend-sanctioned, extra-relationship relations.

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11 November 2009

Uncertainty

Written & Directed by: Scott McGehee & David Siegel
Full credits at IMDb

At the beginning of Uncertainty, a double-feature of contrasting genres edited into one peculiarly pointless movie, the central characters confront a choice that every Millennial New York couple (of means) must eventually face: Brooklyn? Or Manhattan? But filmmaking couple Scott McGehee and David Siegel don't feel compelled to make such a decision: instead, situating the lovers at a crossroads—the Brooklyn Bridge—they imagine the course of either scenario. The directing duo made their debut over 15 years ago with Suture, a master's thesis-ish film that put textbook theory up on the screen: it addressed such pressing issues as, how do we identify with characters and follow stories?, by casting what are supposed to be nearly identical brothers with actors who not only looked nothing alike, features-wise, but who were of different races-a fact all the characters seemed to ignore. Similarly, Uncertainty operates off of a meta-conceit; its dual, parallel-edited, "what if?" narratives reflect the arbitrary choices of screenwriters: where do my characters live? Are they in a conspiratorial thriller? Or a "kids-in-Brooklyn-apartments" domestic drama?

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That Evening Sun

Written & Directed by: Scott Teems
Full credits at IMDb

Like the recent Is Anybody There?, also built around a grizzled geezer who resents his placement in a care facility, That Evening Sun, a cheapjack Deep South allegory in which a clash between archetypes escalates to a fiery face-off, boasts a single virtue: the centerpiecing of a withered and weathered performer at the top of his golden-age game. While that otherwise unremarkable film gave Michael Caine a role fine enough to go out on, should he have died after the shoot, here the same is done for Hal Holbrook. Hitherto, the aged actor has had a lengthy, respectable career: he's best known for his portrayals of Mark Twain on the stage and small screen, his television turn as Lincoln, his recurring roles on Designing Women and Evening Shade, his defining Deep Throat. But it wasn't until a heartbreaking performance in the otherwise abysmal Into the Wild in 2007 that he catapulted to the top of the list of the finest working actors of his generation. He even snagged an Oscar nomination.

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30 October 2009

Halloween II (1981)

Directed by: Rick Rosenthal
Written by: John Carpenter & Debra Hill
Full credits at IMDb

...Halloween, in terms of historical stature, is in a class by itself, and comparing the sequel to it—as critics and audiences often do, dismissively—is unfair. Sure, Halloween II lacks the freshness of its predecessor. But compared to films its own size—such as the sluggish Prom Night (1980) [or Rob Zombie's remake]—it's a goddamn masterpiece.

Though Carpenter handed off directing duties to Rick Rosenthal this time around, he and frequent collaborator Debra Hill lent legitimacy to the affair by penning the screenplay, which—in the tradition of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)—opens immediately where the first film ended: Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is taken to a hospital after her climactic battle with boogeyman Michael Myers, who eventually follows, killing nursing staff and EMTs before chasing Ms. Strode through the building's (absurdly abandoned) corridors.

Rosenthal deserves more credit here than he usually gets...

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Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

Directed by: Steve Miner
Written by: Ron Kurz
Full credits at IMDb

The Friday the 13th series...[is] the sort of imitator that can tarnish the legacy of a true original. The first film in this neverending series was a crude cash-in on the Halloween phenomenon, with a little Carrie (1976) poaching for good measure. I haven't seen the original in many years, but it seems by now most of us agree it's weak, and that the big twist is a big disappointment. (The recent reboot was a mess, as well.)

Part II, on the other hand, has a soft spot in my heart: it's the quintessential 80s slasher, complete with promiscuous, plastered, post-Carter pueriles getting their reactionary deserts. Sure, it's a bit dopey (how is Jason so big if he was a boy in the last film, set five years earlier?) and sloppy (why do half the characters disappear from the film after the midway point?), but it also maintains an anchoring sense of driving logic—something that can't be said for so many of the horror movies that would follow as the decade progressed.

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Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982)

Directed by: Steve Miner
Written by: Martin Kitrosser & Carol Watson
Full credits from IMDb

Steve Miner, who produced the first film, helmed this entry as well as its franchise predecessor. Yet Part III is so inferior to Part II that we can probably blame the precipitous decline in quality largely on the screenwriters. Ron Kurz, an uncredited writer on the first film and the sole writer of the second, had bid the franchise ado by Part III, and was replaced by Martin Kitrosser and Carol Watson. (The former would go on to become Quentin Tarantino's regular script girl, er, guy.) They bring none of the second film's sensible motivation to this entry's killings: Jason's murders here are illogical and indiscriminate, heralding what we would later be able to diagnose as Rob Zombie Syndrome. In the first scene, Voorhees stalks and then murders a Lockhorns-esque couple because... well, for no reason at all. If the writers had thought to include a dog, Jason surely would have killed it, too.

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28 October 2009

Scream of Fear (1961)

Directed by: Seth Holt
Written by: Jimmy Sangster
Full credits from IMDb

Despite its histrionic title and a handful of unsettling sequences, Scream of Fear is less a horror movie than a mystery: not Carnival of Souls so much as an episode of Scooby Doo. Its alternate title, Taste of Fear, might be more accurate: just a nibble, not much more. Susan Strasberg, daughter of acting-coach legend Lee, stars as Penny, a young woman in a wheelchair who leaves Italy, after the death of her beloved nurse, to live in the South of France (rough life, kid!) with the father she hasn't spoken to in ten years. Holt begins by setting a mood of deceptive tranquility, meant to lull viewers into a calm out of which he can then unloose them: snowcapped peaks; a lakeside idyll; the swaying palms of Nice; the cricket-chirping solitude of Penny's father's baroque mountaintop manor.

That house, with its gilded moldings and ornate candelabras—all the trappings for a Victorian ghost story!—becomes the setting for Penny's unfolding and unlikely madness...

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Theater of Blood (1973)

Directed by: Douglas Hickox
Written by: Anthony Greville-Bell
Full credits at IMDb

One hesitates to write a bad word about Theater of Blood, a goofily highbrow splatterfest, given that it's a movie in which critics who file negative notices get murdered in manners most clever and classical. Vincent Price stars as Lionheart, a thespian who only played Shakespeare and never got a good review; he fakes his own death and then picks off, one by one, the circle of London critics who disparaged his star turns. Lionheart and his merry band of feral followers, mostly backalley drunks, kill each in the manner of a death scene from the Bard's folio: one is stabbed multiple times on the Ides of March, like Caesar; another by false friends, a la Hector in Troilus and Cressida; another beheaded in bed, as in Cymbeline. (A highlight: as Price saws off the critic's head, the decapitee's sedated wife moans, "You're snoring again!") This time, Shylock gets his pound of flesh! And so on.

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26 October 2009

Halloween II

Written & Directed by: Rob Zombie
Full credits from IMDb

Halloween II opens with a thrilling, bravado sequence, a tip of the celluloid hat to its predecessor: Rick Rosenthal’s unfairly underrated 1981 follow-up to John Carpenter’s overlionized original. Like The Bride of Frankenstein, both sequels begin right where the last film left off: police and paramedics arrive to the aftermath of Laurie’s showdown with Michael Myers; they take her to the hospital, he follows, mayhem ensues. But soon enough, Zombie’s back to his usual bullshit: suffocating the horror with trite, perfunctory and insincere attempts at fleshing out the characters with complex psychologies or psychological complexes.

Trying to develop the heroes (and villain) isn’t an inherent misstep. The best horror movies derive their frights by making us sympathize with the victims-to-be: if we can relate to them as ordinary people, the terrible things that will soon befall them become all the more frightening—because then, more convincingly, they could happen to us, too. (One of the best recent examples of this is Wolf Creek, which spends half of its running time getting to know its young and out-of-control Aussies. Cloverfield wasn’t so bad at this, either.) But Zombie’s characters are caricatures, from the liberal vegetarians who only eat egg white omelets (gross!) and whole-wheat pizza crusts (double gross!) to the unwashed lowlives that occupy every random strip joint and wheat field in his America.

Whether their sensibilities are red-state or blue, Myers wants them dead; an indiscriminate marauder, he kills those who are kind to him, those who are cruel, and those who haven’t done anything to him at all. He kills a strip club owner and his mistress; he kills the guy who takes out the garbage. He kills nurses and security guards. He reduces a face to a pile of Spaghetti-O’s, he bashes another into a wall repeatedly. He even kills a dog. The violence is senseless, it’s unmotivated, and it doesn’t move the plot forward; it’s bloodletting for its own sake. “Bad taste,” one character says, “is the petrol that drives the American dream.” Whatever.

But wait! There might actually be something to this movie after all. Myers spends half the film tromping through fields, on his way back to Haddonfield—he is the repressed, literally returning. “Freaks will always find their way home,” Myers’ erstwhile doctor says (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean). Myers, of course, is making the journey because his mother’s ghost—Zombie has repitched our blank-faced killer as a Jason Voorhees, a murder-monster with a major mommy mania—urges him to reunite with his long lost sister, Laurie. (Surprise!) That is, Myers’ mission is one rooted in family values—in the restoration of nuclear unity; as such, he represents the violence that underlies the suburban ethos. Family togetherness and the American Dream, Zombie posits, are only made possible by war. Myers is Operation Enduring Iraqi Freedom incarnate, which might answer why so many of his victims are working class: they’re just like those fighting men and women overseas. Grade: C-


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23 October 2009

Wild Grass

Directed by: Alain Resnais
Written by: Alex Reval & Laurent Herbiet
Full credits at IMDb

The elderly behave like adolescents in Wild Grass (Le Herbes Folles)—that goes not just for the characters, but the director as well. Based on a novel by Christian Gailly—of which the film is so enamored that it relies a bit too heavily on voice-over—the movie revolves around Georges (Andre Dussollier), who recovers a stranger’s stolen wallet and becomes pre-occupied with the owner, Marguerite (Sabine Azéma), so much so that he starts acting like a 14-year-old boy: he panics over calling her; mails her a letter, changes his mind, and tries to get it back from her mailbox. But soon his puppy crush turns to malicious infatuation, and the film becomes A Comedy of Unhealthy Obsession: he’s leaving rambling messages on her answering machine, sending letters whose pages add up to small stacks. She eventually enlists the police (including Mathieu Amalric) to repel his attentions, after which she becomes interested in him and the obsession begins anew, from the opposite direction.

Renais, an elder statesman of the New Wave who attended a post-screening press conference dressed in an overcoat that recalled another Alain—Monsieur Delon—clearly thinks that’s a bad idea: as her curiosity develops, he fills the screen with red lights, flashing sirens and red-painted sets. Generally, he directs the film with a bubbly and flamboyant style, evoking a youthful Godard or, more contemporarily, Christophe Honore at his exuberant best. Fantasies play out in clouds on the side of the screen, like comic book thought-bubbles; a woman closes a sliding door and reopens it a moment later in a different outfit. The free-spiritedness reflects a love for the old-fashioned magic of moviemaking and filmgoing—as does the occasional use of Franz Waxman’s Twentieth Century Fox theme music. On the surface, Wild Grass is about obsessive romantic love; a bit deeper, it’s about an elderly cineaste’s obsession with the movies. Grade: B+

A dispatch from the 2009 New York Film Festival.


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