30 April 2007

Happy Feet

Directed by: George Miller (with Warren Coleman & Judy Morris)
Written by: Warren Coleman, John Collee, George Miller & Judy Morris

Grade: B+

In the past few years, audiences have been inundated with a smattering of inferior animated filmfare, and for a long time—its entire first hour—Happy Feet feels like it's going to be just one more entry into those dubious ranks. As the story of a tap-dancing penguin, Mumbles, born an outcast into a society of melismatic singers, it spends far too much time mining popular music, from the Beatles to Grandmaster Flash, for obnoxious musical numbers; as with Moulin Rouge, its gaudy display of pop culture savvy is a bit exhausting, or worse—unbearable. Mumbles, ostracized from his community for his flippery flamboyance, befriends a gang of Mexican (!?) penguins from a nearby colony, led by a sassy penguin voiced by Robin Williams. (Williams also voices a preacher-penguin and, just in case you’re worried the film might not have enough Robin Williams, he also narrates. I’ll admit that Williams’ shtick, which is so often grating, has a couple of chuckle-worthy zingers but on the whole, and just like the film itself hitherto, it’s overbearing and abrasive.) The Mexicans take a shine to Mumbles because, well, Mexicans like to party I guess, and you can’t have a party without dancing.

But Happy Feet isn't all fiestas—dark waters rumble beneath its ice floes. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise, since it was directed by George Miller, the man responsible for what's regarded as the grimmest and most disturbing (children’s) movie of the '90s, Babe: Pig in the City. Mumbles' life seems in perpetual jeopardy, whether threatened in the short-term by fellow arctic creatures (eg. predatory birds, killer whales) or in the long-term by environmental degredation. As Miller stops pandering condescendingly to his intended audience around the one-hour mark, Happy Feet suddenly springs to life; the trying musical numbers stop for a while and, with a surprising twist worthy of The Twilight Zone, its darkside bubbles to the surface, and the film becomes a didactic parable on the perils of pernicious commercial fishing practices—seriously. Signs of Mother Nature's declension at the hands of rapacious human beings pervade the slickly animated surface throughout: Williams’ mystic, proselytizing penguin has a six-pack's plastic ring around his neck; a pack of seals ominiously refer to human beings as “annihilators”, noting that they kill everything they come into contact with; and through over-fishing, the polar penguin populations are starving to death.

While it looks, at first, like it'll be just another one of those standard children’s stories that disingenuously celebrates individuality over conformity, Happy Feet's moral scope is far broader. Some of the filmmakers' most vitriolic swipes are taken at political and religious conservatives, represented by the old order penguins who insist the famine is a punishment from The Great Penguin for Mumbles’ terpsichorean apostasy and the arrival of his new friends (Mexican immigrants); as such, the film's really about overcoming steadfast reactionaries, those who resolutely cling to the status quo and the old line, with creative thinking and problem solving; it's also about using our talents, artistic or otherwise, to make the world a better place. Mumbles' dancing doesn't just get him the girl—it saves his people.

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Directed by: Tod Browning
Written by: Guy Endore, Garrett Fort & Erich von Stroheim

Grade: B+

The Devil Doll, directed by Tod Browning (Freaks, Dracula), has a few things going for it aside from its reliable director; most strikingly, it has Lionel Barrymore in drag for the bulk of its running time. (If only George Bailey had known his rival's dirty secret! He may have had some leverage.) Barrymore plays Paul Lavond, an erstwhile banker framed for embezzlement, who escapes from prison along with a mad scientist, Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), who brings Lavond to his secret laboratory in the swamp to show off his incredible shrinking potion; it can transform anything—or anyone—to pint-size, and also conveniently allows the shrinker to control the shrunken's mind. The science is a little fuzzy here—free will depends on the size of our brains?—but before you could call anyone on it the scientist character is killed off (and coincidentally, shortly after filming, Walthall died in real life as well), leaving Lavond in control of his potions and ripe for revenge against the three slimy bankers who set him up, soiled his name, shamed his daughter, drove his wife to suicide, and sent him to the clink.

But, as a jail bird and Public Enemy No. 1, how can he stay in and get around Paris to exact his vengeance without being re-arrested? How about by opening a "doll" shop and dressing as a little old lady? Barrymore is a hoot, but this is a horror movie, not a comedy and, thankfully, he manages not to allow his performance to become bawdy in that Mrs. Doubtfire/White Chicks sort of way common to contemporary crossdressing films. (I know, I know, it's a tired complaint: "they don't make drag queen pictures like they used to!") In fact, he’s often so convincing throughout that it’s easy to forget it’s even him underneath that costume.

Reflecting the dual nature of Barrymore's transvestism, there's a lot of double entendre in the dialogue, such as a self-reflexive moment in the final scene as well as a conversation early in the film between Lavond and Marcel's wife. “I may not look it,” he tells her, “but I was once a successful banker.” The slumming Barrymore seems to be saying, with gravelly disappointment, “you may not be able to tell from the silly horror movie I’m in, but I used to be a respected actor of the stage.” Not even B-movies, however, could diminish Barrymore’s acting prowess, and he gets to show off his range, from his familiar Mr. Potter scowl to the sweet and funny disposition of an old woman; he is at his best in a hilarious scene in which a police officer comes to ask questions and s/he goes into hysterics. "Oh, what will the neighbors say?" he screeches in a falsetto. Indeed!

Lavond shrinks a couple of people, and uses them to kill, paralyze, and torment his foes one by one. The special effects are sophisticated, showing the miniaturized assassins with a clever combination of rear projection and oversized set design. Also notable is that The Devil Doll is somewhat class conscious, a rarity for a Hollywood film; for a slight example, while Lavond stalks his enemies as the old lady, he's constantly shooed away with disgust and disdain for being a lowly peddler. But while The Devil Doll might seem to be subversive, pro-Soviet agitprop, with its literally “little" guys exacting justice by knifepoint on wealthy and powerful bankers, it's actually moreso a subtle shade of anti-Communist, as its mini-killers are the victims of a madman's mind control. Lavond's soldiers are brainwashed slaves, like Lilliputian Manchurian candidates.

27 April 2007

Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple

Directed by: Stanley Nelson
Written by: Marcia Smith

Grade: B

On 18 November 1978, according to titles at the very beginning of Jonestown: Life and Death of People’s Temple, 909 members of Jim Jones’ American expatriate Christian cult—let’s call a spade a spade here—committed mass suicide on their compound in Guyana, named after their revered leader, by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Others, though the minority, were shot, strangled and stabbed for refusing to do so, so perhaps more accurately, all things considered, we should say that the people of Jonestown were slaughtered. (If this is all news to you, read up on it.) Those figures also don’t take into account a visiting U.S. Congressman and his retinue of aides and journalists, some of whom were shot on a tarmac that same day while trying to leave. It’s an astounding tragedy, horrifying, sickening, and any other adjective Roget can toss out that still couldn’t describe the actual revolting monstrosity of it: parents poisoning their children, including many infants, spouses killing one another, grown-children administering the toxic concoction to their elderly parents. How to wrap one’s mind around such confounding behavior?

Well, certainly not by watching Stanley Nelson’s documentary, now presented as an episode of the American Experience series. The best—and worst—part of Nelson’s film is his access to raw footage, grainy 8mm film of Jones speechifying, of happy church-members working and celebrating in Jonestown, and finally of dozens of face-down bodies scattered throughout the tropical makeshift town—Auschwitz in Kodachrome and blue jeans.

Under the confines of televisable length, Nelson’s film—which comes in at under ninety minutes—just doesn’t delve deep enough into its subjects, though certainly the massacre at Jonestown is a topic worthy of penetrating examination. First of all, in Nelson’s film Jones goes from charismatic Christian socialist icon to paranoid, self-deified killer with little explanation, other than that he was a strange child, and had started using drugs. That’s really not good enough. Secondly, Jonestown, though only on its surface, is attractive in its spirit of interracial community, and I can perhaps begin to understand why people would want to live there under Jones as their master. But to then die for him? Nelson also cuts the story off at its climax, the genocidal bloodbath, without really getting into the aftermath or how anyone survived and escaped.

Few people did so, and that’s the fundamental flaw of Jonestown. Nelson, through no fault of his own, has only a handful of survivors to interview and they offer little elucidation of the event since their response was to fight and flee for their lives. That I can relate to, but what I have trouble coming to terms with is how nearly a thousand people would give their lives and the lives of their loved ones under one madman’s orders. Unfortunately, the dead can’t speak, and the documentary is thusly very unsatisfying. (One of the most moving parts of the film is an anonymous letter left by a People’s Temple member before he killed himself, urging the world to examine what’d transpired there.) Nelson lays out the facts, and complements them with some priceless footage, such as Jim Jones showing-off his provisions to reporters—including a trunk full of Kool-Aid—but there’s a lot more to the Jonestown saga that got left out. Nelson has said, according to the IMDb message boards, that he wanted to fashion a strictly factual film that wasn’t bogged down in speculation, but what happened in Jonestown is far too complex a story to reduce successfully to its bare bones; the mystery and confusion surrounding what happened is too intertwined with the known facts to be ignored—Nelson’s Sergeant Friday approach leaves me with no better understanding of how such a thing could have happened, nor how and why it did. Maybe it’s ultimately impossible to explain such a thing, but surely we could agree that the worst possible way to try would be a PBS-style documentary made up of emotional interviews without even an author, historian or psychologist for context? Fascinating but ultimately too frustrating, Nelson’s film serves well as a simple introduction to the Jonestown conundrum, but the definitive account, the one that will be truly enlightening, is yet to be told.

24 April 2007

Syndromes and a Century

Written & Directed by: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Grade: A-

Syndromes and a Century was commissioned by a Mozart-Festival to celebrate the composer's 250th birthday, but trying to figure out what Mozart or the city of Vienna has to do with the film, even in spirit, is a problem for another day; Syndromes... is difficult enough to approach even on its most basic levels, like, "who's that guy?" or “what the heck’s going on?”

Narratively speaking, Weerasethakul is a notoriously cryptic filmmaker, and if Syndromes... isn't his most impenetrable film to date then the competition’s certainly a draw. Weerasethakul, as a filmmaker, is both quite patient and impatient; that is, he is tempered enough to usually just sit his camera down and let the actors go with minimal interference, but he has no tolerance for the confines of traditional cinematic storytelling. During the opening scene, Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram) remarks on why he quit studying pharmacy to become a doctor: "I like to see a lot of faces", to see different people and have different experiences, and Weerasethakul approaches film the same way. More often than not, I think Weerasethakul is simply delightedly distracted by his commonplace countrymen engaged in quotidian tasks. Looking over his oeuvre, I would say Syndromes and a Century shares the most in common with the rambling, quasi-documentary, narrative-as-a-game-of-telephone road movie Mysterious Object at Noon, which, like Syndromes, ends with the camera simply espying his compatriots at play. A good chunk of Syndromes... is made up of short asides that study the goings-on at a hospital, whether it's a calisthenics class, a monk struggling through a tune on the guitar, or (a different) monk getting a routine medical exam (and telling some far-out tales about chickens). Close-ups are rare in the film, as Weerasethakul tends to stay back as a neutral observer.

While far more than a glorified, cut-and-paste, ethnographical essay, Syndromes and a Century is best enjoyed by simply surrendering to its spellbinding rhythms; it bewitches from the first frame and doesn't let go, if you let it. (In an interview with The Village Voice, Weerasethakul noted that he shoots his features on film because it, unlike digital, has a certain je ne sais quoi that facilitates the hypnosis of the audience.) Syndromes... hasn't haunted my memory since I saw it, but it did, at least for the two hours it's on-screen, put me into an inescapable trance that's confounding, enshrouding and difficult to divorce. The trick is not to allow yourself to become discouraged because, while intellectually frustrating, it is subliminally invasive, coming in through the eyes and ears and tickling the subconscious. Weerasethakul's gentle style is so far from overbearing that it, misleadingly, hardly bears at all.

Like its predecessor Tropical Malady, Syndromes... is divided into two parts, which function as mirrors, sort of, of one another. It opens in a rural hospital, during a job interview. Nearly an hour later, we see essentially the same job interview with the same actors as the same characters, but this time set in an urban hospital and from the opposite camera angle. The movie starts to repeat itself but with significant differences, as though reimagining itself through a glass darkly. Where the former was tropical, the latter is metallic and cold, and while perhaps suggesting something about the alienation of modernity, I don't think it's as simple or highfalutin as that.

During the film’s first half, romances bloom as brightly as the surrounding equatorial vegetation; Dr. Nohng asks Dr. Tuey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) to marry him, and she, rather inappropriately, launches into a story about a romance between herself and a farmer, though she never finishes it. Meanwhile, a young dentist, who moonlights as a singer (his genre is “Thai country music”), develops an inchoate friendship with a monk he’s treating that may or may not be informed by homosexual desire. (When the dentist gives the monk a copy of his latest CD, it feels like a come-on, particularly since Weerasethakul has used the exchange of music as a romantic gesture before, namely the gift of a Clash mixtape in Tropical Malady.)

In the second half, however, the romance is gone, probably sucked out of the film by the steam-eating drainpipe that occupies the screen, in an uninterrupted shot, for a few minutes. The same dentist treats the same monk, but now in the context of machinery and protective masks a conversation doesn't strike, and they remain strangers. The two doctors have no talk of marriage, as Dr. Nohng spends most of the second half stealing nips with some women in a windowless room filled with prosthetic limbs. One of the women tries a religious healing of a boy with carbon monoxide poisoning, but it's unsuccessful; is it because the magic and traditions of Thailand are buried beneath layers of concrete and steel? Or, because the segment, told from Dr. Nohng’s perspective, is so sad and tired that no healing of any kind seems to be taking place? Near the end, we see most of the characters and they're all by themselves, staring into space or wandering the lonely corridors of the hollowed hospital. (However, Weerasethakul is far too much of a genuine humanist to leave things on such a sour note; the last reel or so of the film is set in a park, as it observes the Thai at play in lush green pastures and blue waters. At the end, a large group of people do aerobics, led by a ridiculous man, as an equally silly song plays, and none of it has anything to do, at least not directly, with the story. It sure is chipper, though.)

Weerasethakul has said the film is based on his imagining of his parents’ courtship before he was born, and it seems apparent that the first and second halves of the film are dedicated to his mother and father, respectively. Syndromes and a Century is a clever, tricky film about how our temperaments shape our memories—one imagines, with standard gender stereotypes in mind, Weerasethakul's mother is, at least in the director’s mind, a kind and loving woman, as her half of the film reflects that spirit of warm romance. Conversely, the father, apparently steely and cold, has a section of the film far more melancholy, though no less beautiful. Weerasethakul isn't taking sides, but speculating his way through his parents' psyches and discovering significance in the differences.

I don't want to give the impression, however, of trying to pin-down the film as this or that; too much concern about what the movie is "about" misses the point, as it's the furthest thing from Weerasethakul's mind. I'm sure he conceives a film with certain ideas and themes in mind, but he doesn't really seem to care if he finishes those thoughts. It may sound like sloppy or lazy filmmaking, but it is so genuinely felt and carefully, mesmerizingly executed that it feels instead like a new kind of freeform storytelling, stream of consciousness at its least pretentious.

Post Script: This film is banned in its native Thailand because of some rather peculiar censors; please sign the petition and support their drive not only to have the film released, but to have the censorship laws in that country overhauled:

23 April 2007


Directed by: Gregory Hoblit
Written by: Daniel Pyne & Glenn Gers

Grade: C+

In the decade and a half since his memorable turn in The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins has been getting progressively hammier in a Rod-Steiger-in-Oklahoma! sort of way, an actor whose style just seems out of place with the movies around him. It's not entirely his fault, moreso that the movies just don't have much of a place anymore for senescent thespians from the Olivier school; that is, for old-fashioned Britons. However, in Fracture, a dumb and forgettable film, he turns in a heck of a performance; though only in it for the money, he has a discernibly good time playing a charismatic madman which is, after all, demonstrably the sort of thing he does best.

It doesn't hurt, either, that playing off of him is Ryan Gosling, who despite his Canadian birth is America’s finest young actor and hands-down the most exciting performer in Hollywood today. He plays the straight man to Hopkins’ quippy loon and struggles to keep a straight face, a formidable task in itself; Hopkins, having a whale of a time, is a riot, and the two of them together, particularly in the early scenes, are an infectious blast.

The surrounding movie, however, doesn't measure up to them, as it's working off of a clumsily, lazily constructed script and led by a director who seems the type to judge the quality of a book based on the number of words and not the quality of the sentences. Fracture is way too long—many of its scenes could’ve been excised entirely, such as, say, nearly all of the first two reels that show Hopkins, some sort of pre-eminent engineer, first at the office and then up to no good sneaking around; meanwhile, his wife keeps herself busy by adulterating. When she returns home, he shoots her in the head and is soon arrested for attempted—as she remains in a coma—murder.

Gosling plays the cocksure, superstar public prosecutor assigned to Hopkins' case. He has an outgoing answering machine message that says, “It’s Willie Beachum—tell me what I need to know,” which, in its pithy arrogance, ought to tell you what you need to know about him. The case ought to be a breeze since Hopkins was arrested with a gun in his hand and subsequently signed a full confession; that’s good for Gosling, who's got one foot out the office door, ready to start his new job at an elite private law-firm—the kind of place comprised of people who “play squash and have middle names,” as Gosling's snidely informed by his idealistic boss, the always reliable David Strathairn.

But if the case against Hopkins is so open-and-shut, then why is he pleading not guilty? Well, it turns out to be a slam-dunk more of the George Tenet variety: the confiscated gun was never fired, and the detective who procured Hopkins’ confession was his wife’s lover. It's all been an elaborate—and implausible—set-up!

Though lamebrained and cockamamie from start to finish, the fine performances of the two leads, who aren't just phoning it in, hoists Fracture far above the level of comparable Halle Berry vehicles; it’s a pleasure to watch, at least until the final act when everyone starts taking themselves a bit too seriously. Hopkins oozes with the refined civility and seductive charm of Jay Gatsby—whom he recalls by relentlessly addressing Gosling as “old sport”—and his twisted and dangerous villain is exceptionally ghoulish in virtue of his intelligence, composure and sympathizability. (So you can’t blame Gosling's character, who recognizes the threat such an affable madman presents, for going a bit nuts in his obsessive dedication to nailing him, though you can blame Hoblit for letting it happen so sloppily.) Gosling, for his part, lends palpability to Willie’s crisis of conscience, as well as credibility to his transformation from self-possessed yuppie to altruistic citizen.

After its dragging intro sequence, Fracture moves along clunkily though tolerably and it’s certainly not for want of wit; it's only that, at particularly at two hours, it’s cinematic storytelling at its most mediocre, carless and far-fetched. The ingenious quality of Hopkins' scheme is more absurd than brilliant, and a romantic subplot between Gosling and his boss-to-be goes nowhere and says little. The performances make Fracture almost worth seeing, but, though I expect Anthony Hopkins to be making such movies, Gosling, at this point in his career, is really above this sort of paycheck-scoring fare. Here’s hoping he doesn’t make a Brandoesque career’s worth of third-rate movies like this one.

Mad Love (1935)

Directed by: Karl Freund
Written by: P.J. Wolfson & John L. Balderston

Grade: A-

B-moviemaking at its very finest, the efficient and compact Mad Love opens with the image of a dead man hanging from a noose. Don’t worry, it’s just a gag, yet, just like the film it appears in, the image succeeds in being spooky in spite of the light comedy that surrounds it. Peter Lorre plays Dr. Gogol, a brilliant surgeon who falls in love with a young actress, Yvonne; she is happily married, however, to Orlac (Colin Clive, of Dr. Frankenstein renown), a famous concert pianist and composer, and thusly rejects his overtures. However, when her husband is in a train wreck and has his hands crushed, she turns to Gogol for help, as he is the only man who could possibly save them. (Orlac's hands are his life!) Gogol, knowing the hands are beyond salvage but desperate for attention from the object of his affection, transplants the hands of Rollo, a recently executed killer and expert knife-thrower, onto the pianist. After a brief recovery, Orlac’s piano playing isn’t the same, though he now possesses quite the aptitude for the impalement arts. Perhaps, then, he could abandon the piano and join a vaudeville act, but according to Orlac, "the hands don't want to just throw knives—they want to kill!"

A lesser film would've pursued this angle to predictability ad nauseum, but for Mad Love, which is always frightening and surprising, it's merely a red herring; as ostentatious flowers attract more bees, such an outlandishly clever set-up is bound to attract more curious viewers—it's what got me! Though based on a French novel called The Hands of Orlac, the film is Gogol's story, and it’s his diabolical surgical-hands that you have to watch out for. Lorre brings astonishing depth to the pitiable doctor, transforming a stock mad scientist/psychotic villian into a tragic figure, a man who, as he plaintively bellows, has conquered science by who cannot conquer love. In addition, no other actor is quite as eerily unsettling as the crackly-accented Lorre. With his cold and sleepy eyes, he seems stuck in a perpetually hypnagogic state from which he occasionally, explosively bursts-forth, and it's these sudden awakenings from his trance that make the film genuinely creepy. Lorre, in the final act, brings terrifyingly hyperbolic madness to the screen as he goes crazy like Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining crazy.

Lorre alone, however, is not solely to thank for this minor masterpiece; he gets a lot of help from director Freund (who, to jog your memory, directed The Mummy and photographed Metropolis and Dracula.) The plot is a series of kooky mix-ups worthy of an Astaire-Rogers romp, but the mise-en-scene indicates a far more sinister mood, particularly with its mildly crooked set-design that feels like some sort of German Expressionism Lite. Intelligent enough to know not to get too full of himself, Freund isn't lacking for a sense of humor about the whole affair; despite that Yvonne's play is a macabre tale of black magic and torture, most of the early scenes at the theater are hilarious: for example, the ticket-seller wears an gaudy monster-mask, but the best gag is that of the coat check girl without a head. That also, however, simultaneously serves to foreshadow the upcoming and unfunny beheading of Rollo, as does the miniature guillotine on a closing-night cake for Yvonne.

Lorre's performance works in tandem with the film's rich visual symbolism, which is also thanks in large part to Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane), with Chester Lyons, on cinematography; in one of the earliest shots of Gogol, in which he is in his box at the theater watching Yvonne on stage writhe and scream in pain, his face is ominously split in half by shadow, accentuating the villainous longing behind Lorre's mad gaze. Duality is the prominent leit motif in Mad Love, expressed at one point, for example, by Gogol's drunken housekeeper's double vision but most eminently by a wax statue of Yvonne that Gogol keeps in his home. He looks on it as his Galatea, "but," as he dolefully moans, "I am no Pygmalion." The literary allusions rife in Mad Love help to elevate it above standard fare, as Gogol's unrequited love is lent depth by his ability to quote, by heart (how else?), both Robert and Elizabeth Browning. As if "Porphyria's Lover" isn't morbid enough, just try falling asleep after hearing a completely mad Peter Lorre recite it as he strangles a woman in a frenzied fit:

In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.

18 April 2007


Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: William Broyles, Jr.

Grade: B-

Like a lot of war movies, Jarhead lacks the standard three-act narrative arc common to most (American) motion pictures; I imagine that it's because war itself, at least from a soldier's point of view, lacks a neat setup-conflict-denouement structure, playing out instead as a disjointed series of random incidents. Jarhead's problem is that its scattered episodes are too many and don't really add up to too much.

Above all, Jarhead, the story of a group of Marines set during the First Gulf War, is about waiting. Gradually being rendered obsolete by technological advances, these Marines—highly trained snipers—seem to always be one step behind the battle, and thus, though they literally see plenty of action, they don't get to participate in any of it. Surrounded by conflagration and explosions, they are but inactive observers; what are they, journalists? Hell no, they're Marines (ooo-rah!), but by the time they have a shot set-up the war has moved on and, consequently, Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal, underrated) and Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, underused), despite their frequent masturbation, have a serious case of blue balls. (Sharpshooting blue balls, that is!) They're ready to kick Iraqi ass—to shoot fuckers and blow shit up—but they find themselves left protecting Saudi oil fields from nothing and no one. As Swofford explains: "We patrol the empty desert...we throw hand grenades into nowhere, we navigate imaginary minefields, we fire at nothing...this is our labor—we wait." Titles appear at the bottom of the screen that count the time-passed up to the minute.

Swoff (the film is based on the book by Anthony Swofford) et al. came to the war expecting to kill, and not having any Iraqis to shoot is a maddening anticlimax, for both solider and audience. It puts the latter in a uniquely uncomfortable position—I don't really want to sit and root for Iraqis to get a brain full of bullets, but a bit into Jarhead I felt I'd take what I could get. (I would guess that, for some soldiers, that's the nature of the war experience—keeping sane by doing what you're supposed to be doing, your job.)

The soldiers feel cheated because none of them signed on for an actionless wait. (The audience feels the same—didn't you see those trailers with the Kanye song and Jamie Foxx?) They're a generation of boys raised on movies, and their understanding of war—as action-packed set-piece—comes only from the cinema. So, Jarhead is a movie about movies. The early bootcamp sequences are brutal and, from the very first shot, blatantly recall Full Metal Jacket, from the name-calling drill seargeant to the symmetrical composition. Meanwhile the training simulations are consciously cinematic in a postmodern sort of way; a scene in which the troops are crawling through mud beneath barbed wire, with a sergeant firing shots overhead, looks like the "Making Of" featurette for another film. And the boys are always talking movies: when the oil fields are on fire, a young man asks if anyone has seen Giant; when wearing his gasmask, Troy starts doing a Darth Vader impression. As they're so amped up by a cinema-crazy (or crazy-cinema) culture, Jarhead also makes the suggestion that all war movies are inherently pro-war—in a scene from Swofford's book, a room full of Marines wildly, frighteningly cheers-on the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence from Apocolypse Now, showing that even an incelebratory and haunting picture can really get soldiers riled up for violence. (In a bit of delicious metacinema, the legendary Walter Murch edited Jarhead as he did Apocolypse Now.) They get similarly psyched for a screening of The Deer Hunter; the grisliest, goriest "anti-war" film still almost always features rousing action sequences, a sympathetic protagonist, and/or an attractive sense of comraderie, brotherhood and courage. If war is hell, it still turns boys into brave and admirable men.

But Swoff, our leading man, is not exactly your typical sensitive intellectual as sympathetic soldier; he's actually kind of unlikeable, especially since all of the bellumus interruptus is driving him insane, as in a frightening scene in which he threatens to shoot a fellow soldier. But near the end of film, Swofford whines: "are we ever gonna get to kill anybody?" And, against all better judgement, I found myself feeling sorry for him. (And for Troy as well, whose breakdown following a called-off attack is devestating.)

Maybe somehow Jarhead succeeds where other war movies fail. It's not very glamorous, it's not very glorious, it's not very anything, except of course long, uneven, and choppy, the American Pie of Desert Storm movies in which the "some" in gettin' some is a confirmed kill. Maybe Mendes should have considered that most movies contain action because it's a solid ingredient in good storytelling, particularly in war stories. That is, for a little modus tollens: if all war movies are pro-war, and you want to make a movie that's anti-war, then don't make a war movie. Jarhead is by no means bad, as it features many memorable sequences and performances; it's just not very good at tying them all together.

17 April 2007

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Jules Furthman

Grade: A

As Ninotchka was billed as, "Garbo Talks!", Only Angels Have Wings could've been billed as, "Cary Cries!" since Mr. Grant, in one of his most complex performances (to my mind, only Notorious exceeds it), actually sheds some tears of grief. He also loses his cool at one point, kicking over a chair in furious fit. For the debonair and always upright actor, it's an uncharacteristic film.

Uncharacteristic in more ways than one. Only Angels Have Wings sports an unusual (for a '30s movie) opening scene that's long and hardly bothers to get the plot moving, dawdling instead in a set piece that introduces and extensively develops the characters. (Only Angels... is a rarity—a successfully character-driven action movie.) The adorably squeaky Jean Arthur is on a sea voyage with a stopover in Panama, where she quickly pals up with some fellow Americans who are down there flying planes—delivering mail, mostly. Two guys congenially fight over who gets to buy her a steak; though Joe wins, before he can say "medium-well" the boss, Cary Grant, sends him off on a flight. The weather's bad and, in his hurry to make it back for dinner, Joe's plane crashes, sending Arthur into hysterics, especially when no one else seems to care. "What's the use of feeling bad about something that couldn't be helped?" asks Grant, ordering his men to see if he's alive (he's not) but also, more importantly, to retrieve the mail.

Is Grant really so cold and unsentimental? When Arthur reprimands them for going about their business without properly mourning Joe, they all reply, "Joe who?" That tears it, and a fight breaks out between she and Grant in which he briefly takes off his mask to snap at her: "You feel like bawlin', hun? How do you think we feel?" But men don't get nowhere by crying, so instead they have one hell of a party. Arthur pulls herself together and rejoins the guys. "Grow up yet?" Grant asks her. "Hope so," she replies with a smile before working the piano like she was Dooley Wilson.

The pilots are like soldiers, risking their lives on dangerous missions and leaving the women behind to worry; primarily, Only Angels Have Wings is an examination of the nature of fraternity, in the strictly literal male sense, thrown out of a balance by the introduction of a woman. Arthur falls for Grant but The Kid (Thomas Mitchell, always amazing) warns her, "he's a good guy...for girls to stay away from!" Still, Arthur can't help herself and Grant, against his better judgment, falls for her too, but they won't get together until: (1) Arthur stops being so emotional, and (2) Grant cuts out all the tough-guy posturing. In short, until they meet half-way and—in broad, stereotypical terms—she acts like a man and he acts like a woman. (A decade later, Grant and Hawks would take this a step further in their tribute to transvestitism, I Was a Male War Bride.)

Grant, Arthur and Mitchell all came from screwball comedies—the latter two went on six months later to memorably fill-out Frank Capra's masterpiece Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—and together they bring moments of levity to an otherwise dark film, moments that would've been lost with an actor like Bogart in the lead. What's remarkable is that the cast never fumbles with the story's grim side—even Mitchell, often the disposable comic-sidekick, gets his own dead-serious dramatic scene, and he pulls it off marvelously.

Funny Games (1997)

Written & Directed by: Michael Haneke

Grade: A-

Condescending, pedantic and powerful, Funny Games is essentially an essay on film theory, masquerading as a narrative film, that hopes to challenge the way in which we process movie violence. It opens with a family on a drive, playing a game of "Name that Tenor" as the mother, Ana (Susanne Lothar) and father, Georg (Ulrich Mühe) take turns tossing on various CDs. "Bjoerling?" "Obviously, but what's the aria?" Obviously? Obviously, these are some pretty bourgeois folks, civilized and genteel to a fault. Haneke abruptly interrupts their arias with some John Zorn screamrock, foreshadowing the puncturing violence to come.

When Peter (Frank Giering), who professes to be a houseguest of the neighbors, stops by the family's lakehouse and asks to borrow some eggs, Ana lets him in without a second thought. After all, the neighbors are their friends, and friendly people help a friend in need. But the benign scene turns increasingly tense—enhanced by Haneke's camera that won't cut away—in an absurd-in-its-banal-believeability sort of way, as Peter breaks the eggs, drops their phone in a sink full of water, and breaks some more eggs. The situation escalates as Peter demands even more eggs and another boy, Paul (Arno Frisch), comes over; soon Peter and Paul have taken the family hostage inside their own home, breaking Georg's knee and scaring the bejesus out of little Georg, Jr.

Even though most of the actual savagery takes place off-screen, the physical pain and psychological torment inflicted on the victims is horrifyingly severe; the third fourth of the movie unsparingly examines the effects of violence, as the characters interrupt long actionless stretches with spontaneous vomiting, emotional collapses and heartbreaking breakdowns. Georg's moans of anguish mid-way through the movie are some of the most awfully visceral expressions of hurt I've ever seen on film.

But Funny Games is more than just a violent thriller; it's an exorbitantly self-conscious film that analyzes itself and the audience as it moves along. While waiting for the family to get their revenge, and for their sociopathic tormentors to get their comeuppance, Haneke, in effect, asks the audience what eaxctly we're waiting for. More violence? Really? Why? Not exactly some pacifist polemic, nor a rebuke of the self-defense imperative, Haneke's film simply asks us to ask ourselves why we ever see film violence as theraputic or cathartic; after all, wouldn't we would be far less likely to consider actual violence in the same way? This comes to a point when Haneke gives the audience exactly what they're craving, only to obnoxiously take it away. (I apologize for the opacity but I'm trying not to give too much away.) Bloodshed shouldn't inspire an ovation, and Haneke makes his intended audience, those who would applaud retributive brutality, feel embarrassed. Well, or bitterly frustrated. It's easy to get defensive and ask, "who the heck does this Haneke fella think he is?" but the film ought to inspire at least an introspective reevaluation and/or an enlightening discussion, even amongst those who would disagree with Haneke's assertions. As I've heard fans of the film say, "I never looked at violence in movies the same way again." Funny Games often provokes feelings of guilt and, while I'm sure that we may not want to watch movies that criticize us for watching them, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't. Sometimes even jerks have important points to make.

I'm not saying, with blind devotion, that Haneke is as infallible as the Pope and everybody better listen up; his arguments have their vulnerability, and his weakest point is one expressed by Paul, who propounds near the film's conclusion that what you see in a film is "just as real as the reality which you see likewise." Certainly the idea that the reality of a fiction is as real as reality itself is contestable, but at least Haneke, for his part, makes the effort to destroy the illusory quality of his own film, not least of all by breaking down the fourth wall and allowing Paul to speak directly to us, as well as by commenting on the film itself through the dialogue. While Paul is chasing Georg, Jr. through a dark and empty house, he says, "hold on, I'll put some music on for us," and slips in a CD that changes the tone of the scene, a smirkable comment on the manipulation of the image and the rousability of soundtrack. Even more biting, though, is when Ana asks her tormentors, "why don't you kill us right away?" to which Peter replies, "Don't forget the entertainment value. We'd all be deprived of our pleasure." And on the most basic level Funny Games is a satisfying thriller, so Haneke's got a point-what the hell is wrong with us?

Death of a President

Directed by: Gabriel Range
Written by: Simon Finch & Gabriel Range

Grade: C+

Because it's an account of the hypothetical assassination of sitting-President George W. Bush, Death of a President inspired some manufactured controversy upon its release . Banned from theaters across the U.S. before it was even released, it's clear that none of the censors even took the time to actually watch the damn thing. The filmmakers clearly anticipated many of the obvious criticisms and went out of their way to avert them...and then went out of their way to avoid offending anyone they might have offended by trying not to offend anyone. The final product is a pointless, mildly offensive film that tries so hard to be neutral that it leans to the right.

In October 2007, the film makes believe, Mr. Bush was giving a speech to a group of small-business leaders in Chicago and, all along his motorcade route, of course, he was met by crowds of protestors. Though the actors-playing-talking-heads carefully and incessantly note that free assembly is a protected constitutional right, the protestors are portrayed as 10,000 riot-inciting anarchists, both violent and senseless. Bush, however, solid as a rock, according to his adoring speech-writer, calmly sits in his stalled and threatened limosuine. "I respect their opinions," she recalls him saying, "I just wish they would demonstrate peacefully." That George Bush, the last reasonable man on Earth!

(The protestors are then even accused of being against the troops, as one interviewed veteran who didn't march notes of them, "those people don't look at us as heroes.")

Following the speech, Bush is shot by an assassin in a neighboring high-rise. He is rushed to the hospital where, during a brief press conference, we're told that though the President is in critical condition, "the doctor says he's never seen such a strong heart on a man the president's age." All right, that's enough. But it then goes so far as to present President Cheney—a phrase with a spine-chilling ring—as another man of sober reason. "Hey, I know you're busy," he is said to have told the investigating FBI agent, "just look into this suspect you've got a little closer, please, you know, if you can."

The first half-hour, despite all its bullshit politics and glowing portraits of all the wrong people, is not only visually convincing but grippingly tense. The mixture of different film stocks, combining footage from security cameras, shaky digital handhelds, and actual speeches—all laced, when necessary, with digital effects—lends it a remarkable verissimilitude. My roommate wandered into the living room a few minutes after I'd put it on and, not knowing what I was watching, jumped when Bush got hit: "Oh! I didn't know any of this happened, that someone took a shot at Bush!"

But as it goes on it loses steam, thanks in no small part to its introduction of a lot of caricatures and stereotypes, including a black, unemployed vet in standard issue down-on-his-luck wear. ("Hey could we interview you for a documentary?" "Sure, let me put my hobo clothes on.") It becomes a bland investigation into the killing, a soporific procedural that leaves you wondering what the moral of the story is. Why take a politically soaked issue and wring it of all politics except a few cheap shots? Why make a movie if you've got nothing to say? If George Bush were really assassinated in October 07, this would be a pretty poor document of the event and the subsequent investigation, barely worthy of the History Channel. The fact that it's made-up makes it inexcusably useless.

So, did the Arabs do it? Cos if they didn't, I bet it was the blacks. (Actually, I'd suspect a Karl Rove publicity stunt.) In its last reel it attempts to give itself some anti-war credibility, albeit in a magnetic yellow ribbon kind of way, but it's an ineffective critique. Exhausted and worn-out by that point, the film still finds the energy to take a swipe at Cindy Sheehan. I mean, really, what is this movie's fucking problem?

The only possible explanation I can come up with is that Gabriel Range lost his mind and started to believe he was documenting a true story; he even puts up titles before the end-credits to let us know where everyone in the film is today. Uh, buddy, that's enough already. Just like his apparent hero George Bush, I think he started to actually believe his own bullshit.

11 April 2007

The Lookout

Written & Directed by: Scott Frank

Grade: B

There are character-driven dramas and there are heist pictures, but rarely are there ever both, equally, together. Of course, any worthwhile safecracking flick's going to sport skilled character development—The Killing comes immediately to mind—but no character drama needs, necessarily, a bank robbery. The Lookout is a thoughtful rumination on the lives of a handful of brokedown men that features, somewhere in its margins, a looming crime, but, unfortunately for us, veteran screen-writer and first-time director Scott Frank veers off-course in the last act and the film suffers irredeemably for it.

A lonely, guilt-ridden shell of a man, Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the erstwhile BMOC of his high school, a small-time celebrity on skates whose tough-guy bumper sticker would bully any lily-livered egghead who might happen upon it: "Give blood—Play Hockey." In the present, however, he suffers from debilitating brain damage, the result of a car accident—for which he was responsible—that left two friends dead and his girlfriend legless. "Look how beautiful the fireflies are," he muses (I paraphrase) to his beau with the headlights turned way down low, just before slamming into a stalled semi. Right away, The Lookout gives arrogance its comeuppance, though it also, rather curiously, seems to unduly punish an endearing romantic impulse. For a lovingly optimistic film, it opens with a cynical one-two.

Recalling Memento, Chris now barely makes it through his daily routine, eking out an existence thanks mostly to the notes that he leaves for himself ("take a shower...with soap!"); however, tasks that pop-up unexpectedly, no matter how humdrum, easily have the power to outwit him—when his blind roommate, Lewis (Jeff Daniels), asks him to heat up some tomato sauce, he can’t remember where the can opener is and winds up trashing the kitchen in a furious act of frustration. (There’s an electric one on the counter that even the man with no eyes can find.)

Gordon-Levitt's seizures of loneliness, embarrassed confusion and disgruntled rage further cement his reputation as one of the top actors of his generation, and it's his performance, buttressed by those of his co-stars, that really makes the film worth the ticket-price. (Although, as much as I enjoyed Brick, I'd still sooner swoon over Ryan Gosling any day.) Chris, a night janitor at a bank with modest dreams of becoming a teller, runs into former classmate and from-afar admirer Gary (Matthew Goode)—at least, that's who Gary claims to be—in a bar, over an O’Doul’s. Goode is a joy to behold on-screen, and he brings to The Lookout the same ensnaring charisma he brought to Match Point, though here it's of a far more sinister vein. It turns out that Gary belongs to a gang of thieves, casing Chris’ bank and in need of his help to execute a robbery. As Lewis says early in the film, “stories are what help us make sense of the world,” and Gary is able enlist Chris’ reluctant assistance by telling him a really good story, offering him not only money and the aptly-named Luvlee Lemons (Wedding Crashers’ Isla Fisher) but power; “I just wanna be who I was,” Chris confesses early in the film, and though Gary can't give him his brain back, he offers Chris independence and control over the life he lost, an offer all too tempting to refuse.

Frank's debut behind the camera (rather than off to the side somewhere) is, for a while, a fresh take on the heist picture because the first two acts are devoted almost exclusively to Chris, slowly developing who he is and what he was: meet his family, his roommate, his case worker, his boss, his co-workers. In fact, even calling it a "heist picture" during its first two-thirds would be inappropriate, as the film cleverly plays as a character drama with a heist on the side. My favorite scene was somewhere in the film's middle, when Chris goes to visit the gang of thieves at their farmhouse hideout for a proper Thanksgiving dinner. Milling about, and only fleetingly glimpsed, is a confused old man, finally taken away by a scary, silent man in sunglasses. Are they occupying someone's home, and holding him hostage? That could be a whole movie unto itself, but Frank keeps it subtly in the background. After all, less concerned with criminal goings-on, he is interested only in his beloved Chris. But, as the caper comes to overpower the narrative in the third act—as plot overtakes character—Frank loses his way, allowing the proceedings to unforgiveably descend, starting with the climactic crime itself that features a cheaply manipulative development, into formulaic hokum. It's an awkwardly inorganic change of course, but a valuable lesson: if you want to make a movie about a robbery, put it at the forefront; if you want to make a movie about people, don't get them caught up in a silly robbery.

09 April 2007


Directed by: Mark Dornford-May
Written by: Mark Donford-May, Andiswa Kedama & Pauline Malefane
Original Libretto by: Ludovic Halévy & Henri Meilhac
Music by: Georges Bizet!

Grade: A

When musicals work, on stage or screen, it’s usually only when foregrounded against stylized, artificial backdrops. A musical shouldn't lead you to think that it's set in the real world because in real life people don’t spontaneously burst into song—at least not with full orchestral accompaniment. U-Carmen subverts this practiced standard by staging the classic opera in the actual streets of South Africa, but the film still triumphantly succeeds in virtue of the fact that the shanty township looks like a fantasy-world, as far removed as it is from my everyday experience. Lamentably, perhaps, modern-day Africans are as exotic to today's average American as gypsies must’ve been to Georges Bizet over a century ago.

The location shooting is at first disorienting, and it takes a reel or two to become accustomed to the dizzying handheld cameras and the outrageous juxtaposition of the theatrical with the authentic. But the technique is soon bewitching and exhilarating as Dornford-May imbues the proceedings with a boisterous joie de vivre, thanks in large part to interspersing indigenous music into Bizet’s score and retaining the diegetic sound during the musical numbers. (For example, during the famous, incomparable Habanera, we hear the other cigarette girls as they cheer Carmen on with hoots and hollers, creating the impression that the singing is live and not lip-synched.) The exotica of both styles of music surprisingly complement one another exceptionally; setting the opera in a Khayelitsha ghetto serves, on the one-hand, as a telling contrast between Africa and the West, but because it works so well U-Carmen ultimately proves our musical traditions share, at the very least, a common essence.

When not toe-tappingly life affirming, the film brings to the screen the tragic opera's devastating despair, of a rarefied degree seldom felt on the stage; Dornford-May has the privilege of the close-up, as well as a complex performance from Pauline Malefane in the title role that oscillates between bitchy manipulation and heartbreaking tenderness. Dornford-May & Co. accomplish something truly remarkable—they transform Carmen, the famous antiheroine, into an achingly admirable and sympathetic character. When she surrenders her life in a courageous celebration of freedom, it is poignant and touching, rather than a cheerable act of vengeance.

U-Carmen takes its liberties with the repertorial opera in terms of the story and chronology, as well as by truncating the score; but, though the flashbacked backstories involving Jongi (Don Jose) are a bit unnecessary, the film—like any good translation—is merely changing the words, so to speak (and literally, as it translates the libretto into Xhosa, with all its unusual pops and clicks), while preserving the spirit of the source text. Even a masterpiece like Carmen, the crown jewel of Western culture, can benefit from a fresh and smart reinterpretation. U-Carmen is a radical cinematic and musical experiment, and a breathtaking success.

The Parallax View (1974)

Directed by: Alan J. Pakula
Written by: David Giler & Lorenzo Semple, Jr.

Grade: C+

The Parallax View is regarded as a paragon of the ‘70s paranoid political thriller, but, make no mistake, it is no taught, thrilling procedural along the lines of All the President’s Men—it’s an uneven bore that's as incredibly dated as Warren Beatty's haircut.

Thematic and pellic obsolescence seem to be a real problem for many Warren Beatty movies (I'm thinking of the abysmal Shampoo); as a colleague, Clayton White, told me recently: "They might have been big in their time, but most of them need to stay in their time." Beatty plays Joe Frady, who mostly uses aliases throughout the film, a two-bit journalist present at the assassination of a prominent Senator. The murder is declared, familiarly, the work of a lone, crazed gunman, but several years later many of the other people who were present start dying, whether from seemingly benign accidents or natural causes. At first, Frady is satisfied that everything is as they say and the unusual deaths are mere coincidence.

But when a fellow journalist and assassination attendee dies immediately after fortelling her own death, Frady decides to dig a bit deeper, and soon unearths a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of…the Parallax Corporation; well, that's just a cheap cop-out, a free pass to the CIA et al., that allows the film to avoid directly indicting the US government as complicit in the assassinations of the late 1960’s. The best part of the movie, though, is the classic Parallax training video that bifurcates the film, a staccato photocollage that examines the natures of, and relationships between, the concepts of self, family, country, and religion. It’s some serious, subversive Kuleshev shit.

The world of the film, in which superficially innocuous surfaces are far more sinister once you dig a bit deeper, is perfectly reflected by Gordon Willis’ gorgeous photography, the movie’s strongest point, that features bright exteriors and shadowy interiors. Willis also captures the ominous threat posed by the colossal Parallax Corporation by commonly shooting Beatty against enormous man-made artifices, be it a dam or a glass-paneled office building. (It's a visual motif that should be familiar from the same year's far superior examination of paranoia, The Conversation.) Beatty's pit himself against forces far larger than the inquiring individual.

But the first half of the movie simply plays out as a corny action movie, brimming with car chases, feral fist fights and, everyone’s favorite, big explosions! (Whereas the recent film Shooter is playfully aware of its fundamental stupidity, The Parallax View is unduly conceited, taking itself far too seriously to the point of approaching unintended kitsch.) The second half is far superior, primarily comprised of two long, tense assassination set pieces: one an aborted attempt at blowing up an airplane; the other, trouble at a political rally dress rehearsal. They're paradigms of dialogueless, suspenseful filmmaking, but they’re awkwardly stuffed into a senseless, flimsy, confusing (it felt like a reel or two were missing) film that adds up to little other than: don’t trust the Warren Commission. Well, duh.


Written & Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell

Grade: D+

Shortbus opens with a New York City maquette at once crude and charming, with its conspicuously phallic skyscrapers, that conveys a clear message to the audience—the film you are about to see is not set in New York, but in “New York”. With its bouncy comedy, melodramatic histrionics and stylized backdrops, Shortbus feels like it ought to be a musical, and yet its inhabitants never break into song. (The only exception might be the occasional singing that takes place at the eponymous nightclub that is the film's central setting.) The impression is further buttressed by the opening sequence, which introduces its leads by cutting back and forth between them like the "Quintet" in West Side Story; instead of innocuously singing, however, the characters are wantonly fucking.

Shortbus' claim to fame is that, rather than just the usual musical number, it features a lot of actual sex; during the introduction we’re treated to a formidable attempt at autofellatio, a spiky-haired dominatrix wiping down a large pink dildo as she whips a hipster, and a couple banging out an atonal tune on the piano as they bang one another. Though, by the film’s end, the sex has faded from the foreground, its inclusion at all still comes across as a cheap cry for attention; not only that, Mitchell tries to use sex as a conduit for discovering emotional depth in the characters and the story that simply isn’t there.

Like Mutual Appreciation—which was at least aesthetically appealing—Shortbus is another whiny movie about transplanted, solipsistic New Yorkers, the sort that move here to work on their art (sigh), get laid, and drive up rents. In some ways, it also bears similarity to Woody Allen's Manhattan, only absent all charm, wit, and intelligence. (But plus graphic sex!)

The story revolves around a group of characters whose common connection is a Brooklyn sex-club called "Shortbus", a super sexparty where there’s always an orgy going down right around the corner. “It’s like the ‘60s,” Shortbus’ androgynous, Joel-Grey-reminiscent MC (Justin Bond) remarks, “only with a lot less hope.” There’s an insufferable sex therapist, Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), who can’t have an orgasm; James and Jamie (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy, respectively), a couple reluctantly looking for other lovers who awkwardly wind up welcoming the adorable Ceth (Jay Brannan) into their relationship; and a dominatrix named Severin (get it? You know, “Venus in Furs”?), played by Lindsay Beamish, who just wants to settle down into a normal life.

Shortbus is far more bearable when the obnoxious and superunlikable Lee is off-screen, but it's always rather rib-nudgingly overbearing, like an inappropriate uncle telling dirty jokes at Easter, not least of all in a scene in which Sofia sticks a remote-controlled, vibrating egg into her vagina. It’s a total miss that goes on way too long and never provokes a laugh, but then again the self-satisfied film is rarely ever actually funny. “Someone came on your cat,” a partygoer tells Justin Bond; when everyone giggles, he replies, “It’s not funny"—you could say that again; ready for this?—"oh why can’t they leave my pussy alone?”

The most notorious scene involves a homosexual ménage-a-trois during which an impromptu performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” erupts, with Jamie screaming the anthem into Ceth’s ass and Ceth gripping James’ penis like a microphone. (It's a glorious statement of American freedom, but at the same time it also points out that a total lack of artistic restrictions, i.e. self-censorship at the very least, can often yield self-indulgent balderdash like the very film we're watching. If anything, Shortbus functions, unintentionally in light of its absolute failure, as an indictment of unmitigated liberty.)

Across the way, watching from an open window, is Caleb (Peter Stickles), a camera-toting voyeur whose incredulous, wide-eyed stare that registers both repulsion and attraction makes him a perfect stand-in for audience and director alike. The writer-director eventually, and audaciously, allows himself, through Caleb, to enter the narrative in order to literally save a character's life, and by the end he is lucky enough to have buddied-up with Ceth, by far the cutest boy at Shortbus.

You can't blame Mitchell for giving himself that last one, but you can blame him (because he is, ultimately, wholly responsible) for this obnoxiously overwrought film. Shortbus dares to confront sexuality frankly and honestly, but that doesn’t make it any less sensationalistic. I get it, Americans (and the MPAA) are repressed, but trying to point that out in a goofy, smug, caricatural film won’t teach anyone anything, only reaffirm what they already suspect: New York City is chockablock with superfags and sinners.

Let me be clear: Shortbus neither shocks nor offends me with its sexual candor, but rather bores and irks me with how rebellious it superciliously sees itself. Everything is neatly summed-up, for me, in a closet, in a conversation between James and Severin during a Seven-Minutes-in-Heaven that's more like a brief stay in purgatorical limbo:

“Hey, you’re an artist,” James points-out to the Polaroid-toting Severin.
“Yeah," she humbly replies, "I suck.”
“Yeah, me too,” aspiring filmmaker James says with a laugh.
Yeah, you too, John Cameron Mitchell.

03 April 2007

Memories of Murder

Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Written by: Bong Joon-ho, Kwang-rim Kim, Sung Bo Shim

Grade: A

Loosely based on the events surrounding South Korea's first serial killings, which remain unsolved, at least as of this writing, Memories of Murder would make a perfect double-feature with Zodiac, even though in many ways it's like the anti-Zodiac. The two movies, in their own ways, recreate the hunt-for-the-killer pic; but while Fincher's masterful drag-out attacks the genre by chipping away at its heart, Memories of Murder retains the genre's foundations while redressing its peripherals. That is, Bong revitalizes the serial-killer movie by taking the essence of the form and nailing it spot on with distinctive élan, creating, despite the somewhat tired premise, a genre film that largely eschews the generic.

The early scenes are unexpectedly laugh-out-loud funny, as in one early, virtuosic, uninterrupted sequence in which Inspector Park (Kang-ho Song) can't keep his crime scene under control, nor his evidence from being destroyed. (While everyone who enters the scene slips and falls down a small hill.) At first, Memories plays out as a farcical procedural that's silly but yet never goofy. As the film progresses, though, the lighthearted approach is outstripped by a building sense of frustration and anxiety; the film sheds its slapstick skin as the murders recapture their rightful solemnity (although Park's partner repeatedly dropkicks suspects throughout the movie, and every time it's hilarious), suggesting that the humor was something of a defense mechanism for dealing with the grisly nature of the crimes that ultimately proves itself ineffective. This is serious, after all—one of the slain women's vaginas is stuffed with sliced peaches; that's so funny that it's not funny anymore. As one of the actors intones on the DVD special features, Bong "made this movie with a sincere heart" and its earnest prevails.

At the film's core is a comment on contemporary culture clash, a divide between Korea's urban areas and its rural regions, where the film is set. (Though pinning down the film as a mere struggle between two ways of life in the modern world would be an inaccurately incomplete representation; it's only one piece of a multifarious film.) After the bodies start to pile up, Inspector Suh (Sang-kyung Kim) arrives from Seoul to aid in the investigation. The locals view him with a contemptuous resentment—he's got a degree from a four-year college, while Park's partner spent four years in the ninth grade. Suh, the model of a modern police officer, sums up his outlook with a catch phrase repeated throughout the film: "documents never lie." But even when he takes charge, properly preserving evidence and sending off clues to America for scientific analysis, he still yields no leads. Inspector Park, meanwhile, thinks himself something of a psychic, and seems to spend more time staring into people's eyes and trying to frame a dunderhead than actually investigating the case. While both inspectors' intentions are noble, their arrogance, which proves unfounded in the face of an unsolved case, helps turn them into ambivalently sympathetic characters. More to the point, every character and every way of life presented in the film is flawed and somewhat unlikable, the lack of clear heroes fashioning the sort of knotty drama Hollywood seldom has the derring-do to make anymore.

But Hollywood itself figures as a large part of the investigators' problem—the film's most interesting criticism is of exported American culture, despite mimicking, to an extent, American film. (Ultimately I think it's fair to say that it finds a language all its own.) While containing some implicit critiques of Korea—like in a later scene in which the detectives believe they know when the killer is going to strike again but the government won't lend them extra men to help because they need them to suppress a political demonstration—the film is more conspicuously critical of the United States, subtly suggesting that serial killing itself is a smuggled-in Americanism; meanwhile, the ineffective police officers consciously behave like American-movie cops, vacillating between the bungling Keystone variety and the Dirty Harry-style vigilante. At one point, while coercing a suspect's confession, a police officer says, "This time, be realistic, like in a movie." In the end, Memories of Murder is about characters who tragically think they're in an American film, when in fact they're actually, helplessly, in Gyeonggi Province, facing a homicidal sociopath with no such cinematic pretensions. When the clues don't add up to a neat denouement, it's devestating for them, and for us.

02 April 2007

The Bridesmaid

Directed by: Claude Chabrol
Written by: Claude Chabrol, Pierre Leccia

Grade: A-

Near the end of The Bridesmaid a lot of shit’s hit the fan and, as two characters conclude a conversation in a park and walk-off camera, a policeman passes in the background, steps in a pile of dog feces, wipes his foot quickly and hurriedly walks off. Merde, c’est merde!

It seems like nobody but nobody can catch a break in The Bridesmaid, a film that starts off strikingly ordinary and ends up quite creepy and bizarre. It opens with a trio of siblings going to meet their mother’s new beau, but the plot point is something of a red herring (though nothing in Chabrol’s snug story is accidental.) The film is soon taking twisty, sinister turns; the first truly important narrative event occurs about a third of the way into the film, when Philippe (Benoît Magimel), a garden variety mama’s boy, meets a bridesmaid in his sister’s wedding party, a woman who calls herself Senta (Laura Smet). She is a gorgeous, anthropomorphic tigress, and Philippe gives her the I-want-to-eat-you-eyes from the first time he sees her; soon enough, they are tied up in a steamy love affair, limbs entwined in Senta’s dungeon apartment.

But Senta isn’t some putain from the street corner; she wants a commitment from Philippe and she comes on psychostrong about it. When she tells Philippe that the only way to experience true love is to have done four things—written a poem, planted a tree, killed someone, and had a homosexual experience—you have a pretty good idea that nothing good is going to come of the relationship. Really? A poem?

Thankfully, Chabrol spares us any awkward attempts at struggling rhymes, but he does lead us to bear witness to a deeply disturbing series of developments. Chabrol creates a mood of increasingly unbearable tension not by moving along a plot but by developing his characters, and being trained to watch movies in somewhat the opposite way the anxiety sort of sneaks up on you. Chabrol is masterful enough to build the suspense so steadily and slowly that you barely notice it rising up, like a child who, because you see him every day, doesn’t appear to age and yet gets bigger every day.

Figuring in the middle of all this is Flora, a stone bust of a woman who loosely resembles the mother, with whom Philippe has what should be to the audience a troubling relationship; when they speak to each other, they are a little too close for my comfort. (And I don’t think it’s just a French thing.) The bust is given as a gift from the family to the mother’s suitor, a passing on of her love from them to him. But when he drops out of the picture, Philippe takes it back. Well, he steals it back, and then he notices how much it resembles Senta, who, by the way, wears his mother’s bathrobe right before they make love for the first time. Later, when Philippe is in bed kissing the stone face, whom does he wish he were osculating—Senta, or his mother? Or is Senta just the venereal mama-figure he always wanted, and Flora the blank canvas on which to project it?

For a film with such a morbidly sour view of “family”, at least three other “Chabrols” turn up in the credits, making the film, ironically, a family affair. (Most notably, Claude’s son, Matthieu, contributes a fantastic score that subtly complements every scene with reserve and old-fashioned elegance.) Ostensibly a distressing psychological portrait of two lunatics in love, the film places that story within the context of a world that’s falling apart. The little sister is arrested for theft and accused of kleptomania; a man is found strangled on the docks; and, as we gather from televised news reports, a girl has gone missing, presumed kidnapped and killed—not to mention the hijinx of our two protagonists. Kids today! Chabrol’s cranky weltanschauung may betray his old age, but The Bridesmaid is still stinging, fresh filmmaking from a practiced master continually churning out superior work. Some people are just lucky; they get famous and then fade away. Others are genuinely talented and don’t ever burn out, making great art for the world until the day they die.


Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Written by: Jonathan Lemkin

Grade: B

Mark Wahlberg, as Bob Lee Swagger, explodes a lot of heads throughout Shooter via pinpointed sniper shots, while the film itself figuratively does the same to the audience—Shooter blew my mind! Well, not really, but I was surprised to have enjoyed it so much, as well as to see a made-for-the-multiplex film so slightly, subversively, and subtextually driven by the belief that America was lied to about what happened on September 11th. Early on, Swagger is in his deep-in-the-woods cabin, drinking his coffee and surfing the web. “What lies are they trying to sell us today?” he asks his dog, as, significantly and not accidentally, a copy of the 9-11 Commission Report sits on the desk next to him. Fuqua and Lemkin come across as wildly mistrustful of every governmental organization and livid about the state of current events, but how best to convey that to an audience of knucklenecks, especially when you yourself are something of a numbskull?

Easy: tell a dumb story with a lot of loud explosions—Shooter plays out like Three Days of the Condor with a lobotomy. Swagger, whose tripartite name is meant to recall Lee Harvey’s, is a former Marine living in exile after a tragic stint in Ethiopia; he’s visited by a shady Colonel Johnson (Danny Glover, with an irritating and distracting lisp) and his goons in an attempt to recruit him to help prevent an assassination attempt on the president. Reluctantly, with the faintest surviving glimmers of patriotic duty (you can take the man out of the Marines but you can’t take the Marine out of the man), he agrees. Turns out he’s intended to be a patsy; while the president isn’t hit—an Ethiopian archbishop standing next to him is—Swagger, who’s been thoroughly set up for the crime, is shot by an Officer Timmons (whose name is obviously meant to recall J.D. Tippit’s) and falls quite a few stories though happily survives, recuperates, and kills a whole lot of people on the road to revenge.

But wait, why did they want to kill an Ethiopian archbishop of all people? Well, who cares? I certainly don’t and I don’t believe the filmmakers really do either; the brief explanatory scene comes across as a grudging obligation, akin to taking a girl out to dinner before she’ll sleep with you. Accordingly, that scene is followed by an orgasmic display of thoughtless violence, replete with an abundance of big, noisy blasts.

Shooter is madly furious and bitterly cynical, accurately reflecting the political frustrations of its time (despite its heavy borrowing from the JFK assassination legend), namely the public's despondency over a cabal of corrupt politicians who won’t get their goddamn comeuppance! While its September 11th paranoia and general suspicions of conspiratorial perfidy may smack of left-wing-protestor politics, the film’s spirit of gun-toting individualism belies a conservative core; perhaps we could say that Shooter is so far to the right, it winds up on the left. Essentially, though, it’s just a very angry film absent party-affiliation, with passionate speeches about issues like Abu Ghraib scapegoating and snide remarks about the Office of the President; when Col. Johnson asks, "Do we let a group of thugs run this country?", in reference to the supposed assassins, Swagger replies, "Yeah, some years we do." (Ultimately, though, it merely resorts to a lot of name-calling: according to Swagger, Col. Johnson’s a “son of a bitch”, while Ned Beatty’s oily Senator—the Dick Cheney stand-in—is a “sick fuck”.) As with the scene in Joe Dante’s Homecoming wherein the film’s Casey Sheehan surrogate shot the Karl Rove surrogate in the face, Shooter is best appreciated as a release for Americans who feel impotent in their ability to affect the political process. When shit is fucked, fuck shit up, and who better to act that out through vicariously than Mark Wahlberg? Swagger even gives some bad Americans a taste of their own medicine when he fries them with napalm bombs—take that, assholes!

If Shooter were a courageous film of the Empire Strikes Back or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service variety, it wouldn’t have its crowd-pleasing final reel; but it's just a stupid action movie, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. These kinds of movies don't get much better, thanks in large part to Fuqua’s spot-on pacing—he knows when to give a little, give a lot, hold back, toss in a joke, or shut up. Wahlberg, for his part, won’t get himself another Oscar nomination with this kind of folderol, but if he wound up making a career out of this kind of picture the genre, at least, would be better off for it. Wahlberg is a natural and pleasant presence on screen, and he’s even got some talent in him, evidenced by the physical pain that registers in his body immediately following Timmons’ shooting. That’s a lot more than could be said for someone like John Cena.