31 August 2007

Right at Your Door

Written & Directed by: Chris Gorak

Grade: C+

Baby, I feel like something's come between us, something like one one-hundredth of a millimeter of plastic sheeting. In Right at Your Door, a quasi-nuclear, quasi-apocalyptic quasi-thriller, a series of dirty bombs have exploded throughout Los Angeles; in the early morning, the biggest problem in the lives of Angelinos, according to the radio, was knowing "how organic your organic vegetables really are", but now, by mid-morning, it's something a bit more serious: encroaching, airborne (inorganic) toxins. Our unemployed, er musician protagonist—if the sixty degree May day, the traffic problems, and the indie rock radio station doesn't give away the LA setting, along with that organic vegetables bit, the copious guitars scattered around the apartment ought to—Rory Cochrane, is left with no other choice, from what he hears on the radio, but to seal up his house with duct tape and available household plastics—Saran Wrap, bubble wrap, dry cleaning plastic, etc.—or die, even though he hasn't heard from his wife, Mary McCormack, since she left for work.

Once the house is nice and airtight and we've heard the radio warn, several times, to stay far away from anyone who was near the blasts, McCormack, of course, finally turns up, filthy (such a dirty bomb) and sick, begging for entrance to the hermetic house that Cochrane, for the sake of his own survival, can't provide. (While Cochrane was last seen on the big screen scrambling to pick hallucinated bugs off of his skin in A Scanner Darkly, here we find him once again struggling to cleanse himself of intangible infections, though this time they're along the lines of radioactive detritus and guilt.) It's a Serling-worthy set-up with a Serling-worthy finale, but without an abbreviated outlet like The Twilight Zone around anymore to pitch such ideas, Gorak, in his directorial debut—he's worked as an art director for many major American directors—has no other option but to pad it out to feature film length. And padded it feels.

After the first jittery and panicked twenty minutes, whose achingly contemporary subject and evocative 9/11 imagery—black smoke rising from the horizon, raining ash—are easily, even effortlessly, engrossing, there's nowhere to go, and the film stands still along with its central characters, who're tethered to the house; secondary characters are crudely, perfunctorily introduced—the Hispanic workman from next door, the "douchebag" friend and, I kid you not, a small boy named, of all things, Timmy—and quickly disappear with little drama or purpose other than, conspicuously, to keep the narrative somewhat flowing. With all the action and excitement saved for the bookends, the interim moments of quiet drama—aka, the bulk of the film—require a mastery of performance that the leads simply don't possess. (Cochrane is affecting in his private moments of reaction to the surrounding chaos and horror, but the characters' interactions feel more like rehearsals than a worked-out final product.) It's like an Oreo cookie absent the cream.

While making a point about how media-stoked fears of terrorism do us far more harm than good, Right at Your Door more palpably feels like a paid, public announcement from the Plastics Industry Council about the miraculous impermeable properties of Saran Wrap, with a bit about the amazing binding powers of duct tape tossed in for good measure. "Isn't duct tape stupid?" McCormack asks Cochrane bitterly from out in the poisonous dust, but aside from that barb the film seems to validate Tom Ridge's much-mocked suggestions to stock up. Right at Your Door also suggests that using self-preservation as a guiding principle is a sin, but when McCormack shows up, coughing, vomiting and demanding to be let in, despite her contagious condition and potential lethality, she acts like an unsympathetic jerk. "You want to live without me?" she asks, unfairly and despicably, as though he should be out there dying with her. Good for you, Cochrane, leave her out there. I don't see what the problem is.

Something Wild (1961)

Written by: Jack Garfein & Alex Karmel
Directed by: Jack Garfein

Grade: C+

Something Wild, a bizarre love story—and not really in an interesting way—doesn't quite provide what its title or trailer promises; it's more like Something Weird and Too Long. It opens with New York tableaus characterized by (often symmetrical) patterns, whether it's traipsing pedestrians, soaring pigeon flocks, moving traffic or the schematic arrangement of high-rise windows. But the safety implied by the appearance of order is a deceptive facade, which Caroll Baker, a fresh-faced baby doll, learns the hard way; disembarking from the elevated Kingsbridge subway station near her home with a blithe skip and a jump, she enters a quiet park where she is pulled into the bushes and raped, her chain with a small Protestant cross, in a nice touch, torn from her neck.

A long, wordless portrait of the aftermath follows, as Baker saunters home, creeps through the door and up the stairs to the safety of her bedroom, before breaking into tears and passing out on the floor; when she awakens, she bathes and cuts up the clothes she was wearing when attacked, flushing the small squares of fabric down the toilet. It's all very affecting, especially as the film goes on and Baker gradually loses her mind, freaking out whenever anyone tries to touch her, including even her mother. Leaving her school books on a bench, in a symbol of defiance, she drops out of high school and runs away from home, getting a job at the Woolsworth sales counter and a tenement apartment about the size of an airplane's bathroom. (Jean "Edith Bunker" Stapleton turns up in a bit part as, against type, or before type, her garishly kooky neighbor.)

Before she runs away, Baker's mother delivers a grand, mildly racist speech about the changing condition of their community; "some more dirty people have moved onto the next block," she complains, adding that "this used to be such a nice neighborhood," full of polite, well-dressed churchgoers. When Baker hits the streets, she sees only sweltering New York streets teeming with strangers, hoboes and empty lots; Something Wild seems an allegory for the transformation, the decline, of the American city, specifically the Bronx, with increasing diversity leading to crime that's not only drives away the old residents but turns a nice kid naughty, a sweet kid nasty.

But the story is thin and moves along rather clumsily, like that rather clumsy political statement—somewhat qualified when Baker barks back, "everyone's dirty!"—serving only as a vehicle for the always exceptional Baker to unravel within psychologically, against the backdrop of an unravelling town. (Well, that and to create images to accompany Aaron Copland's brash score.) Finally, she walks onto the Manhattan Bridge with the intent of hopping off, but she is pulled down by Ralph Meeker, the Henry Travers to her Jimmy Stewart. Meeker is just about the only kind, generous or normal person who's appeared hitherto, but it's too good to be true; he takes her to his apartment on the Lower East Side, another cramped apartment, ground-level with the requisite bars on the windows, giving it the character of a dungeon; and that's a fitting characterization, since he effectively kidnaps Baker, holding her captive and forbidding her to leave, the compensation for having saved her life. The ransom? Marriage.

If the Meeker section of the film had been kept to about fifteen minutes, Something Wild would be a curiosity; instead, at about an hour, it's a chore. While the film manages, at least, to muster up a comedic scene here in which Meeker keeps jumping up to help while Baker eats dinner, for the most part this section of the film—its entire second half—is way too long, visually and narratively dull and repetitive. In a way, that reflects the character of the defacto marriage, loveless and literally imprisoning, that Baker finds herself involved in; the point is well taken, but it doesn't make the film any less insufferable, Meeker's performance notwithstanding. Played as dumbly sweet but with an unfortunate temper, he remains achingly sympathetic throughout—"you're my last chance," he pitifully confesses—despite the cruelty he displays towards Baker, not least of all in a scene in which, drunken, he goes at her on all fours like a dog. (Garfein was a member, like much of the cast, Meeker included, of the prestigious Actors' Studio; he was also an assistant director on the tour-de-force Baby Doll, where he obviously learned a bit from Kazan, such as working with actors, but not, unfortunately, for effective pacing and visual puissance.)

Minor Spoilers Follow
In the end, Something Wild is a study of the institution of marriage, ultimately affirming the traditional belief that habit breeds real emotion, that cohabitation, if engaged in long enough, will lead to love. Baker overcomes the incapacitation caused by her rape by falling in love with her subsequent abductor. It's Stockholm Syndrome, ad absurdum. But Something Wild could also be speculatively (over)read on a more personal level; Garfein survived a stint in Auschwitz as a child, and I think it's fair to suppose that such an experience would leave one in a state analogous to Baker's post-rape devastation. The film, then, is a statement about how love can be enough to turn someone around, heal the wounds caused by the horrors to which they were once subjected. Baker, his wife at the time, then plays the Garfein part and the film is a Valentine to her, both as a starring vehicle but also as a testament to the strength she gave him to overcome the dark place that time in a Nazi concentration camp would put anyone in, especially a child.

29 August 2007

Killer's Kiss (1955)

Written by: Howard O. Sackler & Stanley Kubrick
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Grade: B

The opening credits of Killer's Kiss announce that the love theme is by Norman Gimbel and Arden E. Clar, the ballet is choreographed by David Vaughan, and the direction (and pretty much everything else) is by Stanley Kubrick. Wait a minute—love theme? Ballet? What kind of Kubrick picture is this? Well, for practical intents and purposes, his first. (Just try finding a copy of Fear and Desire!) As a debut feature, despite its independent financing (before such a thing was common), Killer's Kiss makes a lot of generic concessions presumably in the name of potential box-office draw and, of course, budget constraints; in many ways, it's a run of the mill film noir, complete with voice-over narration, a main character who's a boxer, and a flashback framing device—which makes the happy ending apparent within the first reel—but it sports a visual sense so sophisticated that the nascent talents of a future filmmaking titan are on full display.

Sporting the keen photographer's eye that Kubrick developed during his time at Look magazine—and prominently featured in the nostalgia-inducing New York location shooting, such as the Times Square store window displays—much of the film, especially the opening and closing sections, are told with minimal dialogue. (Thankfully, as much of the actual dialogue is quite silly; cf. "you smell bad" or "can happiness buy money?") Killer's Kiss is the story of a boxer, played prosaically by Jamie Smith, who can't win a fight and is planning to hang up his gloves and move back to his aunt and uncle's ranch near Seattle. But before he can pack his trunk and make it to Grand Central, he's summoned to the aid of his screeching neighbor across the way, a sultry blonde—though not much of a femme fatale—played by Irene Kane. Once she's safe and rescued, they speedily plan to go away together, having fallen in love within a few hours (Kubrick has the sense and wit to lightly mock this ridiculous generic convention throughout), but it isn't so easy to get her away from her employer and lover, the seedy proprietor of a dance hall played by Frank Silvera.

Previously, Kubrick had filmed a documentary short, called Day of the Fight, about a pugilist, and with that experience perhaps the most impressive part of the film is the energetic and thrilling boxing sequence, captured with a handheld camera and artfully framed, whether from below (a technique used again, memorably, decades later when Jack Nicholson is imprisoned in the Overlook's food locker) or in jarring close-up. (It's also, like the rest of the film, captured in beautiful black and white, which Raging Bull ratified is the only way to film a boxing match.) The film is full of that sort of provocative imagery, such as a close-up of Smith, through the bowl water, feeding his goldfish; or Silvera becoming so furious that he hurls a tumbler straight at the camera, visibly fracturing the lens; or the black-and-white checker-tiled staircase, that leads to the treacherous dance hall, which features an enormous and cautionary "Watch Your Step" sign hanging above. (The film's dominant leitmotif is warnings from, literally, above, whether as the mean, bright eye of god, in the recurring form of a single-bulb, directly-overhead light, or the long dangling fingers of disembodied mannequin hands.)

The most stunning moment, really something to behold, is the finale, a final showdown in a mannequin warehouse that starts off as a cat-and-mouse hunt and ends in an axe duel, with each contender hurling artificial women's legs and torsos at the other as they consequently chop up countless ersatz female bodies. Also, the aforementioned extended ballet sequence is really quite stunning, as a lone dancer performs plies while Kane recites her life story, rife with jealousy, misery and death, the dance moves choreographed to coincide perfectly with the mood of the dime-novel, voice-overed tale.

If this review just sounds like a strung together series of my favorite shots and scenes, lifted, perfunctorily, straight from my notes, it's because Killer's Kiss plays out that way, as a rather boilerplate film save for the occasional bursts of personality that, arrestingly, cut through. Smith is described as being strong and a clever boxer, but unable to win a fight because of his Achilles' heel, his week chin; the same, loosely speaking, is true of Kubrick at this point in his directorial career. "I guess the whole thing was pretty silly," Smith remarks, at the end of the film, of the story's he's just annunciated. Yeah you guess right, thank goodness Kubrick was there to help you tell it in pictures, otherwise nobody'd be talking about it today.

27 August 2007

Them (Ils)

Written & Directed by: David Moreau & Xavier Palud

Grade: B+

No, there are no giant ants, at least not literally. Them (Ils) comes into American theaters by way of France, and as such—you know the French—it isn't content to be, merely, an exceptionally effective thriller, which it is, but sees necessary to double-up as a metacinematic examination of horror film and its theory. (They won't get any complaint from me.) From the beginning, during a tenuously related introductory sequence in which a mother and daughter's car breaks down on a country road, horror conventions are acknowledged and gently mocked, as when, upon impact with a wooden pole carelessly placed on the edge of the road, their car's radio turns on by its own accord, releasing a blare of heavy metal music that is quickly, thankfully, silenced. (Leave it to the Bride of Chuckys and Freddy vs. Jasons, this is of a different breed.)

Them, god bless it, earns all of its jolts through old-fashioned manipulation of the medium: long tracking shots refuse to cut, thusly refusing to alleviate the accruing tension; snaky passageways and dim lighting allow the shadow-drenched frames (at times the screen is lit by only a Zippo) to threaten to unleash frights from any and all corners at any and all times; while ambient sounds, like a snapping twig or a soft thump, irrationally assume a malevolent strength, as watching the film becomes as unsettling as actually being aroused from sleep, especially in the middle of nowhere, by something going bump in the night.

Set in Romania—which the film denigrates all along the way—Them fills its short running time with the horrors an expatriated French couple—she (Olivia Bonamy, a Tina Fey type with her glasses on), a schoolteacher; he (Michaël Cohen), a writer—experience as their remote, dilapidated manor, both ramshackle and attractively spacious (the house's condition serves, meanly, to represent the decimated condition of its national setting) is terrorized by someone(s) or something(s) throughout one uncommonly unpleasant night. The struggle, as unprovoked as the one in Spielberg's Duel, moves from the house to, where else, the woods, following the chase trajectory of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; but, instead of finishing in another house, albeit one far more gruesome, as that film does, Them finally settles underground, as Guillermo del Toro would surely have it, in an old and petrifying stone sewer. (It's a move far more Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.)

Foremost, the intruders are showmen, malicious taunters, who are able to so effectively terrify the couples (both the central one and the quickly killed-off mother-daughter combo from the intro) because of the terrifying atmosphere they consciously construct; that is, not, at first, because of anything they do directly but because the stage they set is so frightening. (So to speak, it's not the skeletons that jump out, but the haunted house milieu at the amusement park that is the true source of fright/delight.) As such, they can't help but become a diegetic stand-in for the directors and crew, who also happen to be using the same tricks to scare the hell out of the couple's surrogate, the audience.

At first, the duo is tormented by a single beam emanating from a flashlight, a sensible, symbolic representation of the projector bulb; later, the woman is attacked by one of the presumable bandits through plastic sheeting that's hanging in her under-renovations home, a clear representation of the movie screen through which the filmmakers are simultaneously attacking the spectator. Finally, and most violently, when the woman assumes the role of a voyeur, trying to watch what's happening to her husband through a keyhole down upon her knees, she is punished by a knife, which comes shooting through the lock, to the eye. Never before has the horror movie had such a beautiful and economic visual symbol.

The filmmakers keep the tension running high by taking their time in relieving the suspense, whose major source is the mystery of the attackers' identities. In the end, it is revealed that they're a gang of miscreant children, one of whom claims, tearfully, "we just want to play," omitting that they also want to kill! While it's easy, facile really, to read Them as a critique of modern children's lack of discipline and Romania's infestation of savages (titles at the beginning boast that the film is based on a true story), the ending instead serves as an apologia from the filmmakers for their own behavior over the last eighty minutes, as well as for the genre in general. At a time when most horror movies, fairly or not, are being scolded for their "senseless" violence, Them's immature villains are a self-deprecating admission of (male) juvenescence from the filmmakers, both on behalf of themselves and the genre itself. But they're also a defensive declaration that horror movies are simply a game played together by director and audience, not intended to be taken too seriously or literally, so please, forgive them, men and genre alike, and just enjoy. When done right, so purely, as it is in Them, the horror movie is proven as viscerally delightful as any other type of film.

The Wild Blue Yonder

Written & Directed by: Werner Herzog

Grade: C

I suppose it was only a matter of time before Werner Herzog, as the prolific documentarian that he's become, tried his hand at the faux-documentary. Well, why not? "Mockumentary" would be the wrong word to describe The Wild Blue Yonder, despite its familiarity and wide usage, as there's rarely a hint of humor in this mostly grave film. It posits itself as a bizarre secret history, conspiratorial in tone, of alien life on Earth and clandestine NASA experimentation. (Broadly, it's, as Herzog calls it, redundantly, "science fiction fantasy".) But Herzog seems to have forgotten—unless he just never knew—that effective science fiction's most essential ingredient is a liberal dash of potent subtext. There seems to be no purpose behind The Wild Blue Yonder's production, beyond Herzog, intoxicated by found footage, needing to flaunt his nifty discoveries like a school boy with a new toy. Want to come over later and watch my NASA reels?

You can't blame the guy for trying, as Herzog pulled off a masterpiece once before when overwhelmed by similarly mesmerizing inspiration, fashioning Grizzly Man while under the spell of Timothy Treadwell's digital video diaries. But one of that film's keys to success was that Treadwell was a real person, with all the benefits, in relation to making a documentary film, that that entails; here, Brad Dourif, in an admitted fine bit of casting, stars as our fictional extraterrestrial narrator, guiding us, mostly in voice-over, through long stretches of file footage, the lion's share of which is either of NASA-tronauts floating in space or arctic explorers under the sea. He dispenses a rather loopy narrative about scientists who, while investigating the suspicious aircraft that crashed at Roswell, became infected with alien microbes and were exiled from planet Earth, setting off into the cosmos in the hope of finding a hospitable region of space in which to settle anew, an interstellar Elba. Eventually, they find their way to Dourif and his people's home planet, the eponymous wild blue yonder, which the aliens had abandoned hundreds of years ago to resettle under the superior conditions of Earth. Under just the right circumstances, I imagine this film could be beguiling but, under ordinary conditions, Herzog's patient pacing—he lets the stock footage play out practically uninterrupted—feels torpid. Kubrick, it ain't; in attempting to bestow an ominous heft onto benign NASA film of astronauts mired in quotidian zero-gravity tasks, The Wild Blue Yonder feels like little else beyond a slight cinematic experiment in the nature of the image's significance and implication. How can he manipulate what you see?

But why is he even so keen on doing so? Herzog's assemblage revels in the two most mysterious regions of the planet/universe, in relation to those of us on solid land: the sky above and the sea below. "We thank NASA for its sense of poetry," titles read at the end of the film, "[and] we thank Mark Kaiser for venturing out under the frozen sky." The latter's video footage of his arctic sea diving explorations is passed-off as footage from Dourif's home planet, with strange-looking sea life convincingly, in its unfamiliarity, posited as alien life forms (mistreated, of course, by earth's explorers), speaking to how alien our own planet can seem to us, how unchartered and unexplored the vast regions of sea and space still are, even if all the land is well-cartographed. Admittedly, all of the accumulated film is fascinating, but the fictional context within which it's placed feels entirely unnecessary and doesn't assist in making the raw images anymore captivating or actually meaningful than they already are, or could be, on their own. In fact, it's a bit distracting.

But if he just has to make a movie out of it, at least Herzog uses the opportunity to take some umbrage at the pernicious actions, over time, of humanity at large; Dourif, with a suspiciously in-depth knowledge of earth history (got a lot of reading done on the spaceship?), offers a mordant analysis of the developments that'll eventually spell the end of humanity, putting most of the blame on the long-ago mistake, apparently, of domesticating the pig. Scientist (or actor?) Martin Lo, in one of the few jocose moments, a chapter called "Utopia of the Ideal Colony", takes a great swipe when he evenly remarks that, "the ideal [colonial] environment might be a shopping mall in space." By addressing Earthkind's penchant for colonization and capitalization, or often setting Dourif, who looks like he just got laid off from a steel mill, amidst copious trash, Herzog may be offering a vague critique of the twentieth century, its violent and destructive tendencies, but there's no cohesive allegory tying The Wild Blue Yonder together; really, it's just a few reels of astronauts sitting in a spaceship and unusual jellyfish swimming underneath sheets of ice. You can get better versions of both of these not only in other, better narrative films but on the Discovery Channel.

19 August 2007

Dans Paris

Written & Directed by: Christophe Honoré

Grade: B+

When you see Roman Duris staring directly into the camera at the start of Dans Paris (the third movie of the summer about Paris, set in Paris and with "Paris" in the title), it's easy, while considering the film's French origins, to assume with heavy heart that this is going to be one of those movies, one of those smarmy post-modern vehicles Americans expect to drift across the pond and into arthouses now and again. And, just past the opening credits, director Christophe Honoré does little to dissuade those initial misgivings, as Louis Garrel hops out of his bed, leaving his brother (Duris) and an anonymous girl behind, to take us out to the balcony, where the Eiffel Tower in its disagreeable majesty is visible in the distance, for the purposes of introducing the film with a measure of privacy.

Having previously seen Garrel in Bertolucci's The Dreamers, the sight him as one of three people in a mixed-sexes bed inevitably leads one to suspect that perversity must be afoot. But Dans Paris has no such depravity up its sleeve, only winning, self-conscious playfulness used to subtly obscure a deep emotional core. In fact, its knowing, European style is endearingly enthusiastic, played with a straight-face and a knowing wink; the funny thing about the film is that, while it puts its quirky Nouvelle Vague gimmicks on prominent display (eg. dialogue played over still-lipped characters, unprovoked musical sequences, etc.), it's not unapologetic about it. In the aforementioned prefatory scene, Louis Garrel is immediately contrite about having resorted to direct address, and promises to "turn back into a character" once he is through providing some sort of preamble. (For the most part he does, though he returns, occasionally, in his capacity as omniscient narrator to comment on the story or criticize the way it's being presented.) Garrel is as charismatic as Ferris Bueller, and from the start he has the audience's permission to speak into the screen as much as he'd like to.

Evidenced by the ambivalence to his own flashy style, Honoré is trying to have his cake and eat it too, as he unabashedly uses the exuberant film techniques of his Gallic cinematic forefathers, while simultaneously declaring himself avowedly au courant and independent of such oppressive influence. Remarkably, he succeeds in balancing the two, as he apes an obsolete style without appearing tiresomely derivative. For example, there's a running "cool jazz" soundtrack and a marvelous musical sequence, "Avant la Haine", that vaguely recalls Le Parapluies de Cherbourg (at least it did for me, specifically in the vocal timbres) or something out of Une Femme est Une Femme; both, among other factors, can't help but evoke le cinema of the late '50s/early '60s that emanated out of France, but at the same time, loud, modern indie-rock blares in other scenes, announcing Dans Paris' contemporariness. In perhaps the best example, Garrel chastises a young girl who calls a kiss they share "nifty", a clear American-Fifties logism that Honore nevertheless revels in indulging in. "No one says nifty anymore," Garrel instructs, providing a list of acceptable and more up-to-date synonyms.

Although the title translates to In Paris (or, Inside Paris, as the distributors claim), the movie ironically begins in the French countryside, where Duris, in flashbacks, is seen in a series of miserable though exhilarating vignettes charting the course of love lost, the dissolution of a romantic partnership. It's a highlight reel of lovers-quarrels with a surfeit of penetrating insights, bitter jealousy and paranoid despair. Then, as promised by the title, the film relocates to Paris, but the city doesn't seem as gay as its sobriquet promises; Duris, now with a becomingly bushy beard, is lethargic and depressed, nursing his broken heart—his baby done gone—with starvation, morose melancholia and half-hearted prayer in his father's cramped flat. His lack of energy, however, is contrasted in the giddiness of his overgrown adolescent brother, Garrel; set over the course of a day, the narrative forks as Duris stays home and deals with his overbearing father while Garrel bounces around the city, taking in lovers and serving, unconsciously, as our tour guide through the street beauty of France's capital.

In the bed of one, of three, of his day's conquests, Garrel is seen reading copy of Franny et Zooey, and it ought to become clear to the viewer at this point, if it hasn't already, that Dans Paris plays out like a loose adaptation of that novella pair, though with most of the gender roles intriguingly reversed. The film follows Salinger's famous book like O Brother, Where Are Thou? follows The Odyssey—loosely and to a tee, right down to a climactic phone call and an obsession with repetitive prayer. Bessie Glass' domineering but well-intentioned matriarch is replaced by Guy Marchand's characteristically identical patriarch, while Duris takes on the role of Franny, replacing her religious dilemma, her crisis of the soul, with a romantic dilemma, a crisis purely of the heart.

The narrator of Zooey writes of the story to follow that, "it's a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated"; it's no coincidence, then, that Dans Paris is the same, a romance that challenges the fortitude of various sexual and familial bonds; or, a portrait of a splintered family-unit damaged by the years-earlier loss of a suicided sibling, masquerading as a peppy day in the amorous lives of two French brothers. Dans Paris is alternately, even sometimes simultaneously, superficial and moving, hip and meaningful, shiny and full of pathos. Deceptively, it goes down in a flash, easy and breezy, but its complexity, optimism and joie de cinema linger.

28 Days Later

Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Alex Garland

Grade: A-

28 Days Later opens as A Clockwork Orange with monkeys, with images of large-scale, international violence being played on several contiguous monitors and watched by a constrained ape. The ape is part of a medical research project soon interrupted by animal rights activists intent on freeing the prisoners; while their idealism might be sympathetic, their dogmatically informed actions prove misguided when they unwittingly unleash an epidemic of the highly contagious "rage virus", with which the apes unfortunately happened to be infected, onto the unsuspecting English populace.

Cillian Murphy, sporting some uncharacteristic tufts of hair on his face, awakens in an abandoned hospital—in his birthday suit—an obscurely unnerving twenty eight days later; "don't wake up," his parents advised from beyond the grave, or so he'll later discover from their suicide note, scribbled on the back of a photograph of a boy-aged Murphy. But it's too late, he's made the mistake of coming to, finding nothing but inoperable payphones and cans of Pepsi as the sole form of available nourishment. Recalling the opening, terrifying loneliness of many an episode of The Twilight Zone, Murphy hits the trash-ridden streets of London where nary a soul is to be seen and the most prominent artifact is an overturned double-decker bus. Ubiquitously plastered missing posters, and the strewn detritus, evoke 9/11, which was a fresh wound at the time, while all the background billboardry, in combination with the Pepsi product placement shots, gives the film the aura of apocalyptically-themed advertising.

Such is the brilliantly crafted doomsday tableau of 28 Days Later, distinct for being the first zombie movie to feature major London thoroughfares entirely vacated, as well as some monstrous living-dead that can run, as opposed to lurching forward in a slow hypnotic state. (In the traditional sense, 28 Days Later's monsters are not quite zombies, as they are alive and merely infected with a virus, but for a lack of a more apt and economical term I retain it.) Allegorically revealing, the first zombies Murphy meets are a priest and his parishioners in a corpse-addled church, where they are feeding off the flesh of the dead. (Ordinarily, Christians only feed on the flesh of their dead god.) Graffiti on the wall reads, "Repent—the end is extremely fucking nigh."

Zombies and zombie movies serve as great allegories, and at first the filmmakers seem intent to take swipes at the violence and viciousness of organized religion, with some soft criticism of militant animal rights groups on the margins, but the metaphor soon shifts. Murphy takes up with a duo of members of the zombie resistance, one of whom, Naomie Harris, advises him that "staying alive's as good as it gets," curtly dismissing any genre conventions like finding a cure or hoping to "fall in love and fuck." According to a bit of expository dialogue from Harris, the countryside is the source of the rage virus and, accordingly, the source of their trouble. But by the second act, as Murphy and Harris take up with a middle-aged English chap and his daughter (Harris' previous ally de resistance is killed-off quickly), the makeshift family sets off for what they hope to be their salvation, a remote military outpost twenty-seven miles north of Manchester broadcasting a signal of hope to any survivors. The countryside now their one chance at peace, the rage virus becomes a metaphor for the oppressive crime and solitude of city-life.

For in leaving the city, the quartet slowly become a makeshift family, reflected in a tacky sequence in which they observe the majesty of four alternately black and white horses acting together as a family unit. (Harris is black.) The ensuing scenes of family bonding are undeniably sweet, but just in case he may be getting too sappy, Boyle is careful to counter every lighthearted moment, such as a grocery-store shopping spree, with a grim counterpoint, such as the image of a dead infant prominently featured in the succeeding scene. (Boyle carefully balances the film's tone; for every joke, there is a subsequent sequence of gruesome violence or an image of bleak macabre.)

On reaching the military base, philosophical discussion takes over as the soldiers discuss the nature of "normalcy": if humanity destroys itself, won't that be a state of normalcy for the planet, which has spent most of its billions of years of existence absent of mankind? And anyway, isn't people-killing-people a state of normalcy for humanity? If the conditions of life under the rage virus are a lot like those of civil war, are they so abnormal? But running under this section of the film, even stronger than these Big Questions, is a lot of sexual tension, and when the salaciously vile intentions of the military become known, it speaks a dual commentary: on the one hand, about the prurience of rural/exurban living, while on the other hand, about the viciousness of army and life during wartime.

28 Days Later is as cynical and mistrustful a film as Children of Men, in that through its protagonists it discourages us from trusting anyone, not the government, here represented by the army, nor the people, here represented by cannibalistic zombies. Don't take sides because every side is corrupt; the film encourages the viewer to recognize that they're on their own. We could even, possibly, extend this line of thinking, if inclined to overanalysis, and say the theme, or one of the themes, of 28 Days Later is a rejection of partisanship informed by blind devotion, whether to a need for flesh for the purposes of eating or fucking. The early scene of animal rights activists, then, is not a critique of their particular ideological standpoint but rather a critique of ideological devotion in all its forms, progressive and reactionary alike.

Each act of 28 Days Later is tonally distinct; the last act plays like a slasher movie with Murphy cast as the supervillain (and, simultaneously, superhero.) It could be accused of uneven-ness but, rather, I think the disparate sections speak to its broad, complex and multilayered assessment of modern life. It's far-reaching without ever becoming muddled or unfocused; 28 Days Later has a lot to say, a lot of potential readings, and it does it all with a thrilling, terrifying, intellectual brio and a handheld digital urgency.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Directed by: Joseph Sargent
Written by: Peter Stone

Grade: A

Four trenchcoated older men with color-coded code names, wearing old-fashioned hats, black-rimmed glasses and ersatz mustaches, board a crowded downtown No. 6 train (called, by transit staff, "Pelham One-Two-Three" for its departure time and point of origin) stop by stop, starting at Fifty-Ninth Street. By Thirty-Third, they've overtaken the two conductors at gunpoint. ("I didn't know these things went backwards!" exclaims one when no longer in control of his train.) I remember that once I was stuck on a train, traveling from Manhattan to Brooklyn, in a tunnel, between stops at a dead halt for about forty five minutes. I didn't even have a seat, and as my knees buckled in a Guantanamo-style stress position, I thought it'd be tough for life to get much worse without a firebomb attack, an extended Giuliani mayoralty or a hijacking. In The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, eighteen New Yorkers are stuck in a similar situation, the victims of a stalled, mid-tunnel train...and a hijacking; the "terrorists" demand one million dollars in cash in one hour, or they'll start picking off the passengers. You can only begin to imagine the awful terror they feel, but still—at least they had seats.

When the hijackers first threaten to shoot anyone who moves, the passengers all laugh; one wino remains passed-out and unawares, while others don't understand and need the threats translated into Spanish, of which, of course, several people on the car are capable. Oh, New York! The Taking of Pelham... is a marvelous snapshot of New York, during the 1970's in particular—a New York of "terr-lits" and "fifty-foist streets"—on par if not better at capturing the time and place than more legendary contemporary vehicles by the likes of Scorsese, Lumet and Woody Allen. (It's also a fantastically efficient crime/thriller, and its influence is clearly visible on such vehicles as Inside Man, Speed and Reservoir Dogs.)

City government is lampooned, from the reviled and impotent mayor (of Kochian stature and temperament), debilitated by the flu—it's been going around, symbolically, in the film's decimated Big Apple—and seen receiving a rectal thermometer (a cheap shot at the rumors of his homosexuality?), to the transit police who spend most of the day sitting around reading the newspaper. It's suggested that New York, which at the time was in serious financial straits, couldn't even afford to pay the ransom if it wanted, until the mayor's wife speaks the politicians' language: "A million dollars sounds like a lot of money," she says, "[but] just think what you're gonna get in return—18 sure votes." (The mayor's wife is played by Doris Roberts; seasoned character actors and familiar faces, many known as comedians, dominate the frames of Pelham, notably including Jerry Stiller and Tony Roberts.)

Every actor in Pelham is marvelously authentic and convincingly cynical, and its their credibility that makes the script work, which is hilarious in the wise-cracking mode of your legendarily typical jaded and hard-boiled New Yorker. "Screw the goddam passengers," barks a train supervisor, delivering probably the film's most famous line, "what do they expect for their thirty-five cents? To live forever?" (Initially, it's tough for anyone to take the hijackers seriously.) But Pelham is hilarious without ever succumbing to being goofy, without ever surrendering its grit or its gravity. There isn't a moment in which you don't doubt the sincerity of lead hijacker Robert Shaw when he threatens to kill everyone on-board, and while Walter Matthau, as a Transit Authority lieutenant (under the direction of Joseph Sargent, whom he ought to outrank) is a source of constant crack-ups, the audience never doubts for a minute that he has the smarts and seriousness necessary to save everyone's life and catch the bad guys. In the end, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three reminds us why New York City has always been such a great place to live—sure, it can be dangerous (well, not so much anymore) but, like the film, it's a hell of a good time, without parallel.

The Abandoned

Directed by: Nacho Cerdà
Written by: Nacho Cerdà, Karim Hussain & Richard Stanley

Grade: B+

The Russian-born, English-raised, American-living movie producer protagonist of The Abandoned, Anastasia Hille, says at the beginning, in voice-over, "the past was another country now, best forgotten." But, unable to leave well-enough alone, she returns to the country of her birth two days shy of the forty second anniversary of her mother's vicious murder—and her own birthday—to visit the country estate (aka "the scene of the crime") that she's just inherited. Talk about your unremarkable horror movie set-ups; for its first act, The Abandoned adheres to the established horror conventions, from an ominous pre-arrival dream to a thick portentous fog. Most offensively, when asked what she hopes to find in the ruins to which she's traveling, she responds, "some clue perhaps, something to make sense of my life." Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

But, to pleasant surprise, once such banalities are out of the way, The Abandoned comes to life, as do the ghosts of the haunted island estate. While essentially a mere haunted house movie, The Abandoned is at least a fresh take on the genre, which is more than could be said for most of its contemporaries: it features hardly any violence, especially by torture-porn standards, establishing genuine unpredictability and, as a result, a few wonderfully earned moments of high tension; also, it eschews ordinary cast-attrition thriller patterns by featuring a central cast of only two; and by making that duo long-lost brother and sister twins (and ignoring any possible incestuous inclination), it, like Jeepers Creepers, avoids any tired sexual undercurrents.

The Abandoned, unlike most of the slashers whose visual style and tropes it apes, is not a morality play, but a complex and impressionistic exploration of family and its relationship to identity. Hille is not so much afraid that she'll be killed on the island, though that's there too, as she is that she'll have to face the repressed inner demons of her parents' deaths; the "ghosts" that stalk brother and sister throughout the island are actually their doppelgängers, and as such they literally spend the film running away from themselves, desperately avoiding autoconfrontation.

But of course, no matter how fast you can run through a dilapidated manor, you can't escape from your own past; those who try, like our protagonists, are doomed to become increasingly trapped deeper and deeper within it, as though struggling against a Chinese finger trap of the subconscious. Unable to deal with the frustration of being powerless to affect or alter that which has already transpired—to accept that she had a cruel, hateful, bridicidal and infanticidal father—Hille finds herself imprisoned in a repetitive spatiotemporal loop, cursed to become conjoined, both figuratively and literally in some sense, to the ghosts of her forbearers. "I'm finally going crazy after all these years," she exclaims in exasperation, adding, as she collapses to the floor, "fucking Russia!"

I assume the Russian setting bears some significance, what with the fact that it is a story about two adults trying to deal with homicidal "ghosts of the past". Moreso, though, the film functions as an examination of family ties. Early on, Hille is seen arguing with her daughter on the telephone, shortly before revealing that she is a divorcee; with every character's familial relationships strained, at the very least, The Abandoned possesses a terribly negative outlook on family, on par with The Shining in its positioning of the institution as deadly and something best left abandoned. In the Reagan years, there were subversive critiques of disingenuous "family values" moral posturing in films like 1987's The Stepfather; today, in the George W. Bush era, we have The Abandoned.

3-Iron (Bin Jip)

Written & Directed by: Kim Ki-Duk

Grade: A-

At 3-Iron (aka Bin-Jip)'s conclusion, a quotation on the screen declares that: "it's hard to tell whether the world we live in is a reality or a dream." While, personally, I have no misgivings in believing that my own existence is not some somnambulistic illusion, it's nevertheless an appropriate aphorism with which to conclude the film, a lyrical blurring of the line between actuality and fantasy, or at least literalism and poetic expression. Kim Ki-Duk deals in heavily symbolic cinema, which he handles with the grace of a master visual poet; while incredibly cynical about the state of modern romance—the majority of the relationships on the film's peripherals, as also in his subsequent film Time, are in turmoil—3-Iron is ultimately an optimistic film in that it believes in the abstract existence of love. The conflict arises as the struggle to discern whether or not it does, or can, exist anymore within the context of modern life.

Hyun-Kyoon Lee, the protagonist, spends his days engaged in the rather unpopular profession of leaving take-out menus on doorknobs; his real passion, however, his night job, is the even more unpopular enterprise of breaking into the homes of those he's determined, through the course of his waking hours route, to be on vacation. Curiously, however, he isn't an intruder for the sake of thievery; rather, he watches his "victims'" televisions, eats their food, uses their showers, launders their dirty clothes and tinkers with their busted gadgets. He's really more of an unsolicited housesitter, to little consequence until he breaks into the home of a crestfallen battered-woman, Seung-Yeon Lee (whom he doesn't realize is actually at home when he illegally enters); they begin a taciturn courtship that reaches its climax hours later when Hyun-Kyoon attacks the woman's abusive husband, Hyuk-Ho Kwan, by chipping golf balls at him, incapacitating him and liberating her; he takes her on the back of his motorbike, as though it were his steed, and they disappear into the dark of night, off to start their new life together as a trespassing twosome.

Essentially, the couple is meant to function as an anthropomorphic manifestation of true love, so pure that they never even speak (and thus never bicker), content merely to float silently from unoccupied house to unoccupied house, occasionally, but more not than often, exchanging knowing glances. In 3-Iron, "normalcy" becomes a tactile artifice, a construct that can be invaded, broken into, enjoyed briefly but ultimately abandoned. The romantic duo's unspoken mission becomes to produce something neat, clean and ordered out of the mess of other people's lives; they aim, presumably, to introduce a measure of purity into a thoroughly corrupted world, to be a private, contrapuntal force of love in a loveless society.

As a symbol of modernity's having gone astray (but from what exactly?), not only are so many people living in miserable complacency, just going through the motions of romantic relationships, but violence lurks in the film's margins, anticipating the moment it might destructively burst forth. For example, Hyun-Kyoon's recreative past-time consists of knocking around a golf ball tethered to a tree, a symbol of his own circular and repetitive life; when Seung-Yeon begins literally standing in his way, disrupting his game, it hints, perhaps optimistically, that she is altering the course of his existence; but when, in an attempt to adapt to her interference, the ball breaks free from Hyun-Kyoon and its restraints, an innocent bystander is seriously injured. The sequence functions as foreshadowing of the violence to come.

For Kwan isn't dead, he was only down; when his wife is returned to him by the police after the B&E duo is arrested, Kwan prepares for a violent showdown with Hyun-Kyoon (who spends his brief time in jail—they can't really hold him because he never stole anything, except maybe Kwan's woman—training to become an invisible, spectral figure.) The film's title refers to this love triangle, figuratively, as well as literally to the golf club responsible for the bulk of the film's violence. (As in Funny Games, golf functions as a symbol of the bourgeoisie that's viciously turned against them, but in 3-Iron, golf eventually transcends that limiting symbolism.) Whether 3-Iron is truly hopeful or not depends on how you choose to read its ending; I suppose it could mark the way in which true love survives all obstacles, or show how love dies in the face of modernity's oppressive institutions. Either way, it's beautifully beguiling.

10 August 2007

No End in Sight

Written & Directed by: Charles Ferguson

Grade: A

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in footage at the outset of No End in Sight, says that the War in Iraq is "complex for people to understand," the implication being that we shouldn't even try. Thankfully, though, Charles Ferguson has laid it all out in a cogent manner so that all may understand, outlining, in dissecting essay format with the aid of journalists, academics, soldiers and, most fascinatingly, former administration officials, the indisputable failures of the war's execution. The complexity of the war and its (mis)handling is distilled into concise coherency, and the culpability aimed squarely, and fairly, at George W. Bush. Glossing over the history of the pre-invasion perfidy—such as the fabricated links between Saddam and 9/11—and Bush and his cabinet's general mendacity, and as such avoiding partisan divisiveness, Ferguson's fashioned a film to which any American, from liberal choirmembers like Al Franken to administration supporters like Christopher Hitchens, could nod their head in devastated, disappointed agreement.

"It is a story in which many people tried to save a nation," the film declares of itself, going on to then detail the many ways in which those people utterly failed in every which way imaginable: to date, the country's infrastructure is entirely decimated, along with the civilian population, which has experienced casualties approaching American Civil War levels, in the ballpark of 600,000, to say nothing of the ongoing refugee crisis. But, in the words of an Iraqi journalist who has emigrated to the United States, it's the ones who died who are the lucky ones.

That's because the country is in a state of complete collapse, and the primary culprit is the hubris of Bush and his ignominious retinue; an arrogant lack of planning for handling the aftermath of the initial invasion—they began planning fifty days before the invasion, which Ferguson contrasts to the two years Truman spent preparing for post-war Germany—led to a sense of lawlessness on the city streets from day one, and as such the initial goodwill of the Iraqis longing for liberation, assuming as Ferguson does that such an attitude was prevalent amongst the Iraqi people, was immediately squandered. The unchecked, uncountered large-scale looting, well-known from newscasts of the time, quickly transformed into organized extirpation; the Americans took out Saddam but didn't assume a police capacity, thereby leaving nothing in his place but a void, a sense of hopelessness that was soon filled-in by the mosques and their radical clerics.

The post-invasion efforts were led by appointed officials with no experience in the Middle East, reconstruction affairs or the military; almost no one spoke any Arabic. Young college graduates with nothing on their C.V.s but political connections, through their generously donating parents, at high levels were given essential jobs like Baghdad traffic management while the rest of the duties were assumed by overpriced and ineffective American contractors. Just like New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina, Iraq was done in by dastardly cronyism at the highest levels of American government.

L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, emerges as the clear villian of the story; No End in Sight spends a substantial chunk of its running time examining Bremer's disastrous decisions, from de-Ba'athifying the government to disbanding the Iraqi Army—and thus, overnight, turning 500,000 people with guns embittered and unemployed—making the convincing argument that those were the clear seeds of the current insurgency and the nightmarish state that the country finds itself in today.

The narrative of the war's failures is so absurd it could play comically, if not for all the horrible death and decimation; No End in Sight is, of course, relentlessly grim, nearly unbearably depressing, with chapter titles like "Things Fall Apart", "The Void" and "Chaos". While a few years ago Americans were willing to fill movie houses to laugh at Bush and misdoings (Fahrenheit 9/11), today the mood is too gloomy for such lightheartedness. The projected total cost of the war, as of now, stands at $1.86 billion, not to mention all the human costs, measured in deaths, nor the cost of regional destabilization and America's international disrepute. There's no way to describe contemporary Iraq other than, unexaggeratedly, as utter chaos. No End in Sight seems to imply that it's only a matter of time until Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, is in control of the country; America can stay and temporarily stave off the inevitable, but any hopes of a flourishing democracy are entirely, unquestionably dead. The film ends with a Marine asking, rhetorically, "are you telling me that's the best America can do?...That makes me angry." And of course so it does also to every American in the theater, having just bore witness for two hours to haughty incompetence and total failure with very real, fatal consequences. The story may not be new, but Ferguson lays it all out so it's clear to see—Iraq is totally fucked up, and not because America tried its hardest and failed but because it barely tried at all. That's not a politicized opinion, as Ferguson shows, it's the God's honest awful truth.

07 August 2007

The Wages of Fear (1953)

Written and Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Grade: A

At its outset, Clouzot's Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur) plays out like a Howard Hawks fraternity play set against a sweltering Tennessee Williams backdrop. Set in an unnamed South American village, and shot on palpable location, the film opens with a symbolic shot of tethered, scrambling beetles, whose anthropomorphic counterparts are soon introduced: a swarm of pan-Euro expats stuck in the sticks, broke, desperate for work and baking to death in the equatorial sun.

Clouzot displays his mastery in his immense patience, spending the first hour soaking in the local atmosphere and indulging in immersive characterization; it's the key to the film's success. Eventually, four of the men are chosen for what's essentially a suicide mission—moving a ton of nitroglycerin down unpaved roads in unprotected trucks. The mere sound of a revving engine suddenly assumes the gravity of a menacing portent, the aural representation of death. The Wages of Fear changes gears—fitting for a film about truck-driving—shedding its travelogous stylized verite, its South American romance, to become a tense roadtrip through the mountainous countryside, as the drivers confront one perilous and potentially fatal obstacle after another. "Think they pay you to drive?" asks Charles Vanel to his partner, Yves Montand. "They pay you to be terrified."

If an early sequence, a barroom brawl, evinces a master of form at work, it's simply a warm-up for the rest of the film, a crafted exercise in maintained suspense; as the trucks, packed with a bumper crop of ultra-sensitive explosive, lurch forward, the nails I'd spent weeks growing out were suddenly gone, spattered in pieces on my hardwood floors. The tension culminates in one climactic, spectacular and nearly unbearable sequence in which an obstructive boulder must be cleared from the road; it is slowly, carefully filled, drip by drip, with a bit of the volatile, "could explode at any moment" liquid explosive. Under the immense pressure of perpetually teetering on the edge of death, the characters begin to drastically transform: the stupid turn strong, the scared turn arrogant and the once tough tuck their tails.

While touching on age's effects on attitude—youth's hubristic false sense of invincibility vs. old age's cautious anxiety—The Wages of Fear, the ultimate truck driver picture, is primarily a general exemplification of how the rich take advantage of the poor, how they're happy to send them out on missions of certain death for their own personal, capital benefit. It works as a devastating allegory for war, among other things, with American oil companies cast as the central, callous villain, abusive towards native populations and exploitative of the desperate. The Wages of Fear hasn't lost an ounce of its whiteknuckleness, and the contemporary aptness of its politics make it seem downright prophetic, although the actual lesson to be learned is that oil company perfidy is nothing new; they have, for decades, been engaged in such disreputable pursuits.

02 August 2007

The Believer

Written and Directed by: Henry Bean

Grade: D+

The Edward Norton Rule of Making It states that all up-and-coming, young male actors ought to find a part as a Neo-Nazi for their big breakthrough role. Ryan Gosling, go-getter that he was, one-ups this formula for success by playing a Jewish Neo-Nazi in The Believer; such a divided, contradictory character obviously demands sensitivity in its handling, but The Believer, for the vast bulk of its run-time, conducts itself with the antithesis of complexity, reveling in cheap cinematic shorthands, like an intrusive, histrionic musical score or a vapidly rapid editing structure, and cartoonish supporting characters, such as the mush-faced journalist or the haughty, pedantic Yeshivah brat seen in flashbacks. Where the film requires exercised restraint, it instead offers a bright red t-shirt sporting an enormous, silk-screened swastika across its face; when it ought to hold back, it instead bursts forth with lines like, "we could fuck through a sheet, let's try it." The fact that Gosling manages to, just barely, eschew the caricatural quality that characterizes the film—that he could deliver a performance that approaches depth within such dreck—is a great testament to his talent.

But why does his character hate the Jews, particularly when he himself is a Jew? "It's an axiom of civilization," he explains, "just as man longs for woman, loves his children and fears death, he hates Jews." Intermittently, The Believer features some intellectually-stimulating discourse on the nature of Judaism (which I suspect might be particularly intriguing for those interested in such issues, such as those of the Jewish persuasion), but for the most part, like American History X, it suffers from too much uncountered anti-Semitic speechifying. Only in the final act, when some sympathetic "just like me and you" Jews are introduced, did I remember that not all Jewish men wear fedoras and payot.

The Believer might have been a stronger, or at least more interesting, film if it provided a tempered backdrop against which Gosling could explore his crisis of self, or if it dwelled more on an issue it only address peripherally: that, in a world increasingly controlled by capital and markets, racial politics are becoming outmoded. Instead, it's content to merely cash-in on its own potential provocation, down to a sequence in which skinheads laugh in the faces of Holocaust survivors. Don't fall for it, readership. The Believer is nothing but a cheap-indie, not merely in its production values, which would be forgivable, but in its tone and style. If you can't do something right, if you can't do it well, whether due to a lack of funds or a lack of talent—or worse, as here, a combination of both—you shouldn't do it at all.

The Simpsons Movie

Directed by: David Silverman
Written by: James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti

Grade: B-

I've been watching The Simpsons every day for the last, oh, about eighteen years, so the prospect of a "major motion picture" excited me but, admittedly, once I finally got to see it, I was disappointed. Though I'm not sure what I expected, since I knew that any Simpsons Movie would have two major, insurmountable obstacles even before a single cell was animated, a single line was voiced by the talented cast, or even before the first draft of the script was completed.

First off, the absurdist humor of the television show works so well because, structurally, the series' writing staff has mastered subverting the standard three-act narrative, allowing the twenty-two minute stories to progress as absurdly as the jokes delivered within them. On television, the first third of any given episode sets you up only marginally, at best, for the final third. Of course, had this been attempted in the movie, it would have suffered from what many television to cinema adaptations suffer from: a narrative that's little more than three loosely connected episodes. (That might play well on television, with "to be continued..." markers, but doesn't fly on the big screen.) The Simpsons Movie was destined to be damned if it did and damned if it didn't. Homer himself hints at this dilemma, in the movie's first reel, while with the family at The Itchy and Scratchy Movie. "I can't believe we're paying to see something we get on TV for free!" he bemoans, adding, "everyone in this theater's a giant sucker!"

But The Simpsons Movie does distinguish itself from its small-screen counterpart by creating a nice, normal, linear three-act storyline, following basic narrative guidelines to a fault—Homer nearly destroys Springfield and is outcast, then must return to save it. Unfortunately, that moviemaking style isn't very conducive to The Simpsons' sense of humor, which is why the television writers have avoided it like a laugh track since the early '90s. That also hints at the second problem: while there have been comedians who've pulled it off, like Woody Allen or the Marx Bros., comedy in cinema is particularly difficult to maintain for ninety or so minutes, and as such I've long felt that comedy is a style much better suited to the abbreviated medium of television, which has brought us the hilarious Simpsons, week after week. In cinema, the expansive grandeur and the Cinemascope framing—which is, it should be noted, beautifully animated—don't facilitate the small scale brand of humor that's made The Simpsons such a hilarious success.

Those criticisms aside, though, The Simpsons Movie is funny—there are a lot of great gags and one-liners peppered throughout, in particular the already infamous Spider-Pig sequence. I could also appreciate its subversive swipes at organized religion, the NSA spy program and Americans' large-scale apathy towards environmental crisis, expressed in a scene in which Lisa goes door to door, each slammed in her face, trying to amass interest in saving the over-polluted Lake Springfield. (Plus it features what we all came here to see—hardcore nudity!) What it's short on, or so I felt on this initial viewing, is belly laughs, of which the series have never been for want.

But on an optimistic note, I'm confident that it'll play better down the line, especially once it starts appearing on DVD or television, the best jokes forgotten and not spoiled by promotional spots as it takes its rightful place alongside its fellow episodes, down on the small screen.

01 August 2007


Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Alex Garland

Grade: A-

To be nice, we could say that Sunshine "pays homage" to its sci-fi predecessors, most explicitly 2001, and to be cynical we could say that it blatantly rips them off; I suppose it all depends on how much leeway you're willing to offer Danny Boyle. Working with his 28 Days Later scribe Alex Garland, I'd say he has managed to produce a personal work that eschews pure rehashing; it addresses a unique and contemporary socio-political issue, like all great science-fiction, through allegory and the guise of "the future". It apes its genre forefathers, but it transcends mere imitation.

Set fifty years in the future, Cillian Murphy stars as the resident physicist, and therefore most indispensable member, on a panracial crew of astronauts on a multi-year voyage to the fading sun. They're possessed with the imperturbable intent to drop a bomb "the mass of Manhattan island" (oh, Manhattan island) on the dying star with the hopes of reigniting it, thereby solving the solar-system-threatening problem the only way America knows how—by blowing it up. Earth, ironically, is in the midst of a period of global freezing, and this mission of the aptly and hubristically named Icarus II spacecraft is the blue planet's last hope of survival. Of course, an Icarus II implies an Icarus I, a preceding vessel that disappeared past "the contact zone" on its identical mission seven years prior. Cause of failure? Unknown! So as I-2 nears the sun and intercepts a distress call from I-1, the crew makes the knuckleheaded error of deciding to check it out. After all, what could go wrong?

Well, pretty much everything, of course. Bathed in sumptuous orange, shining silver and blinding white, the first two-thirds of Sunshine play out like an Ethics 101 textbook brought to life, as absurd but hefty philosophical conundrums confront the crew as all of their best laid plans go awry: do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? ("[Can] we weigh the life of one against the future of mankind?" as Murphy rhetorically puts it.) Can abstract moral principles survive when confronted with concrete reality? Are such principles tenable when one is faced with their actual execution? And the larger spiritual question: if God wants to destroy the earth, by freezing it to death, do we have the capability, or even the right, to stop Him? Do humans even deserve to survive?

Sunshine's first two-thirds couple its intriguing underlying concerns with gorgeous visuals; Boyle's tributary/heavily-influenced film shares 2001's sense of outerspace lyricism, though I wouldn't say it necessarily matches it, and Star Wars' spaceship fetish, not unduly reveling in Mark Tildesley's sumptuous production design and the visual effects team's rendering of the increasingly imposing sun—soak it up, because it's not everyday that you get to stare directly at the sun for two hours and not go blind. (The gold-lame spacesuits are a nice touch, too, courtesy of costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb.) While, in the future-world of the filmmakers, the sun is on its way out, it's still the sun, meaning that it's still unfathomably hot. (Even if it lost 3/4 of its heat, it would still have a surface, to say nothing of its core, temperature of nearly 2500°F.) So, while the crew's imperative mission is to save the sun, their greatest threat to doing so is the sun itself, its incendiary luminescence that perpetually threatens to burn up the ship.

While at first playing out as a cast-attrition epic (to appropriate a phrase recently coined, marvelously, by Tasha Robinson), Sunshine radically switches gears in its final act, as is typical of a Boyle/Garland production, on presumably nothing more than a whim to become a cast-attrition thriller; the previous tones of smoldering orange are replaced by those of cool blue, and the film decides that it wants to be a monster movie, a slasher film in space (a more respectable version of Jason X), conspicuously borrowing more from Alien than from 2001 now as the remaining crew members are picked off by a creature only seen in blurs, as though to look at him is to stare directly into the sun. (Earlier, when a team is investigating the abandoned Icarus I, a suggestion to split-up is rejected; "yeah," Chris Evans, in a role finally worthy of his talent and charisma, scoffs, "we might get picked-off by aliens." And then, uh, that's pretty much what happens.)

Tonally inconsistent, the disparate portions of the film still inform one another thematically. Sunshine's about an international, multicultural gang of humans collectively mustering the gumption, courage and sacrifice to overcome an environmental catastrophe; nothing can stop them, not their own mistakes (Act II) or the psychotic violence of resolute religionists (Act III). It's an optimistic story, steeped in tragedy, about the ability of mankind to save itself and about the unflappability of man's resolve. In short, it's a global warming allegory with an encouragingly positive message and an optimistic outlook.

In all honesty, there's a lot wrong with Sunshine; there are missteps throughout and poor choices on behalf of its makers. It overreaches, it falters and it gets distracted; but for every scene that doesn't work, there's a sequence steeped in emotional and productional grandeur that's as lovely, on the most basic levels of effectiveness, as filmmaking gets. For the bulk of its running time, Sunshine indulges in genre cliches—for example, it lifts 2001's out-of-doors ship repair sequence outright—but one of the major methods by which it distinguishes itself is by affording nearly every death scene with grandiose emotional heft; each is, surprisingly, moving for a genre that often lacks that level of pathos. Forget even just the genre—it's rare to ever see death scenes with this kind of persuasively affecting majesty. John Murphy & Underworld's score is a big help, too, as are Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans' performances, and all in all Sunshine's strongest moments more than make-up for its dips. In one of the earliest scenes, Cliff Curtis, the ship's psycho psychologist, waxes poetic on basking in the sun. "The light envelops you," he effuses; living up to its title, Sunshine is as enveloping as sunshine.