26 December 2007


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Written & Directed by: John Carney

Grade: B+

Once opens with real-life singer-songwriter Glen Hansard (of "The Frames") busking on a Dublin street corner while a pissed-up bloke pisses in an adjacent alley; if this is going to be a musical, then it sure as hell ain't Vincente Minelli behind the camera. It turns out that Once is a musical, naturalistically shot with a shaky handheld, one that stays true to the romantic core of the movie musical and its MGM standards while stripping away its artificial pretensions, particularly its penchant for unaccompanied spontaneous singing: its characters may break into song, but they do so because they're musicians, and they only do so with their instruments, or at least their discmen, in tow.

But you might say Once is deceptively natural as, while it may present an imperfect world, it's unfailingly pleasant, constructing a universe in which able, willing and available musicians occupy the streets like ripe apples in an orchard, simply waiting to be plucked, and everyone—from parents to loan officers to recording engineers—is just dying to help make one's dreams come true through support and cooperation; where all it takes to succeed is a generous helping of talent and charm. If not in its style, then at least in its story Once is a standardly romantic and fanciful musical. Hansard and Markéta Irglová, a classically-trained pianist/flower girl with an Eastern European accent, meet cute on the corner one evening when he's banging his guitar and screaming his little head off; she's an Eliza Doolittle figure and Hansard's her Higgins, except he doesn't want to tease a proper English accent out of her—though she could use one—but rather draw out her musicality.

As Rogers and Astaire expressed their feelings for one another through dance, Hansard and Irglová express their budding emotions not through a kiss—or, heaven forbid, lovemaking—but through music, through vocal harmony and guitar-piano interplay. Together, they're two musicians for whom life is a folk opera with little room for unsung speech; when they try and explain themselves through dialogue, they fail to connect, but through their instruments they transcend the divide of spoken language (her Czech is better than her English) to find common ground in the shared vernacular of indie rock love. Over the course of a week they feel out each other's musical styles, recruit a band of street musicians, record a CD, and then go their separate ways. It's cute but not aggressively so, emotionally subtle and secure in its simple sweetness.

Hansard and Irglová, both non-professional actors exuding high levels of charming sincerity, aren't your typical movie lovers: he's hung up on an old flame and she's the mother of a small child and married to a man back in Czech Republic, though they're estranged. While your typical movie musical uses music to bring two innocent young lovers together, Once uses two young lovers to bring its music together; when the demo is done, the lovers split. Rather than a kiss goodbye, in keeping with non-physical character of their relationship, the parting gift is a piano, and that musical connection means more than any smooch ever could.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

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Written & Directed by: Woody Allen

Grade: A

Hannah and Her Sisters is one of Woody Allen's many penetrating cinematic analyses of the contemporary culture and his own kind: affluent, intellectual and neurotic New Yorkers. It might be his finest as well, although with such a strong catalog of films it's difficult to ascribe such superlatives to any individual Allen movie.

The film, a masterpiece of ensemble acting—Allen's mastery as a director of actors is often and unfairly overlooked—is built around a collection of spouses, siblings, friends and in-laws on the cusp of mid-life crises, each with a conspicuous lacking of varying kinds: Dianne Wiest, who steals the show with a performance so palpably nervous, insecure and strung-out that it approaches Woody Allen levels, lacks the direction of a career or relationship; Allen himself lacks the comfort and security of spiritual certainty; while Michael Caine, who won an Oscar for his performance, and Barbara Hershey lack romantic satisfaction in their respective relationships. It lunges them, ultimately, into an affair, following an awkward courtship (brilliantly executed), even though Caine is married to Hershey's sister, the titular Hannah (Mia Farrow).

Beginning at one Thanksgiving, that American, non-denominational celebration of family togetherness, and ending at another—with one more in between—the characters set out on chaotic, destructive attempts, doomed to failure, to fill those voids in their lives. The character arcs follow a parabolic trajectory: a plunging descent into abjection, followed by a redeemed return to originating normalcy. It is at once distancing and inviting, alternatingly pushing us away with its alienating chapter titles and drawing us in with its intimate, multiple point-of-view voice-over narration, a parallel to the characters' vacillating behavior towards one another.

One of Hannah and Her Sisters' driving dilemmas is, is "finding the right person" so important that it morally permits the destruction of families and the devastation of individual people? Though released before Allen's very public personal troubles, as a tale of interfamilial infidelity and betrayal Hannah and Her Sisters is, in hindsight, a personal working through of this question for Allen, a veiled, disturbing and piercingly autobiographical confessional of lust and domestic dissatisfaction. It seems, now, no accident that Allen cast himself as Farrow's ex-husband and she as an actress garnering raves for her portrayal of Ibsen's Nora; it seems as though he was practically begging Farrow to get the hint and leave him before he lost control of himself, advice that unfortunately went unheeded.

Though everyone gets a happy ending in the film—or at least deceptively happy, as it's tough to believe any of these characters could have lasting and meaningful relationships, evidenced at least by the ambiguously optimistic revelation that concludes the picture—Hannah and Her Sisters preaches that getting love right takes a couple of tries. "Boy," Allen naively observes in the film, "love is really unpredictable." The film is rife with divorcees and relationships that are like drinking glasses teetering on the edge of a coffee table, waiting for one slight push to send them on a shatter-bound course to the floor. Even the relationship between Hannah and her sisters' parents, a superficially pleasant and loving old couple with a seemingly happy marriage enduring through the decades, is exposed as a mere front behind which a couple of bitterly jealous and contemptuous old-timers have hidden their animosity and extramarital trysts for years.

But Hannah and Her Sisters concerns more than the mere crises of the heart and body, branching out to explore a crisis of the soul as well. (Allen would expand on this religious-philosophical aspect in his subsequent masterpiece and Hannah's companion piece, Crimes & Misdemeanors.) Allen plays a hypochondriac whose brief confrontation with mortality sends him hurtling on a seriocomic quest for meaning, including a stab at Catholicism that hilariously manifests itself in the seemingly compelled purchase of not only crucifixes but Wonder Bread and Hellman's. Despite its levity, the spiritual journey builds to a gorgeous and moving climax in which Allen, in a moment of rock-bottom despair, unlocks the meaning of life via a screening of Duck Soup. The secret to enjoying life, Allen tells us, is in finding the strength to enjoy living, God or no God, lover or no lover. It's a much needed lesson for any Woody Allen character—any modern human being, that is.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

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Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Kelly Masterson

Grade: A-

After at least a decade, if not much more, of lackluster films from Sidney Lumet, the fading titan has strikingly returned to form with a fiery, blustering crash. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is easily the best-acted film of the year, but what's more is that it's a sharp piece of cultural criticism about late capitalism and the depths of tragedy it's capable of producing.

Nearly three-quarters of the way into the film, Marisa Tomei asks her husband, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, for car fare to her mother's house; "I could really use some money," she says, and she might as well be speaking for every character in the film. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is about money, pure and anything but simple: its role as America's driving force, main object of desire and the one thing of which no one seems to have enough.

Hoffman is introduced in a position of dominance, retrocopulating with his wife Tomei (it's surprisingly graphic, despite being filmed in a non-revealing long shot), a dominance he'll resume, though not in a porously-penetrative way, throughout the rest of the film in regards to his little brother, played by Ethan Hawke. Hoffman pushes him into a robbery he doesn't want, nor have the brains, to commit but both, to their undoing, are in desperate need of the cash they assure themselves that they'll score. (And Hoffman, the cokeheaded corporate exec, is too much the coward to do it himself.)

Hoffman is obsessed with the pathetically unrealistic idea that if only he could get he and his wife back to Rio, where they spent the opening scene in giggly, orgasmic bliss, they could solve all of their marital (er, sexual) woes. "I need money," Hoffman says, "I want to start over again." Meanwhile, Hawke is in debt to just about everyone he knows and not only can't he pay his child support, he can't even afford to follow through on his promise to his daughter to send her on a field trip to see The Lion King on Broadway, humiliating her with his poverty in front of her entire grade-school class.

United, then, by a shared indigence, Hoffman enlists Hawke to rob a Westchester jewelry store, a mom-and-pop operation in the most literal sense, as their parents own and operate it. This is the sort of premise that comic films are made of, but Lumet and screenwriter Masterson play it straight. (They take a moment to laugh only once, at a mildly ridiculous costume that Hawke dawns on the day of the robbery; Lumet seems prone to finding comedy in costumes, as the only other time I can recall him making a successfully funny joke was when Al Pacino showed up in Serpico absurdly dressed, for no specified reason, as a hasidic Jew.)

Hawke is initially uncomfortable with the idea of knocking off his parents' joint, making excuses to his domineering big brother. "I got a kid," he whines. "You got shit," Hoffman counters, correctly. That oppressive need for dough that the brothers share sets into a motion a tragedy that, like its characters debts and obligations, builds and builds until each player in the tragedy is left shattered. It's just one harrowing thing piling on top of another, until the pile's too deep to be dug out from under, Lumet suffocating the characters and audience alike.

No one does straight formal filmmaking—not to mention direct actors at an Elia Kazan-level—like Sidney Lumet. (Pronounced Luh-mett, by the way; as Foster Hirsch says, "he's not French, he's a Jewish kid from Brooklyn!") Having gotten personal flair out of his system as early as 1964 with The Pawnbroker, Lumet, in his directness and faithfulness to his source material, is a screenwriter's best friend. Having come from television and the theater, Lumet comes to cinema with the old-fashioned idea of the text as king. Disregarding a few editing flourishes that take us through the film's jumbled temporal structure, Lumet's style is the epitome of directorial restraint.

Though that's not to say that he's pejoratively "by the books," just a director in total control and, at his best, comfortable enough with his own talents and story to avoid making any misguided attempts at overextension. (Though it should be noted that despite his capacity for mastery he's had more, much more, than his fair share of clunkers.) An extended long take of Hoffman unfastening his shirt's buttons and fixing himself a drink is a testament to Lumet's brilliant filmmaking patience, while the Looney Tunes short playing on the television in the background is a nice touch, suggesting the silliness and cartoonishness of Hoffman and his big robbery plans.

But Lumet never lets the film descend into the zany—thankfully, as the director barely has a funny bone in his body—keeping it soaked instead in hard-boiled, absurdly depressing high-cynicism. The story moves back and forth through time, switching points of view using the robbery as its center; the crime itself, which of course goes horribly awry, begins the film and serves both as a repeated point of return or departure for the various narrative strands. I understand that the technique is meant to underscore the characters' detachment from one another—the filmmakers refuse to even let their narratives proceed together!—but the gimmicky structure detracts a bit from the film's central narrative thrust; as the story winds down, though, and the characters become more and more tied up in one another, the filmmakers allow the competing strains to integrate. In its last act, the characters, united, place a period at the end of the grim parable.

At the film's heart are three clashing males: Hawke, as a man-in-debt way in over his head who can't drink or steal his way out of it, gives his most impassioned and dynamic performance to date, certainly coaxed out of him by the masterful Lumet, while Hoffman is, at least at first, a bit more restrained, going from giggling through his role to becoming a man gone mad, having entirely fallen apart. Both actors are phenomenal, but trumping them all is Albert Finney, channeling the spirit of Peter Finch (who got himself an Oscar thanks to Lumet), as the boys' father. Hoffman maintains control over his dimwitted little brother, but Finney controls them both; as his character of the weepy and angry old father dominates his sniveling children, so too does Finney dominate the film. From all sides, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is full, in bursts, of loud, conspicuous emotions as the dramatic intensity unceasingly increases. But those emotions never ring false or stink of misguided overacting; they maintain a startling level of emotional genuineness, the performances unsettlingly naturalistic.

Though Before the Devil Knows You're Dead presents an America totally fucked by debt, it still maintains that crime doesn't pay. Crime is just about the worst route, in fact, in this punishing, unforgiving film without the faintest glimmer of hope or moral direction in which every plot point is another crank of the vise around the audience's throats. "The world is an evil place," a jewel-fencer says, declaring the film's theme. "Some of us make money off it, others get destroyed." So you might as well swallow a bottle of pills now and get it over with. In his cranky cynicism, but not in the freshness of his direction, Lumet is showing his age.

24 December 2007

Gone Baby Gone

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Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard

Grade: B

Give Ben Affleck credit for two things: he knows Boston and he knows his little brother Casey is a hell of an actor, and with those two assets in tow his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, a nasty tale of human monsters and missing children, isn't nearly as inauspicious as cynical viewers might expect from the hitherto largely lackluster actor. With its authentic sense of place, the film rises above the head of your average abducted child procedural in a manner its director rarely rises above the head of your average actor—through naturalistic credibility.

Casey stars as a private eye, teamed up with his girlfriend Michelle Monaghan; together they're like Nick & Nora, Jr., trying to prove they can play ball with the big boys when hired by a missing girl's aunt to assist in the "neighborhood aspect" of the abduction investigation. Casey "knows people who don't talk to the police," i.e. neighborhood hooligans, the people around whom he grew up—people who cuss like sailors, drop their r's and say things like "pawsitive". (Welcome to Boston: when Casey asks a kid who's blocking his car to move his bike, the no-more-than-ten-years-old rapscallion replies, "go fuck your mother!") The film has such a strong sense of realism that when characters brandish guns, as they occasionally do, the weapons serve as legitimately potent objects of menace—and not, as is par for the course in Hollywood pictures, mere movie props—genuinely upsetting the power balance in any given scene in which they appear.

Affleck's set-ups are largely by-the-books, but they serve his film well by staying out of the way of the story, which, for the first hour at least, is dynamite. Casey and the cops, including Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris, spend their screen time tearing through the dark Dorchester underground, revealed to us by the light of the projector bulb, probing the circumstances surrounding a little girl's mysterious disappearance from her mother's house; Gone Baby Gone is a tense, street's-eye view of the investigation, and the filmmakers even turn the genre on its ear a bit by making the grieving mother, a masterfully filthy performance from Amy Ryan, the antithesis of the sympathetic victim. She's an odious drunk and a cokehead, a stupid and selfish woman who seems more concerned with concealing her shady lifestyle than cooperating with the investigation. It makes all the people trying to help her, except Casey, livid. "Do you even give a fuck about your kid?" an exasperated, irate Harris finally shouts at her, speaking for both himself and the disgusted audience.

But the filmmakers don't go so far as to facilely reduce Ryan to an out-and-out creep either—it's a complex performance and a complex character, with glimmers of sympathetic sadness; even though she comes across as the worst possible kind of mother, somewhere beneath the layers of drug-induced apathy is a broken-up and loyal mom. That's the first hour of Gone Baby Gone in a nutshell, a complicated film not easily reduced to simple archetypes, one rife with good guys (and bad) but no heroes or good deeds, only abject duty and misguided altruism. While the standard missing child story is about rescuing an innocent from the grip of the evil forces of the world and returning it to the protection of its family, the lines are not so clear cut in Gone Baby Gone, which presents all sides as tainted and sullied. "Half the people he knows are degenerates," Harris says of Casey at one point. "Yeah, you know who the other half are?" Casey replies, "cops," underscoring the fine line that separates the two.

But unfortunately Gone Baby Gone begins to get a bit too full of itself in its later sections; by going to such pains to besmirch the institutions of police and family from top-to-bottom, it abandons some of its complexity and finally redeems Casey as the lone honorable hero, however ambiguously so. Gone Baby Gone's got a lot of "third act problems," as the characters sit around talking, dragging the film out to explain the central mystery's finer points, winding up with a story so complicated it approaches the convoluted as the filmmakers, over and over again, explain what happened only to take it back and explain it again with a different slant. In the end, the point is that, if family makes you who you are, as Casey intones at the film's start in voice-over, then children belong with their parents. For Casey, that's a black-and-white principle with no space for nuance, which would be fine except that director Ben goes to lengths far too great to hammer it home.

19 December 2007

The Reckless Moment (1949)

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Directed by: Max Ophüls
Written by: Henry Garson & Robert W. Soderberg
(adaptation by: Mel Dinelli & Robert E. Kent)

Grade: B+

A taut and nifty melodrama-noir with a strong reactionary bent, The Reckless Moment is essentially about love and the the redemptive acts of seflessness it can inspire, but it's also about teaching a woman to know her place and the chaos that occurs when the nuclear family unit is splintered. The story is compelling enough, concerning Joan Bennett and the heap of trouble she gets into when she covers up a murder committed, accidentally, by her daughter, Geraldine Brooks. Yet The Reckless Moment's main attraction isn't its script, however crackling it is at times, but that it sports master stylist Max Ophüls behind the camera (here credited as the mildly Americanized or, given the proximity to the end of WWII, de-Germanized "Opuls". Nothing cries "Kraut!" like an umlaut.)

Ophüls, a bona fide master of camera movement and mise-en-scene, densely packs the frames with people and objects, allowing the camera to soak up the ornateness while emphasizing the crowded, crushing character of both Bennett's domestic and criminal lives. ("You don't know how a family can surround you at times," she laments at one point.) Though set in the boondocks, 50 miles outside of Los Angeles in a small, somnolent seaside town, Bennett and her family's waterfront house, the film's primary location (it feels like a lightly opened-up stage play) is lavishly decorated. The camera, for its part, often winds through the film's narrow aisles and hallways, following Bennett as she passes through them, figuratively navigating the labyrinth-of-lies that she's wrought.

After Bennett hides the body of the dead man, an Irish blackmailer comes a-callin', played by a strapping James Mason with a come-and-go brogue to match his fleeting meanness. Mason soon falls for Bennett, acting as surrogate husband (her man is away on business); he tries to help her deal with the threat posed by his boss, a tough-as-nails Roy Roberts, as Bennett scrambles to come up with an unreasonable amount of cash. She goes so far as to pawn her jewelry, echoing a scene Ophüls would revisit four years later in his renowned film The Earrings of Madame de..., a French melodrama whose main character is a pair of earrings; for an opulent stylist like Ophüls, a woman losing her jewels, her source of pride and grandeur, comes across as high tragedy.

Bennett begins the film as the only stolid figure surrounded by a tic- and gesture-crazy cast (eg. a nail-biting daughter; a watch-setting, hair-combingly slimy Shepperd Strudwick.) But as the situation becomes increasingly dire, she gradually loses her composure, until by the film's end she is sprawled out on her bed in a fit of tears. Despite having sassy lines like, "when you're 17 these days, you know what the score is; you're not a child anymore," The Reckless Moment is a deeply conservative tale, one about a woman who's punished, essentially, for making big decisions without consulting her husband, for trying to wrest control of a situation and a family she has no business, as a woman, controlling. Her selfless act of love for her daughter, cleaning up her manslaughter, gets her into more trouble than she can handle; her act of love makes her a prisoner and a victim. She's finally saved, though, when her love is paid in kind by the selfless act of another, of a man (Mason), that finally sets everything right. She ends the film on the phone with her husband, telling him that everything's going to be OK...once he gets home, and the family unit is restored.

18 December 2007

The Mist

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Written & Directed by: Frank Darabont

Grade: B

At its heart, The Mist is an allegory; unfortunately, for at least the first two acts (i.e. most of the film), hyphenate Darabont makes the easy mistake of getting lost trying to find it, to the detriment of his characters' development. Set in a small town, the film is populated by cardboard cutouts of your standard archetypes: the religious fundamentalist, the haughty fella from the city (black, natch), the reckless small-town simpleton, etc. etc. The drama is clunky—especially as Darabont has a bad habit of trying to score cheap pathos points by suddenly giving an ancillary character some depth and then killing them immediately thereafter (eg. James Whitmore's character in Shawshank, Alexa Davalos here)—the acting wooden and/or cartoonish (Toby Jones, in a wonderfully natural performance, and William Sadler are the exceptions), the writing outrageously obvious and blandly blatant as characters spout the film's Big Themes and debate pat philosophical matters.

But as characters die off and the survivors begin to act more as rival mobs than individuals, The Mist starts to come to life as it settles into its symbolism. The premise is simple, in an old-fashioned horror movie kind of way: after a nasty storm, a New England town (as the film is based on a Stephen King novella, it is of course set in Maine) is besieged by a mysterious fog, er, mist, that kills those who wander into it, trapping two dozen or so residents and tourists behind the vulnerable glass walls of a supermarket. What's in the mist? Giant bugs—such as locusts the size of cats—and pterodactyls, for starters; essentially, The Mist is a battle between the prehistoric as it encroaches on modernity, a peculiar metaphor for the invasion of the backwards terrorists emerging from their caves to strike America. We even find out that the monsters are the result of an army experiment gone awry, that the mist attacking America is blowback from military malfeasance—just like 9/11. (Here, though, the threat—the mist—is literally "blowing back.")

But, in the end, The Mist is less interested in how and why the town is being attacked than in the attack's polarizing effects on its populace, the peril dividing the microcosmic community into opposing sides and turning many of them to a paranoid and angry form of religion. (Sound familiar?) Terror(ism) becomes the lesser threat as the loss of reason that follows the onslaught of religious fervor emerges as the true menace. As the tension becomes, increasingly, between our heroes, led by Thomas Jane, and their fellow man—and not between man and the menace "out there"—The Mist's intensity rises, building to a bleak and miserable finale as our small band of protagonists take their chances in the threatening unknown. Darabont doesn't take sides with any of the pigheadedly certain parties in The Mist; it's a celebration of level-headed agnosticism, easily read as both anti-science and anti-religion, anti-military and anti-civilian. There's a twist ending following Jane doing something stupid that, taken with the conversion of the grocery store's masses, serves as a warning to the audience: basically, disasters may cause a tragic loss of life, but it doesn't mean it's the end of the world. Instead, he suggests that maybe Americans, to their own detriment, have overreacted to what happened on September 11th, and maybe they ought to try and gather their wits before giving into their fear and doing something rash like, say, starting a war.

17 December 2007

I Am Legend

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Mark Protosevich & Akiva Goldsman

Grade: B-

When will science ever learn? I Am Legend, based on the same-name novel by Richard Matheson that has been adapted directly at least twice before (including, unremarkably, as the Charlton Heston camp vehicle The Omega Man), bears a blatant similarity to 28 Days Later, another recent film about the outbreak of a virus that turns mankind into a large pack of cannibalistic zombie-like creatures. It even lifts a shot from that film directly, of the larger-than-life shadows of the approaching monsters, as a way, presumably, of paying homage. But while Danny Boyle and Alex Ross' film was a multilayered assessment, and broad critique, of the contemporary culture, one with a powerful anti-military streak, I Am Legend is a deeply conservative, religious and anti-science polemic. In short, regardless of its source material (from which I understand it liberally departs), it's a conspicuously Americanized take on its English predecessor.

Will Smith stars as the Last Man on Earth, or at least New York, the sole human populator—he has an adorably loyal German shepherd to keep him company—of a Manhattan with no bridge access to the rest of the world. I Am Legend is best in its early setting-establishing scenes, as Smith, doing an excellent job of keeping the film compelling, interacts with his canine companion as though he were a child—having one-sided arguments about eating vegetables or taking a bath—while wandering, by daylight, a stunningly desolate and decimated New York City overgrown with CGI weeds and full of CGI deer and rusting CGI cars. He does the post-apocalyptic tourist thing, of course: fishing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, practicing his golf swing off the wing of a fighter jet aboard the Intrepid, and deer hunting at a neon-less Times Square, one so dangerous, populated by lions and tigers (oh my!), that you get the sense that not even Giuliani could clean it up.

Nor could Giuliani likely take on the hungry and homicidal hellions that overtake the city at nightfall, while Smith is safely locked down in his secret (and spacious!) Washington Square townhouse. (Surely, with the world gone to such shit a year after the 2008 election, Rudy's been elected president?) Director Francis Lawrence, whose only previous film credit (music videos aside) was directing the by-most-accounts inauspicious Constantine, proves himself a surprisingly deft filmmaker, crafting a large handful of effective sequences, particularly an early scene in which Smith searches for his runaway dog in a darkened, and presumably zombie-filled, warehouse. The tension is marvelously sustained as Lawrence is coyly withholding, showing us only a quick glimpse, after much built-up anticipation, of the huddled zombies—with their backs turned, no less. (There's also a brilliantly bizarre scene in which a bit of dialogue from Shrek, recited from memory by Smith, takes on a double meaning and moves the film along.)

I Am Legend's problem is that, as well-crafted as it may be, the script is downright atrocious. (Co-writer Akiva Goldsman is responsible for penning such gems as Schumacher's Batman films and three out of Ron Howard's last four films.) Using lines like "social de-evolution is complete" and cheap (but unfortunately necessary, I suppose) techniques like having Smith keep us up on the narrative through direct address video journals is forgivable, as are the copious plot holes, but once the dog is inevitably, and shamefully, hurt in a deplorable bit of emotional manipulation around the middle of the film, it's all downhill as the film sputters on into nonsense theology blended with boilerplate action. Turns out that Smith isn't the last man on the earth, just the last black man, with the sloppy last-act introduction of some secondary characters to whom Smith can preach the Gospel of Bob Marley, like a college freshman trying to make friends at orientation, and deliver lines like, "God didn't do this, we did." Early in the film, the camera lingers on a poster still hanging on the streets of New York that reads, "God still loves us." Amidst the destruction it seems ironic, but we soon discover it's meant more as an admonishment to the audience. Take note that it isn't an accident that, from what we can gather from the quick flashbacks, the threat to America's stability begins in Manhattan, that hotbed of secular humanism.

16 December 2007

Sweeney Todd

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Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: John Logan
Based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler

Grade: A-

Before the opening credits, Sweeney Todd features a strident organ that, note by note, builds to a blastingly cacophonous chord. When the credits do roll, subsequently, they're rolled over the travels of a streaming trail of syrupy blood; taken together, the first minute or so serves as a warning from Burton to the audience that the film you're about to see is not only going to be loud, but violent, too. It's fair warning, if you catch it: a Hollywood musical—and yes, Sweeney Todd is an out-and-out musical, approaching the operatic in its spare use of unsung dialogue—has never before been so unapologetically gruesome nor so horribly cynical, operatically tragic and unsparingly unforgiving. If the heyday MGM musicals (see: That's Entertainment!) serve now as a symbol of cultural and cinematic innocence, then Sweeney Todd is the film that slits their throats and bathes in their blood.

Not that I've got anything against the old Hollywood musicals, but contemporary cinema hasn't been kind to their legacy with folderol like Moulin Rouge (best characterized by its boing boing boing sound effects) and Chicago; as one of my former professors, Foster Hirsch, used to say, they're musicals for people who hate musicals. Sweeney Todd, on the other hand, is more like a musical for people who hate people, a terribly contemptuous film whose guiding thematic principle is, as Johnny Depp sings in the title role as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, "everyone deserves to die." Let Sweeney Todd be the paragon of early 21st Century musical moviemaking, a reflection of the real-life violence that characterizes our present wartimes. The sweet and lachrymose pathos of Edward Scissorhands, the other Burton-Depp collaboration about a troubled barber, has been supplanted by a dark and bitter animus that nevertheless manages to move in the grand tragic tradition of Verdi, thanks in large part to Depp's complex and emotional performance.

Structurally, via Sondheim, Sweeney Todd is largely conventional, fitting the MGM template as a high-on-coincidence tale (albeit one of revenge) with a central romantic couple and a secondary, complementary couple. But while the young and incidental B-couple may get their happy ending, Burton executes it with the care of a contractual obligation; he just barely takes the time to divert his focus from Depp's lamentable butcher barber. (As one character puts it, in a bit of delightful wordplay, Todd is "the very last word in barbery.") What makes Sweeney Todd such an atypical film is its front-and-center brutality; where, in your run-of-the-mill Hollywood flick, the camera would ordinarily cut away before a throat is slit, Burton shows the slicings to us full-on, absent any of the tongue-in-cheekiness that accompanied the hyperviolence in Tarantino's Kill Bill dyad. Watch the skin of throat split apart and the blood flow, over and over again as Depp takes his revenge against one man out on the entire city of London. I couldn't help but start to giggle a bit, incredulously, at the sheer audacity of it. What a terribly impolite Christmas movie.

Burton, from Sondheim's source material (a helluva score), does a heck of a job balancing the unwinking bloodletting with a bit of dark comedy, courtesy of, primarily, Helena Bonham Carter, Depp's partner in crime who uses his victims' corpses as meat for her fledgling meatpie business. One number in particular, "A Little Priest", is a hilariously gleeful celebration of cannibalism whose comedy, nevertheless, does nothing to diminish the straight horror of the related murders. Burton in recent years has seemed to become and more enamored with the movie musical, to varying degrees of success. (Good, particularly on subsequent DVD-viewings: Corpse Bride; dreadful: Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.) Here he finds the worthy material that offers him a chance to perfectly interweave his two central passions, Gothic horror and the musical. As both elements are the very essence of Sondheim's show, a more appropriate director couldn't have been found for the adaptation.

07 December 2007

The Tripper

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Directed by: David Arquette
Written by: David Arquette & Joe Harris

Grade: C -

The Tripper fails inasmuch as it disappoints, taking a deliciously potent political premise, a serial killer dressed up as Ronald Reagan butchering hippies on holiday, and then practically ignoring its politics in favor of producing a dreadfully "fun"—that is painfully mediocre—slasher movie.

With such a rich, if farcically overt, political text (you could hardly call it subtext) to mine, it's a shame that the movie is so carelessly thought out that it spends most of its time focussed on producing just another dismally lame horror flick. Aren't there enough of those shelf-fillers hitting the DVD racks every week? The man in the Reagan costume, with a vocal impression to match and a gang of dogs named Poindexter, Meese and Nancy, doesn't even appear until 50 minutes into the film. In the meantime, Arquette introduces a cast of cartoonish characters and overcompensates for his directorial insecurity, this being his debut, by brandishing an exhaustingly flashy style, as when a red filter is added to the on-screen image every time someone is killed to emphasize the point that bloody murder is bloody.

When it isn't mired down in petty subplots and its own garishness, The Tripper (notice how closely it sounds like "The Gipper"), set in the present day, depicts an America at war with foreign nations, the environment and itself—a culture wholly deprived of compassion, one of violence inspired by its savage erstwhile leader, Mr. Reagan, whom the film accuses of establishing a legacy of polarization and destruction that extends into the present day; that is, don't blame Bush, at least not entirely, for the state of the country today, because it all reaches back to Ron Reagan. Tree huggers put redwoods before people, everybody's high on drugs and the right is even killing their own, as when "Reagan" has an axe poised above his next victim and the victim whimpers, with incredulity, "but I'm a Republican!" America is one big confused and hostile mess.

The Tripper doesn't shy away from being explicitly political at times: the end credits are accompanied not only by some pumpin' reggae but also by a polemical jeremiad by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., about Reagan's record as the country's worst environmental president, and the killer is revealed to be one of the mental patients that Reagan released, by slashing the budget, while governor of California. Basically, The Tripper points its finger at Ronald Reagan for ruining the planet: "one asshole goes crazy," the sheriff explains at the end, appropriating the trickle-down effect language of Reaganomics, "and the whole world goes to shit." If only the film had the credibility of thematic focus and narrative discipline to back up its politics, rather than wander aimlessly like an easily distracted stoner (the film opened on April 20, 2007), it could've sat proudly on the shelf next to Joe Dante's Homecoming.

05 December 2007


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Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Diablo Cody

Grade: C+

Enough with the superserious abortion movies, right? 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days wins the Palme D'Or and it's all like, ugh, I get it. Can't we have, like, a really cute movie about how carrying a baby to term is a totally awesome experience? About, as Nathan Lee wrote, "how totally hilarious and super-sweet it is for a 16-year-old high-school girl not to have an abortion"? Isn't it time the Gilmore Girls crowd had a movie about teen pregnancy to feel good about and call their own?

Or so went the reasoning, presumably, behind the ultimately misguided decision to produce Juno, an often insufferable piece of hyperquirkiness, from its indie lofi soundtrack right down to its lead's hamburger-telephone (awww!), not to mention that one character's one and only vice is...orange tic tacs! Hee hee, gr8!

The title character, played by Ellen Page (last seen, by me anyway, trying to chop off Patrick Wilson's hoo-ha in Hard Candy), is described in the film as "just...different," a line that just about sums up the film's proud celebration of how, like, totally friggin' unique it is. (That's why it's named after it's main character!) Director Reitman's previous outing, Thank You For Smoking, wasn't exactly lacking for personal style, but Juno cranks the idiosyncratic aesthetic up to 11. "You're, like, the coolest person I know and you don't even have to try," Page tells co-star Michael Cera (God bless him), who replies, "I try really hard, actually." So too, to an unflatteringly conspicuous degree, does the film.

Page gets impregnated—whooops! LOL!—by her BFF Cera and because, so it seems, the abortion clinic is like totally lame she decides she'll keep the baby and give it to some couple who needs it. Thanx! Her decision to keep the baby in her belly seems, like the film, perfunctory at best and self-righteous at worst. Thank You For Smoking's crackling cynicism has been replaced by a smug hipness, Napoleon Dynamite devoid any glimmer of goofy charm, that leads the filmmakers to often pause the film to discuss matters of Great Importance, like whether '77 or '93 was the best year for rock, or whether Dario Argento is a better splatterist than Herschell Gordon Lewis. (Get the references? Cool, right?)

When, midway, Juno begins to lighten up with the preciousness and honestly confronts, or at least hints at, the complexities of the adoption process—from the role of the perspective parents (maybe they can't conceive on their own for a reason?), the emotional difficulty in carrying a child to term only to surrender it upon its birth, a pregnancy's irreversible effects on a romantic relationship—it begins to do better as a film, but just about squanders all of its dramatic capital with a right-out-of-Full House climactic conversation between Page and her father, J.K. Simmons. "Find someone who'll love you for you!" K!

Simmons, Cera, and Jason Bateman round out the film's margins nicely (in addition to a fine cameo from Rainn Wilson), but it's not their film, even collectively; it belongs, of course, to Page in the eponymous role, who gives a commanding performance and thoroughly creates a credible character out of Juno, with a hand from Diablo Cody's script I'm sure. But unfortunately that character is obnoxious to the point of bordering on the outright unlikable—an incessant wisenheimer. In short, a real-life teenager. (Ugh!)