30 October 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Written & Directed by: Kevin Smith
Full credits at IMDb

Grade: 2/5

Apropos of nothing, Zack and Miri Make a Porno opens with a car crashing through a churchyard fence. It’s Kevin Smith tearing down the temple, asserting his iconoclasm and hinting at the indecency to follow. But recent ad campaign “controversies” and MPAA scuffles aside, Smith is more conventional than he’d like to think.

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25 October 2008


Directed by: Trygve Allister Diesen, Lucky McKee
Written by: Stephen Susco
Full credits from IMDb

Artists do it in high art and low, from Of Mice and Men to I Am Legend. But that doesn’t make killing a dog anything less than the cheapest manipulative trick a storyteller can try. More so than killing a baby. So what to do, then, with a whole movie built around the unjust murder of a poor, defenseless dog? Red, a heady and leathery B-picture, uses canicide as a starting point, but it’s about a lot more than that murdered mutt—the callous killing, and its aftermath, stand-in here for an entire country gone wrong.

That’s a lot of weight for a single dog or death to carry, but Red, more or less, pulls it off, thanks mostly to Brian Cox, who plays the dog’s owner. With a Death Wish moustache, an immoveable frown and eyes set deep into his pockmarked, mashed potato face, he keeps the film’s emotional level subdued—his rage is quiet. What could easily have been an exaggerated film full of speechifying and on-the-knees weeping instead plays out subtly; after the dog dies, the directors express Cox’s loneliness not through grand soliloquy but through a simple shot of his bedroom door, the wood scarred with the claw marks of a dog that will scratch it no more.

Cox is fishing (or, fishin’) in the woods one afternoon with his trusty pooch—the film shamelessly begins with them in bed together, him chuckling as the dog licks his face—when a trio of teens approaches. After Cox gently and sagely criticizes one of the boy’s hunting techniques, the now emasculated and absurdly sociopathic teen shoots Cox’s dog. “There wasn’t any sense to it,” Cox says later. “It was just meanness.” He tracks down the boy and approaches his father—not for money or for blood, only for a mild brand of justice. Cox wants the boy to be made aware of his wrong, made to feel sorry; at most, he wants him arrested and scared straight. But the boy’s father, a wealthy and influential local, sides with his son, who predictably denies the wild allegations. (The directors make it clear whose side we’re on: Cox is frequently shot from below and up-close, a towering figure in the frame; the boy’s father is shot from a distance, a speck of a man amid the petty accoutrements of his wealth.)

As parents, police and prosecutors rebuff Cox’s modest demands, Red becomes a class struggle: the bratty, privileged moneyed class and its spoiled children against the God-given rectitude of one tough old American man—a vet no less. (It could be the Kennedys vs. McCain, if McCain weren’t so absurdly wealthy.) As a soldier, the one thing Cox learned was: never stop fighting, so he presses on in his righteous but increasingly quixotic quest for justice. “All this time, work and expense,” muses a country lawyer friend, “for an old mongrel you already buried?”

Peculiarly, many of Red’s makers come out of horror movies: co-director McKee, who shot about 60 percent of the film before falling out with the producer, is best known for indie cult faves May and The Woods; screenwriter Susco made his name on penning The Grudge’s American remake and its sequel; schlockmeister favorite Jack Ketchum wrote the source novel; and Robert Englund, sans claws or striped sweater, turns up in a supporting role as a white-trash father. But Red is not a horror movie, it just deals in horrible things—injustice piled upon injustice, a world sick with senseless cruelty, two generations rabid with irredeemable meanness. (Generations that, significantly, won’t stand-up to their selfish and violent leaders.)

If this sounds like a set-up for a conservative philippic about failed institutions and the decline of American values, the film takes a more subversive turn. (It’s clearly not a right-wing film with its sympathetic portrayal of a member of the liberal media.) “It has been said,” a reporter announces, “that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured in the way it treats its animals.” But the guilty boys are not only dog-killers but misogynists. The nation’s morality is in undeniable regress.

Cox and his enemies eventually take their series of escalating retributions too far and the film ends with him in tears, self-critiquing his monomania and regretting the damage caused. There’s no justice, no heroism. Violence begets violence and deeper despair. Red exposes the dark side of vigilantism and as such comes conspicuously from this post-9/11 era of perpetual war. Blind quests for “what’s right’ simply lead the avenger to condescend to the level of his enemies—to the spilling of innocent blood, dog and man’s alike. Grade: B

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24 October 2008

Tokyo Sonata


Written & Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Full credits from IMDb

Tokyo Sonata, a gentle and immaculately composed domestic drama, opens during a storm; as with Retribution’s earthquakes, Kurosawa uses weather conditions as stand-ins for cultural ones. Tokyo is in turbulent times; after blustering winds disturb a living room’s unpaperweighted papers, our protagonist, Teruyuki Kagawa, learns he’s been fired from his middle management position. Labor is cheaper in China, so the company is moving his job there. (Outsourcing is not exclusive to the West.) The physical condition of the city, as Kurosawa and his crew film it, mirrors its economy: set in the outskirts of central Tokyo, the film shows the city as an industrial, weedy, peeling-paint miseryland, where ramshackle houses pile on top of one another, surrounded by elevated trains and electrical wires that look like vines surrounding Mayan ruins. Lines at employment agencies stretch down several flights of stairwell.

So, broadly, Tokyo Sonata is about a city, but it’s also about a single family; Kurosawa tackles the cultural crisis by focusing on a representative sample. He shoots the central clan through open doorways; frequently obstructing our view enhances the voyeuristic intimacy. But squeezing his characters into frames within frames also enhances the feeling that times are tight. “We’re like a slowly sinking ship,” says Kagawa’s old friend and fellow unemployed in front of a flaming trashcan. “The lifeboats are gone, the water’s up to our mouths.” Kagawa keeps his unemployment a secret from his family, pretending to go to work each day while taking his meals under cold stone overpasses with the homeless and the crazy. Each member of his family has his or her own secret, too—his wife’s excursion, in which she contracts Stockholm Syndrome, with a home-invading burglar (Koji Yakusho); his youngest son’s furtive piano lessons, paid for with purloined lunch money; and his eldest boy’s desire to join the American Army’s noble, ahem, fight in Iraq.

Kagawa’s economic condition drives him to seething bitterness, to a point that he starts to resemble a certain maverick senator: he promises to give his piano prodigy some “straight talk”; he hypocritically berates his boy for a failing that he shares (lying); and he won’t back down from his absurd positions for the sake of maintaining appearances. But the father’s failure to provide for his family doubles as an allegory for a government failing to protect its people—and an America failing to protect the globe. Following a startling moment of domestic violence, Kurosawa cuts to a news-broadcast announcing The Surge. As in (my reading of) Retribution, the Iraq War becomes an essential subtext. “If America has a problem, Japan’s directly affected,” G.I. Joe-san tells his father, indicating that the failing economy and endless war here in the U.S. help drive the whole world into penury and (“home front”) violence. Not just an attack on the policies of Bush and his potential successor, though, Tokyo Sonata functions at a basic human-level; it’s about how, when conditions reach a breaking point, everyone’s instinct is to run away and start over. But starting over, Kurosawa suggests, has to happen at home. Grade: A

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22 October 2008

Fear(s) of the Dark

Directed by: Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre Di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McGuire
Written by: Blutch, Charles Burns, Pierre Di Sciullo, Jerry Kramski, Richard McGuire, Michel Pirus, Romain Slocombe

Grade: 4/5

Using macabre imagery to drive its unsettling storytelling, Fear(s) of the Dark, an omnibus of eerie animated shorts from France, is of the sort of Gorey- and Addams-esque creepery that Tim Burton pastiches for a living. Animated by an impressive list of international illustrators, the film, like Persepolis (also French), has the look of a Barnes and Noble Graphic Novels section set into black-and-white motion. And like Schindler’s List, shades of red occasionally pop up amid the grayscale — not to tint a little girl’s coat, but to color brooding skies and puddles of blood.

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17 October 2008

Burn After Reading

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

Whereas the Coen brothers’ last film, No Country for Old Men, opened with low-to-the-ground camera angles, Burn After Reading opens with a theological shot—a Google-Earth’s-eye view of North America that quickly zeroes in on Langley. The Coens stress that, here, we are to be detached observers—that this is not a tense cat-and-mouse chase through the desert but a comedy. A return to form. So sit back and relax. But just because Burn After Reading has Brad Pitt reviving his Cool World coif doesn’t mean that the film has nothing to say. If No Country looked at the decline of the American culture, Burn After Reading examines what determined that fall—the culture of Washington.

The Coens spend the bulk of the film putting the players into place; it’s a complex, multi-character set-up kept going by a martial tick-tock score, which instills Burn After Reading with a gravitas to which it never quite lives up. Set in and around the corridors of power, Burn is a comedy of errors, full of sex-obsessed jokers, in which two gym employees (Pitt & Frances MacDormand) stumble upon a CD-R with the working memoirs (mem-wahz) of a recently fired CIA agent-slash-alcoholic (John Malkovich, wandering hilariously from scene to scene, repeatedly moaning, in a muttering whine, “what the fuck?”). The personal trainers mistake the files for important when they’re merely self-stroking, and the duo’s consequent shenanigans set off a chain reaction that ends in violence and murder.

On a basic level, Burn After Reading is a spoof of the paranoid conspiracy thriller, the type popularized in the post-Watergate ‘70s; here, the Washington backrooms are full of clowns and Princeton alum garbling old college singalongs in black-tie drunkenness. These nitwits would be incapable of concocting and carrying out a conspiracy even if they wanted to. It’s a portrait of the American government as wholly dysfunctional, paralleling the characters’ sexual dysfunctions (see: the wild dildo-equipped rocking chair that George Clooney builds in his basement.)

Malkovich’s wife, Tilda Swinton, is cheating on him with Clooney, who’s cheating on her with MacDormand, who met him on the Internet, where she meets all her beaux. (They meet in person in an oft-returned-to allĂ©e of solicitation, a lovely detail of D.C. sordidness.) “They all seem to be sleeping with each other,” notes one employee of the mystified and exasperated CIA, which is keeping tabs on the proceedings and can’t wait to get these crazies out of its life. While the central characters believe state secrets are at stake, the CIA, in the same detached observer position as the audience, recognize the situation as petty psychosexual lunacy transpiring between petty connivers.

The Coen’s reflect the nation’s-capital knuckleheadry in the vacuity and absurdity of popular culture, from fluorescent-lighted, spiritually dead home-repair warehouses to a quick clip of “Family Feud” and a romantic comedy about a girl who won’t get out of a tree. The country’s leaders and powerbrokers, and those that surround them, set the tone of the culture at large. MacDormand sets the mischief into motion in the hopes of getting a series of plastic surgeries; because of her body, “I would be laughed out of Hollywood,” she laments with a straight face. It’s enough to drive her to potential treason. When all of the characters’ selfishness and stupidity leads to a “clusterfuck” of violence, Burn After Reading shapes into an Iraq War allegory in which dimwitted self-interest inevitably results in bloodshed. “What did we learn?” a CIA man asks at the end. “I guess we learned not to do it again.” But the country hasn’t learned a damn thing. It’s even considering voting Palin! Grade: B+

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08 October 2008

Nights and Weekends

Written & Directed by: Joe Swanberg & Greta Gerwig
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 5/5

From the actor-director who once masturbated to climax on screen, Nights and Weekends begins with hallway-floor lovemaking and equal-opportunity nudity. Greta Gerwig, an extraordinary actress who here stars and directs alongside Joe Swanberg, removes not only her underclothes but her socks. Even her watch. Opening with head-to-toe undress announces the copious toplessness and bottomlessness to follow, but it also hints at what will be a film-long display of emotional nakedness. The two stars strip themselves bare throughout, literally and not.

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06 October 2008

Essay: Jerk Offs, Rent Raisers & The Open Buffet: New York in 21st Century Film

Starting with Mayor Dinkins’ police force bolstering, and continuing through Clinton boom times and the Giuliani mayoralty, New York underwent a revamping from dump to Disneyland, evinced most conspicuously in the transformation of Times Square from porn-palace Mecca to TRL headquarters. In 2007, the city’s murder rate was the lowest it has been in the 44 years that reliable records have been kept; new census data reveals that decades of “white flight” trends have begun to reverse.

For better or worse, The City is a radically different place than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago. And now it’s beginning to show in the filmmaking. Two films [Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist and The Pleasure of Being Robbed], both released on October 3rd, offer portraits of Bloomberg’s overhauled New York. One is blithely celebratory, the other quietly critical.

Read the whole essay at The L Magazine

01 October 2008

The Pleasure of Being Robbed

Directed by: Josh Safdie
Written by: Josh Safdie & Eleonore Hendricks
Full credits at IMDb

Grade: 4/5

Steeped in 16mm textures and Bujalski-esque naturalism, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Josh Safdie’s debut feature, is both an up-close character study and a wider-scoped survey of contemporary New York. And though it features wonderfully un-self-conscious actors cheerfully ambling through comic vignettes, it’s not (entirely) just another kids-in-Brooklyn-apartments movie. Quarter-life-crisisers don’t dissect their romantic relationships ad nauseum here. Instead, they steal.

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Flash of Genius

Directed by: Marc Abraham
Written by: Philip Railsback
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 2/5

Bob Kearns had to earn the title “inventor of the modern windshield wiper” through decades of legal battles that had a destructive effect on his family and health. It’s not a simple story to tell, though John Seabrook’s 1993 New Yorker profile admirably explored many of its complexities, such as: is Kearns a nut? And, what really constitutes an invention?

Flash of Genius, the Hollywood biopic fashioned from Seabrook’s same-named piece, all but abandons that nuance and complexity for an easily digestible tale of the underdog vindicated. (Starring Greg Kinnear!)

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