2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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Monday, February 25, 2008


Due to the never ending spam that was clogging up our previous comments section, I've activated the Blogger comment functionality and retired the YACCS section. Unfortunately, that means that all of our previous comments are now inaccessible, but hopefully this will solve the problem. I'll probably start cleaning up the links next, as I'm sure that many of them are no longer functional.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

I’m Back

It’s been a while since I took more than a passing glance at Milk Plus, much less write anything for it. A lot has changed in my life over the past two years, and as a result, I’ve had far less time to devote to watching movies (let’s say that my movie-fu has atrophied considerably). Nevertheless, the itch to watch and write about movies never really went away, and I think it is about time that I gave it a good scratch. I hope that some of the other contributors will eventually return and the doldrums that have infected this blog will pass. To help get me back up to speed, here are some short thoughts on some movies that I recently watched on DVD or cable:

Across the Universe (d. Julie Taymor, 2007) – Back in 1999, after I subjected myself to the god awfully pretentious Titus, I vowed never again to watch a film directed by Julie Taymor. While I managed to miss Frida all together, I knew my oath would soon end when my Beatles-loving fiancée went to see Taymor’s 2007 musical this past fall. She loved it, so I not only bought her the extended soundtrack, but also the DVD for Valentine’s Day. We watched it last weekend and quite surprisingly, it was far from the horrible experience that I was initially dreading. Though the narrative was a total, fucking mess and its pretensions of comprehensively documenting the 60s were simplistic and laughable, the film did work rather well as a musical, especially in the more grounded first half, before Taymor being Taymor, gave in and over-indulged in some faux avant-garde navel gazing prior to settling in for the predictable conclusion. I thought the cast acquitted themselves fairly well and nobody butchered any of the songs.

Crash (d. Paul Haggis, 2004) – Um, how in the hell did this screenplay win an Oscar? For that matter, this was the best picture of 2005 (the Oscars were never less relevant)? With the exception of the acting (which managed to salvage the trite dialogue), everything about this film rang utterly and completely false, and I thought it was hopelessly forced. Note to Paul Haggis, a movie about multiple, intersecting lives only works if you cannot see or care about all the strings you are pulling; and by the way, directing involves more than an over-reliance on slow-motion and dramatic music cues. If I want to watch a film about race and racism in America, I will take the messy exuberance of Do the Right Thing over this self-congratulatory white elephant. To make matters worse, if I say Crash is a masterpiece, nobody will even bother to think of Cronenberg’s 1996 film.

28 Days Later (d. Danny Boyle, 2002) – I rented this movie for my fiancée’s benefit and because I wanted a refresher prior to renting 28 Weeks Later. God, remember the days when super fast zombies were revolutionary? However, this is still a great horror film and I particularly love the opening shots of an empty London. Even though it’s thematically appropriate in the way Doyle presents it, the idea of a bicycle messenger besting a squad of British soldiers still seems a bit far-fetched, but that’s only a minor quibble.

American Gangster (d. Ridley Scott, 2007) – Narratively, this is your standard issue, criminal rise and fall story, supposedly based on a true story, but probably 99% BS. Still, Ridley Scott can shoot a movie, the late 60s/early 70s vibe is stellar, and the two leads (Russel Crowe and Denzel Washington) ooze charisma, even if their characters are ultimately ciphers. In addition, I’m assuming that Ruby Dee’s Oscar nomination was a lifetime achievement sort of thing, because I was not that impressed (though I did correctly identify which scene they would play for her performance clip).

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Proposition

I keep coming back to the flies. There are many stirring and memorable things about The Proposition, director John Hillcoat's brutal Australian Western, but the flies made the most potent impression. Maybe this is because they're everywhere; most if not all of the scenes in the film feature the omnipresent buzzing of hundreds of hungry flies. Whether indoors or outdoors, moving or standing still, it matters not - they're there. Their presence is inevitable in the sweltering outback wasteland in which The Proposition is set, and that sense of suffocating inevitability is key to the film's success.

The scenario of The Proposition is as compelling as it is simple. Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) is part of an outlaw gang wanted in connection with the vicious murder of a family. At the picture's start, loses a shootout with the authorities. He's arrested, along with his beloved younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson), by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Stanley has bigger fish on his mind, though, and to that end he makes Charlie an offer. Charlie will be allowed to go free, but he has to return within nine days with his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the gang's ringleader, in tow. If he does this, he and Mike will be pardoned; if not, Mike will be hanged. Either way, one of Charlie's brothers will be dead by Christmas Day. Can he sacrifice one to save the other?

The idea of brother against brother is the stuff of legends. Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave are aware of this; thus, they go for a stripped-down approach in telling the story. There's very little in the way of psychology or explanation - The Proposition works in the arena of the mythic, not the realistic. This streamlines the film's storytelling, but it also does leave the film with one big weakness.

Being that the actors are being asked to portray types rather than characters, a strong actor is needed in the lead, one who can convey worlds of information while saying very little. Huston, Winstone and John Hurt are all actors like that and offer strong support. Guy Pearce, I'd have thought, would have been an actor like that as well. Unfortunately, he doesn't do much with what he's given, which leaves Charlie (the ostensible lead) feeling like the writer's construct that he is. He's not a character, he's a vessel with which to move the plot forward. This hollowness at the film's center, coupled with the storytelling technique (which favors texture over incidence), results in a certain aimlessness.

Fortunately, there's plenty of stuff on the sides to compensate for the hole in the middle. The supporting cast is a gritty gallery of grotesques. Huston's economical turn as the fierce and fiercely protective Arthur is a gem; he shows us a man who is capable of both great cruelty and great love without making it feel contradictory. Hurt only shows up in a couple of scenes as a verbose bounty hunter, but his funny and pungent performance demonstrates once again why he's one of the finest actors in the business. Emily Watson, too, adds her usual combination of confidence and tremulance as Martha, Captain Stanley's wife. (Watson should be in everything.)

And then there's Winstone. His Captain Stanley, far from being the expected hateful authority figure, is a rational man trying to do the right thing and yet realizing that he's hopelessly overwhelmed. Peering out onto the desolation of the desert, he exclaims, "Oh, what fresh hell is this!" and the subsequent story bears this out - The Proposition sees Stanley trapped in a hell that is partly his own doing and partly circumstance. He asserts his control early on ("I will civilize this country"), but it's not long before things slip from his grasp. Note especially the scene where he's upbraided by Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), his superior, for allowing Pearce to go free. He starts on equal footing, but by the scene's end he's been reduced to a dumbstruck child, unable to do much more than whimper for the destruction of his pride and all he thought was right. Pearce may be the lead, but I hope I'm forgiven for seeing the story as being essentially about Winstone.

Part of Stanley's downfall can be attributed to his desire to civilize the outback and his willingness to strike deals with devils to do so. Hillcoat's portrayal of the land to which Stanley wishes to bring order is the most striking thing about The Proposition. The landscape of the Australian desert is as important a character as any of the damaged souls wandering through it. As photographed by Hillcoat and cinemaphotographer Benoit Delhomme, it's beautiful yet hostile, recognizable yet alien and ultimately indifferent to humankind. Scorched and sun-blasted, it's the kind of place where awful, violent things are bound to happen.

And happen they do, but when the promise of violence pays out, it's not in any sort of satisfying or thrilling way. The violence in The Proposition is borne of an offhand ugliness. It all loops back to the idea of inevitability: None of the murderous acts are dwelled upon because these things are bound to happen. All systems in nature are entropic, all good intentions will collapse and all of us will eventually meet our end. As the film spirals towards the ending that is must possess, the horror inherent in the story (what would you do with such a choice?) gives way to a deep and crushing sadness (what to make of a world where such choices exist?). The final shot shows two characters sitting motionless in front of an achingly gorgeous sunset as one asks the other, "What're you gonna do now?" The answer goes unspoken, but it rings clear anyway: Sit here and wait for the flies to come take me like everyone else.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Dead Man's Shoes

The revenge drama is a strange genre. The most effective examples of the genre are those that use the genre's structure to question the violent impulses that exist within every human; however, the best-known entries stack the sympathy deck so blantantly that they do little more than justify their own bloodlust. (Think Unforgiven for the former, Death Wish for the latter.) Shane Meadows's Dead Man's Shoes does the former via tonal subversion. It's an interesting tactic, and I'm certainly sympathetic towards Meadows's intent (the most reprehensible film I've seen in the last twelve months is the vile Lady Vengeance, which is the latter example writ large and Trojan-horsed as serious art). The resulting film, though, is a thing rife with critical flaws.

The plot is so simple that it hardly seems worth a mention. There's a guy named Richard (Paddy Considine), see? And some hoods were mean to his mentally retarded younger brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell), see? And now he's going to exact his revenge, see? And... that's about it. There's some splintered flashbacks that interrupt the film's dogged progress towards its endgame, but for the most part it's this guy stalking these other guys.

This simplicity has its function: It allows Meadows to indulge his favorite theme - the intimacy of the everyday. With films like TwentyFourSeven and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, Meadows showed himself to be a cinematic naturalist of the first order. Dead Man's Shoes, then, sees him applying the template of naturalism to a genre that would seem to obviate it. I can see where Meadows is coming from with this; by grounding the drama, Meadows removes the vicarious thrills inherent in the genre, thereby leaving only the drab, depressing ugliness at the heart of it all.

A lot of this naturalism is used on the loosely organized gang of thugs that slighted Anthony so long ago. We observe them hanging out, shooting the shit and otherwise doing all those things that lads do. Rather than the sneering, brutish monsters of Death Wish and its ilk, Meadows shows the perpetrators to be believable human beings, at times even likeable ones; aside from the occasional criminality of their actions, they could be any group of slacker buddies. This muddies the righteous sense of approval we're supposed to feel at their deaths, as well as giving credence to Richard's last speech.

It's here that I start seeing what's wrong with Meadows's approach. The characters are recognizable, all right - they're recognizable fuck-ups, and Considine's lucky to have to take them on, rather than some people who know what they're doing. Dead Man's Shoes has a couple of moments that exist solely because if they were changed, there wouldn't be a movie. The most blatant of these is this: After the toughs find out where Richard is staying, they attempt an ambush. The idea is to lure Richard out into the open where lead tough Sonny (Gary Stretch) can take him out with a rifle. Things get confused, and Sonny's first shot misses. Richard just stands there and glowers at him. My question is, why doesn't Sonny reload? He's standing right there, for God's sake.

The lopsided nature of the conflict points towards the paradoxical nature of Dead Man's Shoes's tonal consistency. If the thrills are removed, then it denudes the action and shows it for what it is; unfortunately, it also leaches the tension. Without tension, there's no drama. Without drama, no amount of true-sounding dialogue or small character moments can keep the film from providing no more than what its synopsis suggests: there's a man who's angry and he kills some other people because he's angry. Meadows intends to show us that violence in response to previous violence is still needless violence that solves nothing, and he does that well. Sacrificing interest to make your point, however, isn't the best artistic tactic.

What's more, Meadows isn't above the kind of emotional pornography that mars most second-rate revenge dramas. The modern-day scenes of the villains show them to be slackers; the flashback scenes, though, paint a different picture. Sonny, in particular, is two different characters. In the present, he's a weak-minded bumbler, but in the past, he's a thug and an ogre. His aimless viciousness in the flashback scenes is so calculated (at one point, he brings up the spectre of homosexual rape, if for no other reason than it's required of all British crime dramas to allude to it as a humbling of manliness) that it seems borne of desperation. Desperation, too, informs the portrayal of Anthony as mentally retarded. There isn't any good reason for Anthony to be thus handicapped, save for the sympathy it generates. Taking these kinds of shortcuts makes you wonder how truly confident Meadows and Considine (the latter of whom also co-wrote the screenplay) were in their material.

There's a lot that's worthwhile about Dead Man's Shoes. Considine brings some surprising shades to his one-track character. I like the way his relationship with Anthony is handled; the nature of it is obvious from the start, but it reinforces the idea that Richard isn't doing much more than chasing phantoms. A lot of the downtime scenes between the villains are amusing in a low-key way. And the final confrontation, where Richard sees his self-vindicating mindset blown to hell ("You were supposed to be a monster"), makes the film's point stick like a needle in the brain. (I'll excuse the portentous choral soundtrack that pops up at this point.) Alas, one has to comfortably inhabit a genre before one can subvert it; in attempting to undermine the tenets of the revenge drama, Meadows instead undermines himself.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch-House

Stuart Gordon's late-career resurrection continues apace with the disquieting Dreams in the Witch-House. Gordon made his bones as the go-to (maybe the only) guy for watchable adaptations of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and he lives up to that identity with this, an episode of the uneven Showtime series Masters of Horror. This is not his best Lovecraft adaptation (Re-Animator will forever hold that title), but it's the closest to the tone of the stories.

Witch-House sees grad student Walter Gilman (Ezra Godden) renting a room in a shabby part of town. The place is small and crummy - the drawers have no bottoms - but it's cheap and there's a cute single mother named Frances (Chelah Horsdal) living in the next room. Walter begins to suspect that things are not as they seem, however, when his work with string theory shows the shape of his room to possess the perfect diagram for an interdimensional portal. And then the rat with the human face shows up. There's some sinister goings-on in this house dating back some 300 years, and it's up to Walter to try and put a stop to it before history claims more victims. But how do you stop an ancient evil when your waking life is a nightmare?

Right from the title, it's pretty clear that this is going to be a rubber-reality movie. Gordon's introduction of this, with the reveal of Brown Jenkin (the man-faced rat), is well-played - the revelation comes after a scene in which Walter fights off a rat in Frances's room. We're primed to expect more rats, but not rats with supernatural powers. From there, he blurs the lines between the dream world and the real world until they're indistinguishable. (Interdimensional portals will do that.)

What separates Witch-House from the normal variety of rubber-reality film is the use of the dream state to represent Walter's loss of control in the situation. He starts as the confident hero figure; however, as the witch's powers become more cleary defined, his resolve breaks down (for reasons which the narrative makes clear). By the point of the climax, he's a blubbering mess driven to insanity by powers beyond his comprehension or control. This is classic Lovecraft in its design - the Everyman who finds something that man was not meant to find. Gordon's worked with Lovecraft's material for so long that these ideas seem as much a part of his ethos as they do Lovecraft's. (Even his non-Lovecraft projects have an air of these forbidden-knowledge thematics, i.e. King of the Ants.)

It's up to Ezra Godden to make us understand why Walter becomes a blubbering mess, and it's here that the film stumbles across its major weakness. Godden's a repeat player in Gordon's world, having also starred in Dagon, and he represents something from which a lot of later Gordon works suffer - his acting is likeable but a bit talent-deficient. He comes off blandly, and while he's not as offensive as Chris McKenna (who singlehandledly ruined King of the Ants), he's also not really cut out for this type of work. He's the kind of pleasant chap who plays second fiddle on a hit sitcom for a few years and then does movies on Lifetime and Sci-Fi.

Fortunately, Godden's failings are not enough to sink this messed-up movie. Gordon's moody direction blesses Witch-House with a thick sense of dread. His use of shadowy lighting not only keeps the creepy coming but also serves a thematic purpose, as it gives off the idea of things half-seen. Moreover, his expertise in the genre keeps the hour-long running time lively and stuffed with sex and violence. It's brisk and fairly amusing in a spooky way for about the first half.

Then the nastiness kicks in; the closer Walter gets to the truth, the grimmer the proceedings become. The climax to the narrative arc comes with an image so unexpected that my eyeballs nearly exploded from the shock. Gordon's horror films thrive on this kind of taboo imagery (the key example being the 'head' scene from Re-Animator), but this may be the first time that there hasn't been a black joke springloaded inside the grue. The message is clear: This is meant to shake you up and remove your safety net. It's supposed to hurt. And after all, isn't this what horror is supposed to do?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns

John Carpenter's freaky Cigarette Burns is foremost a story about allowing oneself to be consumed by obsession. There's a lot of obsessive behavior in this film, and at the root of it all is the obsession with film itself. Being that the reigning obsession that unites these characters is cinephilia, there's a self-reflexive quality to the film -- a movie about movie-watching -- but it's not in a cutesy or insistent way like the Scream films. It is a film that understands the peculiar obsessions of the cinephile. Jean-Luc Godard once said, "The cinema is life, and I would really love to live life as I do cinema." If cinema is life, as it is for the characters in this film, is it then also death?

Questions like these are far from the mind of Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) when he travels to the house of one Mr. Ballinger (Udo Kier) at the outset of this story. Kirby owns a failing revival house and is deeply in debt to his late girlfriend's father; to supplement his income, he has become a rare-film finder, a celluloid detective. Ballinger, who collects rare films and related paraphernalia, isn't long for this world by his admission, and he has one last thing he wants before he dies: a print of Le Fin Absolue du Monde. Kirby thinks that impossibility - the premiere of Monde saw the audience riot and burn down the theater, taking the print with it. Ballinger says he can prove that there's still an extant print of Monde somewhere in the world, which he does in a creepy and funny scene, and Kirby agrees to take the job. As he searches for Monde, he is forced to confront demons from his past; as it turns out, the rumored psychological effects of the cursed film may be true.

Writing about Cigarette Burns is difficult, precisely because the premise requires a lot of explanation. The title, for instance, comes from the little circles in the right-hand corner of a celluloid print that signal to the projectionist that it's time to change reels (as anyone who's seen Fight Club remembers). As Kirby gets closer to the mysterious film, he begins to hallucinate these cigarette burns, thus signaling that Monde is changing his subjective reality. All this is noted in the film, as is every other unusual point in the plot.

This is the film's major weakness: It runs an hour and over half that is expository. The premise that writers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan have concocted is so complex that it easily could have breached ninety minutes. There's a lot of talking in this film, and it hinders the momentum. As Kirby goes from place to place and person to person, information is parceled out piecemeal; Kirby (and, by extension, we) learn something new about Monde from everyone he meets. Getting to that new information, though, often involves sifting through dialogue that only reinforces what we've learned previously. This structuring is necessary (if the first person he met told him everything he needed, there'd be no drama), but it's also graceless.

Fortunately, Carpenter's professionalism and genre expertise keeps Burns from getting too bogged down in dialogue. The script is talky but canny, with the occasional hard right into violence breaking up the chatter fest, and Carpenter milks these detours for maximum effect. (His sure hand may also be attributed to familiarity, as this bears a passing resemblance to his underrated 1995 feature In the Mouth of Madness.) The appearance of the cigarette burns keeps the viewer off balance, but not in a stinger 'boo-gotcha' way; rather, the idea that they can show up at any time lends urgency - a feeling that the world as Kirby knows it is coming apart, and he needs to find this print before he's overwhelmed. Reedus is very good in conveying this; Kirby's already a bit of a burnout before he takes on the job of finding Monde, and Reedus makes sure we understand the gradual deterioration of his remaining mental facilities.

This, then, brings us to the final fifteen minutes, which coincides with the discovery of the print and Reedus's decision to watch Monde. This is where patience with the more uneven aspects of Burns pays off - with the stage properly set, Carpenter and company uncork some truly unnerving images.

Late in the film, it's insinuated that the power within Monde is of a nature beyond the sphere of man and that the title (translated, it means The Absolute End of the World) could be more significant than just words on a poster. So by the time it's screened, the viewer has been prepared for all Hell to break loose. Does it ever. It's not the film that's important - what we see of it is actually kind of silly, and I think it was a bad idea to put a concrete face on something whose effect is so individualized. That effect, though, is what leads to the disquieting aspects of the ending.

As I mentioned in the beginning, this is about obsession, cinematic and otherwise. Film going is a subjective experience - what you see in a film might not be there for me and vice versa. The most fascinating aspect of Cigarette Burns is the effect Le Fin Absolue du Monde has on the characters and how that comes out in different ways. People die in some fucked-up ways in this film, and it's all related to their particular obsessions (the filmic obsession feeds into other obsessions). The most effective of these deaths is the scene where a character decides to completely give himself over to the cause of art in a gruesome and inventive way. The characters in Cigarette Burns, because of their obsessive natures, cannot resist looking into the mouth of Hell, and for seeing the unseeable, they are each brought to their own demise. It's the end of the world as they know it.



Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon's film Cavite opens and closes with the same shot, and that's part of the film's problem. The circular structuring makes sense from a plotting standpoint, as well as serving as a subtle reinforcement of the run-around the film's protagonist gets. Ending on that particular image, though, sends some strange mixed messages. I'd like to think that Cavite isn't saying what I think it's saying, but I remain unsure.

This thematic dissonance is a shame, too, because in terms of technical matters, Cavite is a most impressive display of no-budget ingenuity. Dela Llana and Gamazon clearly didn't have a lot of money with which to work, so they compensated by crafting a bare-bones scenario requiring nothing more than a handheld video camera, a cellular phone and a plane ticket to the Philippines. In what was probably a further attempt at cost-cutting, Gamazon also plays Adam, the holder of that plane ticket. He goes to the Philippines for reasons which, at the outset, are unspecified. When he lands, his cellphone rings. On the other end is an unfriendly voice telling him that his wife and sister have been kidnapped and if Adam wants no harm to come to them, he'd better start following orders right fucking now.

It's a well-worn premise (more than one review has compared this film to Joel Schumacher's Phone Booth); what is striking about the directors' approach is the aggressive minimalism of the craftsmanship. Save for one sequence (which I'll touch upon later), Adam is in every shot. The camera follows him around like it's attached to him. It's 80 minutes of Adam hustling from place to place, performing tasks and getting berated by the mystery caller, and that's about all it is. Thrillers don't get more pared down than this: There's a guy whose family is in danger, and he's trying to do whatever he can to save them... and that is all we see.

There are no subplots, digressions or interruptions, which means there's nothing to rupture the immediacy of the situation. Dela Llana and Gamazon pump this immediacy for all it's worth - Cavite has a grimy, sweaty tension that gets sustained through the increasingly frantic performance of Gamazon (very good as a guy caught up in something he doesn't understand) and the violent intimacy of the videography. I'm not generally a fan of DV photography, but it can be effective under certain circumstances. This film benfits from one of those circumstances; the approach to the story demands the use of handheld photography for artistic reasons, not just financial ones.

What's more, the filmmakers are consistently creative in thinking up ways around their financial shortcomings. The most notable of these is a long sequence which finds Adam walking into a bank and closing an account to get money. When Adam enters the bank, the camera breaks off from him and instead follows a young boy as he goes and buys food from McDonald's. It's an audacious move - the visuals are contrasted with the continuing stream of instruction and insult that Adam hears, suggesting that the country of the Philippines has enough problems of its own (the boy, a recurring character, is clearly impoverished) and is thus is indifferent to Adam's plight. The sequence was likely borne from necessity (I'd wager that Dela Llana and Gamazon weren't able to get a permit to film inside the bank), but it ends up being the high point of the film and a reminder of the squalor that Adam has tried to leave behind himself.

So it's a very well-made thriller. But to what purpose has it been made? It's here that I run aground, because as confident as Dela Llana and Gamazon are as craftsmen, their storytelling is muddled and troubling. To fully explain my objections to the film's possible message would involve giving away the entire plot, but I suppose it hinges on whether or not the first shot is a flash-forward. If it isn't, then maybe can skate by as a portrait of a guy who makes unthinkable sacrifices to protect that which he loves. But if it is (and I suspect it is), that brings up questions of intent which Cavite is unequipped to answer.

Adam is a native Filipino and a Muslim, but the outset of the film makes it clear that he's been Westernized. The mystery caller makes note of this and chastises Adam whenever possible (for instance, taking him to task for speaking English even though he is fluent in Tagalog). As Adam runs from place to place on the directions of the caller, it becomes clear he's taking a tour of the poorer sections of Manila and its outlying areas. The caller, it seems, is trying to get him to understand the conditions that the downtrodden must suffer in this country, but does that explain or justify Adam's ultimate destination?

What's more, after Adam does what must be done in order to save his family, the caller praises him for getting back his heritage. Adam, at the time, is understandably shell-shocked. The last scenes recall the opening scenes, with Adam going about his lonely life in an attempt to make it as an immigrant in America. Except... there's that closing shot. If my suspicions are correct and the opening shot is a flash-forward to the closing shot, then Dela Llana and Gamazon presumably agree with the caller and believe that Adam's ordeal, though horrific, has had the benefit of bringing him back to his roots. This is an insane and foolhardy position to take.

There's other problems, as well; like most paranoia thrillers, believability is secondary to tension. (Is the whole Filipino population united against Adam or what?) There's also a certain repetitiveness to Adam's journey; there's only so many slums and squatter camps through which one can follow a man before shouting, "Message received, get on with the film!" These, though, are acceptable deficiencies; the epilogue problems are fatal. The question remains, does this film endorse or disown what it shows? The last shot implies that it does the former, as does a late monologue from Adam's girlfriend that is astonishing in its ham-handed idiocy. Dela Llana and Gamazon are clearly filmmakers to watch, but their worldview troubles me. The attempt at humanizing a difficult issue is appreciated, but where are we left? I wish I knew.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Howdy folks, I'm Tommy Lee Jones. You probably know me as an actor. (Remember me in The Fugitive? I was good in that. Won me an Oscar, it did.) Today, though, I speak to you not only as an actor but as a director and a human being. I'd like to talk to you for a moment about immigration.

Now, I feel very strongly about the immigration issue. Immigrants have a very tough time making it in America, even more so if they are illegal Mexicans. There's a lot of hatred directed towards Mexican immigrants these days, and I don't think that's right. Mexican immigrants do a lot of things for us, and they do a lot of crummy jobs to help this economy run. That's why I've made a movie about it. It's called The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

In this movie, I play a ranchhand who befriends the title character, a Mexican cowboy who's come to America looking for work. One day, he's shot and killed by a racist border patrol cop, so in the best traditions of the Western I have to take my revenge. This, of course, involves a great many scenes where I beat the snot out of the border patrolman. I feel that including all these scenes gets my point across very forcefully.

What's more, I've been blessed in that my conviction to the immigrant issue attracted the attention of screenwriter Guillermo Arriga. He's the guy who wrote that movie 21 Grams, and he's Mexican, so how lucky am I that he wrote me a screenplay about the plight of the Mexican immigrant? I mean, truth be told, it's not Arriga's best work. When I was reading it, I thought that it was kinda heavy-handed and obvious, and Arriga's use of irony was, I dunno, a bit laughable. Also, it wasn't really clear to me why the script was non-chronological, other than Arriga likes writing that way. But darn it, it was about an immigrant, and I felt that I could get my message to the world with this film.

I've also been lucky with casting in my journey to make this film. When word got out that I was making a film about the immigrant issue, a lot of talented people offered to help me out. I couldn't cast 'em all, but I got a few of 'em in there. Dwight Yoakam was a no-brainer, being that this film would be a Western and all. Melissa Leo was great too, since she was willing to do the nude scenes. What I was real happy with, though, was getting Barry Pepper to play the border patrolman. He's a talented young actor with a bright future, and there's nobody in Hollywood I'd rather spend half a film beating up.

In directing this, I tried to do my best in making sure my point got through. It was a bit of a learning experience, since I'd never done this before, but I think I did my job. I made very sure that the audience would come to see Melquiades as a saint and the border cop as an evil, vicious shit. Barry kept pushing for scenes that would make the cop a bit more sympathetic, and I think he may have snuck a couple things under my nose. But he's the actor, and the role is his. So I let him play it how he wanted it, even though it kinda didn't jibe with the script's portrayal of him as an unrepentent evil bastard. (At least, that is until I beat some repentence outta him.)

I pretty much let the other actors do what they wanted, too. Some might say my approach was lackadaisical, but as an actor I figured they would appreciate the freedom. Should I have used a stronger hand? Maybe, some say. Especially with that January Jones chick, who's pretty much useless... but I'm getting distracted from the point. The point is, even though my film may not be very good, even though some snarky critics might consider it an embarassment even though I won a whole bunch of crap at Cannes for it, it gets out my message about the treatment of immigrants. Especially the Mexican ones.

So, speaking on behalf of immigrants everywhere, I'm Tommy Lee Jones. Remember: Be nice to immigrants or I'll come to your house and beat the goddamn hell outta you and drag you through the desert. Thanks for your time.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachtani?

Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachtani? posits a future world in which a suicide plague can only be controlled through noise rock. Noise rock, as the name suggests, is an acquired taste. More than that, though -- it's a taste that's difficult to describe or defend to people who don't have the ear for it. To most people, artists who fall into the noise-rock category (i.e. Merzbow) are merely crafting ear-blistering feedback, white noise that annoys. The appeal in such an extreme form of music, in my eyes, lies in its cathartic element. There's little that can make you feel better about your bad mood like the sound of someone bashing the hell out of his guitar strings, screaming his guts out or using atypical instruments to make sounds that shouldn't exist in this dimension. Director Shinji Aoyama (Eureka) understands this quality, and for his latest film he's gone ahead and literalized the idea.

Imagine Suicide Club and Electric Dragon 80,000V having sex on Sominex and you've got an inkling of both the plot and tone of Aoyama's mindbender. In 2015 A.D., there's a viral infection sweeping the world that induces suicidal thoughts in its victims. Tadanobu Asano and Masaya Nakahara star as noise artists whose music might subdue the virus. It's a strange and fascinating premise, much like the music within it, and out of it Aoyama spins an entrancing apocalypse scenario whose surface placidity belies the chaos in its heart.

The title is the last words of Jesus Christ (in Aramaic, no less), and that sense of having been forsook suffuses Eli. It's that rare breed of end-of-the-world films which really gives the sense of a world ending. Masaki Tamura's accomplished cineamatography aids immensely in this; his careful compositions give the sense of a world disappeared. The story, as such, proceeds slowly and unsurely, like a toddler trying on new shoes, and this too aids towards the eerie stillness that gives this film its effect -- it's a collection of incidents rather than a story proper, with scene after scene of people burying themselves in minutiae as they wait for the virus to come for them too. (If it's an apocalypse, it's one of self-annihilation rather than the ruinous outside forces that usually crop up in this genre.) The distractions, though, prove to be more beneficial than could be expected.

Aoyama spends a lot of time showing the people in his film at work (mainly the two musicians), and there's a point to that. Lurking within the framework is an exploration of how one proceeds to live in the face of horror (this, also, was the main theme behind Eureka). It's about having a reason to keep waking up in the morning, whether it be the way sunlight shines through the curtains or the contentment in making soup for others to enjoy. There's catharsis in the music, but the real import is how it inspires those with open minds to look for the quiet beauty in the everyday. That's another angle to explain the appeal of the music: When you finish listening to it, suddenly the world seems so much quieter and more peaceful.

With all that's good in this film, it's almost a shame to note that Aoyama almost blows it. As a director, he's on a level to which few can aspire; as a writer, though, he's strictly average. A more curmudgeonly person than I could note that Aoyama keeps his characters as ciphers not to make them more universal but because he's just not very good at character work; similar comments could be made about the sparse dialogue. Nevertheless, the film agreeably coasts most of the way on atmosphere despite unevenness. Then, though, it keeps coasting past its proper ending (Asano's performance in a field). Then it coasts past another wonderful closing image, then another. Every time Aoyama finds a great spot to end Eli, he chooses to keep going in search of more. I would hope that he's trying to find the absolute perfect ending, but he never gets there. Instead of adding to our understanding of the story, the last fifteen minutes merely reiterate everything already seen and reinforce epiphanies already reached. It's almost enough to make one dislike what has come before.

What really makes Eli worth the time, though, is the music. Both lead actors have musical backgrounds (Asano, in addition to being one of Japan's most popular actors, plays very loud guitar in a band Mach 1.67 with Sogo Ishii, director of Electric Dragon 80,000V; Nakahara is one of Japan's premier noise-rock artists) and both clearly enjoy the ability to cut loose on camera. The film's best scenes show the process by which the extreme sounds they make are born. There's an immersive quality in these scenes, one that often eludes most proper documentaries about artists. Whether you enjoy the end product or not, it's often fascinating to see how much work goes into what often sounds like untrained, aimless feedback. (There's one scene in particular involving Asano, a violin bow and a metal rod that produces extraordinary results.) As a film, Eli is an ambitious but not entirely successful work; as an artistic documentation, it's stellar. An ear for the extreme, though, is probably necessary.

Friday, September 30, 2005

For those interested, they can find my coverage of the 2005 New York Film Festival by clicking the above image. So far I have twelve reviews and press screenings are about 2/3 done, so more coverage should be coming in next week.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Upside of Aesthetics

The Holy Girl and Princess Raccoon

I enjoy a good story well told. Hell, I think everyone enjoys that. (Except Michael Bay.) And Lord knows there are many, many great films that involve just that. But every now and then, a movie will come along that demonstrates what can be done with a minimum of story. Rather than narrative propulsion, these films rely on visual dynamism to carry themselves along. Sometimes this approach pays off, sometimes not. But it's usually interesting to see people trying something new.

Lucrecia Martel's "The Holy Girl" is a film like that. The story doesn't move so much as waft along, held together by the thinnest of threads. What matters is the texture, the feel of life moving at a languid pace. What plot there is involves a series of encounters between a young Catholic student, her mother and a doctor who is scheduled to speak at a convention held in the hotel in which they all temporarily reside. Set during the summer months, the heat in the air is matched by the strange sexual tension that suffuses much of the film. There is an obvious (and much-indulged) erotic air that charges many scenes. Nobody's having sex, but everyone's thinking about it. (This lends an additional edge to the scenes where a sexual atmosphere would be inappropriate.)

So the atmosphere is there, but how's the film? Interestingly enough, it's Martel's take-life-as-it-comes that both enhances and seemingly derails her film. Well, maybe 'derails' is too strong a word, but there's something initially unsatisfying about the finished product. It's a film of incident, of glances and unspoken words and all that, and there comes a point where I got the feeling that there just isn't enough to hold onto. I will admit getting restless during the film's second half, especially when points that I thought had already been made started being reasserted (the theology-class debates, for instance, seem a bit needless as the film goes on). It's impeccably acted and beautifully mounted, but it all seems a bit wispy. Then again, I mistrust my own opinion in this matter -- I spent much of the film in the throes of a caffeine crash, and my decision to not read anything about the film before seeing it meant that I had no idea what kind of film I was going to see. A second viewing under more ideal circumstances might very well change my mind; I walked out thinking I'd seen a promising but overly flawed work, but it's a month later and the movie still sticks in my mind. Martel's command of the cinematic image is such that her film proves to be unforgettable even as it hardly seems to exist. And then there's the ending, which is about as close to perfect as endings get. I look forward to seeing this again.

I also look forward to seeing again the latest film from demented Japanese auteur Seijun Suzuki, the incomparable "Princess Raccoon", but not out of any need to firm up my thoughts on the film -- one viewing was enough to confirm that it just might be Suzuki's masterpiece. Rather, I look forward to seeing this again because hopefully when I lay eyes upon it again it will be in some form of general release, which I think the people of America needs right now. I truly believe that if you showed this movie to everyone in the world, there'd be a lot more hugging going on.

The film's story is simple to the point of myth. It's a gender-reversed "Snow White", in which a young prince is cast out by his father for being too beautiful but escapes death through the assistance of a young princess who rules the tanuki kingdom in the forest. (A tanuki is some kind of shape-shifting raccoon-dog thing, and is here represented when needed by a stuffed animal.) So far, we're still in Grimm Brothers territory. Nothing terribly transcendent about that. Take this story, though, and infuse it with the deliberate artifice of Kabuki theater and the crackpot sense of humor for which Suzuki is justly famous. Then, drop forty-two and a half tabs of brown acid. Oh, and while you're tripping, go ahead and write some songs for the film. That's what it's like to watch this movie. Suzuki has fashioned for himself a maddening tightrope act wherein, for the film's entire length, he walks the line between awesome and too-kitschy-by-half. And yet, he comes out smelling like daffodils. What's the difference between this film and, say, his last film (the disastrous "Pistol Opera")? One word, my friends: fun.

Yes, Suzuki has rediscovered his sense of fun. Suzuki's films are always aesthetically interesting. That's just a given. But in all his better films, there's a sense of manic invention, of getting away with something that just shouldn't be. I've believed for some time that working in color tends to overwhelm this notion in Suzuki; his directorial style is so image-obsessed that working in color usually gives him too much art to focus on, and the invention gets lost in the process. Not so with this, though -- the extraordinary sense of joy that permeates this film is too irrepressible to be aestheticized away. Aside from being well-constructed, it's hilarious and heartfelt and unpredictable. (I'm staying away from plot or scene particulars because I think the film should be experienced cold for maximum effect, but watch for the Frog of Paradise. And roshambo.) The actors are game, the songs are great and the ending packs an unexpected punch. It's a happy pill on celluloid. If you don't walk out humming, you've lost the will to live.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Der Batman, wie er in die Welt kam

By now, you've probably noticed that everybody loves Batman. "Batman Begins" was intended to jumpstart the superhero series run aground by Joel Schumacher (who will spend the rest of his career living that down, whether or not he deserves to). And boy, has it ever. Suddenly the whole world is up on Batman's leather codpiece again. The reviews has been ecstatic. The box-office receipts have been hearty. The fanboy response has been practically orgasmic. What does all this mean? It means that it falls to humble ol' me to stand up and point out that our cowl-clad hero is in reality as naked as a porn star on a coke bender.

Yes, sadly, "Batman Vee" is not nearly as interesting as many, many people would lead you to believe. The main thought running through my head while it played out in front of me was "What the hell happened to Aronofsky's 'Batman: Year One' anyway? That probably would have been far more interesting than this." As the title so cleverly hints, this chapter of the Batman saga is intended as Chapter One. It's an origin story. That's all well and good, but isn't the Batman origin well-covered ground by now? If you're going to cover something that's been done so completely, you might at least want to think about adding a few new wrinkles. Alas, this here be wrinkle-free. Try as it might, it can't help but feel like a punch-press assembly-line product.

Most of the blame, I feel, lies with screenwriter David S. Goyer. Goyer, in recent years, has proven himself to be a faithful comic book nut. Unfortunately, fanaticism and devotion to a certain subject does not automatically make one a talent, and he's also revealed to the world that he is an atrocious writer. ("Blade: Trinity". I rest my case.) Beyond the problems with characterization (which I can write off to this being a comic-book movie, what with comic books generally trading in extremes and not ambiguities) and convenient plotting (which I can write off to this being a comic book movie, what with comic books only having so much space to tell a story), there's the emphasis problem. Now, I imagine that this project was of great importance to Goyer. I also imagine that Goyer wanted us to understand the gravity of it all. I can think of no other reason why every significant line of dialogue is repeated three, four, six, twelve times. I mean, I understand that there are going to be teenagers and younger kids in the audience. Some of them may very well be denser than month-old pound cake. But when the climax repeats the line about not watching your surroundings twice within ten minutes, even the dumbest audience member has to be thinking, "Okay, you made your point. Jesus." That's typical of Goyer's ham-handed approach, though: Nothing is allowed to be hinted at when it can be underlined, circled and italicized. It's like Goyer thinks everyone who is going to watch this suffers from anteriograde amnesia and must be reminded of every little plot point and character quirk every fifteen minutes or so.

Speaking of amnesia... director Christopher Nolan is a long way from "Memento" here. And while, unlike Goyer, he may be a sharp screenwriter, he's a functional director at best. He's good with actors and he can keep the pace up. But visually, he's not much to brag about. This being his first project of such magnitude, he must have been nervous. So he watched Tim Burton's "Batman" a couple of hundred times until he felt comfortable with the brooding Goth(am)ic atmosphere that any serious treatment of the Batman material seems to demand. Then, while struggling with that visual gimmickry, some drug-addled producer mentioned that, hey, Ridley Scott's films have won a bunch of acclaim in the last few years, and the action scenes in those movies favor chaos over coherence, so why don't you go on and try to imitate that? The point that got missed, though, is that Scott's films generally only use the shaky-cam technique in the midst of hectic melee battles, where the point is that no one participant really knows what is going on. Batman's fights aren't quite that splintered, and yet here we are with the rapid cuts (what happened to Dody Dorn? was she busy?) and the epileptic camera and the blurred motion. If we're not allowed to see our crimefighter fight crime, why the hell should we care?

I guess, though, my main problem with "Batman Begins" is that it feels so dispassionate. Burton's films may have been flawed, but at least it felt like he was trying to give something of himself to the production. I never got that here. It seems like everyone involved was aware that this was an important film in that it could result in many money-making sequels, so everyone played it as safe as possible. There's no sense of adventure, no sense of discovery. (What would it feel like to just up and decide to be a superhero if your only real superpower is a limitless bank account? Don't ask David Goyer -- he doesn't know or care.) I mean, Christ, people complain about Batman being a supporting character in the Burton and Schumacher films. But here, Tom Wilkinson is allowed to walk away with the film in his pocket, and he's in a nothing role. So it turns out that AOL Time Warner got the franchise flick they wanted. Pity they didn't get anything else out of it.

Saturday, May 28, 2005
Cannes Favorites

A list and a few short notes about this year's Cannes edition, which had a better-than-usual competition, but rather lackluster sidebars (the few exceptions see below):

0. Princess Racoon (Seijun Suzuki, Out of Competition). Truly Out of Competition - I refuse to rank this: Suzuki's last two films are messages from another universe. This one is as formally advanced, hyperstylized and crazy as Pistol Opera, but it's a more joyful affair, a weirdo musical based on an old folk legend. Also, it stars Zhang Ziyi as the raccoon princess and opens with unexplained knights talking in some mishmash of Portuguese and Spanish. Then it gets really weird. Don't get me started on the Frog of Peace. Find the trailer here - http://www.tanuki-goten.com/ - and get a faint idea. (Also has the catchy love theme.) We're not worthy etc.

1. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Un certain regard). Puiu's second film after the likeable Stuff & Dough is a quantum leap. It should have been in competition, but it's a 2 1/2-hour Romanian epic about a not very likeable old bastard dying. 1st hour, just in his apartment, drove many out, but then it really kicks in, emotional emergency for 90 minutes from hospital to hospital, with every actor absolutely uncanny in their believablility. Handheld plan sequence style adds to realism, Puiu quotes "Emergency Room" and Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales" as inspiration (this is supposed to be the first in a cycle of six films) - the latter makes sense when you think of it as an encypcopedia of human behaviour concerning certain moral questions. UCR section jury president Alexander Payne walked out, a good friend of mine (and co-juror) made him see it again, then they gave it the section's pirze. No other choice, really.

2. (tie) Election (Johnnie To, In Competition) / A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, In Competition) / Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (Peter Tscherkassky, Quinzaine des realisateurs)
Here's to some of the most realiable directors in the world: To's film, on the surface a superb, stylish, dark thriller about gangster ethics, was the most underrated and misunderstood film in Cannes. It also doubles as a history of the triads and a provocative political allegory.
Cronenberg is on similar terrain, also examinating a dielactical relationship between history and present (see further: Haneke's strong Cache). On the surface it seems almost mainstream (think: misleading autumnal idyll of Dead Zone goes graphic novel - this one showed Sin City where it's at, in a way), except for the weird tone, wavering between comedy and melodrama, which makes it all the more unsettling. A return to form for Cronenberg after the formally astounding, but comparably slight Spider, with the American Dream as the New Flesh.
Austrian Avantgardist's Tscherkassky found footage short triptych The Cinemascope Trilogy is one of the greatest achivements of recent cinema; In this 17-minutes-masterpiece, he's using Leone's The Good the Bad & The Ugly as material for another characteristic, darkroom- and editing table-composed adrenalin-pumping meditation on life & death (of cinema). Spellbinding, and it stars almost exclusively Eli Wallach.

5. L'enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, In Competition)
Nobody matches the Dardennes for urgency and precision, although they may have overreached with the final Pickpocket quote, as the immediacy of their style makes for a very different kind of transcendental experience, if at all. Other than that it's perfect, it's also their most "narrative" - hence, also their most accessible - work since La promesse. (Which, surprisingly, has made it a kind of consensus Palme D'or winner, and a deserved one for once.)

6. Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo, In Competition)
I like Hong and usually at least find something in his movies, but this one is moving in unexpected ways (it's his best since and maybe even better than his finest work so far, The Power of Kangwoon Province). A completely unusual take on film-in-film (and the transition to "normal" is one of the most astonishing film moments I've ever seen/heard), Hong's characteristically unsentimental edge doesn't get blunted, exactly, but softened in a welcome way - it's still very ambivalent, but the sense of reverie (about cinema) that's creeping in on the edges gives it a unique emotional pull. Also, darkly comical streak even more natural than usual. In a way: the best Woody Allen film in Cannes. (The Woodster, meanwhile, as you probably heard, has made his best film in years: Match Point, Out of Competition. It's true, and it's very enjoyable to watch - maybe also because it's not that personal, more accomplished in a good-craftsman-kind-of-way -, but nothing to get crazy about, eiher.)

7. Odete (Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Quinzaine des realisateurs)
The Portuguse talent's follow-up to his radical and brillant sex-and-garbage-saga O fantasma has the most mesmerizing direction of all films I've seen in Cannes - I was aesthatically thrilled from first moment to last. I'm still not sure about the story (hysterical pregnancy and whatnot), but he's a unique filmmaker, clearly working a field all of his own, has a peculiar vision of transformation and redemption.

8. Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, In Competition)
Can there be any doubt that Hou is the most ingenious master of our time? Was I almost jerking off as he out-Wonged Kar-wai in the opening 60s episode? Was I spellbound as he consigned all dialogue to intertitles and had lighting to pass out for in the middle 1911 episode? Was I watching in awe at how the juxtapositions of these three tales on love ultimately unraveleld in the elegant modern alienation final episode? You bet I was, still, I'm just not sure if the central conceit - 60s: romantic swooning, 10s: noble suffering, now: alienated youth - isn't a bit too cliche, also it's maybe just great reworking of previous territory. See it and weep, though.

9. Keane (Lodge Kerrigan, Quinzaine des realisateurs)
This one you've probably already heard of, as it was "only" European premiere. Doesn't look all that special in the beginning, but at some point becomes really powerful in an outstanding way, also: a superb tribute to the Dardenne style. Who's that lead actor? He's incredible.

10. Moments choisis des histoire(s) du cinema (Jean Luc Godard, Cannes Classics)
Yes, the distillation is only 85 minutes and thus loses the symphonic sweep. It's still overwhelmingly beautiful, mostly, and fascinating to see what JLG chooses to omit and keep.

Also worth mentioning: Falscher Bekenner aka Low Profile (Christoph Hochhäusler, Un certain regard) - remarkable take on the contemporary German New New Wave style, blinkered smalltown-lower-middle-class universe so satirically dead-on it stings; Cache (Michael Haneke, In Competition) - our Michael has become the finest bourgeois artist in search of underlying terror of modern cinema, for some reason I admire this more than I like it (the construction is virtuoso, really, and the direction matches that, so his prize was more than deserved), but I'm sure joker will go all gaga; The Forsaken Land (Vimukthi Jayasundara, Un certain regard) - a noteworthy, elliptical, slow and quite ravishing first film from Sri Lanka (co-winner of the "Camera D'or" for first feature, good choice) in some respects very Weerasethakulish; The Wendell Baker Story (Andrew & Luke Wilson, seen on the market) - crude appearance, but emotionally and thematically close to Wes Anderson, and really quite heartfelt, takes a while to get going, then the superb supporting cast comes, especially splendid parts for Harry Dean Stanton & Seymour Cassel plus Kris Kristofferson as old codgers; Eli, Eli, Lemma Sabachthani? (Shinji Aoyama, Un certain regard) - maybe not really good, but positively crazy, with half of the film just ultra loud roise-nock improvisation by Tadana Asanobu & partner, that was so cool; Last Days (Gus Van Sant, In Competition) - need to see it again, was very tired and kept zoning in and out, very befitting for this movie, but I'd like to give it a more concentrated look, very worth seeing in any case, e.g. for Harry Savides' again oh-so-magnificent lighting, another great musique concrete soundtrack and some grand scenes, with the one Hoberman described in his Cannes piece as a "reverse Wavelength" particularly breathtaking; The Buried Forest (Kohei Oguri, Un certain regard) - also too tired in this one to say if the polyphonic structure ultimately works, but check out some of those incredible HD visuals anyway.

And, for those who care:
Most overrated: Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, In Competition). Aka Lost in Translation Redux - actually quite nice and likeable (too much so, in fact) and the most acceptable of the many, many midlife-crisis films at the fest, but also kind of a conservative letdown.
Unfortunately not the great comeback: Who's Camus Anyway? (Mitsuo Yanagimachi, Quinzaine des realisateurs) - good the master's back, but again: who'd a thought he'd also settle for (mostly) nice and likeable; probably most interesting for auteurists, as his key essay on cinema.
Fortunately not as annoying: Manderlay (Lars Von Trier, In Competition) - I really don't wanna go to the cinema to see preachy theater, but hey, prankster Lars, whatever, at least this time it's shorter, even more Brechtian (baad acting) and sometimes actually quite funny (Chloe Sevigny in blackface etc.)
Most ridiculous: The Bow (Kim Ki-duk, Un certain regard) - "This will finally confirm all the prejudices of the Kim haters", warned Pierre Rissien before, and boy was he right; nicely shot, but ultra-silly and corny parable with unfathomably bad music (Kent Jones: "I had all these Dan Fogelberg flashbacks!") - critical opinion divided between so-bad-it's-almost-fun and worst film ever.
Worst film ever: Once You're Born You Can Never Hide (Marco Tullio Giordana, In Competition) - as you can see, I find this treatment of the illegal immigrant issue on the level of a book for adolescents much more offensive, since it's just as dumb and kitschy, but botches a real problem - here it's not some hilariously overblown vulgar-psychological kim obsession that's milked, but they quite knowingly drown what they actually wanna deal with in the worst cliches (music also: unforgiveable) and the cheapest manipulation. All those who declared this neocon cinema d'hearstring-tug guy a good filmmaker (when he's just made one serviceable film, and it's The 100 Steps, not the 5 hour TV series masquerading as cinema d'heartstring-tug-nostalgia) should have learned by now.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Many of you are familiar with Joss Whedon and the devoted following his work has. His television shows are only something I've recently gotten into through DVD's. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was really one of the best shows ever on television. It was blessed with a long seven season run, one where the characters were able to grow and change. When it was over, it felt like the time had come. In contrast, a later Whedon series was snuffed out of existence, painfully giving us a taste of something fantastic only to disappear before we'd scratched the surface. "Firefly" lasted just 14 episodes, and was certainly up to the standards of Whedon's other great television. It was a fun mix of futuristic cyberpunk and western. Similar to "Farscape", the crew of the Firefly class transport ship Serenity were a band of rogues and fugitives, each with their own secrets and pasts and thrown together because of circumstances beyond their control. The outskirts of space are wild indeed and those with the fastest draws and the quickest wits are the only ones to survive. At the same time, Whedon's style is to make you feel comfortable in these genre conventions only to pull the chair out from under your expectations. What's really sad is what might have been. Whedon left many clues and cracked ajar doors to each of the characters, but we never got to any pay off. We were left to drift away like the thwarted bounty hunter in the final shot of the last episode, left only to ponder the possibilities.

Though I don't know the details probably nearly as well as Shroom, I know that Fox really screwed the pooch with "Firefly". They showed the episodes out of order. The show was on Friday night which is just terrible in and of itself. It got canned and was replaced by, wait for it, "Fastlane". So it was with great surprise and happiness that I learned that Whedon had somehow convinced someone to finance a feature film continuing where the show had left off. Not only that but a screening of the rough cut was being shown in Boston, and 9 other cities, May 5th. My friends and I eagerly went online the morning the tickets went on sail. The website was behaving badly, but somehow we managed to get tickets.

So tonight I saw it. The lobby of the theater was crowded with people, all clearly belonging to the Whedon fan demographic. We filed in after being frisked by security officials from Universal, who informed us anyone operating a camera during the film would be ejected and arrested. The crowd was positively giddy. I haven't sensed such a buzz in a movie audience since the first Star Wars prequel. They started singing the theme song and impressively "
The Hero of Canton" (see the episode titled "Jaynestown"). Then all of the sudden Sean Maher and Morena Baccarin came into the theater and the crowd went nuts. It was a pleasant surprise. They stayed afterwards for photos and signed 8x11 posters for the movie. Then the lights went out.

Before the film, there was a message from Whedon to the hardcore fans in attendance. He was very funny, thanked them all for helping to make the film a reality and told them to "spread the word" of sorts. As he said "cancelled television shows do not get made into feature length films". He also explained that we would be seeing a rough cut and that some placeholders were in for special effects or music.

So it began, and I'll talk about it first without revealing anything. It was wonderful. I haven't enjoyed a movie this much since maybe early last year. I don't know how anyone who watched and liked the television series could possibly be disappointed in this film. It is very faithful to the television series and there are very few concessions made to try to appeal to a wider audience. Whether that ultimately seals the fate of Firefly forever is something we'll see this fall, but will certainly be very agreeable to anyone who considers themselves a fan. There are choices Whedon makes to make the film comprehensible to someone who knows nothing of the series, and I think they are mostly successful, but the full emotional pull of the film is probably stunted for such a viewer.

Technically, it was clear this isn't a finished film. They need to clean up the print. It needs a full digital makeover to fix things like lighting problems in particular. Also there are clearly special effects sequences that aren't finished. Some are scenes are spectacular and others were just not done. It will probably never be up to the standard of the modern summer blockbuster as the budget for the film was about $40 million. But then of course, the special effects are wholly unimportant.

The story is the heart of the film, and Whedon's great touch with humor is everywhere. Here is where he's at his best at toying with your expectations. When a tough guy is obviously headed for giving a tough guy answer, he instead becomes flummoxed and speechless. It keeps the dialogue fresh and fun.

Spoilers from here on out

The film centers around two elements of the show that it never had a chance to fully explore. The first is obvious and was the central story of the series: River and her past. The movie opens showing how Simon helps River break out of the Alliance laboratory where she is being experimented on. We learn we've actually been watching a holographic reenactment of the escape being studied by an anonymous and ruthless assassin that the Alliance has put on River's trail.

The other major element is the Reavers, the mysterious unhumans who rove space, raping, killing and pillaging anything that comes in their path. We meet the crew preparing for a job, they are criminals (with hearts of gold!), and there is a long shot with no cuts that moves around the entire ship introducing the characters for the uninitiated. It's a clever way of doing it. You see each crew member at work in their role and the conversations reveal the tension about Simon and River being important wanted fugitives on the ship. Ultimately, the job goes bad because the Reavers drop in. Right away, this gives Whedon the chance to show Capt. Mal Reynolds as an anti-hero as he throws a man off his vehicle to expedite his own getaway, and then shoots the man dead after he's captured by the reavers, saving him from being raped and eaten alive.

Its revealed to us that River was being made into a weapon for the Alliance, a super warrior of sorts. Her psychic abilities have given her access to information that the Alliance wants snuffed, so their goal has changed from wanting to capture her to wanting her dead. The assassin sent after her is similar to the bounty hunter in "Objects in Space". A cold sort of unfeeling killer who is also philosophical about their role in the world.


So the chase is on. There is lots of good fighting, space combat, gun fights, Mal Reynolds outsmarting people. It's good fun. There isn't much progress made on the Mal/Inara romance, but there is a little on the Kaylee/Simon front. There are some startlingly sad moments, as first Shepard Book is killed by the anonymous assassin's goons. Then later towards the end, there is an exciting bit where Wash crash lands Serenity, and there is humorous relief that they made it down safely, and suddenly Wash is horrifically killed. It was pure Whedon, wrenching you wildly from one emotion to another. It was painful to watch, and then Zoe is expected to shrug it off for the moment and get the job done. The ending is satisfying though, as the crew succeeds in revealing to the Verse the nature of the Alliance's responsibility in creating the Reavers.


As I said, Firefly fans will be very happy. There is still a lot of material to explore in the story of Serenity, and hopefully we will get to see more of the story. I'm not that optimistic, as this isn't the sort of gimmicky effects laden film that is going to pack them in the theater, but maybe by some miracle the "Serenity" will be successful enough that Whedon gets another crack on television. Here's to hoping.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Dispatches from the Doldrums of Spring

Millions: It's certainly different, I'll grant it that. Whether or not that translates into a good thing probably depends on the viewer. Personally, I found the screenplay's fuzzy spirituality at odds with the worldview of director Danny Boyle. I give him credit for trying to stretch and make a cute family comedy with a little bite to it, but he wasn't able to divest himself of his mile-wide cynical streak. This leads to things like the disconcerting scene between the shop-happy Mormons and the cops. Apparently, the message here is that we're all either greedy sons-of-bitches or holy fools. Have fun with that, kiddies.

Melinda and Melinda: It is with a heavy heart that I come to realize that maybe, just maybe, it's time to give up on Woody Allen. At least he stays behind the camera for this latest embarassment. The 'comedy' half of the film is occasionally entertaining, due mainly to the efforts of Will Ferrell (whom I think I would now watch in pretty much anything); the 'drama' half, on the other hand, is a fucking disaster, and Woody bludgeons the film's momentum to death every time he shifts back to the dramatic portion. The problem, possibly, is that Woody has constructed two narratives around a character who possesses all the magnetism and appeal of a moldy English muffin. It's difficult to believe that at least one other character wouldn't finally lose patience with Melinda and start slapping her around while screaming, "Get over yourself, you dizzy bitch!" Especially in the dramatic portion. Woody's renowned talent with actors is also mysteriously in absentia here -- of the vast and varied cast, only Ferrell and Chloe Sevigny manage to acquit themselves of crimes against screen acting. If "Match Point" turns out to be a dud, I'll call it quits on Allen for good.

The Amityville Horror: How refreshing to find a satirical film that doesn't practically shout its intentions at the viewer! This reconstruction of the poorly remembered 1980 box-office hit takes its surface cues from its source materials, but underneath the manufactured jump scenes and the ghostly hooey, there's an extraordinary and ever-so-subtle parody of modern horror and the haunted house genre. Director Andrew Douglas puts on the trappings of today's cliched rumble-shock fear flicks, but there's an off-balance quality to his use of these things. Between the shaky-cam and the jumpy cutting and the ear-splitting sound cues, one can perceive a winking sense of humor, as if none of this is meant to hurt you. "Something tells me we've all been here before", Douglas seems to say to his audience. His digging-up (if you'll excuse the pun) of the Indian-burial-ground trope, in this context, is the film's finest satiric florish: In taking a 'true' story that from the beginning has always been patently unbelievable and reframing it as the hoariest of haunting cliches, Douglas tips us off to his intentions. He's here to bury the genre and fuck the praise. Note too, the film's casting. Ryan Reynolds downplays his identity as a breezy comedian, but in his knowing channeling of Jack Nicholson and a hundred other cinematic psychos there is a playful wit. Melissa George, too, turns in a perfectly overbaked performance. (The way she delivers the line "I'm living in their house" is unbeatable for a good belly-laugh.) In fact, I would go so far as to say that this new "Amityville" is the most enjoyable comic horror film... wait, Douglas says here in Fangoria that he was trying to actually make a scary movie. Oh, shit. So I guess the gales of laughter that erupted from me were unintended. Sorry, Andrew. Don't mean to piss on your parade or anything.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: So this is it, huh? I'm not sure if an unfamiliarity with the source material is a hinderance or a blessing in this case. It'll blast my geek credentials to hell by admitting it, but I've not read even the slightest bit of Douglas Adams. As I understand it, though, his work is heavy on the sardonic whimsy. That's all well and good in print, but whimsy's tough to keep afloat in the medium of film, especially in Hollywood. To get an idea of what this film is like, imagine the cheeky tone of Adams's novels. Now imagine a film trying to maintain that tone after the Hollywood Mafia has gotten ahold of the material, slapped it around, pistol-whipped it, cut off its nuts and stuffed them in its mouth, and as a topper fitted it with cement shoes and an overcoat to match. Got that image? Sucks, doesn't it? That's about how it goes here. Neophyte director Garth Jennings does the film no favors either -- his clumsy staging and nonexistent sense of pace destroy any chance for resuscitation. Scene after scene crashes to the ground, and though we can see the humor it's merely theoretical. (The point at which the film truly lost me was during the mock religious ceremony. I felt like Peter Falk in "The Princess Bride": Yes, very clever. You're a smart boy. Shut up.) Jennings can't keep his actors in the game either -- everyone looks like they don't give a shit and would rather be somewhere else. The visual invention is neat, true, but the film itself seems unimpressed by its own wonders, so why should we be any different? There are a couple modestly clever bits (the falling-whale-and-begonias scene was amusing), but then if a modest cleverness is all your ambition will allow why the hell are you even bothering me? Get outta my face, movie.