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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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?