Sunday, July 23, 2006

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (2006)

There are very few movies that I would unequivocally deter anyone from seeing. Rarely do I consider “crap” to be utterly useless. However, in the case of Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, I would advise staying as far away as possible if any of the following apply:
1. You love Leonard Cohen and/or his music
2. You don’t like butchered cover versions of his tunes
3. You hate Leonard Cohen and therefore have no reason to see this movie.

If this sounds harsh, let me lay out my argument concisely, since I have no desire to waste any more of my life talking about this than I have to. The film consists primarily of a tribute concert filmed a few years ago in Sydney. In the course of this concert, Rufus Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave, and a bunch of people I’ve never heard of sequentially performed unrehearsed versions of Cohen songs while clearly reading the lyrics off a music stand. Some of them do a decent job (Rufus, particularly, but then he’s also sung these songs on his own albums, and some strange person named Antony has a wonderful voice) but others, like Jarvis, seem severely hampered by a backing band that has not had a chance to acclimate to the individual singers. Most disappointing, perhaps, is Nick Cave, as he is a clear acolyte of Cohen and ought to be able to pull off a decent cover.

The second most prevalent sort of material here is quotes from Wainwright, Cave, and, of all people, Bono. We learn from them that Cohen’s a good songwriter and an influential one. Bono tells us that Cohen’s songs are capable of touching us at multiple stages of life! Rufus is high or something, and Cave is just boring.

The smallest amount of time is devoted to Cohen himself. Given that this was the reason I watched the film in the first place, the fact that the clips used in the trailer were nearly the sum total of what is used in the film itself was disappointing. I had intended to sit through the cover songs for the sake of the man’s own words, but they are pitifully few and very little insight or recollection is provided.

Leonard Cohen is the best songwriter that I know of, one of the only talents I know who simultaneously awakens both my creative spirit and my eternal envy. A film about him, or a tribute concert, are not misguided projects. But a collection of embarrassing performances, poorly-shot interview footage, and a coda involving Cohen lip-synching with U2 is an insult to the man. If you want to know about Cohen, read a book. If you want to hear some decent covers, listen to about half of I’m Your Fan. Most importantly, just dust off your copy of The Songs of Leonard Cohen, because it’s not going to get any better. Read more!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Thus far, at least eight feature films have been made from stories by Philip K. Dick. Most of them retain very little of what has garnered Dick his devoted readership, and some, like Blade Runner (adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), have been more or less disowned by many fans. In many ways, A Scanner Darkly, based on a 1977 novel by the same name, was the most likely to satisfy readers. Directed by Richard Linklater (Waking Life), who has a demonstrated respect for Dick’s writing, and featuring a perfect performance by Robert Downy Jr as Barris, this could be just what PKD fans were waiting for.

It isn’t.

The novel, about an undercover narcotics agent who becomes a victim of the very “Substance D” he’s trying to trace, is a mind-fuck of impressive magnitude. Bob Arctor is Fred, and Fred is Bob Arctor, but it becomes clear as the book progresses and Bob gets further and further into his role that Fred, who is charged with surveillance of Bob’s house, isn’t aware that he’s watching himself. Peopled with eccentric druggies and their spot-on nonsense dialogue, it’s a memorable read.

It’s a memorable movie, too, and it’s obvious that Linklater’s both read the book and liked it. The rotoscoped animation style, using a process by which real performances are drawn over frame by frame, lends a drug-reality to the world of the film, in that objects seem to come unmoored from their backgrounds and hallucination blends seamlessly with the objective. The “scramble suit” Fred wears to hide his identity and described as a “vague blur” is rendered as a constantly-shifting amalgamation of men, women and children and would have been impossible without animation. The film retains some memorable conversations from the book, such as Bob and his friends attempting to determine what happened to the extra gears on Barris’ 18-speed bike, since they can only count 9. As a portrayal of the drug experience, it does a lot right.

But there’s something missing. The very real loss of perception one experiences from reading the book, and really getting inside Dick/Bob’s head, is not achieved. The plot must be streamlined to make it coherent, and along the way the disorientation so vital to the book’s success gets cut away. At the same time, I truly wonder if anyone who hasn’t read the book will actually get what the movie’s about. So the question becomes, who is this movie for?

The very successful job Robert Downy Jr does is indicative of how this movie could have gone. With this blocky type of animation, acting must either be really subtle and voice-oriented or over the top. Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are really good at being blank, but that’s not the same as subtle. Everything’s lost when you can’t discern anything from their monotonous delivery or their comic-book faces. Reeves is at his best hanging with his drug-buddies; as Fred, we get no sense of another personality fighting with Bob for supremacy. Perhaps with different casting, Linklater could have done more with the great start he had.

The film’s not a total write off—there are excellent elements, and it’s a great achievement. I wouldn’t warn anyone off seeing it. But if you’re a Dick fan, be prepared to realize the years it took to get this film out weren’t quite worth the wait. If you’re not, see the film for what it is, and please, please pick up one of his books on the way home. Read more!

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Peeping Tom (1960)

In 1960 audiences were revolted by a film of such shockingly voyeuristic violence that it created a media outrage. And later on that year, Psycho came out.

Although it’s fallen by the wayside in the fickle memory of the collective cinema, Peeping Tom is so much more modern and disturbing in its implications, and its implication of the audience, than Hitchcock’s contemporary film that it comes across as severely screwed up even now. Imagine being made to identify with Norman Bates for the entire film, knowing straight off he’s the murderer. Now imagine him holding the camera. And that there’s a psychological reason for his behavior that’s not a tacked-on psychiatrist-ex-machina.

I don’t want to completely identify Peeping Tom with Psycho, although I just have—I merely want to illustrate how much more effective the former is at evoking similar themes in a way which is still relevant. The color of the prints has aged poorly, and the psychology is extreme, but the major theme of a man whose demonic need to produce and record the effects of fear by killing women is central to much discussion that still goes on around the issue of watching in the cinema.

The plot is subtly constructed by a screenwriter who was a major figure in WWII code-breaking, and the care taken to reveal new, startling information is shown in the film’s lack of sensational “pow!” moments. Nothing ever jumps out at you. The killer is known from the start. Yet each new piece of information adds to our understanding, and indeed our sympathy, for the protagonist; even as we fervently hope Mark’s young, innocent tenant Helen (Anna Massey) will make it through alive.

Though concerned with a pathological peeping tom and the horrific murders his disorder drives him to, the film is really about the director as filmmaker and us, the audience, as accomplices. Michael Powell, the director, plays Mark’s father in old home footage, with young Mark played by Powell’s son. The layers of watching and being watched compound, as Mark watches Helen watching movies his father made of Mark as a child. Helen’s mother’s blindness adds another complication, as well as an innate distrust of someone who needs to see so deeply and often that he cannot leave the house without his camera. In the end, the negativity of critics may have been due as much to the equating of watching with pathology as to outraged morals. For whatever reason, it’s very unfortunate that this film has been largely ignored since then except by a few “movie brat” directors like Scorsese and De Palma.

Then again, De Palma might not have had a career if people had had access to this gem. Read more!