Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

As one of those people who knows all the words to Sondheim’s 1979 musical, I was certain to hate the movie, even as I secretly hoped for the opposite. I had heard clips of Johnny Depp singing and it had incensed me, and I threw myself into repeated listens to the Len Cariou original cast recording. “Why are they compromising on voice?” I asked anyone who would listen. “It’s a musical!”

Because, as I found out last night, the mechanics of Depp’s vocal cords make no difference when a movie is this beautiful. I hardly noticed the little deficiencies of his and Helena Bonham Carter’s instruments in the thrill of seeing a movie of a musical I loved and loving it, too.

Burton’s London is a comic book inhabited by his personal avatars (Carter and Depp) looking strangely attractive despite their deathly pallor and moral decrepitude. For those who don’t know, Sweeney Todd concerns the return and revenge of a mild-mannered barber turned to bloodthirstiness by the machinations of a lustful judge, who sent him away on a trumped-up charge to gain access to Todd’s wife. He now holds Todd’s daughter, Johanna, in his house, and may have designs on her as well. Todd’s neighbor, Mrs. Lovett (Carter), is an unsuccessful meat pie seller who remembers Todd and aligns herself with him in a scheme to kill the judge and revitalize her pie shop. Oh, and they sing.

For those who fear the musical part, I should inform you that the music and lyrics are significantly darker than anything you’ve seen on screen. It’s not Mary Poppins up here. One song cut from the film includes the line “Lift your razor high, Sweeney/Hear it singing, ‘Yes!’/Sink it in the rosy skin/Of righteousness,” and Burton doesn’t shy from demonstrating what happens when you do so. Gallons of red blood suffuse the dim landscape of blacks, whites and blues. The design rides a fine line between realism and Burton’s characteristic style—very successfully, in my opinion. The supporting cast is excellent, young Johanna resembling a blonde Christina Ricci and Alan Rickman deliciously lecherous as Judge Turpin. Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli the rival barber is outrageously perfect as well.

What works about Sweeney Todd despite my prior reservations is that the actors on screen are arresting, no matter how they sound. The music alone could support worse, and the experience of watching Depp mitigates my problems with his singing. I wouldn’t, couldn’t listen to this soundtrack on its own. But in the course of the film I hardly noticed. Likewise the numerous cut songs, some of them among my favorites—I will allow it in the interest of finally seeing a good movie made of a musical I like. And this is a good movie, surprisingly so in my opinion. And I think that if musical geeks like me can get around our vocal dubiousness, non-musical fans might be able to get over their resistance to people singing their plans to one another. It won’t be all things to all people, but it’s an amazing accomplishment and I, for one, am happy to have been proven wrong. Read more!

Friday, December 21, 2007

I Am Legend (2007)

Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella I Am Legend is one of the best stories I’ve read recently. It concerns the last man in a post-apocalyptic world which has been decimated by a vampire-like infection, but it deals with the details of his extraordinary yet mundane existence in such a gripping fashion I didn’t want it to end. So I was cautious about the new film version. I steeled myself for the changes, and consoled myself with the fact that the trailer looked good, even if it didn’t look like the book. That was fine, I thought. The transfer between mediums can excuse a lot.

The extra background info, for instance, might be a consideration for Hollywood audiences who don’t want to jump right into the post-apocalypse trope. Robert Neville’s dog, Sam(antha), gives Will Smith something to act against, essential if we’re to know him without the benefit of narration. And New York City in ruins is inherently interesting. The film could certainly have Hollywoodized things more than they did. Essentially, we watch a surprisingly good Smith wander around the city with his dog, stuck in an endless loop of video “rentals,” zombie-hunting and a futile search for a cure. He is the only one left, but he cannot give up. Because what else would he do? It is only when someone else does show up that we see how damaged Neville really is; how far apart he has grown from “humanity,” just like the creatures he hunts. What’s entertaining about the film (and book) are the little details of execution; Neville’s daily life, his rituals, the archived television broadcasts and clipped newspaper articles. Though I was disappointed to see that Hairspray is still on Broadway in 2009.

Now, this all sounds like I’m pretty happy with the film. And I was, until about ¾ of the way through. The minute Neville shouts that there is no God, that we did this to ourselves, I knew that the film was going to have to prove him wrong—no mainstream movie in America could get away with that sort of sentiment unpunished. Indeed, the film moves from being understandably updated from the book to being a complete repudiation of Matheson’s essential, and essentially dark, point. Neville is not a legend because he is a beacon of hope to guide humanity into some promised land; he is a legend to the inhuman creatures who seek to wipe him out. Hollywood has, for once, preserved enough of the original to make my sense of betrayal that much greater.

Because for an hour, I thought someone had gotten something right. And that little beacon of hope turned out to be less real than that which Neville offers humanity. It’s almost better when I know they’ve only stolen the title and don’t have to see the travesty. Read more!

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Intruder (1962)

In 1962, b-movie mogul and directorial impresario Roger Corman made a black and white “problem film” about, well... black and white. It is notable for two reasons: it tackled the tricky subject of a small town's reluctant school integration, and it starred one William Shatner.

Yes. That William Shatner.

The “intruder” of the title is double—the “intrusion” of the African American into white society (or at least high school) and the devilish Northerner who comes to rile the townsfolk over what would otherwise be a somewhat uncomfortable non-issue, like a racist Harold Hill. (Interestingly, the film version of The Music Man was released the same year, but it's amazing how blunt and “modern” this one is in comparison.) Shatner arrives with no other apparent motive than to stir additional discord. He is eventually thwarted, not by man's innate goodness but by the unpredictable nature of the mob; the would-be orchestrator becomes the naïve bystander as things hurtle out of control.

But let's cut to the chase, shall we? The only reason you're still reading this—the only reason I watched the movie, which is decent but unremarkable—is to see how Shatner fared, pre-Kirk. Well friends, let me tell you--

He is amazing.

Shatner's craft is finely honed even at this early stage of the game, and his vocal delivery is just fantastic. There are nuances here that denote careful thought and sharp instinct. He's riveting. And he's not Kirk, either; Shatner's an actor, and between this and Kirk it should be obvious that he didn't start playing “himself” until he was forced to by virtue of the public not allowing him to disappear into anyone else. Early Shatner, I'd say up until season 3 of Star Trek, is a marvel and I think he could have been huge as a “serious” actor. The oft-parodied pauses and grimaces aren't absent in his early work, but they're subtle and well-placed. They have weight and meaning. And he's got an animal magnetism which works equally well as the immoral seducer and the wily captain. He's built like an all-American cornfed boy but there's a crafty, almost feminine charm which maybe has to do with him being Canadian. I'm not sure.

I'm on the edge of fangirling here, if I haven't jumped over it already. But I'm not sure I care, after that performance. I am sold. And if you have any curiosity about what “might have been,” if you've ever mocked Shatner, go get this movie. I dare you to laugh.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Golden Compass (2007)

I have a bad habit of reading books just before seeing the movies they’re made in to. It’s the perfect formula for disliking something—the comparison is almost never flattering. In the case of The Golden Compass, I hadn’t been blown away by the first book in the trilogy. Even so, the film is a mishmash of prettily illustrated Cliffs Notes; interesting as a companion, but incapable of standing on its own.

In this super-compressed narrative which avoids any hint of subtly, we are informed straightaway of all the exciting things about Philip Pullman’s new world that, in the books, we were forced to learn as we went. There are parallel worlds, and in one particular world, much like ours but without a Hindenburg disaster, humans’ souls are external, animal-shaped daemons. The ruling power of this world, the Magisterium, is concerned about the fact that when children grow up and become dirty and wicked, their daemons “settle” into a particular form; and a mysterious invisible particle called Dust collects around them. At the center of a growing storm is Lyra, an orphan who, as played by Dakota Blue Richards, is the brightest spot in this film. She is worth the whole thing; she’s adorable and yet maintains the requisite hardness the inveterate survivor and liar needs. She’s more likable than in the book, but she has to be, to hold the scattered film together.

Lyra’s adventures are certainly interesting, but they seem haphazard, even for a children’s fantasy epic. Plot points turn up at convenient times, like an engine. We don’t ask how the train got here; we just get on and off at the right stops. And just in case we notice some lack of cohesion to the script, the score is one of the most blatantly manipulative pieces of film music I’ve ever heard. It sounds as if it’s been cobbled together from a hundred previous films via a blueprint for just what heightened emotion we’re supposed to feel when; and most offensively, the Tartar armies are always accompanied by a throat-singing sound, I suppose to heighten their Otherness. And like most primarily-CG films, there are numerous unnecessary “helicopter” shots and expansive camera sweeps. Because they can. The CG itself is fairly good, especially with the main characters, but the background animals couldn’t help but remind me of dogs from the Sims2 computer game in the way they moved.

Incidentally, I had become concerned upon hearing reviews that the film attempted to “secularize” the Magisterium, but I saw little evidence of this on screen. It is clearly a Christian organization; their headquarters, in one town, is clearly a Greek Orthodox Church (which gets smashed to bits). There is no overt naming of the Magisterium as a religious organization, but there is no other explanation for things like the repeated use of the word “heresy.” Controversy about what it’s saying about religion may reign as far as I’m concerned; what I don’t think can be debated is whether it is saying something.

There is definitely an audience who will thrill to the concepts introduced here, which are enthralling. But what is good in the movie is present in the book. That doesn’t make enjoying the movie a bad thing, and there is enough of interest here to make it not a complete waste of time. But regarded as a movie rather than a spectacle, it fails. And there are bigger spectacles out there; albeit none with souls in the form of talking ferrets.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sunshine (2007)

If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you’ll have heard me rant about the dearth of decent science fiction film. There are lots of different kinds of science fiction novels; even television is doing okay. But how many movies are about people in extreme situations, rather than natural disasters or big aliens or nifty lasers? I still maintain that 28 Days Later is one of the best science fiction films of recent years, and luckily for me Danny Boyle is back with Sunshine.

It’s more “classically” science fiction, in the sense that I’m not going to get any arguments this time about whether it’s scifi or zombies. The plot is, in fact, almost absurdly simple: seven astronauts and scientists are traveling towards the sun with a payload that (the film remains cleverly vague about the details, which is always better than trying to blind us with lots of jargon) will reignite the dying star and temporarily relieve the permanent winter of the Earth. As always when you put humans in a small space with no chance of rescue, stuff happens. Bad stuff. There’s a failed mission from seven years ago! There’s a fire! There’s human error! And there’s a strange turn towards horror in the last act, which in my opinion was fairly unnecessary.

But that’s not really what you’re watching. What you’re watching is basically a feature-length exploration of Man’s timeless urge to look directly into the sun, despite certain destruction. Eyes abound here, from Cillian Murphy’s icy blues, to the psychologist’s shades surrounded by skin fried from his obsessive observation, to the round heat-shields of the ship itself, designed to stare constantly because blinking or looking away will spell death for the crew.

Of course there’s madness, and there’s a race against time. And it’s all artfully done, with a clear directorial hand. It’s not perfect, but it is impressive. Best of all, it’s thoughtful and entertaining without being obtuse, and the Transformers and War of the Worlds-style summer blockbuster has a viable alternative. Read more!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sicko (2007)

My biggest problem with Michael Moore Is that I agree with him. In principle. It is one thing to denounce the propaganda of the other side; a much more disagreeable task to have to decry the means being used to further the ends you support.

But perhaps this is where we should be especially vigilant, lest our efforts be put to use against us—are you listening, Mr. Moore?

I thought not.

Sicko is everything the anti-universal healthcare side could wish for. Over the years, Moore has only gotten more anecdotal and polemical with his films until we are faced with two hours of stories told by crying Americans and shiny, bouncy ex-pats taking advantage of their country of choice. It's not that I think he lied, necessary. You don't have to. But he doesn't tell the whole truth, either, or give sources or statistics. The issue of healthcare can stand the harsh light of reality. This is a murky, manipulative film that only provides ammunition against the very position it takes. And Moore's self-congratulatory "man of the people" shtick is wearing thin; cutting to your own reaction shot when an interviewee mentions "educated, confident" Americans, or running a boatload of 9/11 workers to Cuba to give that country some free publicity, is not clever.

This country needs health care reform, and making a film about it is commendable. But we already know it's an issue; what it needs now is a debate. With facts, comparisons, and valid (i.e. systematic and not anecdotal) evidence. How can you sit and listen to a man tell us that true democracy requires an informed populace and then refuse to offer anything approaching a balanced look at the issue? If you don't want us to be stupid, treat us like we're rational people and inform us. Because you're not convincing anyone smart enough to see the holes in your argument, and the people already on your side don't want to be seen next to you.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Hannibal Rising (2007)

The latest, and hopefully last, of the Hannibal Lecter movies is a triumph of marketing over character. Ever since The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris has made a career of making over his accidentally ambiguous villain, rendered fascinating primarily by Anthony Hopkins’ performance and chemistry with Jodie Foster, into a stale anti-hero. What was a playful subtext in Lambs became ridiculously overt in Hannibal and starkly and uninterestingly un-mythologized in Hannibal Rising.

The film is constructed of moments which tease the audience about the mature killer to come; knowledge, and indeed some amount of worship, is required to make this film make sense. Not that it’s terribly complicated: war scavengers in WWII Lithuania eat his sister and he grows up into a sadistic cannibal. Naturally. Unfortunately, the film only uses this premise as license to be sadistic itself, rather than actually attempt to create a plausible backstory. And perhaps it is impossible, not to mention unadvisable, to try to explain a monster.

And sadistic the film is, not because it deals in cannibalism or revenge or gore, but because it does so gleefully, like Hannibal himself. And perhaps that’s why the film takes him as its hero—if we are to be implicated along with him, we will likewise be exonerated. The movie’s message is that Mankind did this to a boy who grew up to dish it back to Mankind; and the path that Hannibal’s later life follows does nothing to counter this view or tarnish his tragic anti-hero image.

My contention is not that Hannibal is not an interesting character, or is unworthy of our consideration as representative of something we, as a society, find endlessly fascinating. But Hannibal Rising deprives the character of his mystery, and has nothing on the original. It is one thing, after all, to read against the grain and find something attractive or heroic in the bad guy’s subtext, and quite another to take the text and shine all the ambiguity, all the fun of transgressive viewing, out of it. And for “transgressive,” read “fun.”

Hannibal Lecter, the character, is no fan of subtlety when it comes to his crimes. But in his tastes, he is a gourmet, and I can’t help but think he’d hate this movie. Then again, he likes to eat brains, so maybe he shouldn’t be our guide in these things. But it is altogether a different meal from Silence of the Lambs, and the fact that it is meant to be does not, in my opinion, excuse it. I didn’t want Silence of the Lambs Redux, but I’d have been much happier leaving it as my sole entrée into the mind of this particular killer. Read more!

Knocked Up (2006)

I have never wanted to have children. Knocked Up, despite having a trajectory that lends it a sort of family values sheen, only solidified that decision. Because really: if you (hot blonde-type Katherine Heigl with your lucrative onscreen career at E!) accidentally got preggers during a drunken one-night-stand with a jobless pot-smoking overweight sarcastic guy with constant 3-day stubble, wouldn’t you do your damndest to fold him into your family unit?

Of course, it’s a movie, and the guy’s Seth Rogan (from Freaks and Geeks), and even though you know you belong to a different rung of the dating ladder you’re going to give his deadpan sardonic charm a fair shot. Which is what is kind of great about this movie—it doesn’t pretend Rogan’s a heartthrob, but he is the leading man. That, in itself, is enough to make me like the film on principle. Like me, Judd Apatow (who worked with Rogan on the aforementioned show and cast him in The 40 Year Old Virgin) watched him and decided he should be used more. Thanks goodness, too; this movie basically expands on the best bits from Apatow’s previous film—Rogan and friends sitting around bullshitting about pop culture—and leaves out the more predictable humor and societal unease about sexuality.

Which isn’t to say the movie’s not conventional, or edgy, or vulgar, or sweet. It’s all of those things, with a cherry of dubious family stability on top. Abortion’s not really an option, but neither are we told this experiment in cross-clique breeding is going to be successful. The film’s model of marriage—Heigl’s sister and her husband, played by Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann and my personal favorite Paul Rudd—is a tar pit of frustration and mutual mistrust and snark. Both of the parents-to-be make mistakes, but also make compromises. Apatow says he wants to make films that look more or less like real life, and Rogan’s non-acting style perfectly suits it. Romantic comedies are rarely this raw or this funny, and that might be because as in life, romance gets the short end of the stick. Maybe that’s why it’s possible for people to walk away from it with completely opposing designs towards procreation, as many of my female friends prove; you come out with what you brought in, but with your stomach sore from laughing. Read more!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

300 (2007)

The tempest in a teapot that has been the critical reaction to 300 has, as yet, been absent my voice. On the basis of the trailers and the graphic novel on which the film is based, I had a sense that it dealt in a philosophy of brutality and stark notions of good and evil. I was cautioned, however, against making my mind up before seeing the entire film. I hope that I went into it, finally, without this review already written in my head; doubtless those who disagree will believe that my conclusions were reached long before the evidence had been gathered.

300 is an ahistorical account of King Leonidas’ last stand against Xerxes and the Persian army. His 300 soldiers, supplemented by other city-states of Greece, seek glory rather than victory; an ideological battle for freedom and the potential represented by nascent Greek culture. These “free men” stand against Xerxes’ army of “slaves,” nevermind that the Greeks were no more above slavery than any other civilization—in fact, the Spartans’ own slaves outnumbered them three to one. They call the Athenians “boy lovers,” though Sparta was no stranger to the sexual mentoring of young men. Above all, the society that Leonidas commands seems like more of a military state topped with corrupt politicians and priests than a precursor to democracy; hardly a model from which cries of freedom ring.

Of course, it is only a movie. And it’s an active one, which recreates the book in great detail. Like Sin City (though aesthetically less pleasing to me), it is a graphic novel brought to life, and that is an interesting achievement. Great care was taken in this process, and that is impressive. To me, the art of the book is far more beautiful than the film managed to be, but that is a matter of personal taste. And while the color palate was acceptable, and the acting decent, I found the film ugly in its clumsy dialogue, awkward political subplot and laughable fake wolf. Without the controversy, I would probably dismiss it out of hand, as neither worth seeing for its brief pleasures or worth arguing about its numerous flaws.

But while it is too silly to take seriously as a socio-political statement about anything, it does not follow that the film should be immune from speculation about what cultural currents run beneath it. And there is much in 300 to worry me; so much so that I can’t understand how it could be missed. Anyone who is not a Spartan—or more specifically, is not Spartan by a very narrow definition of the word—is ugly, black, or effeminately gay (Leonidas is, by the way, Scottish). Those who look like monsters will act like monsters; those who look like Europeans may be worth trusting. Even the argument that Stelios and Astinos’ homosocial bond may be read as homoerotic does not lesson the homophobia inherent in portraying Xerxes as a beautiful and androgynous sexual predator. Homophobia can just as easily operate by informing us which kind of social transactions are acceptable and which are not. It is an old belief that men in homosexual situations are only men as long as they play a “man’s” role.

None of this means that anyone connected with the film was trying to make a political statement. Neither does it mean that the movie should not have been made in whatever manner they chose, or that audiences shouldn’t enjoy it for its visceral appeal. But the bloodthirsty imagery and the heroic golden light bathing the Spartans tells me that we are meant to side with them; meant to consider their cause worthy, their glory earned. We may not be able to say that any film is a concrete philosophical statement; but I don’t see how 300 can be read as free of any troubling social commentary.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

The third installment in the Spider-Man movie franchise is not the pinnacle of moviemaking. It’s not even the apex of superhero cinema. It’s a film rife with coincidence and absurdly simplistic morality, made by people who want to tell us the world is full of shades of grey but who can’t get over the ease of black and white. So when I tell you I loved it, it doesn’t mean I wasn’t sitting there shrugging my shoulders at its rampant stupidity.

But I loved it.

Let me recap: I hated 1. I thought it was cartoonish and silly. 2, somehow, opened up before me as an exploration of the superhero as normal guy; everything I’ve always wanted from a comic book. I’ve always been far more interested in how the heroes’ alter egos live with themselves than in watching them leap tall buildings in a single bound. The second film was a lovely exposition along that theme, with a tastefully relevant villain.

For the third film, it seems that someone decided that it wasn’t enough to play with Peter and MJ’s relationship; not enough to throw Parker’s darker “black Spider-man” at him; not enough to have Harry-son-of-Green Goblin lose his memory, find it again, and come after Peter multiple times; not enough to include not one but two mutant villains; but they all had to be interconnected somehow in a ridiculous, excuse the expression, web of association and happenstance. Oh, and dancing. The movie asks us to believe far too much in its too long 141 minutes; convenience is par for the course in American comics, but played out monthly it’s probably easier to swallow.

At the same time, I ate every bit, and would have sat for more. Because the things I loved about the second film—the missed opportunities, adolescent selfishness and misunderstanding, growing up and apart from friends; with special powers, of course—they were still there. They were hidden in the new effects (mostly occurring at night, which they’ve finally figured out masks much sin) and the loaded (and sometimes cheesy) script and clumsy moralizing, but this is still a story about a guy trying to figure it all out, with just as much to deal with as most of us. And that’s not typical in Hollywood. As silly and transparent as it is, most movies wouldn’t have a fight scene hinge on the fact that a the hero’s more concerned about not losing the ring he wants to propose to his girl with. And I admire that. I also admire any movie where Bruce Campbell attempts to convince us of his accent by informing us he’s French.

So every time I started to scoff at the movie, and mock its attempts to curry favor with fans, I remembered that this guy had made Army of Darkness, and I sat back again to enjoy the ride. I love Army of Darkness. And in the end, the good humor apparent behind both movies won me over, despite all reason. It’s goofy, contradictory and cheesy, but then, so’s my life. And maybe that’s why I relate to it. Read more!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

film review index

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Children of Men (2006)

My husband’s always bugging me about repopulating the Earth after the apocalypse. I mean, the hypothetical “if everyone was dead but us, would you have babies?” I tend to say no, because I figure if we’ve gone that far towards our own destruction, we deserve to die off and let someone else have a chance. Children of Men makes me feel much the same way, but with lots more suspense and a better soundtrack.

It’s 2027, and no one’s been born for 18 years. No one knows why, and in fact it doesn’t really matter—like the other recent post-apocalyptic film set in England, 28 Days Later, the mechanics really aren’t the point. It’s what you do with the situation that matters. At the beginning of the film, Theo is a former activist who isn’t doing anything except drinking black coffee and visiting his friend Jasper (Michael Caine in a Gerry Garcia wig). But animals seem to like him. This of course makes him the ideal man get involved in a plot about babies, since he’s already friend to mankind’s substitute children.

Theo, because of his previous ties to the revolutionary underground, gets mixed up in a tangled political web spun around a young refugee/immigrant named Kee. Who is, miraculously and for no explainable reason, preggers. This is revealed with little Biblical subtlety but great beauty in a barn, the girl covering her breasts in an odd touch of modesty. And that’s sort of the style of the movie; Alfonso Cuaron delivers a fast-paced thriller of a sci-fi movie (which deserves to be a lot longer and more fleshed out) in beautiful, stark detail. Everything about this society indicates a world living backwards. No one bothers to clean up the trash, or prosecute pot-growers, and apparently no new songs have been written since 2003. There is no future, until this baby comes along, and even then it is uncertain. Is the baby a new hope, or merely the banner for revolution?

Cuaron’s movie appears to itself be a sort of banner, because he’s imbued it with so many Iraq War references we might as well be watching the news with better lighting. Prisoners lie in blindfolded rows, hand-held cameras get splattered with blood, and a huge sign over a refugee deportation center proclaims “Homeland Security.”

As a science fiction film, it’s too short and doesn’t go far enough. As a political message, it’s a bit heavy handed and similarly directionless. But as a suspense film with appealing sci-fi and political aspects, it’s very good. It’s beautifully filmed, the soundtrack works well, and the world-building is solid. Just don’t expect any real insight into human nature, or our future. Read more!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Shortbus (2006)

I was suspicious when I heard that John Cameron Mitchell was auditioning "sextras" for his new film, at the time called "The Sex Film Project." He said he wanted to use actual sex, not simulated, in his film. And one had to wonder; how is that not porn?

Well, it's not. "I know it when I see it," and Shortbus is about sex, not about getting off. Sure, it's also about narcissism, but then, isn't a lot of sex? Why, you might well ask, should we be interested in a movie whose basic premise is "let's put actual sex on the screen"?

Maybe because, unlike porn, it's an "actual" movie. In fact, after the first few minutes (which, I believe, are deliberately shocking and set up a counterpoint to the actual themes of the film), I was perfectly comfortable watching this film in mixed company (both of gender and level of acquaintanceship). Because I wasn't watching people trying to be sexy--I was watching people have sex. Strangely, there is a difference, one that made it much less disturbing than simulated soft-core. And what this movie is about is that it's okay, no matter what you're into. And that you, yes you, are a voyeur, so you can't escape anyway.

The story involves the intersection of several people who converge upon Shortbus, the sex club and salon for the "gifted and challenged" of the sexual world. Supposedly based on a real place and time, it's a well-lit, sex-positive venue where no one is pushed but everyone is encouraged. Our primary vehicle here is Sofia, a sex "I prefer couples counselor" therapist who has, despite her job, never had an orgasm! She offers some exceedingly bad therapy and subsequently attempts various techniques for achieving her ultimate goal--all the while protesting that "sex is awesome!" Now, this could very easily have been excruciating to watch. I can imagine some wonky "edgy" comedy with this premise trying to get away with whatever it can. Like American Pie for the Peter Pan Syndrome set. But by making the sex "real," Mitchell's also made it believable. Not everything the characters do is plausible, but the spirit in which the film was made seems to make up for it. There's a gay threesome situation that is by turns really angsty and sweet. There's an old, closeted mayor of NY who frequents Shortbus and counters the claim that by being in the closet, he "didn't do enough" about AIDS. There's an S&M mistress who doesn't have any close connections to people, but who photographs them obsessively and frequently inappropriately.

In the end, when I sit down and think about the actual plot, there's not much to it. And I don't know if I learned anything specific from Sofia's journey. But I feel I did learn a lot about beauty, and bodies, and sex in general. Not to mention having the utter contrast of our media's simultaneously Puritan and pornographic impulses thrown in sharp relief; this movie shows it all, but is neither. And while my feelings about it as a movie are mixed, my reaction to it is as positive as... well, as it wants us to be about sex. Read more!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Full Monty (1997)

The Full Monty came out ten years ago, and on its anniversary it’s been given a “Fully Exposed,” 2-DVD treatment. At the time it came out, the backlash hit me before the film did, and so I recall being less than impressed. It was probably the utter seriousness with which people approached the film—seriousness I read in the box office and the Oscar noms and everyone talking about it. The hype just couldn’t support a cute film about unemployed, naked steelworkers.

And that one-note joke, flavored with “new” slang we Americans could toss around, made it seem like tourism to me. Trainspotting had already hit, so we knew that we were supposed to like British movies, but this made them cuddly. I got the feeling everyone in the U.S. was taking in the nudity and the language and everything else with the sort of detached superiority which leads (in old novels, anyway) to proclamations of “oh, how quaint!”

Of course, I am now a snob with ten more years’ experience, and am able to enter the film again with reduced expectations and a better understanding of the filmic context. And this time, reminding myself that this was indeed a surprise hit, that the imitators came after, I really did enjoy it. We all know the story by now: out-of-work steelworkers, confronted with financial responsibilities and the popularity of the Chippendales, launch their own, Yorkshire-version male strip show. They’re thin, fat, pasty, old, and uncoordinated, but these plucky lads know how to make the best of things and confront their fears head on! To the film’s credit and my relief, the potential sentimentality is softened by the very real situation these guys are in, and the endearing characters who really do seem to have relationships. It doesn’t ignore the homoerotic aspects of what they’re doing, or the implications to masculinity of both unemployment and public nudity.

The one sour note, somewhat perversely in my opinion, is the score. I know it won an Oscar, but I found it to be far too jaunty. I’m not talking about the soundtrack itself, which was also very popular and is a lot of fun. No, I mean the weird, over-produced harmonica stuff that seems to be constantly telling us, “Hey, I know this is a movie about unemployment, but it’s a happy movie about unemployment!” The script does a fine job of walking the line between comedy and pathos. I don’t need a “lonely” harmonica cheerfully telling me that I shouldn’t be too upset by the goings-on on screen, because this is actually a light-hearted romp. I’m watching middle-aged pasty men strip, after all.

As for the new DVD set, I now know more than I ever needed to about The Full Monty. (Except, strangely enough, why the film is too cowardly to actually show the full monty.) The first disc has utterly pointless “deleted scenes,” which largely consist of alternate takes from various angles. Useful if you need to learn how utterly tedious filmmaking is, but adding nothing to our knowledge of characters or themes. The cast filmographies are nicely done with little interviews interspersed with information about their careers. But the bulk of the info is on the second disc, which has several featurettes (or one long one) that talk about the script, the hiring process, the making and subsequent popularity of the film, and why exactly the studio thought Americans wouldn’t understand the word “stone” as a unit of measure (back on the first disc, you can also watch the movie with its original, UK soundtrack. Seriously). Despite some questionable “artistic” touches in the filming of interviews and things, it’s quite well done, and many more movies deserve this kind of treatment. It’s a demonstration of what DVDs can be used for. I’m not entirely convinced I needed The Full Monty to go all the way, but it’s refreshing to see a little film get this kind of release. Read more!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Inland Empire (2006)

Writing a review of any new David Lynch film is a dodgy prospect, almost as disturbing to contemplate as the film is to watch. In the case of Inland Empire, the task is especially daunting. Any opinion expressed will be too temperate for either camp—this movie, it seems to me, is a love-it-or-leave-it event. Either it makes no sense at all and is really really long, or it’s a masterpiece of an experimental vision.

Unless, of course, you’re eternally equivocal like me and think it’s… interesting.

Inland Empire is like the last half of Mulholland Drive made by someone who’d been re-watching Eraserhead a lot. And surprisingly enough, aside from some absurdities I believe are meant to be funny and/or just weird, it has a more coherent plot than you might expect from that description. The story follows the making of a film, “On High in Blue Tomorrows,” a remake of a Polish film that never got finished due to the murder of its two leads. The current production is also plagued, but this time by altered reality. Characters and actors conflate and overlap; narratives run into each other; sets are indistinguishable from homes. Laura Dern is the film’s through-line, playing several different characters whose exact number is not clear. I have never liked Dern in anything but Citizen Ruth (because what’s not to like about abortion comedy?) but she is amazing in this film. The rest of the cast, likewise, admirably takes on the trial of weaving these tangled threads. And look terrible doing it.

Because this film, in an echo of Eraserhead’s shoestring budget (though without its arresting visual beauty), was filmed in DV on a “midrange,” consumer-model camera. And it looks like it. Blown up to 35mm for theater viewing, every flaw of digital video is obvious. Dark lines appear at edges; faces look harsh and washed-out; everything has that flat, handheld look of really seriously messed up home movies. And while it looks awful, you don’t really notice after a few minutes, and it’s a lovely message for a filmmaker like Lynch to send to the potential filmmakers of the future. Everything looks like it was filmed by some guy who just happened to be on a movie set while the real movie was being filmed. Which is especially odd when you remember that the movie is about movie-making.

As to the experience itself, it has very little in common with any other evening you can get in a conventional theater. It is exhausting, not only due to its 3 hour length but in the sheer nonlinear nightmarish goings-on. People break out into song. Large rabbit furries appear in a (really awful) play. Random Polish people (from that other production) show up and play their scenes. In Polish. Laura Dern looks anguished. A lot. And while there is a certain logic to the plot as a whole, the events themselves are not designed for easy watching. And this makes most people uncomfortable. Still other people see meaning in the experience itself, the sheer inundation of images and feeling. I feel caught between granting too much meaning to it and cynically assuming Lynch means absolutely nothing. In truth, I think it’s somewhere in the middle: the film has an explanation, but it is not possible to fit everything into a coherent tale.

In the end, as far as I’m concerned, Inland Empire just can’t be codified. It’s an unforgettable, uncomfortable experience, and if you like your movies to be cozy and fun, this is not for you. But if you want an adventure, and if you’re willing to sit back and let it come to you and not try too hard to figure it all out, you’ll be rewarded. If, that is, unforgettable, uncomfortable experiences are their own reward. Read more!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

“It's only a word,” Ofelia's mother tells her when instructing her daughter to call her new stepfather “papa.” Of course, nothing is ever “only a word” when it comes to fairy tales, even violent and dark ones like this.

Pan's Labyrinth is the story of a young girl trapped in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Her father is dead, her mother remarried, and she is whisked away to a remote mansion-fortress in the country. She has her books—though mother is somewhat contemptuous of her attachment to children's stories. Ofelia sees bugs as fairies and sees life as a set of puzzles to solve. She becomes caught up in a fantasy world of fauns, secret doors, and giant toads. Only in such dark times would this fantasy seem preferable to reality; she is told that she is a lost princess who must complete certain tasks to be taken back, but there is no guarantee her secret world is any better than this one. It just has to be.

As Ofelia navigates between her secret trials and the uncertain quantity of mother's new husband, the rest of the household divides its loyalties and fights their own fight. Everyone has secrets, and everyone is in danger. The film is dark and violent, though gorgeous, and I wish I had seen some other of Guillermo del Toro's films before seeing this one. I might have been prepared, then, for the fact that he is less interested in exploring the fairy world Ofelia is trying to escape to than the one she's trying to escape from. I was expecting more of the labyrinth—the trailers certainly emphasized these elements—and was caught off guard by the real-world focus of the narrative. In the end, it is difficult to determine what really happened and what didn't. It is Amelie in wartime.

But it is all put together beautifully. Ofelia is wonderful, and the rest of the cast seems to move effortlessly through the strange landscape. The cinematography is brilliant as well; there is some exciting editing using the trunks of trees to hide edits between scenes and everything's awash in a gold-green glow that alternately suggests history and fantasy. The film, indeed, bridges that gap naturally. Everything fits, ugly as it may be. Fairy tales were never benign children's stories, and neither is this. Read more!

Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Uh oh. Someone's written another comedy about writers! Second-only to comedies about filmmaking in its self-indulgence, this genre is an automatic green-light at production companies. Maybe it's because of that “write what you know” thing, or maybe it's an easy way to appear clever. Dating back to the 20's, Hollywood has considered itself the highest form of entertainment rather than the mere purveyor of such. That's how we get movies like Stranger than Fiction.

What's different about this movie is that despite telling a story-with-a-story that's really kind of stupid, it's not as bad (or pretentious) as it could have been. Despite opening with Will Ferrell brushing his teeth.

Why Will Ferrell? It's almost as if Hollywood has decreed that no comedy shall emerge from that sacred space without Will Ferrell. I don't know why this should be, as he's nothing special—I have no quarrel with him aside from his ubiquity, but is he really that much funnier than everyone else? Did someone see Talladega Nights and insist this was the guy to round out Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman and Maggie Gyllenhaal? Much to my relief, Ferrell is never conspicuously funny in this film, and maybe that's the point his Will and his agent are trying to make. “Look! I'm not just stupid! Remember that cheerleader on SNL? Well don't!”

Anyway. Harold is a very boring IRS agent who sees everything in numbers and has no life. We get to partake in this with translucent numbers and graphics laid over the film reminiscent of effects used in the South Korean film Please Take My Cat, among others. One day, as Harold is counting his toothbrush strokes, he hears a British lady narrating this activity. He stops. So does she. He starts again. As does she. This continues through the next several days: as Harold goes about his business, he hears it played back at him. What follows is one of those “I'm not crazy!” movies where he discovers, eventually, that someone is actually writing a book about him and is going to kill him off. The character, that is. But if he's the character, doesn't that mean he'll die?

All of this, including an unlikely romance between IRS agent and liberal tax-dodging baker, comes off pretty standard. There aren't many surprises. But I found it very entertaining for a few reasons. Mostly because it was like a less pretentious and more commercial version of I Heart Huckabees, which has a similar existential theme but took itself way seriously while being conspicuously funnier. (And yes, I know I was supposed to like Huckabees. I didn't.) But on top of that, there were little touches here and there which showed that someone had actually written it.

For instance, I liked when Harold decides to start narrating himself. And when he and his love interest, the really attractive Maggie G, are filmed conversing over the weird effect of the middle of a double-length bus, where it accordions in and out and which holds a personal fascination for me. Or when he comes over for dinner and rises to help her with the dishes, only to have her say, “Don't worry about it, I'm only putting them in the sink.” That is natural. That is something people would say to each other. And stuff like that hardly ever makes it into the movies.

Now, the big logical problem I have with the story is that Emma Thompson narrates everything except Harold's discovery that he's a character. So if she knows everything going on in his life, whether she's controlling him or he's controlling her narrative, she should be aware of him screaming at the heavens for her to shut up. Furthermore, without the parts where Harold's screaming at the heavens for her to shut up, it's a really boring story. This would not be a movie if he wasn't aware of his status as a character in it. But we're led to believe she's this brilliant novelist who gets college courses taught about her work. This would imply that this screenplay, too, is as good as her book. Which would actually put her somewhere just above “hack” in the hierarchy of writers. I don't know about you, but for me credibility is lacking. But then, I sometimes forget we're supposed to ignore paradox. What do I want for $3 at the second-run theater?

Actually, this movie is perfect for a second-run theater. Solid value, not too much thought, but satisfying on a weeknight. Come to think of it, my narrator wouldn't have a lot to say about me, either. Read more!

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Once upon a time, there lived a queen who had lots of shoes, did almost nothing, and never said “let them eat cake.” Sofia Coppola, who had made a really very good film a few years earlier about people who weren’t doing anything but were still self-aware enough to be kind of worried about it, decided her follow-up would be about this queen, except wait! She’d put early 80’s new-wave songs into the soundtrack, in case we had trouble relating to Kirsten Dunst in a period costume.

Just so you know where I stand on the issue, using “I Want Candy” in any movie is pretty much a cop-out, a gesture as empty as the puffed pastries and shoes the song is used to illustrate. I can’t imagine what I’m supposed to learn by this juxtaposition which is more of a shallow reiteration—is it that Marie Antoinette was a party girl who liked nice things? Amazing! Now, if Coppola had decided that New Order was the perfect commentary on the excesses of the pre-Revolutionary French court, then fine. I can roll with that, but she has to work for it. It doesn’t even seem like she’s making a comment on the early 80’s, as far as I can tell. It might have been cool if she’d used more MTV techniques, or integrated the anachronism in a ballsier fashion, but she didn’t. It just seems tacked-on.

The movie does a good job of showing us the utter otherworldliness of life at Versailles. Antoinette clearly has no idea what goes on outside the palace grounds. Trouble is, neither do we. For a film about someone who was the ultimate victim of class warfare, there’s a shocking lack of class discussion in it. A lot of time is spent not exploring why the king can’t get it up for Dunst, and then pow! the natives are restless, and coming for you! In a way, I suppose we’re as isolated as the royals from the unrest of the people, and that’s valid I suppose. But the absence of intrigue is almost total, and a cursory examination of the wikipedia article on the queen will reveal lots of juicy note-passing and backstabbing that’s apparently hardly worth mentioning. But would have made a more interesting film.

Coppola’s point seems to be that Marie was a hapless victim of national upheaval; irresponsible but oh such fun! But she doesn’t even address the family’s downfall; the first third of the film is an effective and attractive portrayal of a girl forced to “grow up” fast without ever really doing so, and then it dissolves into an eventless evocation of a rather boring life interrupted in time for the credits. Marie Antoinette actually got pretty interesting at this point, which makes the ending a confusing decision on the director’s part.

It’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with the film. It’s more that not much is really satisfyingly right, either. Everyone does well, and it’s pretty, and the soundtrack is fun. But the only way I can call the film successful is if the purpose was to make me feel profoundly indifferent to it. Which pretty much still makes it unsuccessful, I’m afraid. Read more!