Monday, August 30, 2010

Takers












Genre movies are all about variations on a theme. The good ones make a familiar formula feel fresh, finding the poetry in some combination of the movie’s key elements (performances, plot, camera work, choreography, dialogue, art direction, sound, etc.) I’m thinking of recent films like Inside Man, Next Day Air, and The Italian Job, probably because they’re all quoted heavily – sometimes even by name – in Takers.

Unfortunately, stealing doesn’t always work even if you choose your sources well. Sometimes you just end up with a sleek so-what like this heavily processed mashup of played-out movie conventions and self-conscious cool.

Takers keeps crosscutting between two sets of protagonists: a group of criminals planning an elaborate heist and two cops trying to stop them. The filmmakers want us to sympathize with them all, but rather than trust the wide streak of empathy/outlaw envy that nearly always makes us root for the thieves in movies like this, they pile on contrived complications. There’s the drug-addicted sister who Gordon (Idris Elba, his native English accent fading in and out) wants to set up back home in the Caribbean, so she can dry out in peace. Or the girlfriend (a barely-there Zoe Saldana, reduced to a minor plot point) another member of the gang plans to marry, rescuing her from Ghost (Atlanta rapper T.I.), her glowering ex.

Ghost has just rejoined the gang after a stint in prison. Boiling with resentment over what he sees as his partners’ betrayal, he sets up the Italian Job-style job that takes up most of the movie’s running time. The others are too greedy to pass up the gig, though it’s such a bad idea that they – and the movie – lose credibility as soon as they say yes.

Meanwhile, the workaholic Jack (Matt Dillon) and his laid-back partner Eddie (Jay Hernandez) cope with the usual movie-cop problems. Jack, who investigates cases too intensely and interrogates informants too roughly, is separated from his wife, ducking his bosses, and constantly disappointing his young daughter. Eddie is happily married, but his sick kid and unemployed wife are putting him under financial pressure, which he deals with just the way I expected him to.

The fight scenes are filmed with that jerky/blurry look and too-close camera that so many filmmakers favor these days, which make impossible to tell what people are doing and where they are in relation to each other or their environment. I found that particularly annoying during a chase on foot that involved a lot of parkour, which would have been a lot more fun to watch if we'd seen the landscape the lead runner was operating in and felt the logic behind the split-second decisions he made as he navigated it. Instead, I wondered why on earth he went feet-first through the little window at the top of a door when he could have just pushed it open and run through – or could he?

That kind of thing wouldn’t matter so much if there were something else to hold our interest, but Takers is all about the thrill of watching its thieves live large and die in slow motion, and most of that is portrayed in numbingly paint-by-numbers fashion. Always decked out in expensive-looking suits or the latest hipster chic, the “takers” sip $100-plus-a-bottle scotch (the camera even lingers on the label at one point), lounge around the swanky nightclub they apparently own, or disappear behind rosewood security doors into houses with infinity pools and killer views. If that doesn’t float your boat, there’s plenty of prime beefcake to ogle (the women sitting next to me moaned when Elba stepped out of bed and toward the camera in nothing but skin-tight briefs). And, of course, there are lots of fast cars and bikes and choppers, gun battles, explosions, and pumped-up music and aerial shots to amp up the intensity meter. Our boys even do a slo-mo group stroll at one point, heading toward the camera and away from the explosion they’ve rigged to go off as they walk.

There are a few flashes of genuine style, but for the most part it feels about as lifeless as an airbrushed photo in a second-rate fashion magazine.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 100: If God is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise












Whew. When I started doing this Movie a Day thing, one of my sisters said it was like I'd given myself my ideal job, only without pay. She's right, but doing anything every day for 100 days can to be a grind sometimes, even if it's something you love. I'll tell you more about that in a minute, but first for that 100th movie.

If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise, a two-part documentary that premiered yesterday and the day before on HBO, is Spike Lee's follow-up to When the Levees Broke, his excellent two-part documentary on the causes and effects of Hurricane Katrina. In If God is Willing, he goes back to New Orleans—with side trips to Houston and Mississippi—to see how the people who fled or got trapped by the flood are doing four or five years later. Spike and crew initially had a pretty upbeat movie in the can, capped off by joyful footage of the city's miraculous Super Bowl win this year. Then the BP well started gushing crude and they went back to shoot more, revamping the movie to create another jeremiad about corporate and governmental greed and duplicity crossed with a tribute to the resilience and smarts of the people of New Orleans.

Spike's determination to convey a message can gum up his movies, which are sometimes too stilted (She's Gotta Have It), too doctrinaire (Miracle at St. Anna, School Daze), or both (Bamboozled). But when he's good, he's very, very good. Documentaries seem to bring out the best in him, letting him say something important about who we are and how we live while honoring the sometimes contradictory complexity of his subjects (as he did in Do the Right Thing). In this one as in his other documentaries, he rounds up a broad range of knowledgeable and opinionated talking, singing and rapping heads, often returning to people he talked to in the first film to see how they're faring now.

Spike's subjects aren't just the usual suspects. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 99: Nanny McPhee Returns and Hubble 3D



















Nanny McPhee and Hubble 3D. That sounds like the first line of a children’s rhyme, but it’s actually a pair of very good movies for kids that are playing – for at least another week – in Central Jersey. The Hubble movie now at the AMC Hamilton is part of a limited run nationwide. It could close as early as next Thursday (though it will stay longer if business is good), so you might want to get the kids there before school starts.

Just 45 minutes long, Hubble 3D is more about the launching and repairing of the Hubble Space Telescope than it is about the detailed digital images captured by the giant space-based observatory. Kids will probably enjoy watching astronauts train underwater, suit up for liftoff, and build a soft taco in zero gravity on a floating tortilla, and the close-up perspective on one shuttle’s liftoff is astonishing on the huge IMAX screen. Getting a sense of the challenges that faced the astronauts is interesting too, and learning a bit about the skills and tools they used to meet those challenges (taking out tiny screws while wearing a space suit is, the Leo DiCaprio voiceover observes, “Like performing brain surgery with oven mitts”) added to my appreciation of the Hubble’s amazingly clear views of space and time. But I would have liked to see more of those views, which the voiceover describes as “imagery so complex we can actually travel through it.”

Travelling into the images, we move at what seems like a deliberate pace but is actually, Leo informs us, trillions of miles per second. We zoom in close enough to see extraordinary, often beautiful sights like the fuzzy black cloud ringing one new star or the translucent “cocoons” that protect others in “a gargantuan canyon of clouds” where new stars generate five million mph winds. We also tour our own outer-space “neighborhood,” learning about the some of the approximately 2,000 galaxies in it.

I saw the movie at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where – despite the name – it’s not shown in 3D. It would probably be even better to see it that way, but I suspect the movie’s main impact comes from the IMAX screen, which is almost like looking at space itself. Here’s hoping we never get too CGI-saturated to be awed by that sight.













The quick, self-effacing wit, obvious warmth, and commonsense demeanor that makes Nanny McPhee Returns writer/star Emma Thompson such a good talk show guest also make her movie very good indeed, as Nanny McPhee herself might say. Silly, insightful, and moving in more or less equal and gracefully alternating parts, Nanny McPhee Returns follows the honorable tradition of the best of England’s children’s literature (think E. Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, JK Rowling) by acknowledging the terror and grief that is part of life at any age while celebrating the joy generated by imaginative play, friendship, and core virtues like the ones Nanny McPhee preaches.

The setting is WWII England, where Isabel Green and her three children hold down the family farm (cut poop jokes) while their husband and father is away at war. “We’re coping,” insists Isabel (a sweetly frazzled Maggie Gyllenhaal, with a surprisingly good English accent), but Nanny McPhee knows better. She shows up just as the children’s city cousins, who have arrived for a visit (cue more poop jokes), are trashing the house in an all-out battle with the country kids.

Benevolent but firm, Nanny McPhee straightens things up with the help of her magic stick and a burping bird named Mr. Edelweiss. The children learn their five lessons (stop fighting, share, help each other, be brave, and have faith) while other healthy values, like being kind and trusting your gut, are conveyed in equally uncertain terms. Nanny McPhee performs some entertaining magic tricks, the kids (all very good actors) have some mildly suspenseful and emotionally resonant adventures, and everything works out in the end.

A welcome respect for women is worked into the story in the same funny, unpreachy way, from the gender reversal of the two girly-looking “hit women” who show up to collect the bad guy’s debt to the sympathetic approach to the loving, responsible, overwhelmed Isabel. Her behavior needs modifying as much as her children’s, but she’s a far cry from the neglectful or incompetent parents of most children’s tales.

On The Daily Show to promote the movie, Thompson made the inevitable comparison to that other magic English nanny, Mary Poppins, only to shoot it down. “Narcissist. My view,” she says of Poppins. “Don’t you think?” I do, Emma, I do. All the more reason to appreciate what Thompson and crew have cooked up here, which goes down even easier than that spoonful of sugar and has way more nutritional value.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 98: Nobody Knows














I’d had this movie in my Netflix queue for months before I finally clicked on it last night. I mean, how often are you in the mood for a movie that’s not only long (140 minutes) but depressing? The based-on-a true-story tale of a bunch of kids, the oldest just 12 and the youngest not yet 5, whose mother abandons them in their Tokyo apartment, Nobody Knows is one of those real-life horror stories about the dark side of urban anonymity.

The slow pace takes a little getting used to, but it pays off as this near-silent movie tells us about the kids and their environment by following them in what feels like real time. Most of the talk is in the first few minutes, when the children’s mother is still around. A petite, cheery woman with a voice like a little girl’s, she acts almost like a kid herself, charming the youngest girl and boy, Yuki and Shigeru, with her playful chatter. But nearly everything she says turns out to be a lie, concocted to make her look like the loving mother of a happy family.

In fact, their apartment is a prison for the kids, since she doesn’t want the landlord or the men she dates to know she has young children. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 97: Soul Kitchen














After his last two brilliant and emotionally demanding feature-length fiction films, Head-On and The Edge of Heaven, it's nice to see Fatih Akin kick back and relax, but I suspect he enjoyed making Soul Kitchen more than I enjoyed watching it.

Soul Kitchen shares a lot of ingredients with Head-On and The Edge of Heaven: All three have a respectful but nuanced view of family relationships (family ties in an Akin movie are as likely to strangle as to save you); a bone-deep understanding of the cross-cultural pollination that has transformed Europe and Akin's own family (his parents emigrated to Germany from Turkey); and a strong score, flavored by techno in The Edge of Heaven, punk in Head-On, soul music here, and traditional Turkish music in them all. They also use a lot of the same actors, most notably Head-On star Birol Ünel, who has a scene-stealing supporting role in Soul Kitchen as a temperamental chef, and the film's co-writer and star Adam Bousdoukos, who had a cameo in Head-On.

But this time, Akin dials down the emotional intensity and amps up the fun to write a lighthearted love letter to his native Hamburg's hip Wilhelmsburg section (no, New Yorkers, the name isn't part of the joke). Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 96: Romántico













“Silence has been destroyed, but also the idea that it’s important to learn how another person thinks, to enter the mind of another person,” said Gary Shteyngart in a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine. “The whole idea of empathy is gone. We are now part of this giant machine where every second we have to take out a device and contribute our thoughts and opinions.” He’s exaggerating for effect, I suppose, and writers who are frustrated because they don’t have more readers aren’t exactly unbiased reporters of cultural decline. Why should expressing your opinion make you care less about what other people have to say? Isn’t it possible that oversharing is making us more sensitive to all the different perspectives out there?

I sure hope so, because Romántico just reminded me of one of the things I love about movies: A well-done character study can teach us a lot about how someone else thinks and experiences the world. And I’d hate to think that people wouldn’t be moved by this story, which outlines what may be the quintessential American experience of the 21st century while introducing us to a man I won’t soon forget.

Romántico starts out following two close friends from Salvatierra, Mexico, Carmelo Muñiz Sánchez and Arturo Arias. The two crossed over to the U.S. separately, each intent on earning money to send to the families they couldn’t support in Mexico. But when Carmelo found himself adrift in LA he joined Arturo in San Francisco, where the two formed a mariachi band, performing for tips in bars and restaurants in the city’s Mexican district. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 95: Mesrine














Gangster movies usually come in one of three flavors. In the first kind, the filmmakers identify with their glamorized protagonists (think Coppola’s Corleones or Michael Mann’s Dillinger in Public Enemies), portraying them as admirable, even honorable men who abide by a strict moral code in an immoral world. The second show no love to their gangsters, thugs without remorse like the ugly brutes in last year’s Gomorrah. The third—and probably most common—play it both ways, making their gangsters charismatic enough to appeal to our love of bad boys (think Tony Soprano) while showing enough of the damage they inflict to remind us that those infatuations work best as fantasy.

A recent addition to that third tradition is the two-part French gangster movie I saw at a pair of press screenings. (Released in France and Belgium in 2008, Mesrine: Killer Instinct opens August 27 in New York and LA, followed a week later by Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1). A straightforward saga based on the autobiography of a self-made gangster (Jacques Mesrine’s respectable middle-class parents were apparently baffled by the life of crime their son chose), it starts out by dazzling us with its subject’s quick thinking, sex appeal, and balls-out nerve, but winds up exposing him as a self-deluded sociopath.

Cowriter/director Jean-François Richet, who directed the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, gives this story the propulsive pacing and adrenaline-gunning thrills of a good B movie, though it might have worked even better if he’d combined the two parts into one. Like Michael Mann’s Thief, this story doesn’t pause often or long for relationship-building scenes. Instead, it jumps from one charged event to another, as Mesrine robs, kills, kidnaps, goes to prison and escapes. You have to admire the gutsiness of some of his moves, like when he and a partner dress as cops and visit the local police station to find out what’s known about their whereabouts after an escape, or when he runs from a bank he just robbed to the one across the street on impulse, robbing the second one too before getting away. But others just seem boneheaded, like when he and another partner break back into a maximum-security prison they’ve escaped from, in a doomed attempt at freeing the other prisoners. It’s all pretty compelling, though, especially since, as the title cards listing places and dates keep reminding us, even the most far-fetched-seeming events apparently really happened.

The excellent cast deserves a lot of the credit for the tense sense of instability the film maintains throughout. I particularly liked watching Gérard Depardieu, who makes great use of his recently acquired bulk as Guido, a quietly menacing gangster who takes loose-cannon Mesrine under his wing; Mathieu Amalric, looking a little like Roman Polanski and seething with barely-buried resentment as one of the partners Mesrine picks up in prison; and Ludivine Sagnier, who's poignantly appealing as his amoral and empty-headed final mistress.

Best of all is Vincent Cassel as Mesrine. With his boxer's nose and body, his bullet-shaped head and his frequently downturned mouth, Cassel has always made a convincing tough guy, and his animal magnetism makes it easy to believe that women might have fallen for Mesrine as easily and often as they do. But his blind stares, waves of self-righteous rage, and blustering attempts to justify his crimes as some kind of revolutionary act reveal the sociopath in Mesrine—and make him seem less a sharp-witted menace than a self-deluding meathead.

The media swallowed Mesrine's self-created myth for a while, declaring him Public Enemy Number One and taking his self-flattering notions at face value. This two-parter makes you feel the force of his personality enough to see how that could happen, but it doesn't succumb to the hype. As Amalric's François scoffs: "We're crooks, not wild-eyed idealists."

Written for The House Next Door

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 94: Swing Time















There’s a contradiction at the heart of even the best of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies. When those two dance, or when Astaire sings (the rhythm that made him such a great dancer also makes him an excellent singer, although his voice was nothing special), they’re as elegantly expressive as anything ever captured on film, and as perfectly suited to their medium as Shakespeare was to his. But when they’re just acting, their movies go flat, as earthbound as the song and dance numbers are airy and uplifting.

Swing Time may be their best movie (it’s a toss-up for me with Top Hat). That’s mainly because it includes several of their best duets, but it also helps that director George Stevens makes us believe in their love for each other even between those magical numbers. That’s something no other director ever quite managed.

As always, Fred falls for Ginger at their first meet-cute encounter, but it’s hate at first sight for her. And as usual, their feelings are expressed most intensely through the singing and dancing with which he woos and wins her. This time, though, their feelings are also clear when they're not singing or dancing, shining through in their body language and their close-ups, particularly the gorgeous shots of Rogers’ guardedly softening face and widening eyes. (Yesterday for the first time, her dignity and understated humor reminded me of Jennifer Aniston, while Astaire’s hurt-puppy eyes and bowler hat under the gazebo where they sing A Fine Romance reminded me for the umpteenth time of Stan Laurel.) The nostalgia that Fred’s Lucky and Ginger’s Penny share for their love even as it’s just starting to bloom, since one or both of them always fears that it can never be, give this meringue of a movie a light dusting of melancholy. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 93: Q&A















Several of my closest relatives, including my father, have Asperger's syndrome. I'm sure that colored my reaction to Q&A, but then how many neurotypicals don't love at least one person who's wired differently than they are?

Q&A is the first in a series of animated shorts StoryCorps is creating from DIY interviews that have been collected since 2003. More than 60,000 people so far have contributed half that many stories, going in pairs to a StoryCorps booth (there are permanent ones in New York City, San Francisco and Atlanta and a van that travels around the rest of the country), where one person interviews the other about whatever they want to talk about. A number of animated StoryCorps movies began airing on PBS's POV series starting today.

Q&A, which lasts a little less than four minutes, animates part of the interview Joshua Littman, who has Asperger's, did with his mother, Sarah, when he was 12. A few titles at the beginning introduce the two and give Sarah's definition of Aspergers ("born without social genes") over images of solemn little Joshua. Then we hear Joshua's English-accented (the family lived in England until he was 9) little-boy voice and his mother's warm, reassuring responses over drawings of the two talking across a table or scenes depicting things they're talking about.

Joshua's direct and original questions, which are often typical of someone with Asperger's ("Did I turn out to be the son you wanted when I was born?" "Did I meet your expectations?" "Do you have any mortal enemies?" "Have you ever lied to me?") and his mother's honest and insightful answers are sometimes funny and always deeply moving, saying a lot about how love works between a parent and child. When Joshua says he thinks people like his neurotypical little sister better than him, a note of caution catching in his voice, his mother's answer is so perfect I wanted to bottle it and hand it out to everyone I know who doesn't have an unconditionally loving parent.

A story like this could easily get sticky-sweet. The matter-of-fact title cards and nicely edited questions and answers help mitigate that problem, but what ultimately solves it is the cheerful and simplistic style of drawing chosen by animator Tim Rauch, who enlivens his simple compositions with glowing splashes of color. The stylized figures make the video look a little like a mobile Sunday comic strip. They may also be Rauch's way of trying to convey an Asperger child's-eye view, since Aspies have a hard time reading the social cues most people pick up on from facial expressions and body language.

Asperger's started to penetrate the public consciousness sometime in the last five years or so, so heroes identified as having, or maybe having, Asperger's are starting to show up in movies (most recently Adam and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). My favorite so far is Joshua, who's Aspy enough to ask tough questions and lucky enough to have a mom with great answers.

Written for The House Next Door

Monday, August 16, 2010

Desperately Seeking Something: Eat Pray Love and Cairo Time














This has been a good summer for something we haven’t seen much in the movies: the female midlife crisis. (Could this be the next wave of Baby Boomer self-analysis?) Think Nicole Holofcener’s guiltily bourgeois shop owner in Please Give, the reluctantly maturing gals of Sex and the City 2, the conflicted sisters in Let It Rain and Life During Wartime, Julianne Moore’s restless spouse in The Kids are All Right, and Annette Bening’s grief-frozen woman in Mother and Child. And now come the women of Eat Pray Love and Cairo Time, two American writers on the near side of middle age who go to exotic settings and find themselves.

Eat Pray Love’s Liz Gilbert looks for her bliss with single-minded intensity after leaving her husband. Granting herself a year-long sabbatical, she goes to Italy, where she reconnects with her love of food; India, where she learns to meditate and pray at the ashram of a popular guru; and Indonesia, where she apprentices herself to another guru and finds love – but only after her sensible Balian guru (a magnetic Hadi Subiyanto) advises her to go for it, since losing your footing in love now and then is part of finding your balance in life. Thank goodness he told her, since Liz seems incapable of doing anything without the fortune-cookie blessing of some spiritual leader or other.

Okay, I’m judging her now, and I promised myself I’d judge the movie on its own merits. That’s hard to do, since the real Liz Gilbert’s glib, self-satisfied aphorisms litter the overwritten voiceover. (The film, in case you don’t already know, is based on Gilbert’s bestselling memoir of the same name.) Nearly all the other people Liz spends time with speak in maxims too, from the black best friend and editor, the husband, and the post-separation boyfriend she leaves in New York to the merry guru and earth-mother medicine woman she finds in Bali. The script does have the grace to joke about its avalanche of adages (“Do you always speak in bumper stickers?” Liz asks a Texan she befriends at the ashram), but acknowledging the problem is not the same as solving it.

But my real problem with Eat Pray Love is its false advertising. It claims to be the tale of an arduous journey of growth and self-discovery, but it plays like a feel-good fantasy, less crass but not much more soul-searching than the Sex and the City crew’s trip to Abu Dhabi. It’s hard, of course, to dramatize spiritual growth, but after all Liz’s talk about how she’s spent too much of her life in relationships with men and needs to be on her own, it feels like more than just a failure of imagination to spend so little time exploring her internal landscape and so much on her relationships with the gorgeous and devoted men who keep throwing themselves at her feet.

Which brings us to my other big problem with this movie. Julia Roberts’ appetite for life is too large, her great gash of a mouth too eager to laugh, to make her plausible as a woman so depressed she feels empty inside. Slurping down forkfuls of spaghetti in a sun-drenched plaza in Rome? Attracting men like flies to flypaper wherever she goes? Making new friends with a glance with from those limpid brown eyes? You bet. But I’ve seen that movie before.

Cairo Time’s Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) starts out too repressed to even dream big: she just wants to join her husband on vacation in Cairo. But when his courtly ex-colleague Tareq (Alexander Siddig) squires her around town while her husband is detained on business, Juliette wakens to the possibility of doing some of the exploring she hasn’t allowed herself since she was a girl.

Juliette and Tareq are both old-fashioned: an old-school lady and gentleman. But while Siddig plays his role just right, courtly without being cloying, his warmth and sense of humor never far beneath the surface, Clarkson makes Juliette’s strenuous self-control too stagey. She floats through the film as if she were on Valium, her voice almost a whisper. Her body language is exaggerated too, starting out almost arthritically stiff and becoming downright catlike as her sexuality emerges. The phone conversations we see her side of when her husband checks in feel like an acting exercise, and the hungry looks she directs at Tareq in public are too long and unguarded. It’s too much for this quiet story, the cinematic equivalent of shouting in a library.

The gorgeous vistas, gorgeous men, and glimpses of other ways of life in Eat Pray Love and Cairo Time make for a pleasant enough hour or two of vicarious adventure, if that's what you're in the mood for. But both movies stay too much on the surface to make us feel the cataclysmic internal changes they portray.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 91: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World












If Inception is a video game that becomes interactive only after it’s over, when you compare notes with other fans, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a video game you watch someone else play. That might not sound like much fun, but this movie is an upper, thanks to its inventive video game/cartoon visuals, crisp editing and constant stream of wry observational barbs.

Director Edgar Wright found his own way to animate the black-and-white graphic novels his movie is based on, adding bright colors but keeping a comic-book look. Figures are frequently silhouetted or shot in very bright or dark lighting, and cartoonish graphics often pop up on the screen, like the “Yeah Yeah Yeahs” and lightning bolts that emanate from Scott’s band when they play; the pink hearts that float up from their lips as he kisses Ramona, the girl of his dreams; and the way the snow melts in Ramona’s wake as she rollerblades down Toronto sidewalks. The dreamlike editing helps too, as characters move from one setting to another without comment or cuts, the conversation or background music simply continuing as the background changes.

That talk is mostly done in irreverent shorthand, full of tossed-off little jokes that convey the smart-verging-on-smartass skepticism and painful self-awareness of Scott and his twentysomething friends. The casual swipes taken in passing at easy but worthy targets like desperate self-promotion and self-righteous veganism and the fleeting references to things like skimming emails or getting text messages faster than the speed of light also help ground this airy fantasy firmly in the present. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 90: I Vitelloni















"Here's the question: Is 'I Vitelloni' the work of an artist whose vision is just flowering—or that of an artist whose vision has fully ripened and is about to decay? I can't decide," wrote Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle.

That's an interesting way to look at it, but I see Federico Fellini's career more as a sine wave than an arc or a slow and steady ripening. Whatever drew Fellini to Jungian psychology, séances, psychedelics, and circuses made some of his movies too stagily fantastic for my tastes (Satyricon), while others are bathetically sentimental (La Strada, Nights of Cabiria) or both (Juliet of the Spirits). But studded throughout his career are masterpieces like 1973's Amarcord, 1963's 8 1/2, and 1953's I Vitelloni, which use Fellini's trademark mix of realism and fantasy with restraint, evoking a time and place and state of mind with exquisite precision. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 89: His Girl Friday















I hate to be asked what my favorite movie is (how can you pick just one when there are so many great films, which you love for so many different reasons?), but I was asked in an interview a few years ago, so I had to come up with an answer. The one I eventually came up with—His Girl Friday—is still what I'd say if anyone asked. Other movies (not a lot, but some) may be as wonderful as Howard Hawks's brilliant adaptation of The Front Page, but I don't think any others mean quite as much to me personally. So I watched it again this morning, as I have every couple of years since I first saw it in a revival theater in Austin.

That was in the late '70s, a few months after I'd dropped out of college. I was free to a fault then, alienated and untethered, with a pretty good idea of what I was running from but no clue what I was going toward. I hadn't yet found my tribe. Then I walked into His Girl Friday and there it was, a word-drunk world where the only thing worse than hypocrisy and corruption was lacking a sense of humor, where chivalry was nothing but paternalism in a top hat, where you knew Hildy should ditch her dull fiancé for her ex-husband, Walter, because of the sheer joy with which Hildy and Walter duked it out, toe to toe and newspaperman to newspaperman, in a battle of wits they both wound up winning. (Well, that and the fact that Walter is played by Cary Grant, the greatest romantic comedy star the movies have ever produced.) It hit me like a ray of hope for my future beaming straight out of the past—not that there was anything the least bit dated about it, aside from the black-and-white film stock and the references to things like Stalin and "the European war."

I hadn't yet met anyone remotely like the people I saw in the movie, either in life or in the films of the '60s and '70s. More importantly, I'd never seen that exhilaratingly equal a partnership between a man and a woman, or that great an appreciation of a woman's need for—and right to—a career of her own. His Girl Friday told me those things were out there, in scenes like the one where one of Hildy's colleagues reads the story she left in her typewriter while she's out of the press room and then says: "I still say anybody who can write like that ain't gonna give it up permanent to sew socks for someone who works in the insurance business." Amen and hallelujah, brother.

Too smart to mess too much with Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's original, except to change Hildy to a woman (and cast Roz Russell in the part) and give a romantic spin to the heat between her and the editor who's fighting to keep her, Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer give us one of the best-written movies ever filmed, which seems appropriate considering it's a clear-eyed, almost entirely unsentimentalized tribute to the power of the press. No wonder Hawks wanted to remake this story: Walter, Hildy, and their fast-talking colleagues are prototypical Hawksian professionals, people who see things clearly and feel them deeply but always keep the patter light, their cynicism just a smokescreen thrown up to shield tender hearts.

This is not quite a perfect movie. The slightly mawkish scenes with Earl, the death-row prisoner, and his friend Molly verge into the kind of condescension that can be the flip side of liberal-lefty compassion, and the cartoonishly clueless Pettibone (broadly played by Billy Gilbert) who keeps trying to deliver the governor's reprieve for Earl feels as if he was dropped in from another movie.

In both cases, the staginess works against the movie's greatest strength: the emotional authenticity that makes it feel more like a drama than a comedy despite a constant stream of exquisitely funny lines. In the past, I've been struck by how fast people in this movie talk, especially in the scenes with artfully overlapping dialogue (Robert Altman must have loved Hawks). What I noticed more today is how beautifully crafted all that dialogue is. Everyone speaks in his or her own specific voice, and nearly every line advances the story and/or tells us more about the characters.

Other movies may have done talk this well, but I've never seen one do it better.

Written for The House Next Door.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 88: Quest for Honor











Yesterday's movie was Quest for Honor, a documentary about the practice of people killing their own wives, daughters, and sisters for bringing shame on their families. As a title card at the end reminds us, these "honor" killings happen around the world, but the focus of this scrappy documentary is Kurdistan.

At its core is a real-life murder mystery that's being investigated by the director of a women's center, a former teacher named Runak Faraj, and Kalthoum, the young woman who works with her. A vivid picture of the area and its deep-rooted tradition of honor killings emerges as Runak and Kalthoum talk to police and to relatives and in-laws of the murdered woman, Nesrin — about how and why she was killed. Most of the people interviewed are surprisingly candid, the husband's family as much as admitting their guilt even as they deny it. (Nesrin was shot point blank by some of her in-laws for the sin of seeing other men, even though her husband was deceased.) And here is the rest of it. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 87: Vengeance














"What does revenge mean when you've forgotten everything?" asks one of the triad hit men enlisted by Costello (Johnny Hallyday), a retired French gangster, to avenge the slaughter of his daughter's family in Macao. That question is never answered, making the subplot about Costello's failing memory feel more like a gimmick than a theme: This isn't a film that inspires deep thought. But the camerawork, the lighting, the colors, and especially the carefully choreographed dances of death are so good they make Vengeance worth watching.

Johnny To's trademark standoffs are the best thing about Vengeance, which came out last year after premiering at Cannes and has just been released in the U.S. (It's available only on IFC's Movies on Demand channel.) Often slowed down, underlit, and color-saturated to increase the drama, his gun battles generally start by dramatizing the conflict with a vivid scene or image and end with hard guys in close quarters, blasting the crap out of each other. The one that will probably stick with me longest from Vengeance starts at a picnic ground where Costello and his crew have tracked down the men they are hunting. Finding their targets with their wives and kids, our guys settle into a neighboring table and wait for the families to leave. The other men know why they're there, but their families have no idea. Then a colorful boomerang floats into view, travelling to Costello's table from the table they're watching and back again. It's a beautiful sight and a powerful symbol, making visible the link between the two tables while reminding us of the child who threw it, whose carefree world is about to explode. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 86: Airplane!











There have been so many movie parodies by now that the genre is probably ripe for a parody of its own, yet nobody’s done it better than the granddaddy of them all, Airplane! A Marx Brothers farce wrapped around an Arthur Hailey melodrama and given a couple of whirls in the blender, Airplane! celebrated its 30th birthday last night with a showing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which was followed by a Q&A with the gracefully aging ZAZ boyz (Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams) who cooked it up.

The first hour or so of Airplane! is so crowded with laughs it hurts to watch it, but there's a little too much dead air in the last third or so, when traumatized pilot Ted Striker and his sweet stewardess girlfriend Elaine are landing the plane. (The directors acknowledged as much when someone asked if they’d been approached to do the sequel. Yes, Abrahams said, but they’d run out of airplane jokes by then. “Ran out of them by the second half of the movie, actually,” said David Zucker.)

The jokes about Gerald Ford and disco and Hare Krishna panhandlers may be dated too, and I suppose some people won't get the references to other movies or to '70s ads. But none of that matters much, since what makes Airplane! soar are the gleefully silly evergreen bits that first part is stuffed with. Like the misunderstandings over names, some of which ("We have clearance, Clarence." "Roger, Roger. What's our vector, Victor?") are as good as the "Why a Duck?" sequence in The Cocoanuts. Or the plays on words—all those puns ("Don't call me Shirley!") and subtitled jive talk—or the drinking problem that plagues Ted after he gets PTSD in the war (it's not that he drinks too much alcohol; he just keeps missing his mouth). And like one-man dada factory Stephen Stucker, who tucks the movie under his arm and trots away with it every time he appears as Johnny the airheaded air traffic controller.

Knitting together all that barely controlled mayhem is the straight-faced storyline the ZAZ team stole from Arthur Hailey's Zero Hour. They play the humorless '50s melodrama totally straight, from Ted and Elaine's generic dialogue to the doctor's stern directive ("The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing—finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner!"), which was lifted word for word from the original. That insistence on making what David Zucker decribed as "a comedy without comedians," lets them play it both ways: making us laugh at the corniness of the drama while making us care about the characters, and so does Elmer Bernstein's B-movie score. As David Zucker put it: "Elmer did pretty much what we asked the actors to do: not wink."

Written for The House Next Door

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Other Guys



















I went to The Other Guys hoping to see the sharp but loving supercop spoof of the trailer -- and for a short time, I did.

It’s not easy to come up with a car chase/urban gun battle that defies the laws of gravity, nature, and common sense more than what’s routinely issued by Hollywood these days, but the movie’s opening succeeds. Better yet, the cops who performed those hot-dog heroics weren’t our main characters. Our heroes are, as promised, the other guys: a pair of mismatched desk jockeys.

Will Ferrell varies his usual schtick a bit as Alan, a cheery underachiever who’s not so much hopelessly dense (though he’s still pretty clueless) as he is self-protectively walled off, trying to live la vida not-the-least-bit-loca. Mark Wahlberg, making fun of his own monotone intensity, is Terry, Alan’s endearingly dumb, perpetually seething, terminally earnest partner. Wahlberg makes a surprisingly good straight man to the endlessly riffing Ferrell, and the two get into some inspired silliness, like when Wahlberg delivers one of Terry’s nonsensical metaphors, something about a lion and a tuna, and Ferrell promptly comes up with something even more twisted, which sounds as if he made it up on the spot.

There are some tasty recurring bits, like the references to the mistake that got Terry exiled to a desk job, and some excellent talent shows up the minor roles: Michael Keaton has roguish fun with his role the partners’ captain, and Ice-T provides a funny, and judiciously sparely used, hard-guy voiceover. Writer-director Adam McKay, Ferrell’s long-time partner, even has the guts to satirize the way we sanctify cops killed in the line of duty, and he introduces a subplot involving a charismatic charlatan peddling Ponzi schemes that promises to be pretty pointed.

But that’s just one of many promises broken by The Other Guys as it degenerates into a second-rate version of just the kind of formulaic junk it starts out making fun of. Things go south when Terry forces Alan to hit the streets, determined to become a movie-style hero, and Alan’s inner tiger roars, letting us know it will emerge later. Even the jokes get more conventional (there’s an endless string of gags about how girly Alan’s Prius is and a done-to-death bit about how hot Alan’s wife is), asking us to identify with the kind of macho posturing we laughed at in the opening scenes. And what little satire is left becomes about as pointed as a battering ram (the Ponzi schemer stands up in front of a sign for the Center for American Capitalism to exhort his listeners to “Live for excess: It’s the American way!”) before the subplot about greedy fatcats bilking the masses fizzles out altogether.

Terry and Alan wind up protecting the charlatan, driving really fast all over Manhattan with him in the back seat, dodging a fusillade of bullets, because … um … I’m not quite sure. Maybe they wanted him to testify against the bigger villain (Anne Heche, the steely head of a global conglomerate, who’s forcing him to rip off some hapless victim so he can pay back her billions), but after a while, I didn’t really care.

There’s a little pop of populist anger at the end, when we’re told Heche’s company got TARP money from the feds because it’s “too big to fail.” That’s amplified in the graphics over the end credits, which outline the financial scams pulled off by Bernie Madoff, AIG, and others and the billions in our tax dollars that bailed the big companies out. They also spell out some of the obscene inequities of our current economy, like the shrinking size of Americans’ 401(k) plans and the ever-widening chasm between an average worker’s salary and what CEOs pull down.

It all feels like something left over from another movie. Maybe that movie existed in an earlier script or on the cutting room floor, but it’s even less in evidence here than the spoof that made the first 20 or 30 minutes of The Other Guys so enjoyable. The rest of this fitfully amusing but ultimately depressing waste of talent is mostly just chasing around in cars, shooting and being shot at, and unfunny stuff about Alan’s preposterous home life as our heroes overcome their hang-ups, expose wrongdoers, and stop a heinous crime in the nick of time.

Yawn.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 84: Not Quite Hollywood













Animal Kingdom made me think about the Australian films of the early 80s – especially my favorites, the first two Mad Max movies. So I watched Not Quite Hollywood, an entertaining documentary about the birth of the Australian movie industry and what Quentin Tarantino, one of the movie’s most enthusiastic talking heads, calls “Ozploitation” films.

The interviewees' talk about social trends behind the movement isn’t very enlightening (it seems distrust of authority, revolt against the status quo, and sex and drugs ran rampant in Australia in the late '60s and early '70s—who knew?). But things get interesting when filmmakers and actors reminisce—mostly fondly and with the same sardonic humor and allergy to self-importance that characterize the films themselves—about how their movies got made. There are entertaining stories about bad behavior on and off the set (two words: Dennis Hopper) and funny potshots at unpopular critics or filmmakers (one director is introduced as “Terry Bourke, producer, director, writer, egotistical bastard.”) The clips that make up most of the film include shots of a baby Nicole Kidman in BMX Bandits, eye-searing action, plenty of the marauding gangs of murderous Aussie bad boys that Tarantino identifies as one of the core elements of Australian exploitation films, and generous lashings of nudity. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 83: Andrei Rublev
















When I fall in love at first sight with a movie, I usually see it many times over, revisiting my initial delight over the years and most likely finding new things to love, but Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev somehow slipped through that net. I first saw it a little over 30 years ago and haven’t seen it since, though I remember that viewing as one of my most intense film-watching experiences of all time.

For a long time, I didn’t watch it again because it was hard to find a good version: the Columbia Pictures cut that was first released in the U.S. reportedly butchered the three-hour-plus movie, and this is not the kind of film that pops up much on TV. By the time I got Criterion’s director’s cut DVD, so much time had passed that I was a little afraid of watching it, in case my love for it had been some adolescent infatuation and the second viewing would ruin the memory of the first. I even avoided reading about it, wanting to hold onto that unsullied first impression. But you can’t avoid knowing that Andrei Rublev is considered a masterpiece if you read much at all about movies, so when I finally pulled up my socks and popped it in the DVD player last night, I was reasonably hopeful that I’d still feel the same way.

You can only have the top of your head sliced off once by a film that finds new ways of using the medium, since it can't be new to you twice, so I didn't feel that coup de fedre a second time. But the love was there from the start, an amazing prologue in which a man goes up in a crude homemade hot air balloon. Escaping a hectic, unstable situation on the ground (we don't know what's going on exactly, but it doesn't look good), he floats up into the quiet sky, and though his ragged breathing and the dark, choppy strings maintain a sense of unease, he's exhilarated for a moment, drunk on the then-miraculous aerial view. He crash-lands and we cut from his perspective to a long shot of a beautiful horse rolling back and forth in luxurious slow motion. Then the horse gets up and trots off, revealing the fallen man and his balloon, which is leaking air like a deflated lung.

That prologue introduces seven chapters about the life and times of Rublev, a 15th-century monk now considered the greatest of Russia's icon painters. It has nothing to do with Rublev directly, but it sets the tone for what follows, with its unglamorized view of the warring tribes that were killing each other all over Russia in those days, to the artistic impulse that leads men to create marvelous objects to transcend their troubles, to the gorgeous and poetic imagery.

The gorgeous and poetic black-and-white imagery, I should add, since the biggest surprise to me last night was that the film wasn't in color. It astounds me to say that, even embarrasses me a little—how could I have such a clear false memory of something so important?—but I take it as proof of how deeply Tarkovsky made me experience the color in the epilogue, where he pans over some of Rublev's frescoes and icons, starting with a shot so close up it's an abstract explosion of red and gold.

By the time we see those images, paintings that would probably have looked flat and fairly meaningless to me in another context (I am not a Christian and I don't know much about icons) are imbued with sorrow and pity, informed by what Tarkovsky has shown us about the horrors Rublev lived through and his struggles to create art that could express the empathy he felt for his beleaguered people.

Apparently not much is known about Rublev, but that hasn't stopped other filmmakers from making speculative biopics full of invented psychological detail. Tarkovsky follows another path altogether. In fact, he forges a new path, tying his chapters together with the loosest of threads, sometimes leaving Rublev out altogether or including him only as a fleeting presence in the background, as he paints a picture of the world he lived in.

Essays have no doubt been written just about the horses in this film (if you know of a good one, please let me know). From that rolling horse in the epilogue to the warhorses that thunder across the screen Kurosawa-style, from the lone horse that paws at the water during a pagan orgy to the terrified beast whose death during the sacking of a town sums up the horror of that event (the horse was actually bought from a slaughterhouse and killed in the film, in a sequence I could barely stand to watch), horses are everywhere. I don't want to go all grad-school on you because this film is a piece of art about the role of art and in no way didactic, but those animals spoke to me with sometimes painful clarity about things like the beauty of nature, man's capacity for inhumanity, and the life-affirming joy of unfettered movement and exploration—themes this movie explores with rare depth and sensitivity.

Tarkovsky uses the extremely wide (2:35:1) screen to show us how people live in relation to each other and their environments. He often frames his shots to show foreground and background or inside and out at the same time, which multiplies that effect and makes his shots that much more full of life. Close-ups are used sparingly, but he fills the frame with wonderful faces, sometimes doing a slow 360-degree pan around a roomful of people to show all the faces.

There's a fair amount of talk about what really matters in painting and in life, but this is not a talky movie, and it focuses on the daily difficulty, even drudgery of making art as much as it does intellectual theories. In the chapter about the forging of a cathedral bell, we feel that drudgery and challenge intensely through the boy who winds up leading the massive effort after his father, the bellmaker, dies in the plague. The boy, Boriska, takes on the whole weight of the project, collapsing only at the end when the bell is hoisted and rings true and clear.

And always, sometimes in the background but often almost unbearably close up, we see the barbaric torturing and killing that was then ravaging Russia in the name of religion or unadorned greed. The climax of that part of the story is the long, nightmarish pillaging of the town of Vladimir, after which Rublev vows never to paint or speak again. And if the Tatars and the religious fanatics aren't bad enough, there's famine and plague to contend with too.

By the end of this majestically powerful film, we don't just understand the need for art. We feel it, as Tarkovsky applies Rublev's icons and frescoes like a balm to our bleeding souls.

Written for The House Next Door

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 82: Animal Kingdom














Director David Michôd wrote about movies before he made them, working as an editor on Australia’s Inside Film magazine. He must have studied his subject well, because Animal Kingdom, which opens next Friday (I saw it at a press screening), feels nothing like a rookie feature. Michôd didn’t base his characters on real people (“I felt reluctant to engage in what now seems to be a whole culture of turning criminals into celebrities,” he says in the press kit), but his fictional crime family feels chillingly real. More importantly, his film mixes documentary-style realism with fictional techniques to create a gripping story with an operatic sense of danger and dread.

Animal Kingdom’s Cody family becomes more ruthless as it deteriorates, destabilized by the deaths of two of its members. We watch the story unfold through the eyes of the family’s youngest member, 17-year-old Josh (James Frecheville, whose blocky jaw and touching solemnity reminded me of Lucas Black in Friday Night Lights). Josh winds up in his grandmother’s house after his mother’s death (She ODs in the first scene of the film, which doesn’t waste a frame). It’s a paranoia- and testosterone-charged warren, since his uncles and one uncle’s best friend, Barry, who use it as their home base, all rob banks or deal drugs for a living. But Josh takes it all in stride and so does Michôd, filming the family with a stripped-down lack of sensationalism that makes its sociopathic behavior all the more disturbing.

Josh's grandmother (Jacki Weaver) is a petite, girlishly aging, perpetually cheery woman who seems sweet and nurturing at first (her boys call her Smurf, presumably because of her penchant for wearing blue and other bright colors). In fact, she's a succubus, keeping her "beautiful boys" tucked under her wing in a borderline incestuous relationship and ordering hits with sociopathic cool.

You can see the appeal of her barely muzzled pack of dogs to the fatherless Josh, especially when Barry (an appealingly solid Joel Edgerton), who has children of his own, becomes something of a mentor to him. But as the family destabilizes and the uncles' paranoia deepens, Josh realizes that he's not safe in his grandmother's house. She's not his only option: His girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright, who plays her character with a convincing blend of sullen rebelliousness, naïve self-confidence, and touching bravado) and a cop (an eloquently understated Guy Pearce) who tries to convince him to testify against his uncles both have stable home lives and offer him a glimpse of a different world. But it may be too late for him to take advantage of what they're offering.

There's a Shakespearean sense of impending doom in the uncles' increasingly desperate scrabble to survive and Josh's struggle to figure out who he can trust, if anyone, and how to evade the trap that's closing in around him. Dolorous music, slow tracking shots, and judicious use of slow motion make us feel the explosive violence always lurking just under the surface and underscore the weight of Lucas' dilemma, as he struggles to make a moral choice in an almost completely amoral world.

Written for The House Next Door

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day 81: Shutter Island












A non-writing director who understands the importance of a good script, Martin Scorsese forged tight partnerships early in his career with some of the best screenwriters of his generation. His partnerships with Mardik Martin (Mean Streets, The Last Waltz, Raging Bull) and Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing out the Dead) lasted about as long as his collaboration with Robert De Niro and were at least as crucial a component of those movies’ fevered intensity, of why they all—or nearly all—matter as much as they do. He doesn’t seem to have any relationships like that these days: Every feature he’s made since 2000 was scripted by someone new, including the dreadful Gangs of New York, which seems to have been written by committee. Maybe that’s why his only movie from the last decade with the brilliance and fire of the best of his work is No Direction Home, the Dylan documentary Scorsese apparently made without a script.

His latest, which I caught on Movies on Demand last night, is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also cowrote the screenplay, and it’s as sensationalistic and gimmicky as Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, Lehane’s two other recent movie adaptations. Though it’s not quite as standard a trapped-in-the-nuthouse psychological thriller as its head-fake of a trailer makes it out to be, Shutter Island has none of the emotional resonance of Scorsese’s best stuff. What’s more, it relies on too many hackneyed cliches (anagrams? really?), and I more or less figured out the climactic plot twist just a few minutes in even though I’m not usually good at guessing those things.

But I'm sounding more negative than I feel: Shutter Island made for a perfectly pleasant evening in front of the tube for my husband and me. It's gorgeous to look at, the hurricane that's either on the horizon or raging through most of the film turning the sky glowing slate blue, the choppy sea silver, and giving the grounds of the asylum—actually a prison for the criminally insane—a shadowless, color-saturated look that adds to the sense of heightened reality. Leonardo DiCaprio's feverish performance as Teddy Daniels, the marshal investigating the disappearance of a patient/prisoner, is well matched by Mark Ruffalo's quiet watchfulness as his assistant, and Ben Kingsley's patrician accent and coiled-cobra affect work nicely in the role of the head physician who's either a great humanitarian or an evil genius. Michelle Williams is good too, as touching as always yet creepily off, in some hard to define way, as Teddy's dead wife.

The story's surrealism—until that twist ending, you never quite know what's happening or why—seems to give Scorsese permission to crank it up to full volume, playing with interrogation-style lighting inside the high-security part of the prison, with minimalistic/portentous Jaws-style music throughout, and lingering (maybe a bit too much) on eerie-looking inmates as they grimace or leer. There are some nice set pieces, like Teddy clutching his wife as she turns to ash and disintegrates, and the way things just keep getting worse as Teddy tries to investigate, ping-ponging from one cul-de-sac to the next, feels convincingly hallucinogenic.

All in all, it's a pretty good B movie, but it would have been a better one if it hadn't tried to be more. When Teddy's flashbacks to liberating Dachau and his suspicion that there is Nazi-style experimentation going on at the prison turns out to be just another dead end, not even Scorsese's thunder and lightning can disguise the fact that this is a pretty thin story.

Written for The House Next Door

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Movie a Day, day 80: The Gleaners and I














Like The Beaches of Agnès, The Gleaners and I is a lightfooted meditation from an aging master so comfortable with her medium that her work feels like play. Hopscotching from one French town or agricultural center to the next, Agnès Varda leads us on a seriously joyful journey of discovery in The Gleaners and I, which winds up covering a lot of ground despite its apparently spontaneous structure.

Varda shot much of the film herself with a then-new compact digital video camera (the film was released in 2001), which she shows it off early on with typical enthusiasm. Her ultra-portable camera and skeleton crew (the list of credits is impressively small for such a big name) presumably helped her gain access to the many gleaners she interviews, but I bet it was her unfeigned interest that got them to open up the way they do. As Varda says in the film, she's fascinated by gleaners because she is one, though she gathers "images, impressions" rather than furniture or food.

The Gleaners and I is part guided tour, teaching us about a world that's nearly invisible to most who don't live in it, but it never feels didactic. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Movie a day, Day 79: The Extra Man
















I gave The Extra Man a try last night because I loved American Splendor, a portrait of another eccentric writer co-directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. I guess I should have paid more attention to the source material. American Splendor's Harvey Pekar looked through his own and other people's eccentricities, acknowledging them in passing but focusing on deeper and more interesting things. Jonathan Ames, the co-screenwriter of The Extra Man and author of the book it's based on, seems mostly interested in the thrill of transgression, defying taboos and examining eccentricity for its own sake.

The extra man of the title is Henry Harrison, a self-styled aristocrat who ekes out his subsistence existence partly by cadging off rich old women, who want him at the dinner table to fill in the places left by their deceased mates and to provide "joie de vivre," as he puts it. Henry has been hiding from the world for decades, it seems, ever since his promising youth as a playwright faded into anonymous middle age, and he's developed an arsenal of bigoted pronouncements and other annoying traits that are pretty successful at keeping people, including me, at bay. It doesn't help that he's played by Kevin Kline, who has developed his own array of annoying traits over the years. On screen, Kline exudes a preening sense of bottomless self-regard that makes his characters feel a little hollow and narcissistic. That works wonderfully in comedies where his character's unjustified self-regard is part of the joke, like in Soapdish and A Fish Called Wanda. But I think we're supposed to empathize with histrionic head case Henry Harrison, and I just couldn't do it. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Jaws









I tend to think of Jaws as more of a phenomenon than a film. The first movie to open on hundreds of screens at once and become an instant blockbuster, thanks to good word of mouth and a huge national marketing campaign, Steven Spielberg’s second theatrical release gave Hollywood its first glimpse of the Holy Grail it’s been chasing ever since: high-concept tentpole pictures audiences embrace even if we pointy-headed critics hate them.

Then I’ll see Jaws again, as I did last night, and remember what a good summer movie it is. Jaws doles out its thrills at beautifully timed intervals, starting with its classic opening sequence, which stays with a bonfire on the beach just long enough to establish the mood, then follows golden girl Chrissie over the dunes and into the ocean, where things go suddenly and horribly wrong as the great white shark attacks. Time and again, Spielberg lulls us into a state of semi-relaxation only to scare the bejeezus out of us, making each shock land with real force. Even knowing what’s coming as well I do by now, I still recoil in pleasurable fear every time that shark rears up out of the water.

Spielberg directed Duel for TV four years before he made Jaws, and he seems to expand here on what he learned there. The shark is essentially Duel’s implacable trucker, only underwater and with a clearer motivation.

That clarity of motivation makes the shark the most believable character in the film, for all its near-supernatural powers. There’s never any doubt why it’s hunting: It’s either hungry or protecting itself. The humans’ motivation can be murkier in the often-rewritten script, like when the mayor insists that Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) keep the beach open for the sake of the town’s economy – wouldn’t he have known that gaining a reputation as a snack shack for sharks would hurt them a lot more than closing for a few days? Or when Chief Brody insists on going after the shark with Quint the fisherman (Robert Shaw) and Hooper the marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss), even though he’s so terrified of the water that he can’t even swim. Wouldn’t that make him less handy on a boat than, say, just about any other able-bodied adult on the island? And why does Quint, that seasoned salt, drop his guard so completely, getting drunk and encouraging the other two to do the same, just when they need to be at their most alert as they wait for the shark to return?

But if the characters are on the sketchy side, there’s real energy in the way Dreyfuss’s hyperactive young hot dog bounces off Scheider’s cautious family man. The two actors seem to enjoy their byplay too, judging by the smirk Scheider tries to hide as Hooper busts in uninvited on the Brodys. Quint’s unflappable calm in the face of catastrophe provides a nice contrast to the other two, and Shaw makes his speech about the USS Indianapolis unforgettable. Most of the other actors and extras are pretty shaky, though, so drama like the panic felt by crowd on the beach is generated far more by the camera work, the editing, and John Williams’ brilliant score than it is by the actors.

Jaws has more in common with an ingenious little indie like [Rec] than it does with the bloated blockbusters coming out of Hollywood these days. But it’s much less gory than most of today’s horror movies, maybe for the same reason that it implies the shark’s presence far more than it shows the beast in action. The production’s three mechanical sharks are famous for having malfunctioned, forcing Spielberg to find alternatives to filming them. I don’t know whether something similar kept him from lingering on shark-mangled bodies, but I can tell you that watching Brody hyperventilate while dictating a drily factual description of Chrissie’s corpse is a lot more affecting than ogling a mess of latex body parts could ever be.

It must be hard to make a good scary movie even with a big budget and an army of special effects wizards. But overcoming challenges like the ones Spielberg faced to accomplish what he does here, and all for just $9 million (about $37 million in 2010 dollars)? Now, that’s directing.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Movie a day, Day 77: Of Time and the City













"The golden moments pass and leave no trace," says writer/director Terence Davies in one of many quotes (this one from Chekhov) that stud his voiceover in Of Time and the City. It's an odd thing to say in a you-can't-go-home-again film that's all about revisiting memories, especially one from as ardent a movie-lover as Davies: Isn't stopping time in its tracks one of the things film does best? But logic isn't the strong point of this highly personal and poetic film essay.

It starts slow, relying too much on too-generic quotes about the movie's main subjects, the passage of time and the city of Davies's youth: "If Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented." But things soon get interesting as the filmmaker, then 63 (the film came out in 2008), touched on some personal landmarks (falling for the movies, realizing that he was gay, becoming "a very happy, very contented born-again atheist—thank God") and then unsheathes a waspish stinger. As he traces the changes that make him feel like "an alien" in his hometown today, his plummy Oxbridge tones turn downright venomous at times. Read the rest on The House Next Door, Slant Magazine's blog.