Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Are you like a crazy person?

The incomparable work of Alan Moore has found its way to the silver screen with mixed-to-poor results. From Hell is interesting and well-intentioned but ultimately a letdown when compared to Moore's amazing book, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is goat sputum. So while I may have a few quibbles with V For Vendetta, I am happy to report that it is an adaptation that respects and enhances its source. Moore's idiosyncratic parable has been made into a sometimes confounding, often exhilarating work of pop art.

In the not-too-distant future (isn't it always?), America is a forgotten wasteland and England has been transformed into a powerful fascist theocracy. Evie (Natalie Portman), a young woman who works for the local tv station, is rescued one night from two leering police officers by V (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious figure in a cloak and a mask bearing the visage of infamous treasoner Guy Fawkes. It soon becomes clear that V is a terrorist (for lack of a better term) bent on overthrowing the government for reasons both ideological and personal. The early scenes are a bit clunky, particularly the too-clever wordplay, but I could say the same about the novel. The film kicks into high gear when we reach V's hideout, a sort of shrine to banned culture; high art, movies, music, cuisine and the like. The aspect of 1984 that has always resonated with me most deeply is Orwell's description of the proles, who are controlled with cheap booze, titillation and junk TV. The importance of protecting our cultural legacy is often underestimated in sociopolitical debate; that V depicts the protection of the Qur'an, erotica and Cat Power as equally important to any of our other rights couldn't be more true.

Ah, but you can see the sort of urgent dialogue that a book or film like V For Vendetta can provoke. The Wachowskis and director James McTeague have crafted a splendid piece of agitprop, one that weaves a tapestry of quotations ranging from the Boston Massacre to the Sex Pistols with wit and gravitas. An extended sequence in which Evie is imprisoned builds to a stirring bit of catharsis; a sequence within the aforementioned one (a favorite device of mine) relates the story of two women in love, underlining with devastating clarity the urgent need of any truly free society to embrace alternative sexuality (in other words, give Larry/Laurie Wachowski a frigging break). And the government, led by the Big Brother-like Sutler (John Hurt, in a fun reversal on Winston Smith), is depicted as more pathetic than fearsome. There is no Darth Vader in this film, just a bunch of old white guys who finagled their way into power with fear and brute force. They can be as easily wounded with satire - note the funny, creepy bit on the talk show hosted by Evie's boss Dietrich (Stephen Fry) - as with violence, and the ultimate statement of V is that an idea rooted in the minds of the people is more dangerous than any well-placed explosive device.

Does V For Vendetta sometimes stray into questionable waters with its terrorist hero? Certainly; while the Wachowskis' screenplay actually improves upon the weakest aspect of the book (Moore's sometimes sophomoric take on anarchy), it also sidesteps a few thorny details to make V an unambiguous good guy. But this recklessness is a part of the film's vitality; what, for instance, is the use of Guy Fawkes, of all people, but a call to drastically reevaluate our frame of reference? That V straddles the fine line between clever and stupid so effectively is largely thanks to Weaving's delightfully off-kilter performance, and especially Portman, who does her best work so far. Evie stands for the hope that soon, the pendulum will swing the other way, that people will keep learning and taking chances, that the infringements to our liberties that we currently live with are merely a backlash that precedes real progress (it's happened before). These are the sorts of ideas that V invokes, and while no one work of art can start a revolution, my hope is that the film will be a gateway drug for smart, aimless adolescents in the same way that A Clockwork Orange or Fight Club were for so many of us. Maybe it will cause some kids to check out a few philosophy books from the library or search for Guy Fawkes on Wikipedia, and that's a wonderful thing. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Trim Bin #20

- The final season of The Sopranos has been ridiculously great so far. The first episode reintroduced us to the extensive cast of characters with Burroughs' "The Secret Name" on the soundtrack; the second revolved a dense deeply unnerving purgatory. I generally detest the "TV is better than film" sentiment espoused by Entertainment Weekly and the like, but of the five or six great shows currently on tv, The Sopranos has consistently been the best. It looks like they're going in a King Lear/Ran direction; I can't wait.

- This fake corporate video by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (currently on an amazing roll with their pitch-perfect response to Issac Hayes' departure) was commissioned by Universal Studios pre-South Park. Not much to say, except that it does what they do best. Love the cameos by the Jaws ferry captain and the precocious little boy eating Oreos.

- Just a quick reminder that the "Comics to Film" series continues this week with Ghost World on Tuesday and From Hell on Wednesday. Any of you kids like funnybooks?

- Anyone else psyched for Slither?

Thursday, March 23, 2006


The ending of High Tension is indefensible - it's ill-concieved, awkward, and completely unbelievable. However, I disagree with the common opinion that it makes the film more conventional. If anything, I can forgive the ending because it steers the film into very muddy waters; it's either totally homophobic or perversely open-minded, and I'm honestly more inclined to defend the latter. Simply put, Alexandre Aja is a sick, sick man. For me, this compounds rather than detracts from his films; the untrustworthiness of the director adds to the already unsettling atmosphere.

The Hills Have Eyes, Aja's current remake of Wes Craven's 1977 grindhouse pic, represents a major step forward for the director; arch plot twists are abandoned in favor of pure, grisly atmosphere and momentum. Admittedly, after a great opening and credits sequence, Hills takes a while to find its footing. As in Craven's film, the story follows an extended family travelling across the southwest. At the center are burly Bob Carter (Ted Levine) and his son-in-law, cellphone salesman Doug Bukowski (Aaron Stanford). Bob's a man's man who likes to taunt Doug for being a liberal, though both men see eye-to-eye in their casual disregard for their wives (Kathleen Quinlan and Vinessa Shaw, respectively). The car breaks down on an isolated road, and the Carters are soon attacked by...well, you've seen the ads. Enough PR; its about vengeful mutants. Oh boy, is it ever.

Aja recreates the greatest strength of Craven's film, the sun-drenched locations that become oppressively dark at night. The film takes its time with character development, with mixed results; these characters aren't totally interchangable mutant bait, but they are a bit familiar. The exception is Doug, who in the second half is thrown into Straw Dogs territory. Aja knows exactly how to push our buttons here; one particular bit with an American flag is an instant classic, as we laugh at the moment, laugh at ourselves for possessing such hypocritical bloodlust, and then laughing at Aja for his sheer audacity. That same audacity also pays off in the nightmarish recreation of the original's trailer invasion scene - the same things happen in both films, but the brilliant execution here elevates the sequence to one of pure dread. A handful of shots scream "Look, I'm clever!", but Aja should eventually outgrow that (so did Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi); if anything, The Hills Have Eyes is an indication that his best work is still to come.

It's a well-worn observation that remakes are taking over Hollywood; I find them neither inherently bad nor good. If a filmmaker has a genuinely unique vision for revisiting a classic, than the results can be exciting (Dawn of the Dead, War of the Worlds, King Kong); if it's strictly a profit deal, than it's probably a drag (The Fog, The Stepford Wives). While it's not quite a grand slam, I'd place The Hills Have Eyes in the former category. From its weird, wonderful score by Tomandandy (at points reminiscent of Toto's music for Dune) to its sick joke of a final shot, The Hills Have Eyes is genuinely unsettling at a time when most horror films settle for startling (or less). It also tries for subtext, and while it's no A History of Violence, it does manage to make a few salient points. Aja is, simply put, the best horror director today, a skilled sociopath with a genuiune love for 70's horror and an awareness that the foggy sociopolitical climate that birthed the original grindhouse films is back with a vengeance today.

Also, bonus points for Billy Drago.

Play the game (3/22/06)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Trim Bin #19

- Friday's top ten will become a frequent, but no longer regular, feature. I'm plum out of interesting ideas this weekend, and I want to keep it fresh.

- The comic-to-film screenings begin this Tuesday at 7PM in the Freel Library. Each film will (hopefully) be followed by discussion; I'm hoping for the best . The schedule is as follows:

3/21 - Superman
3/22 - Creepshow
3/28 - Ghost World
3/29 - From Hell
4/4 - Sin City
4/5 - Batman Begins

The comfortable library viewing room only seats sixteen, so if an alternate site is needed then I'll mention it here; that's a problem I'd love to have.

- This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Stop laughing!

Even Dwarfs Started Small, Werner Herzog's second feature, opens with a little person, Pepe (Gerd Gickel), holding a sign displaying numbers and letters (possibly prison ID). Pepe turns the sign around and around, upside-down and backwards, but either defiantly or unintentionally, he never displays the sign correctly. The shot contains an unbearable tension, provoked by our impatience, that is captured repeatedly throughout the film. Even Dwarfs Started Small is as simultaneously unwatchable and compelling as a traffic accident.

Pepe is being held hostage by the president (Pepi Hermine) of a institution populated entirely by little people. The residents have staged a rebellion against the president, who hides with his bound captive in a remote tower while the diminutive revolutionaries - well, any other attempt at a conventional plot summary is futile. Cars are driven into the grown, flowers burned, chickens turned cannibalistic, and a monkey is mock crucified, among many other things. And then there's the camel. The cast screams their lines at a piercing pitch, constantly shouting over one another. The camera is constantly racing at a breakneck speed towards and around grainy images of destruction and inexplicable behavior. The cumulative visual and aural effect is akin to riding a hundred miles an hour in a burning schoolbus driven by Oscar the Grouch while rhesus monkeys copulate in the back seats and an off-key mariachi band plays in the front. Also, the bus is running over a field of Boohbahs.

It's amazing, watching this early feature, how much Herzog has evolved as a filmmaker. His stated claim in recent years has been to reveal the "ecstatic truth," but in Dwarfs there is no ecstasy (truth, perhaps, but of the bitterest sort). This is very much the work of an angry, conflicted young man, and is driven by an anarchic sensibility that reappears in a more contemplative mode in films like Stroszek. However, this is not to say that Dwarfs is inferior to Herzog's latter works; in fact, it's one of his best films. It's just revealing because, while the beginnings of Herzog's favorite themes (the underlying chaos of nature, the border between triumph and madness) are evident here, it bears little stylistic resemblance to the director's larger body of work. While Herzog's films are often brilliantly hallucinatory, Dwarfs' DNA is closer to films like Eraserhead and El Topo that bypass any formal analysis and enter the realm of pure experience. You don't watch Even Dwarfs Started Small so much as inject it into your bloodstream.

I won't pretend to understand every scene in Dwarfs; I have my ideas, but I wouldn't claim that they're definitive. Dwarfs works as an allegory for the nature of revolution - when it was released Marxists, civil rights groups, and segregationists all thought the film was about them and took offense. But it's larger than allegory; scenes such as the "insect wedding" (see for yourself) bypass conventional modes of interpretation and work on a primal, instinctive level. At the start of the film nothing is explained, and by the end nothing has changed; Herzog is rebelling here too, against the reassuring nature of the narrative form itself. The final scene shows one of the revolutionaries (Helmut Doring, who bears a chilling resemblance to William Frawley) laughing maniacally at the aforementioned camel. Gradually he begins to cough and show signs of weariness; the film closes with his laugh becoming weaker and weaker. It's a bleak statement - we laugh like idiots until we're tired, and then we die - but I think I understand what drove Herzog to create it. Once you've confronted the possibility that the world actually is this insane, then there isn't much left to fear.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Trim Bin #18

- After spring break, I'll be hosting a three-week screening series on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in the library viewing room. The theme is comic adaptations. I've figured out five of the six movies I'm going to show, but I'm uncertain about the sixth slot. I could use the help of my loyal readers, so I've listed the options I'm kicking around in my head, along with their pros and cons:

Pros: It's a great, great movie and a smashingly successful adaptation.
Cons: I'm afraid of overwhelming the scheduele with superhero movies; I'm also honestly not sure how much there is to discuss apart from "This is so awesome." The design elements, perhaps?

From Hell
Pros: Alan Moore is the king of the genre, and he's disavowed adaptations of his work. It could be intriguing to use From Hell as a springboard to discuss why Moore feels so strongly about the inability of moviemakers to capture the essence of his work.
Cons: From Hell is a mixed bag, absolutely stunning in some scenes and sort of aimless in others. It certainly doesn't measure up to the novel; I find that flawed films can make for the most interesting discussions, but it depends on the group. When I brought it up in class, I was met with indifference except for the suggestion that we watch LXG instead.

The Crow
Pros: To me, this is the most unheralded adaptation; it really captures the undiluted grief that makes James O'Barr's comic so potent. Plus, the DVD has a fascinating, strange interview with O'Barr where he discusses his process.
Cons: The superhero thing; also, apprehension about the kind of Crow fans that might attend.

American Splendor
Pros: It's inarguably great.
Cons: It's sort of familiar around these parts, especially after the MoCA screening.

I look forward to hearing what you guys think.

- Speaking of Alan Moore, check out this interview with the man himself from BBC2's Culture (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Moore speaks about his books, his influences, and movie versions of his work. He comes off as sharp-witted, acidic, and a bit of a prick; in other words, just the way he should be. Plus, best beard ever.

- Just got a 35mm trailer of Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare from eBay; played it at work the other night, and it's a beaut. Trailers are one of my most beloved forms of cinematic ephemera; I think I feel as strongly about faded 35mm as the folks behind Samurai Dreams do about VHS. But then, both formats are part of the larger state of film, aren't they? A film no longer exists as a singular work of art; each release sends waves of peripheral cultural artifacts - posters, tv spots, making-ofs, billboards, fast food tie-ins, novelizations, soundtracks, video games, toys - through our collective consciousness. These things become inextricably linked with experience; when I watch the Freddy's Dead trailer, I remember how very badly I wanted to see the film but, thwarted by my horror-fearing dad, was forced to content myself with the 3-D special issue of Fangoria (wish I still had that around). Similarly, when I saw the Children of the Corn trailer at Cinemark a few weeks ago, I reflected on how Corn was released when I was still a baby, and I was sitting there having an experience identical to one that I couldn't have possibly had when it was culturally relevant twenty-two years ago (!). It's a very potent form of nostalgia, to be sure; it's also a powerful gateway, like Proust's madeliene or Tony Soprano's capicola.

Question: Were people always nostalgic? Did people in the 1460s fondly remember the way things were in the 1430s? Or is this a new development in human experience?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Top 10: Anticipation

Now that the awards business is over, it's time to look ahead to the rest of 2006. Below are the films I can't wait to see (trailers are linked where applicable). Note that Snakes on a Plane is not included, because it is so obviously going to be the most important movie of the year that I didn't think it was even fair to compare it against mere cinema.

1. The Departed - Martin Scorsese is back in Goodfellas territory with this remake of the great Infernal Affairs, transplanted to Boston. This is the first time Scorsese has worked with Jack Nicholson, which should be a delight. Plus, I'm in it (sort of). November
2. A Prairie Home Companion - Recently honored master Robert Altman brings Garrison Keillor's cultural staple to the big screen. Perhaps the best cast of the year, featuring Woody Harrelson, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Virginia Madsen, and (ahem) Lindsay Lohan. June 9
3. A Scanner Darkly - Richard Linklater returns to the style of rotoscoping used to beautiful effect in Waking Life for this adaptation of the Phillip K. Dick novel. Keanu, as always, could go either way, but it also stars Robert Downey Jr., and that's always a plus. July 7
4. The Prestiege - Christopher Nolan's adaptation of Christopher Priest's novel stars Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as dueling magicians. Scarlett Johansson also stars, but the reason I can't wait is the presence of David Bowie as Nikola Tesla - genius. October 20
5. Grindhouse - Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez' trash double feature (complete with fake trailers!) looks to be the best junk food of the year. September 22
6. Superman Returns - KAL-EL. June 30
7. Art School Confidential - Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff reteam for this raspberry aimed at art school pretensions; early reviews have been mixed, but if it's half as good as Ghost World, I'll be content. April 28
8. Marie-Antoinette - The trailer for Sofia Coppola's take on the famed headless queen hints at an audacious and just plain hip period piece. October 13
9. Zodiac - After a long hiatus, David Fincher takes on the notorious San Francisco serial killer; Gary Oldman, Jake Gyllenhal, and (yuss) Robert Downey Jr. star. September 22
10. The Fountain - Darren Aronofsky's long-gestating sci-fi/romance is finally unleashed upon us; the teaser hints at a truly mindblowing experience, so let's hope the film delivers. Fall

Thursday, March 09, 2006

I'm not too sure about her.

The most brilliant thing about Bubble is the doll factory. The characters in Steven Soderbergh's most recent "small" film spend their days removing disembodied baby heads from a press, airbrushing their skin tone and plugging in plastic eyes. The images which bookend the film of lifeless eyes staring at us say more about the fusion of the real and the manufactured in everyday life than a thousand words can. The factory is also key to understanding the people who work there, particularly Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a character who strives for transcendence yet is bound by routine, a deadening sameness echoed in the piles of identical doll parts cluttered in corners of the frame.

Martha works at the factory with Kyle (Dustin Ashley), a soft-spoken young stoner who lives with his mother (Laurie Lee). Martha clearly adores the oblivious Kyle, but their quiet friendship is interrupted one day by the arrival of Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) a single mother who Kyle quickly falls for. Bubble is about these three characters, but it is also about the small Ohio town where they live, which is the sort of formless assembly of nondescript homes and prefabricated buildings that compose so much of America today. Soderbergh's film is shot on hi-def digital video, and the sharp yet fragmented quality of the format compliments the flat, yellowing texture of the locations wonderfully. In one scene, Martha accompanies Rose on a house-cleaning job; the house is one of those newly built, off-white numbers, yet Martha cannot stop raving about the beauty of it to Kyle. These characters exist in a world where a dream home need only be clean and spacious. Yet Soderbergh manages to avoid the classist condescension that damages the work of Alexander Payne; Bubble is clear-eyed, but never judgemental.

The leads are all non-actors (Doebereiner, for instance, manages a KFC), and Soderbergh elicits effective, authentic performances all around. Ashley has an understated sweetness that hints at pools of unexpressed emotion; Wilkins' sweet girl-next-door aura becomes truly grotesque as the film progresses. But Doebereiner is the real find here. As Martha, she carries her weight and emotional baggage (Martha lives at home with her elderly father) with a quiet, haunting grace. An early scene where we find Martha at church, engaged in a silent moment of - what? prayer? communion? - could have come off as unbearably arch, but Doebereiner finds a conviction in the moment that is rare among all actors, trained or otherwise. Martha remains an enigma; her face as she delivers her final line lingers beyond the closing credits.

Soderbergh isn't quite as successful at pulling off the procedural aspects of the second half. As various characters respond to a crucial plot development, the attempt at authentic responses becomes unintentionally contrived. I think I understand what Soderbergh was trying to do - underline the passivity of the characters - but even the most laconic person would probably be more expressive in such a situation. Perhaps I'm mistaken. Soderbergh seems to be attempting a minimalist approach to drama, but Gus Van Sant, for instance, pulled this sort of thing off with more clarity in Elephant. It's not enough to sink the movie, but the monotonous inevitability of the second half is a bit simpler than I think it was meant to be. In saying this, however, I do intend to return to Bubble down the line; there remains the lingering feeling that there's more going on here than meets the eye.

Soderbergh, once the golden boy of indie cinema, has been a bit underappreciated as of late. In both small films like this one and big-studio tentpoles like Ocean's Twelve (an extremely misunderstood film), he maintains a consistent vision and an unwillingness to kowtow to conventional audience demands. I suspect that, more than anything, he was attracted to the simultaneous-release model of Bubble as a means of tossing a fig at the Hollywood machine. And while I value the big-screen experience over everything and I'm not sure that Marc Cuban's answer is the right one, I'm at least glad that someone is challenging the exhibitors to fight back; we in the audience can only benefit from the outcome. Soderbergh has long rejected the title of auteur, but I'm afraid he just might have to accept it; I can't imagine Bubble being made by anyone else.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Trim Bin #17

NOTE (Added on Monday at 9:45): If my count is correct, a whopping two of my choices won the gold. Question - who's more culturally irrelevant, the Academy or me?

William Hurt recently described the Academy Awards as "penguins salivating over gold dildos," and that about sums it up. Still, it's a nice feeling to see recognition going to films that really deserve it. So while I suck at Oscar predictions, I figured I'd share who I'd like to win. I've excluded categories, such as animated short, to which I am obviously ignorant. You can see the full nominees list here.

Best Picture: Brokeback Mountain is the front-runner, and it's a good choice, both because it's a great, heartfelt romance and because it would be a big step towards such stories not having to carry silly sociopolitical baggage. Crash, on the other hand, would be a regression - it's a simplistic, overrated faux-indie with an empty head. Good Night and Good Luck is earnest but a touch hollow; Capote is technically superb but cold. So it'd be nice to see long-shot Munich take home the gold, but I have a feeling that Spielberg's best movie in ages will grow in reputation over time.
Best Director: I never see the point of dividing the picture and director awards, so Steven Spielberg. Ang Lee will probably win tonight, and he deserves it for this film as well as over a decade of underappreciated, subtle work. George Clooney is good, but Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was better. Bennett Miller is lucky to have Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a high school buddy. Paul Haggis can't direct traffic.
Best Actor: Front-runner Phillip Seymour Hoffman should have three Oscars by now, but I'm not really enthusiastic about Capote; his performance as the manipulative author is technically superb, but it feels like more of an exercise than his superlative work in Happiness or Boogie Nights. I'd like to see Heath Ledger win; unlike Hoffman, I'd never liked him in anything before, but his Ennis is a understated, devastating performance. David Strathairn is good, but limited by the screenplay, which uses Edward R. Murrow as a symbol instead of a person. Joaquin Phoenix is very good in Walk the Line, but not quite Cash. Haven't seen Hustle and Flow.
Best Actress: The best female performances (Naomi Watts, Maria Bello, Q'Orianka Kilcher) aren't here, so I'm a bit indifferent to this category. Reese Witherspoon is good as June Carter, and she'll probably win, but I honestly don't get the big deal (maybe I'm biased by memories of Cruel Intentions). Out of the nominess, I'd have to go with Keira Knightley, who was at least charming in Pride and Prejudice. Haven't seen Transamerica or North Country but, unfortunately, I have seen Mrs. Henderson Presents.
Best Supporting Actor: Perhaps the strongest category of the evening, with no clear front-runner. George Clooney did fine work in Syriana; his weary eyes said more than twenty endless monologues about foreign oil dependency. Jake Gyllenhal was great in Brokeback Mountain and even managed to triumph over his horrible porno 'stache. Matt Dillion is a likeable enough guy, but I'd rather have seen him win for Drugstore Cowboy (or The Flamingo Kid, for that matter) than Crash. Haven't seen Cinderella Man. So I'll be rooting for an out-of-nowhere win for William Hurt's funny, creepy, daffy performance in A History of Violence.
Best Supporting Actress: Thankfully, much stronger than the lead actress category. Rachel Weisz was good in The Constant Gardener, but after a string of mediocre performances, I can't find myself too enthusiastic that she finally made an effort. Catherine Keener is wonderful and does a fine job as Harper Lee in Capote, but she's underused and I would have preferred to see her nominated for The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I wasn't a big Junebug fan, but Amy Adams' wide-eyed, God-loving Ashley was the best thing about it, and I can only imagine that her acceptance speech would be adorable. But I really want to see Michelle Williams win; it's really clear that she poured her heart and soul into Brokeback Mountain's Alma, and the film wouldn't work without her.
Best Original Screenplay: Crash will win, and it shouldn't. How great would it be if The Squid and the Whale pulled a surprise upset?
Best Adapted Screenplay: Brokeback Mountain and A History of Violence are both deserving, but Tony Kushner and Eric Roth's Munich screenplay is the best of the year; it veers almost effortlessly between high tension and quieter, contemplative moments without ever becoming heavyhanded.
Best Cinematography: I'm almost tempted to root for Batman Begins for its brilliant use of light and anamorphic lenses, but Emmanuel Lubezki's work on The New World is simply amazing.
Best Editing: Munich. It has unbelievable momentum. Please not Crash, please.
Best Art Direction: The jaw-dropping recreations of 1930's New York place King Kong heads and shoulders above everything else.
Best Costume Design: Johnny Depp's attire in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, if nothing else, amusing.
Best Music: John Williams' work on Munich is his subtlest, most haunting work in years.
Best Song: I haven't actually heard any, but let's go with "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp," because I like the idea of Three Six Mafia having Oscars.
Best Makeup: Revenge of the Sith; remember that weird planet of Cenobites ruled by Bruce Spence? I know I do.
Best Sound: When the tripods roared, I shat my pants. War of the Worlds.
Best Sound Editing: Giving King Kong a voice was a phenomenal achievement.
Best Visual Effects: Kong was steller, but a handful of the effects (the brontosaurus stampede) looked rushed. War of the Worlds, on the other hand, is frighteningly convincing in every shot.
Best Animated Film: Front-runner Wallace and Gromit was fun, but Corpse Bride was an astounding visual achievement with a sweet story (and a boon for Hot Topic sales).
Best Foreign Film: I've only seen Paradise Now, and it was good. So, Paradise Now.
Best Documentary: Without Grizzly Man this category doesn't really matter, so I'll go with the scrappily likeable Murderball.
Best Dead Person:
Applause for the "In Memoriam" segment will likely favor Johnny Carson, but I'd like to see Don Knotts win the death popularity contest. He's earned it.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Jesus, what teeth you have!

The language of cinema is uniquely suited to the logic of dreams. So it is exciting whenever a filmmaker achieves a state that echoes our dream lives. Neil Jordan did just that The Company of Wolves, which does not so much revise as flesh out the Little Red Riding Hood tale with the dizzying intensity of a fever dream.

Rather than relating the Brothers Grimm story in a straightforward manner, Jordan and co-screenwriter Angela Carter (upon whose story the film is based) utilize a complex structure of dreams, hallucinations, and stories told to our young Riding Hood surrogate Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) by her grandmother (Angela Lansbury). Rosaleen's older sister has been killed by wolves in the opening sequence; right off the bat, Jordan cuts between dreams and waking life, blurring the line between the two. The film is in many ways a kindred spirit to A Nightmare on Elm Street (released the same year); both films conjure perverse, sexualized boogeymen as a manifestation of their protagonists' confused adolescent fears and desires. But if Nightmare is a straightforward horror story - Freddy Kreuger is the rebellious force that must be overcome with repression - than The Company of Wolves is much thornier.

Early on, Granny tells a story about two young newlyweds whose marriage is cut short when the lupine groom (Jordan favorite Stephen Rea) must answer "the call of nature." The bride (Kathryn Pogson) remarries, and her husband eventually returns, monstrous and enraged that she has not been faithful. Here, the monster represents not rebellion but repression; while the werewolf emerges from carnal rage, the triggering incident is his wife's violation of a social contract. A later scene, where an aristocratic dinner party turns into a beastly orgy, hints at the hypocrisy of the upper class which manifests itself in a grotesque manner.

But then, I'm making this sound like a thesis paper, when it's actually a great deal of fun. Jordan is dealing with the meaning beyond the archetypes of our fairy tales and nightmares, yet rather than succombing to literal-minded theorizing, he drives these ideas home with the potency of his images. I particularly loved the haunting motif of blood staining white - a bucket of milk, a flower - that comes into focus when a "purer" character is killed and does not bleed. It can be read as violence (the sheer panic we experience when wounded) or as sex (menstruation, a torn hymen). Either way, Jordan understands that images can communicate worlds more than words can hope - language exists to categorize and encapsulate, while images are much more direct and undiluted. The Company of Wolves exists in a time that resembles the nineteenth century but never really existed; it is assembled from our collective memories of youth and crystallized by the pain of puberty.

In the end, the film departs from the conventions of the horror and fairy tale genres significantly; the malevolent force (the werewolf) is neither triumphant nor defeated. A movie about the stories we scare ourselves with, The Company of Wolves addresses the unavoidable and important truth that we create our own demons. I've often woken after a particuarly incomprehensible or fantastic nightmare and been startled by the realization that the monsters I encountered were my own creation. We fear that which is within us the most; Jordan's film reaches the conclusion that the werewolf (stand in for all that is unruly, horny, and anarchic) exists in us all. A priest, upon encountering a young werewolf, wonders whether she came from God or the Devil before concluding it makes no difference: "After all, you're just a girl." Ah, but in The Company of Wolves, we are shown that there is no such thing.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Top 10: Homo Superior

Much has been written about Brokeback Mountain as a breakthrough gay romance in mainstream cinema; it's certainly notable in that it's a movie featuring man-on-man action that my dad would love (if I could convince him to see it). Along with other films like Capote and Transamerica, the Oscar season has been dominated by talk about greater acceptance of gay characters in film; however, long before Jack and Ennis, a number of breakthrough films set the stage for the current cinematic climate. There has always been and probably been a lot of dreck in gay-themed cinema - Go Fish, anyone? But the films listed below all transcend the label of Queer Cinema, telling their stories with sensitivity and compassion.

1. My Own Private Idaho - Mike (River Phoenix)'s simple declaration of love to Scott (Keanu Reeves) by a campfire - "I really want to kiss you, man" - is one of the most achingly romantic moments in cinema, gay or otherwise.
2. My Beautiful Laundrette - Stephen Frears juggles racism and class divides in Thatcher-era England along with the sweet love story between laundromat manager Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and the flamboyant Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis). Day Lewis' performance, still his best, is the very definition of brave, and the film is unapologetically funny and sweet.
3. The Crying Game - If the twist were just a twist, than this would have been forgotten soon after the hype settled down. What makes The Crying Game a great film is the way that director Neil Jordan guides Fergus (Stephen Rea) and Dil (Jaye Davidson) to a believable and heartfelt resolution; the final scene is a lovely and understated grace note.
4. Heavenly Creatures - While it's debatable whether Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet Hume (Kate Winslet) were gay, they were clearly passionately in love, and Peter Jackson's best film is swept up in the mad, swooning frenzy of their relationship. The tragedy of their crime is compounded by the notion that in a more permissive society, everything would have been different.
5. Hedwig and the Angry Inch - John Cameron Mitchell uses Aristotle's speech in Plato's Symposium as the heart of a sexy, sad, and just plain kickass rock epic - transplanted brilliantly from the stage - about a singer stuck between genders and borders. Better than Rent in every possible way.
6. The Beaver Trilogy - What begins as a weird story about a lanky midwestern kid who loves Olivia Newton-John becomes an insightful study of one sexually ambivalent kid (shown in documentary and played by both Sean Penn and Crispin Glover) who expresses something through drag that he could never otherwise put into words.
7. Naked Lunch - A bitter pill compared to most on this list, Cronenberg's interpretation of Burroughs' book nails the author's tortured sexual ambivalence. Peter Weller is vastly underrated here; he communicates worlds about Bill Lee's self-perception with the smallest gesture.
8. Boys Don't Cry - I'm going to have to disagree with my friend Rory's summary of this film - "I'm a transvestite. Bang. Plop." - and suggest that Kimberly Pierce's debut film is more complicated than it looks. The film proceeds with a devastating air of inevitability to its brutal conclusion; few films have hammered the inhumanity of hate crimes home with greater clarity and truth. Plus, I don't care what anyone thinks: Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny's love scenes are jaw-droppingly sexy.
9. Waiting For Guffman - Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest) is a fop, no doubt. But the brilliance of Guffman is that while we laugh, we are also forced to question why we laugh. Guest's deft touch results in a preening community theatre director that is sublimely ridiculous as a person, not as a stereotype. To think otherwise, you would have to be a bastard person.
10. Philadelphia - This is more of a personal choice. Yes, the courtroom structure is familiar, and it would have been nice had the relationship between Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) and Miguel Alvarez (Antonio Banderas) been explored in greater detail. But Jonathan Demme's subjective visual style compliments both Beckett and Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), whose gradual change from Beckett's homophobic lawyer to his friend never feels forced for a moment. The "La Mamma Morta" scene is one of the great moments in cinema; seeing Philadelphia at the age of nine, I concluded that acceptance is the only reasonable and human path. The verdict is out whether cinema can move the hearts and minds of the masses, but it certainly works for me.