Tuesday, July 31, 2007

So anyway...

I've only just started to discover Michaelangelo Antonioni's work - I know Bergman, but Antonioni and I are still just passing acquaintances (I've linked to those more qualified to reflect on the filmmaker below). So I don't feel qualified to write a proper rememberance, and so soon after Bergman, it's just too much. I'll simply urge you to watch (or re-watch) The Passenger, easily my favorite Antonioni film. Revel in the famous final shot and all it implies about existence, nonexistence and our relationship to the world around us.

Two of our greatest filmmakers, gone in a day. And here we are.

Jesus, aren't movies wonderful?

Monday, July 30, 2007

You with your visions and dreams.

News of the death of Ingmar Bergman naturally conjurs images of Bengt Ekerot leading a party of dead souls as they dance across a starkly beautiful countryside; the late director was responsible for the most unforgettable modern representation of death, and he surely knew images of the chess-playing reaper would accompany his passing. Equally eloquent to me is the chimes that signal various transitions in Cries and Whispers. It's a breathtakingly brilliant device, the passage of time towards an inevitable conclusion stripped of all human speculation and reduced to a single, quiet sound that is at both familiar and alien - it is the sound of the unknown.

Bergman's chime rang today; he leaves behind a wealth of great cinema that returns again and again to his preoccupations - the topography of the human face and the mysteries it conceals, the inexplicable power of our sexual desire and our very need to connect, the transcendence of performance (theater being as important to the director as film), the question of how to live in a universe ruled by an unseen or nonexistent God. And, of course, death, and how the knowledge of our mortality informs our existence. His films are alternately passionate and remote, cynical and nostalgic, unsparing and almost unbearably humane. And while his worldview was unflinchingly bleak, I value most greatly his films' capacity for almost supernatural acts of compassion - the scene in Cries and Whispers where Anna cradles the dying Agnes has a transcendent power that cinema has rarely touched. How beautifully ironic that a man who struggled so greatly with the meaning of his own existence would, in his passing, remind us how much one life can mean to the world. And that, as I'm sure Bergman would reluctantly agree, is its own kind of magic.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

You know, I really hate children.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the first film in its series to surpass the book upon which it is based (Prisoner of Azkaban is the best movie so far, but the book's pretty perfect too). Like Cuaron's film, this newest entry is a real adaptation, made with a unique approach to the material, rather than a slavish recreation of the source material designed to appase hardcore Potterphiles (so often the worst judges of what makes a good movie). Relative newcomer David Yates never folds under what must be the enormous pressure of delivering a film that is also practically a self-contained corporation; Potter 5 is a dark, thematically rich entry in the recently concluded saga of everyone's favorite Limey occultist.

The Harry Potter books have always had meandering plots - this is part of their charm. But with Order of the Phoenix, the narrative asides and protracted internal monologues are repetitive and often maddening (that said, it's my favorite of the books after Azkaban). I feared that Yates and screenwrite Michael Goldenberg would commit the series' all-too-common error of treating film like literature. Thankfully, Order of the Phoenix is surprisingly kinetic; in translating this chapter of Harry's story, which finds the boy wizard assembling an army of his peers to battle Voldemort and clashing with officious, kitten-loving monster Dolores Umbridge, Yates and Goldenberg make very shrewd choices about what to keep and what to cut from the book (the result is occasionally choppy, but only in retrospect). More importantly, Order of the Phoenix demonstrates an innate understanding of how, just as a book can find a thousand words in a single moment, a film can condense a thousand words into a single image. Order of the Phoenix is filled with indelible images, like a character's sudden, surprised disappearance into the abyss, that honor the shivery undertow that will seemingly draw Harry and his friends to an ending that, if happy, won't be easily earned (I'm halfway through Deathly Hallows, so my apologies if everything ends with an ice cream social).

While the climactic battle with Voldemort and his cohorts is splendidly creepy, the most engaging conflict in the film is between Harry and Umbridge. Imelda Staunton is perfect in the role, an insipid, smirking bureaucrat who equates inquiry with insubordination; rarely have I so intensely wanted to kick a fictional character in the teeth. Staunton clearly relishes in her character's hatefulness, and she elevates the rest of the cast - the kids do their best work thus far (I didn't even mind Emma Watson this time around), and it's a delight to watch the always-growing roster of great British thespians play off each other. I remain Michael Gambon's biggest fan, and Gary Oldman reminds even in a brief role why he's one of the greatest actors around. After the generic, smutty CGI-riddled mess that was Goblet of Fire, it's a welcome relief to see a film driven by the characters we've come to know and love.

The most exciting aspect of Order of the Phoenix is the breathtaking production design. Yates and DP Slawomir Idziak demonstrate a remarkable understanding of composition that give locations like the Ministry of Magic, with its seemingly endless tiled corridors, a sense of scale that makes the fantastic completely believable. And the details, like the endless purring in Umbridge's office, have an absurdist quality worthy of Gilliam at his best. Hogwarts once again feels like a real, lived-in place, and the entirety of the film is a treat for the imagination. And hough Order of the Phoenix ends with intimations of darkness, it also winds up on a note that honors its youngest, most faithful audience members for the persistence of their dreams.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Game Plan = the next Departed???

I'm beginning to feel like a good luck charm. The first film I worked on as an extra grossed more than $200 million domestic. The second finally got Scorsese the Oscar. And the third, a little picture called The Game Plan, is clearly destined for greatness. Just check out the trailer for all of the "Pacifier meets Any Given Sunday" goodness. Bubbles in the pool? Brilliant! A sequin-studded football? How frightfully piquant! I can practically taste the mirth! Oh, to have been in the presence of such cinematic genius!
And now, I'm going to cry myself to sleep. Enjoy the trailer.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

He calls it his "tiny chef."

Ratatouille takes place in the restaurant of a famous, deceased chef known for both his culinary innovations and his emphasis on accessiblity, with his motto "Anyone can cook!" In the chef's absence, small-minded vulture capitalists have co-opted his likeness and ideology for maximum profit, churning out cheap, microwavable bastardizations of his work. I found myself thinking about Walt Disney's legacy during Ratatouille, similarly commodified and cheapened over recent years (not that the guy was a saint, but that's beside the point). Disney's saving grace has been their relationship with Pixar, a company with a deep, prodigious grasp of both animation and storytelling that seems dedicated to preserving everything that fodder like Brother Bear Goes Bananas aims to destroy. This is a company that can understand the story of an ambitious little rat who surreptitiously assumes the role of an interspecies cultural attache; Ratatouille's makers know what it's like to be the little guy, armed only with impeccable taste.

The rat in question is Remy (Patton Oswalt), who spends his days with his extended family picking through compost piles. While his father Django (Brian Dennehy) and his brother Emile (Peter Sohn) are content scarfing down junk for sustenance, Remy regards food as an art form. Inspired by the imaginary apperance of his hero, the late chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), Remy finds himself hiding in Gusteau's restaurant, now struggling to stay afloat thanks to a vicious review by critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole). After a series of wacky misunderstandings (I love writing that), Remy is secretly puppeting a clumsy garbage boy named Linguini (Lou Romano). But the plot isn't the main thing - like Bird's other features, Ratatouille is unusual for a cartoon in that it is decidedly character driven. A film that is largely about taste, Ratatouille is as much about personal moments - the delightful visualization of the emotional experience of eating is a high point - as it is about kiddie-film noise. One of the most impressive things about Pixar is its willingness to go small - even an superhero movie like Bird's The Incredibles is at heart a character study. It's refreshing to find a studio that has that sort of faith in pure story, and in the intelligence of its audience.

This sense of intimacy extends to the design of the film. Movies set in France usually rely heavily on repeated shots of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and baguettes; while Ratatouille's Paris is a digital simulacrum, it somehow evokes the real thing better than many films shot in Paris (certainly better than the suprisingly poor Paris, je t'aime). By giving us a rat's-eye view of the city, Bird and the animators capture a detailed, subjective version of Paris that becomes as tangible as Venice in Don't Look Now. One gets a real sense of the city's cultural history, which gives the lighthearted film an unexpected emotional resonance - Ratatouille is a celebration of taste, not just for food but for any form of creative expression (or appreciation; rarely has a film so loved its audience). Thankfully, Pixar's taste is impeccable, and they spare us poorly cast superstar voices, continuing to cast in delightfully unxpected ways (standouts here are Oswalt, Janeane Garofalo as a fierce sous chef, and O'Toole relishing every quintessentially British putdown). No already-dated pop cultural references, smarmy innuendo or Smash Mouth either; the humor here is smart and understated. And best of all, Ratatouille never condescends to its largely young audience, assuming, as the best children's movies do, that kids are capable of getting the joke.

Ratatouille is a fun, sweet movie, and yet I also found it weirdly inspiring. Its simple, wonderful message - that a life devoted to sharing one's appreciation of culture can help make the world a better place - encouraged me deeply on a particularly discouraging day. It's a great message for kids, urging them gently to chase their passions, and it's delivered with a perfect light touch. The ending of the film reminds of Pixar's assumption of creative control at Disney, the little guy now in control of the giant machine. If Ratatouille is any indication, they're just the right people to restore the Magic Kingdom to its former glory. Mouse, meet rat.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

He was...well, he wasn't a good swimmer.

The following is my contribution to Final Girl's Friday the 13th Blog-a-Thon.

"No, what if there is some boy-beast running around Camp Crystal Lake? Let's try to think beyond the legend, put it in real terms. What would it be like today? Some sort of out-of-control psychopath? A frightened retard? A child trapped in a man's body?" - Amy Steel, Friday the 13th Part 2

It's often forgotten that Jason Voorhees is developmentally disabled; indeed, the above quote is the only direct reference to this fact in the ten-film series. This partly owes to the ways that the character changed over the course of a franchise that has little use for narrative coherence, but it's also indicative of the time that the original Friday the 13th was released. That film, and its immediate sequels, literalize the mindless man-child archetype (Boris Karloff's Frankenstein monster and Gunnar Hansen's Leatherface are two predecessors) by confronting us with a villian whose monstrousness is largely defined by his disability. The original Friday the 13th is about our society's fear of the mentally retarded; this is just as evident in the films that don't reference this fact.

It wasn't until I began working with the developmentally disabled that I realized how negative attitudes towards the mentally challenged can go beyond simple mockery to actual fear and animosity. While some of my co-workers are wonderful, a number warned me in hushed tones to watch out for the ways that our clients would try to "manipulate" us. One day I was in the community with an autistic man who attempted to open the door of a parked car; the man inside the car began yelling at our client and informed me that I should "do something about that guy." Retardation makes people genuinely uncomfortable; this was even more true in 1980, less than 20 years after the concept of equal rights for the mentally disabled was introduced into the mainstream and before the developmentally disabled gained the right to equal health care. Residents of asylums and other demoralizing institutions were being released back into society, and people were suddenly confronted with a problem they had long been instructed to lock up and forget about.

The Goonies' Sloth was an attempt to counter negative stereotypes by presenting a physically deformed, brain-damaged man as a lovable E.T.-like figure; later in the decade, Rain Man and Life Goes On were influential in their positive portrayals of mentally challenged characters. But in 1980, there was still nothing unusual about a studio horror release that had as its villain the vengeful mother of a stereotypical mongoloid who appears at the film's end for one last scare. The killer in Friday the 13th is a woman whose disabled son drowned tragically because of the neglect of horny camp counselors (a character for whom the film extends no empathy). If one chooses to read the film as a morality piece - the dead teens punished for their preoccupation with sex, pot and the band Rush (probably) - then Jason is the dark side of the eternal child, pulling Adrienne King into the depths of Crystal Lake, away from adulthood and back to the womb.

The most potent incarnation of Jason is the John Merrick-esque sack-hooded woodsman we meet in Friday the 13th Part 2, his disguise reminding of the exploitation of the disabled and deformed in carnival freak shows. If Jason is out for revenge after the death of his mother (a scenario that doesn't really make any sense, but we'll ignore that for now), he's also assuming the monstrous role assigned to him. Jason's makeshift shack in the woods is a terrific touch, literalizing the theme of rural horror previously seen in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. But unlike those films, Jason wasn't born a villain - he was created, like Caliban, shoved to the fringes of society until he becomes the monster he's always been viewed as. It's a great, rich concept that Friday the 13th Part 2 doesn't do nearly enough with. Unfortunately, it's also the last time that the series even pays lip service to the idea of Jason as a flesh-and-blood character.

The dehumanization of Jason begins with the hockey mask, and reaches fruition with Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. After Jason was killed (suppsedly for good) in the previous film, the producers attempted to revive the franchise by replacing Jason with another mask-wearing killer that is revealed in the final minutes to be a completely different character. It was a cynical move (see also: Halloween III), and the filmmakers wisely chose to reinvent Jason as an undead golem for future films. Over the course of the series, Jason has been a demon's host, a genetically enhanced superbeing, and a worthy adversary for Freddy Kreuger - Jason is pure simulacrum, completely detached from his origins as a "frightened retard."

While this happens with most horror franchises - Freddy's wisecracks watering down his child-molesting backstory, for instance - Jason's evolution is particularly drastic. This has everything to do with the advent of political correctness - when Kelly Rowland calls Freddy a "faggot" in Freddy vs. Jason, the joke is her strange use of the word rather than a comment on Freddy's sexuality. Similarly, it's impossible to imagine a sympathetic protagonist calling Jason a "retard" today. An evil ubermensch Jason allows us to laugh and scream without feeling guilty, and I won't argue that it's a good thing that most people understand that, at the very least, there are some things you just don't say. But part of me misses "special" Jason, who could have only existed at a time when our scares were much thornier.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Sunday, July 08, 2007

too much information

Boy, these memes are flying all over the place. I've been tagged by Dennis with the 8 Simple Things meme, the rules of which are as follows:

1. I share the rules with you.
2. I share eight random facts about myself that you may not know.
3. I tag eight unsuspecting bloggers, who must then share eight facts about themselves (I believe this is legally binding).

So, here goes:

1. My first professional acting audition was for the role of Bobby in The Brady Bunch Movie. I didn't get it.

2. The first time I got paid to act was in a children's musical called Maggie and the Magic Hat. The play, written by New Hampshire songsmith Brownie Macintosh, was about time travel, talking mannequins, and yes, magical hats. It was terrifying. I played an Irish handyman named Mr. O'Toole (get it?). We performed at the Ivoryton Playhouse, a beautiful summer stock theater where actors ranging from Marlon Brando to Groucho Marx had performed. And I appeared there to sing about hammers. I see from Browie's website that the play is still being staged, but only I can say that I originated Mr. O'Toole.

3. I was fired from my first writing gig - the film critic for my seventh-grade newspaper. It was a Christian school, and I offended the faculty by writing about an R-rated movie (Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion).

4. Yes, I was once a born-again Christian. In the years since I've been a near-atheist, a not-really-Taoist, and a sort-of-agnostic. These days, while I'd comfortably call myself spiritual, the closest thing I have to a religious leader is

5. David Bowie. I'm a bleedin' poof for David Bowie. I celebrate his entire catalog.

6. I once performed a puppet show of the Gom Jabbar scene from Dune.

7. I'm deathly, irrationally afraid of snakes - garter snakes, to be precise. I know they won't hurt me; it's a purely Pavlovian thing.

8. My favorite color is brown.

I tag: Doug, Jack, John, Dr. Insermini, Milena, Steve, Michael and Jess.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Man, I'm Big Dick Blaque.

Hardcore opens promisingly, with a montage of Rockwellian scenes of wintry Grand Rapids that introduces us to businessman Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott), his family, and his Calvinist friends and countrymen. As Jake and his guests discuss matters of morality over Christmas dinner, their conversation filled with disdain for the permissive culture perceived as a threat to traditional values, it's unclear whether we should take what we are seeing at face value (Scott's best friend is played by Dick Sargent [?!]). By assuming a detached, Bressonian perspective to these early scenes, writer/director Paul Schrader compels us to question our own moral assumptions; if only the rest of Hardcore provoked the same kind of sickly thrilling ambiguity. Instead, any spell these first scenes weave is quickly broken when VanDorn is shown 8mm evidence of his runaway daughter's disapperance into the world of underground porn. Scott, wails, gnashes his teeth, has an aneurysm and nearly eats his own head while bellowing "THAT'S MY DAUGHTER!" and effectively killing any hope of subtlety or wit. Scott is terrible in Hardcore, and he's a perfect fit for a film that, while born from Schrader's life and personal obsessions, is hamhanded sensationalism masquerading as art.

The plot of Hardcore, Schrader's most thorough appropriation of The Searchers, hinges on the preposterous notion of VanDorn's virginal teenage daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis) disappearing from a youth group trip to L.A. and, within days, found in a hardcore loop by a private investigator (Peter Boyle). Jake takes off to L.A. to save his daughter, and soon finds himself caught in an increasingly sordid sex industry, ranging from storefront sex shops to snuff. There's admittedly a kinky sort of fun to be had in noting the way that Schrader recreates the day-glo, semen-stained surfaces of the porn world, and cinematographer Michael Chapman (who also shot Taxi Driver) gives these scenes the right plastic quality. But Schrader gets in his own way - he pushes us towards identifying with Jake's repulsion, yet he also condescends to the character's middle-American naievete throughout. The result is that while the images may shock us, they're never affecting in a meaningful way. This conflict can make Hardcore seem more exploitative than it was probably intended to be; the women in the film, for instance, are underage-looking, and the camera lingers on their flat chests and skinny bodies in a way that, in the absence of meaningful context, comes off as leering and gratuitous. Schrader tries for horror and only succeeds at gross-out.

The most compelling character in the film is Niki (Season Hubley), a more jaded version of Taxi Driver's Iris. In one of Niki's early scenes, she enters a peepshow booth, naked, planting her feet against the glass in a confident spread-eagle. It's the strongest image in the film, Niki's unapologetic sluttiness confronting our own unspoken voyeurism. As Niki helps Jake find his daughter, the two develop a peculiarly honest relationship, each confessing to the ways they are products of their respective backgrounds - the God-fearing and the godless find they have more in common than they might suspect, and Schrader's obsession with predestination (a holdover from his own Calvinist upbringing) becomes a metaphor for social and economic imprisonment.

These ideas would have resonated more deeply had Schrader pushed his character further; many of the film's problems would immediately be solved if Jake had sex with Niki. But the character remains firmly one-dimensional, a stranger in a strange land immune to temptation, and Schrader cannot seem to take his own protagonist seriously, let alone fully humanize him. And the provocative suggestion that Jake's daughter was seriously kinky to begin with (a porn actor tells Jake, "I don't know what kind of shit she was into, but my dick was red and swollen and chewed up for a week") is quickly brushed aside in favor of a slam-bang ending and a forced resolution. One can feel in Hardcore Schrader's desire to make a movie that would genuinely offend his fundamentalist family; unfortunately, the themes he touches upon but never really explores are far more incendiary than gratuitous T&A (he would return to the central concerns of Hardcore with much greater success in films like American Gigolo, Cat People and Auto Focus).

If there's an element of Hardcore that really works, it's the examination of the Calvinist equivalency of popular culture with sin. Visual references to Star Wars are littered throughout the film, culminating in a nudie lightsabre battle set to "Star Wars Disco." Schrader is not only equating the emerging mainstream cinema of sensation with porn, he's also anticipating the 1980s' borderline-narcotic obsession with pretty surfaces. It's a shaky position to take, and also a hypocritical one in view of Hardcore's own tendency towards titillation, but it's still an effective eulogy for the decade when filmmakers were given free reign to be as audacious and self-indulgent as they wanted to be. If Hardcore is a failure, it's at least a fond reminder of a time when filmmakers were able to fail this big.