Friday, November 30, 2007

Friday Title Card #36

Sorry, Morgan Freeman, I already ate.

Ah, synchronicity: five minutes after I stumbled upon the trailer for 21, I got a phone call asking if I wanted to do background work on this. I spent most of the day in Boston Common with Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken and William H. Macy (sporting an awesome Harry Caul-esque mustache). I even managed to make Morgan Freeman laugh (after staring coldly at me for several uncomfortable seconds) when he asked if he could have some of my imaginary prop take-out. With four or five different productions in Boston this fall and winter, it appears that all the talk about the city as a new filmmaking hub may be more than just fleeting hype. Time will tell, but right now, it feels great to be a film geek in New England.

As for 21, judging by the trailer, it looks like a decent teen flick, certainly more promising that Robert Luketic's previous output. As I wrote before, he really does know how to run a set, so I'm rooting for him to improve. There are two scenes I worked on that appear briefly at :30 and 2:15, but the emphasis (wisely from a marketing perspective) is on Vegas, sex and money over MIT and math. There are a few warning signs, to be fair - I don't think being better than average at addition is proof of mathematical genius, and the Doors cue is a stale choice. No matter what, though, I can say with absolute certainty that this is going to be way better than The Game Plan.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gratuitous Nudity #6

Ewan McGregor, Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

We rollin'!

A few weekends back, my wife and I decided to catch up on some of the movies that, in the months before and after the birth of our daughter, weren't worth the trip to the multiplex. After a quick trip to the local Redbox, we sat through three of the worst films of the year. Oddly enough, they were mostly bad in the same way - all three were self-important, toothless, and derivative of better films from the 1990s. As the sidebar to your right indicates, 2007 is shaping up to be a memorable year, with many very good films thus far (including a few masterpieces), and several more promising titles coming before the new year. I look forward to discussing them soon; but first, the schmutz.

Easily the worst of the bunch (and the only one we were certain would suck) is The Number 23, Joel Schumacher's feeble attempt to be David Lynch. Screeenwriter Fernley Phillips' steals shamelessly from Lynch's infinitely superior Lost Highway - not only do both movies feature a murderous saxophonist, they both revolve around actors portraying characters with seemingly dual identities. Any Lynchian ambiguity is rendered thuddingly literal with the device of the titular novel, given to dogcatcher Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) by his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen, wasted yet again). Sparrow is quickly wrapped up in the story of a detective (also Carrey) investigating the mystery of a number that has driven people mad with its synchronicities - as he gets deeper into the book, it appears that the story is meant to tell him something about his own life. None of this makes any sense, of course - Sparrow's search for the truth involves his family, his friends and Bud Cort before arriving at a thuddingly obvious conclusion.

Phillips and Schumacher emulate the Lynchian weirdness while abandoning the ambiguity and layered meanings that make Lynch's works so rich and emotionally cohesive even as his narratives become increasingly less representational. Strung together by its useless numerological conceit (π this is not), it's tabloid filmmaking that could only be enjoyed by audiences who prefer bullshit speculation to real inquiry into the nature of things (this is perhaps the line that divides good mysteries from lousy ones). Worse still is the idiotic, morally repugnant ending, one that cynically discards the questons it has attempted to raise in favor of a pat resoultion for its protagonist that defies all understanding of human nature. The Number 23 is so bad that it's alien, confirming that Joel Schumacher's films have become must-sees in that they just keep getting worse (he's become Uwe Boll with better lighting). And its biggest mystery is how Jim Carrey, a star who, with the right director, can do great, multilayered work, could have possibly thought this movie was the right departure from his comedic work. Did it even occur to him that he's playing a pet detective again? Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, indeed.

Not nearly as awful - just mediocre and boring - is Vacancy, a siege thriller that would have fit comfortably among the early-90's cycle of Silence of the Lambs ripoffs. The premise is faithful to the trailer, as a young married couple (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) recovering from the loss of a child check into a seedy roadside motel where they soon find themselves the prey of the A/V-savvy manager (Frank Whaley) and a gang of knife-wielding maniacs. The premise is enough for an effective, sophisticated thriller built around very prescient fears (surveillance, torture) or a stylish, unapologetically grimy slasher in the vein of High Tension; unfortunately, it's neither. While the trailer promised suspense, we are only given a series of blunt, obvious shocks as Vacancy becomes a hilarious example of Danny DeVito's aspiring writer's plot summary in Throw Momma From the Train ("one guy kills the other guy"). Not so bad if this film were a direct-to-video quickie, but director Nimrod Attal gives the film a horrible air of self-importance - even the credits are pretentious. With no character development to latch onto, we can only focus on the film's condescending attitude towards rural life (even I Spit on Your Grave was more honest) and its unlikable yuppie protagonists. Beckisale looks bored and Wilson looks uncomfortable; only Frank Whaley plays the material at the right pitch, acknowledging the film as the high-toned junk that it is.

Neither The Number 23 nor Vacancy made much of a dent at the box office; Transformers, on the other hand, is one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, proof that one can never underestimate the unstoppable combination of nostalgia and hipster detachment. The sudden acceptance of Michael Bay now that he's bracketing his misanthropic cock cheese in so-ironic quotation marks (one extra: "This is way cooler than Armageddon!") is definitive proof of my generation's soul-killing apathy. The script is a straight ripoff of the better and funnier Small Soldiers, minus the shrewd social commentary, and I spent most of the movie imagining how kickass a Joe Dante Transformers would have been. Young Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBouf, the biggest question mark of Indy 4) buys a car that is actually a robot from space, and the good robots fight bad robots while a lot of other stuff happens and Witwicky tries to titfuck a witless, dead-eyed trout (Megan Fox). It doesn't matter. It's hateful, materialistic crap, keeping the sales-pitch cynicism of the original cartoon minus the endearing kitsch. True, the writers try to bracket everything in wink-wink sarcasm, making this crap that knows it is crap. The effects are flawless but pointless, as Transformers is never remotely fun . Try to defend it as meant for kids and I'll ask you to recall the indefensible dreck we liked as kids; try to defend it as shut-your-brain-off fodder and I'll ask why I should shut my brain off; defend it at all and I'll remind you of the scene where a robot pisses on Barton Fink. The Number 23 and Vacancy are bad, but Transformers is actually dangerous, its massive success paving the way for another decade of Bay's Teutonic brand of anti-art. The biggest question, then, is who Michael Bay hates more - us or himself.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Trim Bin #64

- A great YouTube find: Track 29, a 1988 thriller (for lack of a better term) directed by Nicolas Roeg, written by Dennis Potter and starring Theresa Russell, Gary Oldman and Christopher Lloyd. Long out-of-print in any format in the US, it's a strange, excessive film that, while far from perfect, deserves a look. Due to the ephemeral nature of YouTube, I recommend checking it out before it's gone.

- Ah, the Chaw. He's an angry, angry man, but when he sees something he likes, there's no better champion of cinema. For evidence of this, see his stunning review of American Gangster, I'm Not There and No Country For Old Men. An excerpt:

"I used to like to condense Modernism as the search for God that culminates in the discovery that God is a series of broken monuments and chaos and that Post-Modernism was therefore the gradual acceptance of God as a manufactured construct. Facile, but good in a pinch; apply it to Todd Haynes' fascinating I'm Not There and suddenly there's the thought that the film is an autopsy of film-as-history to this moment--an analysis of how the moving image has become in this century the only real way we access history as a people, as well as of how the image, eternally malleable within the image-maker, has now become malleable within a mainframe."

- What exactly is There Will Be Blood? Each trailer has improved on the last - the newest suggests a period piece that is equal parts western and horror film. It looks weird, dark as hell, and the last thing I expected from P.T. Anderson after the beautifully daffy Punch-Drunk Love. The early reviews have been rapturous, and if the movie lives up to this trailer (which I've been watching at least once a day), then Anderson may have outdone himself.

- I've been sort of busy these past few weeks, so I had to let a few fascinating blog-a-thons pass me by. Between the Queer Film Blog-a-Thon and the Kurosawa Blog-a-Thon, you should have plenty of reading material for the long weekend.

- Over at The House Next Door, Dan Callahan writes about Bibi Andersson's appearance at a screening of Persona at BAM. Best detail: Andersson's admission that she filmed her character's stunning confessional monologue while half-cocked.

- Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Poetry doesn't work on whores.

The thing that separates Andrew Dominik's strange, magnificent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford from the 70's classics it descends from (the revisionist Westerns of Terrence Malick and Robert Altman chief among them) is its unapologetic romanticism. It would be a mistake to describe the film's visual grit and stark narrative as realistic; rather, the film is tinged with a bittersweet nostalgia, as though it were told through the eyes of James' dewey-eyed, adoring assassin. A requiem for a time that never was, The Assassination practically demands the sort of ecstatic, purple praise usually reserved for tent revivals. Suffice to say that The Assassination is film as an ephemeral series of moments made indelible through the prism of memory. It's alien in a way that only a truly modern work is, elegaic and confounding and, for all its obvious cinematic ancestors, a complete original.

"I honestly believe I'm destined for great things," Ford (Casey Affleck) tells us early on, and there's a fatalistic undertow to the narrative. Framed by a Barry Lyndon-esque narrator, the film takes the well-known moments of James' life and stages them through a soft-focus haze, as though the images are emerging straight from our collective unconscious. Out of this fog emerges a Jesse James that, as played by Brad Pitt, is paranoid and haunted in the way that giants are. The notorious outlaw is obsessed with signs and totems, constantly on the watch for possible traitors in his gang of malcontents, struggling with the inevitable. The dewey-eyed Ford, whose worship of James borders on lust, joins the James gang for their last train robbery (eerily staged under cover of night), has his illusions of his hero shattered, and ultimately conspires against him. Dominik presents these two figures as locked in an inevitable twist of fate, James' outsize persona dooming him to a public execution by his most loyal sycophant. This relatively simple story unfolds at a leisurely, meditative pace, yet Dominik's authority over the material is remarkable (particularly since this is his second feature). The god's-eye persepective of the story travels over painterly landscapes that transform almost imperceptably with the seasons as the sounds of wildlife form a constant, indifferent chorus. Rarely has a story of even our grandest icons' insignificance in the face of time unfolded with such unabashed romance.

But for all its high aspirations (it was gratifying to hear Domnik reference Barton Fink, calling his film "a fruity movie about suffering"), The Assassination more than honors its dime-store origins. The violence isn't the operatic bloodshed of Leone and Peckinpah, but Dominik and cinematographer Roger Deakins (brilliant as always) never shy away from the red red kroovy of a well-placed headshot either. While this is not a movie filled with DTS-charged shootouts, the constant threat of violence creates a superbly sustained tension. This is largely thanks to the two leads - Pitt makes almost imperceptable shifts from folksy humor to animalistic rage, and Affleck (in a revelatory performance) creates an assassin as sympathetic as he is creepy, constantly keeping us off-balance. The entire film is equally well-cast - Sam Rockwell is alternately funny and moving as Ford's brother Charlie, Sam Shepard's brief appearance as Frank James is a smart nod to Malick, and Mary-Louise Parker is stunning in a near-silent turn as Jesse's oft-neglected wife. The irony of the film's immediate reputation as a strange, overlong art movie is that, more than anything, it recalls the grand, outsize entertainments of a bygone era of moviemaking. Like the songs of Nick Cave (who, with Warren Ellis, wrote the film's score), the film is at once sweeping and delicate, lingering in the grey area between pulp and myth.

The Assassination cements its classic status in the stunning denouement, which follows Ford as he makes a living recounting the murder for a rapt audience. Preserved as a coward, Ford repeats the deed over and over, at one point challenging his audience's hypocrisy in attending to judge him. His destruction becomes his immortality, a point Dominik drives home in a breathtaking final freeze-frame. If Ford's cowardice ensures his story's retelling (and commodification), Dominik ackowledges his own role in Ford's fate, and ends with remarkable empathy for a man destined to become the villain in the story he so adores. Awful marketing and the public's preference for the more straightforward 3:10 to Yuma have resulted in Ford's continued marginalization. But, upon viewing the film in a near-empty theater, I found myself transported by The Assassination's visual grace and aching humanity. It's a masterpiece, one that Robert Ford himself would have surely been proud to be a part of.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

He is no driver, he is the undertaker.

Eastern Promises is the first film by David Cronenberg shot entirely outside of Canada, but this dislocation is not as prominent as one might expect. Cronenberg's films are primarily composed of interiors, both literally (the spaces his characters inhabit and, sometimes, their insides) and emotionally. So while a thriller set against the backdrop of London's criminal underworld is a narrative departure for the director (a stunning early gore effect aside), it also represents a logical step in Cronenberg's thematic evolution, which has moved from physical to existential horrors. Though there are no telepods on display, Eastern Promises is another chapter in Cronenberg's ongoing study of what it is to be human.

As with his previous film, A History of Violence, the "mob" is an abstract, a pulpy representation of the ways that family at once defines and assimilates one's self. When a fourteen-year-old girl dies during childbirth, leaving only a diary and a business card behind as identification, midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) sets out to find the baby's family. Her search leads her to Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a grandfatherly restauranteur who is also the head of a powerful crime family specializing in sex trafficking. Implicated in the diary is Semyon's son Kiril (Vincent Cassel), a hothead accompanied by Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), his driver, a cool, calculating figure who, early on, dismembers a corpse as casually as if he were cleaning a turkey. I referred to Eastern Promises as a sort-of thriller because the the plot does not to be Cronenberg's main point of interest. Instead, it's the characters that drive the story, particuarly Nikolai; as part of an initiation ceremony, the driver renounces his parents and origins in favor of the criminal history tattooed on his body. Here, criminality becomes a way to transform, or even destroy, one's identity, and screenwriter Steven Knight suggests, as he did in his previous Dirty Pretty Things, that this is a mirror of the global economy's push towards homogenization. But Cronenberg isn't a political filmmaker, at least not in such black-and-white terms. In Nikolai he finds a true hollow man - a character that is representative of nothing except his actions, a smirking blank slate brought to life by Mortensen's pitch-perfect performance (also a mirror image of Tom Stall).

Cronenberg's identification with Nikolai, which borders on the fetishization previously reserved for eXistenZ's Allegra Geller, threatens at points to drown out his other characters. The leads all do strong work, and Jerzy Skolimowski and Josef Atlin are memorable in supporting roles, but their characters are somewhat shortchanged as Nikolai takes the film's center stage in the second half (though Watts gets to ride one of Cronenberg's beloved Urals). Also, while Cronenberg's trademark brevity is usually refreshing, here the 100-minute running time feels rushed. I hesitate to reduce things to such simplistic terms, but an extra reel would have given the film enough breathing room to give the final twists more impact. Cronenberg's detached approach results in a film of surfaces, at some points chillingly ambiguous, at others vague and impenetrable.

Still, these are minor complaints in a film filled with surfaces this rich. Nikolai's world has a crimson, classical elegance that at first seems a seductive departure from the film's desolate vision of London. But Cronenberg avoids Godfather-esque romanticism, quietly linking this old world's decay with that of its adopted city. The dead girl's ever-present narration presents a familiar vision of "the city" as a place to reinvent oneself; in Nikolai's tattooed body, Cronenberg presents the dark flip side of this fantasy. And the film reaches a brilliant apex in the already-famous bathouse fight scene, which is unforgettable not just for the matter-of-fact nudity but as a visceral explication of the film's homoerotic undertones - read the assailants' knives as phallic objects, and each blow and thrust carries a greater psychosexual weight. If this seems like a heady approach to a mob movie, it's because Cronenberg's films demand to be read on many levels. Even when they're not completely successful, they stick to the ribs, and for more than just the spectacle of Viggo Mortensen's furious balls.