Saturday, March 29, 2008

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I'll give you five dollars if I can throw a rock at you.

Despite my lifelong affection for '70s horror, I must admit I've never been a huge fan of The Omen. While it has some undeniably awesome setpieces (including one of the best decapitations ever), it's a little boring, largely because it never does much with the most disturbing aspect of its plot - the realization that one's child is, in fact, totally evil. Indeed, most of the "evil kid" subgenre is less concerned with the psychology of its characters than with getting Macauly Culkin to smoke and say "fuck." Joshua, a quietly unnerving evil kid movie, is an exception to the rule, its horror rooted in very real adult anxieties. It's the perfect movie for anyone who has ever wondered, in all seriousness, what they would do if their kid turned out to be a mass murderer.

The titular character is a well-mannered, preternaturally intelligent 9-year-old (Jacob Kogan) living in a posh Manhattan apartment with his stockbroker dad Brad (Sam Rockwell) and stay-at-home mom Abby (Vera Farmiga), both celebrating the birth of Joshua's sister Lily. But from the earliest scenes, there are ominous hints not only of sibling rivalry but also Abby's history of postpartum depression and both parents' slightly uneasy relationship to their very smart, very strange son. The influence of Polanski and Kubrick is evident not just in the Shining-inspired title cards but in the way Ratliff introduces a psychologically plausible scenario - dad's busy living in an adolescent fantasyland while mom unravels at home - then confounds our expectations in pleasurably disorienting ways. Like the increasingly discordant piece that Joshua plays at a school talent show, Joshua is built of small, curious details - the tension between Abby and Brad's born-again mom, Joshua's interest in mummification - that accumulate in impact as the extent of Joshua's malevolence comes into focus.

Much of Joshua's effectiveness can be attributed to its emphasis on character development, specifically the often terrifying experience of caring for a newborn. The scenes of Abby losing her self-identity and possibly her mind while Brad shrugs off the reality of his situation could make for an effective horror movie on their own, as they touch on emotions that most new parents experience but are rarely given voice in a culture that idealizes childhood to a mindless degree. Ratliff's work in documentaries (his previous film was the brilliant Hell House) serves him well here, his eye for detail and emphasis on emotional realism lending the horror-movie conventions of the film's second half a very credible sense of creepiness. This sense of verisimilitude also gives Ratliff's leads plenty of room to shine, with Rockwell darkly hilarious as a jockish dude increasingly suspicious of his son and Farmiga clearly relishing every frayed nerve and sudden emotional outburst. I was particuarly impressed by a brief, non-sexual moment of nudity as Abby distractedly uses a breast pump; it somehow seemed more vulnerable than any sex scene, and Farmiga allows herself to be so unself-conscious that it speaks so much to a new mom's fragile sense of self-identity.

Kogan isn't quite as effective, though this doesn't reflect the kid's abilities as much as it does the somewhat obvious choice of fitting Joshua into the soft-spoken ominous kid archetype seen in countless post-Shyamalan movies. Joshua does occasionally try a bit too hard, underlying elements of the story that would have best remained somewhat ambiguous. This is particuarly true of the last scene, which spells out what we've just seen a bit too much - it would have been more effective to trim the dialogue between two characters and allow the final image to speak for itself. Still, in a time when horror movies generally bludgeon than they frighten, it's good to see there's still room for the quieter, more internal brand of horror that truly gets under one's skin. In other words, this one's fun for the whole family.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I'm gonna get my picture here.

The most impressive thing about Redacted is its anger. In a year of toothless Iraq-centric movies that already seem dated, Brian De Palma's faux-verite war movie is fueled by an outrage that gives the film a potent immediacy. Unfortunately, De Palma is never able to properly focus his anger, and this lack of focus extends to the film. The director's best films are political in a codified way, masking the director's contempt for institutions in bleak, perfectly crafted genre exercises; it's when De Palma takes the literal route that he falters, and Redacted is his most tone-deaf film since his last attempt at overt social commentary, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

De Palma's most successful stab at this sort of thing was 1989's Casualties of War, a film that Redacted is clearly patterned after. Both films are morality plays inspired by true stories, each dealing with a group of soldiers who capture, rape and kill a young woman, ostensibly to avenge the death of one of the their men (in both, a strong black guy who boasts of his invincibility before getting blown away). Whereas the earlier film is unforgettable for its disarming sense of empathy, Redacted is comparatively detached, following the earlier film closely in order to underline the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam. The point is that history is repeating itself; fine, but by narrowing the film's scope to this fairly obvious observation, De Palma reduces his subject matter to a rehashed formal exercise. The director's tendency to quote his own work gets in the way here, with Redacted seeming at best De Palma's ultimate expression of the violated woman as an all-encompassing metaphor, and at worst the work of an angry old man ranting about how this whole Iraq mess could have been avoided if we'd seen Casualties of War.

The sense of emotional detachment is perhaps intentional - Redacted is the director's most Brechtian exercise, edited to resemble an assembly of YouTube clips, documentaries and the soldiers' own home movies. So it's a real surprise that De Palma, typically a technical virtuoso, fails to capture the aesthetics of DIY filmmaking. The scenes supposedly shot by aspiring filmmaker Pvt. Salazar (Izzy Diaz) are too orchestrated and clean to be believable, the hi-def images likely motivated by its HDNet-owning backers rather than the director's wishes. While scenes supposedly shot by a French documentary crew contain pretentious subtitles and music, they don't feel like any documentary I've seen, nor do they offer much of a contrast to Salazar's footage. The same goes for the YouTube scenes; as with the rest of the film, the attempts to simulate a lack of intentionality are undercut by their didacticism (a late scene with a war protestor ranting into the camera is perhaps the worst in the director's career).

This conflict extends to the characters, as De Palma cannot seem to decide whether to go for realism or representation with his troops; while the actors try gamely, their characters are never believable or particularly interesting. A shame, because the most controversial aspect of Redacted - its refusal to sanctify our proud fighting troops - is the strongest and most important statement the film makes. For as long as I've criticized this war, people will usually ask if I support the troops, to which my standard response is that I support the honest, hard-working guys who signed up with honorable intentions but not the assholes I went to high school with who were salivating at the chance to shoot towelheads as soon as the towers collapsed. Redacted works best when focusing on the banality of its characters; the rapists tell meandering, self-aggrandizing stories to justify their moral vacuousness while the presumed good guys can only react in stunned silence. I wish De Palma had pushed this contrast towards the darkly comic territory of his early films (it's both hilarious and chilling when one soldier refers to a dead comrade as "our own Private Ryan"), but Redacted never finds any suitable tone.

The most effective scene in Redacted is the montage of images - a parade of dead, disfigured bodies - that closes the film. Almost unbearable to watch, the confrontational nature of the images force us to consider the brutal reality of our five-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq. That the images themselves have been partly redacted by the moneymen only adds an extra layer of irony absent from the rest of the film. It's powerful enough that it justifies the rest of the film, reminding us of the director's fiercely uncompromising vision and finally allowing his anger to take a meaningful shape. If the rest of Redacted had been this clear-eyed it would be a masterpiece, rather than a noble failure hobbled by its own intentions.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

"Sometimes I think we're alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we're not. In either case the idea is quite staggering."

Saved by Film

The upcoming Easter holiday has me thinking about the Merrimack Valley Christian Film Festival again, hence this reprint from the November 2004 issue of Images Focus.

Since November 3, the previously overlooked issue of moral values has been brought to the forefront of political discourse. Does the term refer to values such as compassion, equality and love, or is it just code for same-sex marriage and abortion? With churchgoers— particulary conservative Christians—voting in impressive numbers this year, it is perhaps useful to look at the values represented in Christian culture. Lately, I’ve found myself thinking back to the Christian Film Festival.

As a child, I attended a middle school run by a Baptist church. I am not Baptist, but I tried to approach the experience with both respect and curiosity. Every year, we would take a field trip to the festival, which took place annually during the week before Easter. There were cartoons with cheerful sheep that quoted the Bible in castrato voices; stories about gang members and drug addicts finding redemption through the holy spirit; and, of course, Jesus himself, preaching a message of peace, love and understanding through a soft-focus lens and backed by a ’70s synthesizer score. I liked that movie—it was Jesus-as-Dude.
The film that stuck with me the most, however, was called The Appointment, though The Appointment WITH SATAN would have been more accurate. It had all the subtlety of a Jack Chick pamphlet. In it, a woman is approached by a stranger and informed that she has 36 hours to live. The stranger urges the woman to take the opportunity to reevaluate her life and commit her soul to God. The woman resists, but as the time approaches, she is nearly picked off by one freak accident after another, as in the movie Final Destination. Finally, when she thinks she has cheated fate, she is suddenly run over by a fire engine. The movie fades to black, a verse from Revelations appears in blood-red text, followed by this message:
I didn’t sleep that night.

There are many values at the center of Christianity that could help make the world a better, more tolerant place. But the goal of the film festival wasn’t tolerance, it was intimidation. After each screening, the audience was invited to come forward and be born again. We were told that we were free to leave, but only at risk of eternal damnation. Truth be told, I got saved on three or four occasions, a combination of peer pressure and the desire to cover my bases. The organizers of the festival and the creators of The Appointment hoped to persuade us to accept their version of the universe through fear and insecurity. Unfortunately, fear
and insecurity are popular tools in the battle over the future of America’s identity. And, more unfortunately, they’re very effective tools.

Since writing the article, I've found out that the Jesus movie I cited is the most-watched film of all time, and the Christian Film Festival, which began at the tiny Salem Tri-Cinema, can now be found in six cities.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Thursday, March 13, 2008

This is not a Sam Shepard play.

I've seen the trailer for The Savages dozens of times at my night job, and each time I was looking forward to it less and less. A collection of audence-friendly one-liners and quirky moments scored with agreeable indie rock, it looked like the latest in an endless string of derivative exercises in sitcom dysfunction. While The Savages more or less adheres to the formula - there are no third-act shootouts or anything - it did manage to surprise me in several ways. The premise of a family growing closer during a critical moment is as old as dust, but when it's written and acted with as much honesty and wit as The Savages has, the result is almost affecting enough to excuse a dozen Family Stones (almost).

Writer-director Tamara Jenkins' previous film, the terrific Slums of Beverly Hills, was one of the first to start the current dysfunction cycle, so it's fitting that The Savages plays like a sequel to the earlier film. Siblings Wendy and Jon Savage (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) are like grown-up version of that film's Natasha Lyonne and David Krumholtz characters, with dad Lenny (Philip Bosco) a darker version of Alan Arkin's storytelling pop reduced to raging against his failures by writing with his own excrement. Lenny has dementia, and as his long-estranged kids search for a nursing home for dad and struggle with the renewal of old wounds and resentments, Jenkins' screenplay expertly veers between laughter and quietly observed drama. Again, that sounds like the Sundance prototype, and it is, except that Jon and Wendy ring true as unique characters rather than types. Their emotional journey is charted not with big, showy personal revalations but through refreshingly understated scenes that suggest the strength of their relationship and the things they've suffered through together. Despite Jenkins' occasional overreliance on kitschy laughs (the death of an old woman at a nail salon particularly grates), when the film arrives at its inevitable moments of pathos, it's earned them.

Jenkins is aided tremendously by her leads - both Linney and Hoffman give their best performances in years. Just when I thought I'd tired of Linney's effective but familiar nervous screen presence (blame typecasting), she surprised me; Wendy is anxious, irritable and reluctant to grow up, but rather than playing her knowingly, Linney's performance hinges on the funny, sad notion of a very intelligent person who isn't nearly as self-aware as she thinks. Hoffman internalizes his performance, creating a character who constantly struggles to keep his emotions buried with more and more difficulty. A scene where Jon, spacing out on Percocet, sings along to "Salomon Song" in his car is the most quietly moving in the film (The Savages joins The Darjeeling Limited and Margot at the Wedding in its depiction of drug use among intellectuals). Hoffman and Linney play off each other beautifully as the siblings, one a playwright and the other a drama professor, analyze and agitate each other even as they grow closer over the impending death of their father and their own advancing age. Bosco is also terrific as their dad, communicating so much with his eyes as Lenny quietly slips away.

Like 2007's Away From Her, The Savages is refreshingly unsentimental in its depiction of aging and memory loss (both films, coincidentally, have a supporting character who works at the nursing home and offers the main character honesty and compassion). What could have easily been a two-hour spleen-venting session instead has a lot of insight to offer all of us who are eventually going to face taking care of our parents. Wendy asks Jon of her autobiographial play, "You don't think it's self-important and bourgeois?" And The Savages is arguably both of those things, yet somehow, improbably, it works.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Gideon and Jagger!

One of the common threads in Bob Fosse's short but unforgettable filmography is how performance, both onstage and in life, is in some ways a denial of our own mortality. In All That Jazz, a grinning emcee (Ben Vereen) eulogizing soon-to-be-deceased choreographer and Fosse stand-in Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) spells this out: "Like, for this cat, the only reality is death, man." The astonishing feat of All That Jazz, as with much of Fosse's best work, is how its director transforms his morbid cynicism into something vital and exhilarating. Though the story of All That Jazz is an unbroken trajectory towards an inescapable end, few films feel so wholly alive. How is it that a story about a hard-living, womanizing, self-loathing liar is, without a doubt, one of the most inspiring movies I've ever seen?

Fosse introduces us to his surrogate with a burst of Vivaldi and a rapid montage of Joe as he pops Dexedrine, tries in vain to conceal the aftereffects of a long night and, looking into his bathroom, announces "It's showtime!" with an enthusiasm betrayed by his weary eyes. This sequence of image is repeated several times throughout the film, underlining the constant state of momentum that defines Joe. Drawing its inspiration from a particularly chaotic moment in Fosse's career, All That Jazz finds Joe juggling a new Broadway musical, the editing of his feature The Stand Up (patterned after Lenny) and the many women in his life, his seemingly ceaseless energy and creativity only just keeping imminent physical and emotional collapse at bay. As with Fellini's 8 1/2 (it would be almost as perverse to not reference Fellini when writing about All That Jazz as it would be to leave Hitchcock out of a discussion on DePalma), Fosse weaves his protagonist's life and art together in a complex tapestry so that the two become inseparable. As Joe sorts through his memories with a mysterious, teasing angelic figure (Jessica Lange), Fosse nakedly examines his own life and relationships - with his estranged wife (Leland Palmer), his girlfriend (Ann Reinking, more or less playing herself) and especially his beloved daughter (Erzsebet Foldi) - through moments of performance (most moving is an impromptu dance number staged by his daughter) that boil down their complex emotional meanings to something essential and indelible. These moments are seen through the broken mirror of Fosse's work, with Pippin's sinister ringleader, the sexual gymnastics of Cabaret and Lenny's self-destruction taking on new and surprising meaning. Not only does Fosse succeed in anticipating any volumes devoted to analyzing his work, he also offers one of the most frank, unsparing self-portraits of an artist's inner life in cinema or any medium.

Fosse is greatly aided by his star - Scheider not only demonstates a comendable lack of vanity, he makes Joe at once virile and contemplative, a welcome refutal of the notion that real men don't do musical theatre. He navigates both the stage and the bedroom with such effortless cool that we begin to see how Joe's art and his personal excesses stem from the same compulsive place; when Joe says he needs to go home to figure out a production number and Fosse cuts to him seducing a dancer, it's clear that Joe wasn't lying. All of Fosse's work is a seduction, and few filmmakers are at once so sensuous and cerebral. This is evident not only in how Fosse celebrates his dancers' physical perfection but in how the cinematic apparatus becomes another performer. In scenes such as the celebrated opening audition number, each shot and edit not only frames the action but becomes a part of the action, the cuts constrasting and complimenting the constantly probing camera in such innovative ways that they become partners in an invisible dance. Both Fosse's masterpieces and his merely very good films (he never even made a "just okay" movie) demonstrate a prodigious understanding of montage, jumping between different chronological points with a seeming effortlessness. Indeed, All That Jazz's influence can be found everywhere today, but with disappointinly shallow returns - MTV and the Simpson/Bruckheimer school of filmmaking have repicated Fosse's style but not his aesthetic rigor.

Fosse himself acknowledges this perfectionism in my favorite scene, which finds an apoplectic producer (Max Wright) rambling about budget and schedule overruns while a distracted Joe scrutinizes a scene from The Stand Up on a KEM. We've seen an earlier, so-so cut of the scene earlier; as Joe leaves for another rehearsal, the producer exclaims, defeated, "It's better." Fosse has inserted a brief tutorial on editing into the narrative, and All That Jazz is indeed required viewing for any aspiring filmmaker. Though my own directing experience is limited, many of the details - the constant gaze of performers waiting for direction, the sting of a bad review, the constant, calculating pressure of investors - definitely touched a nerve. All That Jazz is inspiring because it nails how odd and alienating it is to be a director, to inevitably have even the people closet to you constantly scrutinizing your motives, and yet it insists that a director must be probing, uncompromising and painfully honest. The famous "Take Off With Us" number shows Joe antagonizing his writers and producers by taking a cheesily titillating number and transforming it into a kinky, Bacchanalic paean to the joys and complexities of sexual desire; this should be the goal of any artist, to find the truth in any moment totally and without apology.

It'd be easy to dismiss All That Jazz as a colossal monument to the ego, and indeed its protagonist is knowingly narcissitic. But it's more than an act of omphaloskepsis - it's a thrillingly revealing look at the mind of a director and one of the most compelling arguments for the virtues of excess (in this sense, it's also a perfect epitaph for the 1970s). It's also incredibly fun, with Gideon's final reflection on life and the ways he created his own meaning coming in the form of a jaw-dropping final number that transforms the fact of death into a pure pop high. For Bergman the ultimate metaphor of death is a cloaked figure leading a mournful dance across the horizon; for Fosse it's spandex-clad dancing cadavers, Ben Vereen, a robot band and silver lame as far as the eye can see. There's room for both in this world.

Play the Game (3/6/08)

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Oh God, I feel like 9/11 right now.

"Boston seems like the most forbidding city in crime movies. There are lots of movies about criminals in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and points between, but somehow in Boston the wounds cut deeper, the characters are angrier, their resentments bleed, their grudges never die, and they all know everybody else's business. " - Roger Ebert

Anyone who has lived their life in Boston, or really in any part of New England, can tell you that Ebert is right. This isn't to say that I could tell you what is at the root of the city's persistently brooding character - as my friends and I enter adulthood, our conversation frequently returns to the complex, perhaps impenetrable code of values and conventions we struggled to understand as children and now wonder if we're destined to inherit. I suspect this is true no matter what part of the globe one calls home; Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck's directorial debut, is a film about Boston, but also about this process of disillusionment, of discovering how we are both defined and separate from the place we call home. An expertly made mystery, it's also an uncommonly strong first feature, a work of surprising moral complexity and an evocative portrait of a city.

Adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel, Gone Baby Gone is a stronger representation of Boston than even the previous Lehane adaptation, Mystic River (a very good film that could have been set in any number of cities). Affleck, who famously grew up in Boston, finds an effective tone from the start, with a montage of everyday life in Dorcester becoming a series of portraits of hard-living, world-weary faces. We see this particularly rough part of Southie through the eyes of Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), a young private eye hired to find a missing 4-year-old girl by her aunt and uncle (Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver). Dismissed by older, venerable cops Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and captain Jack Poole (Morgan Freeman) for his youth and moral idealism, Patrick is also tied to the drug dealers and criminals he has known since childhood. Patrick describes in voiceover the very Catholic struggle to be in the world but not of the world, and Affleck (in one of two great performances of 2007) brings this inner struggle to life as Patrick's investigation forces him to deal with the moral ambiguity that defines his world, even as this conflict strains he is relationship with his girlfriend and partner, Angie (Michelle Monaghan). While Gone Baby Gone works wonderfully as a tense procedural, it is ultimately about the tough choices at its heart; to the elder Affleck's credit, he doesn't attempt a shootout-driven resolution, instead letting the questions his story raises continue long after the stunning final fade-out.

Affleck is also smart in his casting - both Harris and Freeman, as the city's representatives of moral certainty, bring to their roles an authority that can't be faked. Affleck's obvious respect for these giants lends credibility to his protagonist's sense of being outweighed, and gives Patrick's maturation added gravity. An argument between Patrick and Remy about doing the right thing takes on the weight of a Socratic dialogue, largely thanks to Harris' ferocity. For all the big names Affleck landed, however, it's Amy Ryan as the missing girl's mother who steals the film. A mean, dead-eyed druggie, Helene could have easily been a caricature, but Ryan creates a nuanced, insightful portrait of a woman who has survived unknown abuses by hardening herself against the world. We pray for her to redeem herself even as we know how improbable that is; a lesser actor would have played this dynamic for shallow pathos, but Ryan is so believable and compelling that this conflict becomes the film's heart.

Perhaps it took returning to Boston for Affleck to make a film on this level - even Good Will Hunting doesn't begin to suggest this film's maturity. The occasional visual misstep (most likely a result of the first-timer's desire to impress) aside, Affleck creates and sustains a somber, contemplative tone that sets Gone Baby Gone apart from other procedurals. While a story centering around a missing child practically invites a sensationalistic, ripped-from-the-headlines approach, Affleck uses it to explore our idelization of youth and our underlying cynicism - when, late in the film, a character says "I love kids," the line is devastating for everything it implies about what motivates the choices we make everyday. John Toll's hard-edged cinematography and Harry Gregson-Williams' mounful score underline the film's mounting sense of uncertainty. When Affleck does give us one answer, in the perfect final scene, we can only say to ourselves, "Well, what else can you do?" Gone Baby Gone is filled with questions like that, and in its refusal to give us easy answers, it's as hard-headed and indelible as the city itself.

Sunday, March 02, 2008