Sunday, July 27, 2008

Nothing to Do with Anything

There's a strange new trend emerging of remakes that aren't really remakes. Two trailers that ran before The Dark Knight, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Death Race, each share titles and basic premises with genre classics. I'm not automatically anti-remake - there have been a number of remakes worth mentioning alongside the earlier films, and some of the best remakes (The Fly, The Thing) deviate wildly from the originals in fascinating ways. But not only do these two movies have almost nothing in common with their respective sources, they also demonstrate contempt for everything that makes the originals worth remaking in the first place.

Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000 is one of the best example of B-movies' ability to fly under the radar - its pitch-black humor and sharp social commentary were (and remain) practically nonexistant in mainstream American movies. Set in a near future where a totalitarian government pacifies the proles with a deadly cross-country race, Death Race 2000 is brilliantly self-reflexive exploitation, slyly indicting its audience for our passivity and appetite for violent, shallow entertainment. A big-budget studio remake that retains the orignal's distrust for authority could be a lot of fun in the hands of Robert Rodriguez, fellow Corman protege Joe Dante, or a few hundred directors more qualified to balance action and satire than Paul W.S. Anderson, the director of Soldier and Aliens vs. Predator. Judging by the trailer, Anderson's Death Race is completely toothless, with the original's villianous president replaced by an unamused-looking Joan Allen (redundant, I know) as a prison warden, with criminals forced to compete replacing the original's celebrity drivers, who earn bonus points by running down pedestrians. With very little at stake story-wise, Anderson seems more focused on screeching tires and things that blow up good. Iconic antihero David Carradine is replaced by Jason Statham, a boring doofus that medium-budget action movies keep trying to sell as cool. The trailer is filled with fetishistic close-ups of pimped-out death cars interspersed with leering T&A shots that completely betray the original's deadpan, free-spirited attitude towards sex and nudity. In other words, it looks like exactly the kind of mindless spectacle Bartel was making fun of.

There are also plenty of explosions (or, at least, the suggestion of shit blowing up good) in the trailer for The Day the Earth Stood Still. Which is funny, because the original has barely any action - it's sci-fi driven by ideas, with alien visitor Klaatu's encounters with and message to humans meant as a comment on the political climate in '50s America. Here, Klaatu - a member of an intellectually advanced race - is played by Keanu Reeves. And while Keanu lets us know in his most ominous attitude that we should listen to him, the trailer cuts to hamhanded 9/11 imagery as some sort of vague CGI blur (nanobots? locusts?) prepare to do...something. Maybe the lights go out and the rest was a dream sequence; either way, it's hard to imagine with Keanu in the lead that The Exorcism of Emily Rose director Scott Derrickson's movie will be anywhere near as talky as Robert Wise's.

The really weird thing is, it'd be easy in either of these cases to make a movie that both respects the orignal and has wide commercial appeal. These remakes appear so dumbed down that one wonders why they even bothered buying the rights to the originals. Neither Death Race 2000 or The Day the Earth Stood Still has much relevance to the young male audience their remakes are targeting, so why not alter the plots just a little more, keep the money and not insult the fans? If the trailers are accurate, these pseudo-remakes are too stupid for fans of the original to possibly enjoy, and anyone who will enjoy these probably hasn't heard of the original; they are, essentially, movies for nobody.

That said, I'd like to offer a few of my pitches for any studio execs that happen to read this:

Knightriders George A. Romero's movie about a troupe of motorcycle-riding Medieval Faire performers is ripe for a remake in the age of geek chic. Except you shouldn't cast real geeks, like in the original. And lose all of the anti-corporate stuff, because we all know how well that worked out for Speed Racer. Replace Ed Harris with Vin Diesel, get Rob Cohen to direct and change "Medieval Faire" to "Vegas Stunt Spectacular," and you're looking at a 30 million opening weekend (35 if you can get Evanescence to do the soundtrack).

Zardoz John Boorman's trippy sci-fi movie is perfect for a remake because it has lots of boobies and shooting. But all the religion stuff would probably be annoying for an audience today, so instead, have Zardoz control the brutals with extreme sports. The Rock can play Sean Connery and still have a lot of sex with the Immortals, but instead of freckly European ladies, they should be Jessica Alba and a bunch of other hotties. The stone Zardoz head can stay, but the Rock should blow it up at the end. Neil Marshall directs.

The Red Shoes Replace ballet with crunk. Fifty million in the bank.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Gratuitious Nudity #8

Jack Black and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Margot at the Wedding (2007)

Monday, July 21, 2008

You remind me of my father.

Warning - geeked-out hyperbole ahead. There's just no other way.

I keep hearing that noise - the low, atonal hum that opens The Dark Knight as if were an emergency broadcast signal for the end of days, creating an immediate, palpable tension that never lets up for the next two-and-a-half hours. With Batman at the center of a sprawling crime story focused on what Cormac McCarthy calls "the dismal tide" and Stephen King refers to as "slippage," The Dark Knight is a stunning, deeply unsettling portrait of entropy. The title isn't lying - this is dark stuff, not the Hammer-influenced, relatively safe darkness of Tim Burton's Batman movies, but a darkness born straight out of our uncertain present. It's ambitious, heady stuff for a movie that also needs to sell fast food and action figures, but Christopher Nolan's film is the rare summer blockbuster that lives up to impossible expectations - it's not just a great comic book or action movie but great cinema, one of a small group of films like The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back that elevates popular art to something thematically rich, thought-provoking, and wildly exciting.

Using Batman Begins' epilogue as a jumping-off point, The Dark Knight finds Lieutenant Gordon's (Gary Oldman) warning to Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) about the threat of escalation manifested in the Joker (Heath Ledger), who emerges without a past or explanation with a single-minded, anarchic purpose. Let me tell you what you already know: Ledger is mesmerizing as the Joker, a Nietzschian force of nature worthy of mention alongside all-time great movie villains from Hans Becker to Anton Chigurh. An early scene where the Joker makes a pencil disappear elicited spontaneous applause from the audience, and deservedly so - it's impossible to take your eyes off Ledger whenever he's onscreen, and to attribute this to his untimely death is both crass and inaccurate. The hissing tongue, the Jimmy Stewart from Mars voice, the ugly-duckling way he walks in the nurse's uniform (probably my favorite moment) and every other detail he gives the Joker are more than a bag of self-conscious actorly quirks. Ledger's performance is a triumph of extremes that succeeds in making us believe in a villain who is both completely mad and frighteningly logical about his identity and purpose - when the Joker tells Batman "You complete me," we're left with the disturbing implication that in this round of good vs. evil, the bad guy has the upper hand.

This Joker provides more than enough conflict for one movie, but he's just the prime mover of Nolan and his brother Jonathan's marvelous, intricately plotted script. A bank manager (William Fichtner) complains that criminals used to believe in something; this Gotham is a city of dying ideals, and its good guys are measured by how they protect these ideals while still effectively doing their jobs. At the heart The Dark Knight is the contrast between idealistic D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, less showy than Ledger but just as effective) and Wayne (Bale, underrated for his subtle work here), who accepts his own corruption as a means to an end. The choices these two men, as well as Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, endearingly square), Dent's girlfriend/Wayne's former squeeze Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal - upgrade!) make are never simple, and Nolan doesn't provide us with easy answers. In a time when big-budget movies are designed to be as reassuring to an audience's assumptions as possible, it's sort of amazing that Nolan was able to make a superhero movie this complex. Gotham (as played, stunningly, by Chicago) is a labyrinth of moral ambiguity, and Nolan challenges us to question our own assumptions about heroism and decency in a way that couldn't be more relevant (I'm only beginning to process the film's many layers of meaning).

But while mine is one in a sea of raves for The Dark Knight, I was confused by the number of reviews that claim the movie is no fun. It's wildly fun, almost dangerously so since most of the film's most entertaining moments arise from the shock of how far Nolan lets his Joker go. Balancing dazzlingly executed action sequences with carefully composed emotional beats (Gyllenhaal's delivery of the word "Listen" kills me). It's exhausting in the end, to be sure, but only because it's such a complete moviegoing experience - immersive, visceral, technically perfect (DP Wally Pfister, editor Lee Smith and composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard all deliver their best work) and flat-out astounding. Nolan reveals an ambition unseen not only in most comic book adaptations but in most movies, period. It feels like his entire career has been building to this, as he reveals himself to be one of the great cinematic storytellers, and The Dark Knight an unqualified masterpiece.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I wanted to explode, light the sky for an instant and disappear.

The Wikipedia page for Yukio Mishima links to the category "Writers who committed suicide," underlining our fasciation with artists who kill themselves and the seeming validity it gives their work. This macabre interest is amplified with Mishima, whose ritualistic suicide was not the result of depression or mental illness but a calculated and, in retrospect, inevitable extension of his art. But while Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is structured around Mishima's last day, it avoids the mistake of films like Sylvia and The Hours that depict their subjects' entire lives as a mere foreshadowing of their deaths. Interweaving Mishima's life and work until the two become inseparable, Mishima is a study of one man's obsessive nature that, miraculously, resonates as an exhilarating affirmation of life.

Dividing his film into four chapters, director Paul Schrader (who co-wrote with his brother Leonard) employs a remarkable, ahead-of-its-time structure. Using November 25, 1970 - the day Mishima (Ken Ogata) and five young men from his private army held a Japanese general hostage while the writer addressed the gathered troops before committing seppuku - as its jumping-off point, Mishima cuts between that day, moments from Mishima's past, and scenes from three of his stories. It's an innovative approach, but the most important thing about structure in film isn't innovation but whether the film is organized in a way that allows its characters and ideas room to breathe. In its rigid formal approach, Mishima mirrors the tension between the author's internal and external life, and as the narrative progresses towards the author's ultimate attempt to fuse art and action in death, the film's seemingly separate elements achieve a stunning harmony. By first making us feel the divisions in the author's life - between poetry and physicality, female and male, pen and sword - Schrader's boldly internal approach to Mishima's life illuminates the connections between seemingly disparate elements of the author's sexual ambiguity, radical conservative politics and sadomasochistic impulses. Through Mishima's eyes, we come to see how all of these things spring from the same creative well - Mishima is a tribute to the power of ideas and their various forms.

Schraders also juggles contrasting visual strategies for each section, giving the film an out-of-time feeling that serves its anachronistic subject well. Schrader's worship of Ozu can be felt in the rigid classical compositions of Mishima's stifling childhood; the 1970 scenes have a hand-held immediacy evoke a '60s radicalism that already felt like ancient history in 1985; and the scenes from The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko's House and Runaway Horses couldn't be more contemporary. While Ogata is great as Mishima, the star of the film is production designer Eiko Ishioka, whose bold, expressive use of color and space (remastered and gorgeous on the new Criterion release) makes for a thrilling cinematic realization of Mishima's fantasies. The overt theatricality of these scenes frames the biographical sections as another form of performance, Mishima's obsession with perfecting his body and his life's final act as a transformation of his own life into a work of art (and suggests why, for some smart, socially alienated young males, samurai iconography has the same power as trenchcoats and death metal do for some of their angrier peers). For Schrader, whose filmography is filled with protagonists prone to violent acts as a statement and whose own life has been largely devoting to contriving his own persona, this venture into extremely personal territory results in his best work as a director.

But while Mishima is undoubtedly the work of an auteur, it's also a remarkable collaboration between its creative leads. Ishioka's sets, John Bailey's sharp cinematography, the precise editing by Michael Chandler and Philip Glass' exhilarating score (perhaps his best) result in a cinematic experience that is both intellectually provocative and a sensory delight. To say it's the kind of film they don't make any more would ignore the fact that films like Mishima have always been rare; one of exective producers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola's acts of atonement for their lavish success, it's the rare American film driven entirely by the strength of its ideas. Mishima is the kind of movie you let wash over you, its stunning images proving that, though rare, it is possible for cinema to serve as a marriage of art and action.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Title Card #68

It doesn't hurt to fall off the moon.

Céline and Julie Go Boating is a film you don't watch so much as get lost in. Watching it for the first time, I was quickly overwhelmed - while 3-D and IMAX promise an immersive experience, director Jacques Rivette's three-hour meditation on role-playing, fantasy and storytelling reminds of what truly intereactive cinema feels like. It's a movie that invites you to become its third protagonist, not in a gimmicky sense but through a meaningful and engaging exploration of film's boundless possibilities. Yet for all this, and despite its length and complicated structure, Céline and Julie Go Boating is a breeze - rarely has such a philosophically and formally ambitious film felt so much like playtime.

With its virtuosic opening sequence introducing us to Céline (Juliet Berto) and Julie (Dominique Labourier) through a very long game of tag, the film announces itself as an elaborate tease. As the bookish Julie and the waifish Céline meet, form a quick bond and are drawn into a completely different movie - a melodrama about a wealthy, mysterious family - Rivette and his actors (who wrote most of the film, with their director as an editor) create a series of puzzles with no definitive solutions. Rivette repeatedly blurs the line between reality and fiction, favoring a loose, informal visual strategy and natural sound. The film is less concerned with either of its narratives than with the act of storytelling - here, a state of hypnosis for a voluntary audience. I wasn't surprised to read that Rivette is a Twin Peaks fan; both directors are preoccupied with the power of imagination, but if the creative process is often dark and unsettling in Lynch's work, for Rivette it is a funhouse of endless possibilities.

The film also repeatedly references Lewis Carroll and other fairy tale tropes, but without the overt symbols of the following year's Black Moon. The magic candy that Céline and Julie ingest to jump between worlds hints at the sexual subtext of children's fantasies, but Rivette sidesteps psychoanalysis in favor of a playful approach that compliments his wide-eyed heroines, who ultiumately stand in for any writer, performer or director (after all, it takes a certain kind of person to play make believe for a living). The film's success hinges on the leads' fearlessly silly performances. Berto, who reminds of a Gallic Shelley Duvall, projects both innocence and an offbeat sex appeal - when Céline takes a shower, Berto's breasts are upstaged by her childlike unselfconsciousness. And Labourier's Julie is a marvelous comic performance, a tightly wound collection of nervous habits and compulsions undone by her new (old?) friend. The bond that the two women form is a return to innocence that, ultimately, arrives at an understated moment of epiphany before doubling back to start a new game.

In both its style and its meaning, Céline and Julie Go Boating is a liberating experience, the kind of movie that expands one's concept of cinema's possibilities. As Céline and Julie return to the movie's central mystery, hoping that maybe this time will be different, Rivette locates the source of cinema's intoxicating power - the promise of seeing through different eyes. When Céline and Julie finally go boating, it becomes clear that Rivette wants to remind us that life is indeed a dream. Maybe so; either way, dreams are rarely as sweet as this.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Trim Bin #71

- One of the great mysteries of my life is how so many people I know who have otherwise proven their intelligence and good taste count themselves as a fan of The Boondock Saints. Alex Jackson's comprehensive takedown of the Saints pretty well explains my confusion over its hopefully waning popularity - now that we have The Departed, can we retire this piece of crapola as a symbol of Beantown pride?

- I finally saw Iron Man a few weeks ago, about $300 million past the point where a full review seems relevant. To summarize: big thumbs up to Robert Downey Jr., an even bigger thumbs up to Jeff Bridges, awesome robot suit business that puts Transformers to shame, funny, unpretentious, politically muddled and a bit choppy. A good time, and hopefully the sequel will be to the first as Spider-Man 2 is to Spider-Man.

- I'm usually bad at self-promotion, but with the Self-Involvement Blog-a-thon currently underway, it feels like an appropriate time to point out that I was recently the subject of Adam Ross' Friday Screen Test. Thanks, Adam, for your generous introduction - a "wanderer," eh? Interesting...

- Tom Sutpen at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger... has shared an invaluable resource - the original recordings of the famous Hitchcock/Truffaut interview tapes.

- I don't write about music much because I'm just not good at it, but I have to mention an album I'm currently in love with, M83's Saturdays = Youth. It's must-listening stuff for children of the eighties, using the unmistakable sound of movies and music of the decade not as an homage or parody but to evoke the way that our lives, the songs we hear and the films we see become one in the rear view of memory. It's brainy, catchy and oddly moving - check out the video for "Graveyard Girl."

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Define hoedown.

Last year, an exhibit on marine life at a local museum featured placards informing kids that many of the featured species are nearly extinct; a co-worker's nine-year-old daughter has panic attacks over global warming. It's growing difficult to educate our children about the importance of caring for our enviroment without terrifying them into apathy; one of the many triumphs of WALL-E is how it speaks directly to a child's anxieties about the future, neither patronizing nor indoctrinating its young viewers. A cartoon of surprising sadness and thematic heft, WALL-E is remarkable in the way it gently suggests that the solution to our problems lies in our capacity to love one another. Effortlessly connecting its sweet love story with universal human concerns, WALL-E is, along with movies like AI, Solaris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another of this decade's sci-fi masterpieces concerned with finding love in a world transforming before our eyes.

Another of WALL-E's astonishments is the way that it makes Hello Dolly! not only palatable but moving; a jolly number from the musical introduces us to an Earth 700 years in the future that has become an abandoned, trash-strewn wasteland. As humans have abandoned the planet to reside, fat and compacent, in an enormous shopping center, a small robot named WALL-E remains alone, his days spent compacting trash while his nights are devoted to showtunes, bubble wrap and other prized artifacts. It's impossible not to be moved as the little guy makes his way across vast expanses of scorched earth littered with towering trash heaps and plagued by dust storms, all the while whistling a tune. The animators have created a frighteningly believable future that would be the stuff of horror movies were it not for the geniuine, guileless optimism that seems to be an intrinsic part of Pixar's philosophy. When WALL-E's centuries-long isolation is broken by the sudden arrival of search robot EVE - her egg-shape signaling the return of femininity and, more specifically, fertility - his attempts at romance, which remind of Chaplin's Little Tramp in both their hilarity and poignant persistance, suggest that the key to our future lies in holding hands. It's a cute idea, but as WALL-E's thematic implications sink in, it's also surprisingly powerful.

Structured like the Kubrick movies it pays homage to, WALL-E also expands to include sly satire as the robots travel to the spaceship. Writer/director Andrew Staunton gets a lot of laughs in at our complacency and rabid consumerism, as humanity has become a flock of portly, immobile proles. It's unsparing stuff for a kid's movie, stopping short of misanthropy by arguing that most people simply need a little wake-up call. And WALL-E is just that - as Pauline Kael once said about Nashville, it loves us too much to patronize us. In the moral awakening of the ship's captain (Jeff Garlin) lies a powerful reminder of the obvious - Earth is awesome, and worth taking care of. And while I shudder to think of all the Humvee-driving parents who dismissed any questions their kids might have had after the movie, I still love the idea that the seeds of change have been planted in their heads.

But even if you're not a tree-hugging hippy, WALL-E is still worth your time. Staunton and his team of animators balance near-wordless physical comedy worthy of Keaton with a breathtaking vision of the future worthy of Kubrick or early Ridley Scott. WALL-E astounds in moments both grand (WALL-E reaching out to touch phosphorescent blue space debris) and mundane (the robots' shared fascination with the flame from a cigarette lighter). And at the film's heart is a man-made protagonist that, through his selflessness, compassion and bravery, personifies all that is great in us. Sound designer Ben Burtt, who gives WALL-E his voice, did the same for E.T. - like Spielberg's masterpiece, WALL-E finds just the right note of hope at a time when it is most needed. Were it simply funny and brilliantly animated, WALL-E would be another in a string of great Pixar movies; add in its rich ideas and its giant heart, and you have a movie that deserves to be a perennial classic.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Play the Game (7/3/08)

A review of Celine and Julie Go Boating is coming soon - thanks, Paul, for the excuse to visit Pleasant Street Video.