Monday, December 14, 2009

That was my favorite arm!

One example of how much Where the Wild Things Are gets right (especially given the many ways it could have gone terribly wrong) is the casting of newcomer Max Records as Max. The hypothetical one-liner-and-fart-joke-filled adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic book we’ve thankfully avoided would surely have starred a cloying, groin-kicking little snot. But director Spike Jonze has wisely chosen a Max who is capable of acting as the film’s emotional center – while Records is an agreeably goofy kid, he shares with the best child actors the ability to be completely open. Early in the film, Max starts a snowball fight with his older sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) and her older friends, who play too rough and smash Max's snow fort; the fear and hurt on Max's tear-streaked face are more authentic then we're used to seeing in a children's film. This is no small accomplishment, as it's harder than it seems to make a film that truly captures feelings that most of us have tried to forget - like E.T., The 400 Blows and the handful of other great films about childhood it joins, Where the Wild Things Are loves kids too much to patronize them.

As in Sendak's book, Max is a mischief-making kid prone to roaring at his mom (Catherine Keener), but Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers add more details to Max's life. Here, Max's dad (who we never meet) has been out of the picture for a while, and his mom struggles to balance her career and personal life with her family. Max is worried about his mom, about his sister and her new, strange friends, and about the sun, which - his science teacher recently informed him - will someday die out (the teacher is quite possibly the worst elementary school teacher ever). These opening scenes are brief but crucial; when Max acts out while mom is entertaining a date (Mark Ruffalo), Keener does an excellent job of showing her obvious love and concern for her son against her need to be a grown-up for even one night. The playful inventiveness Jonze demonstrated in his music video work had previously been balanced against the sardonic mind games of Charlie Kaufman's screenplays for the director's first two features, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Here, Jonze reveals surprising sensitivity and compassion for his young protagonist; it's clear now that the impish sense of humor found in everything from Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet" video to the Jonze-produced Jackass stems from a filmmaker who hasn't forgotten what it was like to be a kid.

Running away from home, Max sails to a distant island populated by the titular beasts; led by the destructive Carol (James Gandolfini), the wild things embody feelings Max is unable to articulate. This could have been a painfully self-conscious device, but Jonze and Eggers smartly allow the characters to shift and blur roles - moody K.W. (Lauren Ambrose), with her strange new owl friends Bob and Terry, seems to stand in for Max's sister until she assumes a more maternal role. Gandolfini, in particular, is perfectly cast, his oddly cuddly voice giving way to Tony Soprano's petulant rage as Carol, initally Max's surrogate, turns on his new "king" for his inability to eradicate sadness from their kingdom. Jonze is smart not to make said kingdom a CGI-fest - filmed in Australia, the movie places its Henson studios-created (and digitally tweaked) wild things in a world that feels wholly created out of Max's imagination as he hides in the woods (hence the visits from a dog and a raccoon). K.K. Barrett's production design and cinematographer Lance Acord's brilliant use of available light make us believe in an imagined world, once majestic but now slowly falling apart. Carol's anxiety over the island's desert and things that turn to dust is mirrored in the deterioration of his and K.W.'s friendship - a scene where K.W. lies on the ground, waiting for Carol to step on her face, is a brutal representation of how a child might perceive the breakdown of his parents' marriage. Some reviews complained that not much happens in the film, but as it's the story of a boy realizing that, even in his fantasies, he cannot make everything better, I'd say that a great deal happens.

It's true that this is strong stuff, and Where the Wild Things Are never shies away from its darker implications, from Carol's brutal assault of his rational friend Douglas (Chris Cooper) to the realization that Max has been preceded by many "kings" who were summarily eaten, to the subtle suggestion that Max has experienced serious abuse. There is also the movie's coda, which show in a few wordless images how nothing between a parent and child ever changes, and how this is both a good and sad thing. But the beauty of the film lies in the way that it doesn't pander to kids, expressing serious themes in a direct, perceptible way that honors its young audiences' capacity for introspection and creativity. There were multiple complaints when the film was released that it was dark and weird and boring, and even some of the positive reviews noted that it's not "for everyone." I agree - Where the Wild Things Are is the perfect movie for kids sensitive enough to need it and cool enough to get it.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Where I've been.

I've always been reluctant to talk about my personal life in great detail here, as I don't think it's very interesting. However, my absence from the blog has been long enough, and enough people have politely checked in to see how I've been doing (thanks, guys) that I thought I'd explain a little bit. I'm not at the place yet where I can offer much perspective on everything, but I'll do my best to fill in the broad details.

He enters the stall. The red head is leaning against the wall smoking her cigarette. She shoots him one quick seductive smile. He moves towards her.

You are so-

She cuts him off by placing her cigarette into his mouth.

Don’t you ever just shut the fuck up?

He pitches the cigarette in the toilet and goes for a kiss. She forcefully puts her hand over his mouth stopping him.

Don’t kiss me. If you kiss me on the lips - we’re done. And if we stop before I’ve come, I’ll kick your fucking ass.

- Excerpt from "BANG" screenplay
In the spring my wife, Jessica, became close with a filmmaker whose work I'd been a fan of (it wouldn't be fair of me to be more specific, but search around the internet for a few minutes and you can figure it out) and who'd offered to help with the marketing for Black Light. They announced a plan to make a porn film called BANG, the plot of which concerned a young man who, upon breaking up with his girlfriend, sleeps with seven different women in one night before reuniting with his girlfriend the next morning and having sex with her in a motel. Having just made a movie that is both erotic and very sympathetic to the experiences of sex workers, I wasn't automatically opposed to the idea on moral grounds. Jessica is a very talented and intelligent writer who has always struggled to find her voice, and it was good to see her enthusiastic about something. But I did have some concerns about the script, both as a product of Moth Films and on a personal level - frankly, the idea of sleeping with multiple people as a way of fixing one's relationship brushed up against issues we'd dealt with in our relationship, and I wondered aloud if the script was pure fantasy or if it represented her real views about sex and relationships. I felt like my concerns were reasonable, but she increasingly felt like I was holding her back from becoming her true self. She also talked a great deal about her friend, how she'd finally met someone who truly understood her, and started shutting me out both figuratively and literally, spending six hours at a time chatting on Facebook with the bedroom door closed. I became jealous, and when I expressed this I was told that I was being crazy and paranoid. Communication continued to deteriorate until the end of June, when I offered a choice between counseling or separation; she chose separation.

I spent two weeks at a friend's house to give Jessica some space to work out her plans; when I reached a point where I felt like I was beginning to let go of the situation and would be able to coexist without constant tension, I called to tell her that I'd be coming back to the apartment so I could spend more time with the kids. She agreed to this; that night, I arrived to find her, the kids and their things gone. She'd told people that I'd threatened her and the children and she needed to make a quick escape. She's told people close to me a lot of things, and while there's no question I was far from perfect in the relationship - when backed into a corner I was sometimes sarcastic, passive-aggressive and verbally cutting - she'd basically made me out to be a drug-addled, promiscuous Chris Brown. Which I'm not. I don't know why she felt the need to leave the way she did, but I was left with a trashed apartment, my kids gone without being able to say goodbye. So yeah, I wasn't doing so great in July.

"I don't hate you. I do pity you. After all the lectures you gave me about ego not being able to see ego and being emotionally open and stuff.... You already have all the answers you need to be a better person (not moral, I mean happier, healthier, more confident, and more successful) you just need to put them together." - letter from a friend

Things got better when I started seeing my kids again the next weekend, but I was completely blindsided by the end of the relationship, not to mention the dramatic way it ended, and I didn't really know how to put things back together. Honestly, some of the most theraputic moments during those first weeks were the craziest, like the night my friend Bella Vendetta took me to a dive bar in Deerfield, put an enormous amount of tequila in my system (I don't drink often) and told me "I'm glad you're not with her. I like you more this way" before taking me on a Hunter S. Thompson-esque joyride that ended with us watching Waiting to Exhale in her apartment. Then there were the nights spent up all night in my new friend Amanda's loft, where we smoked and listened to T Rex on vinyl and drew pictures as I thought to myself, "This is exactly what I should be doing right now." I had always assumed that, if my marriage ended, people would see me as a failure; I never expected people would care about me enough to take care of me, and in the midst of the chaos I found a new appreciation for the small good things.

My relationship to movies was strange during this period, which is what made it difficult to write. As I've gotten better I've realized just how serious my depression, which I've downplayed in my own mind as "me being dramatic" for years, had become. Looking back on some of my reviews over the past few years, like this one and this one and definitely this one, I realize that I was struggling to articulate what was going on inside my head as much as I was describing the movies. As Jessica and I left Synecdoche, New York I told her the film was frighteningly close to how I experience things; she replied, "Wow, you're really sad." I could have told you at the time, of course, that I related to the film on a conceptual level, but I could not have told you that Caden Cotard's deteriorating marriage to Adele Lack was frighteningly close to my own. So yeah, I personalize the movies I see - I think it's self-soothing, my own unconscious form of cognitive therapy.

"It's these greeting cards, Sir, these cards, these movies, these pop songs. They're responsible for all the lies, the heartache, everything! We're responsible!" - from 500 Days of Summer

But when Jessica left and I found myself going to the movies alone, I became dependent on them, to the point where I had nothing interesting to say about them. When I saw Public Enemies I was preoccupied with Dillinger's relationship with a beautiful brunette who is always out of reach (because I obviously have so much in common with John Dillinger). I couldn't focus on Harry Potter because of my complete contempt for the stupid little romances of the Hogwarts kids - don't they know that these young romances never last? And I checked out of Away We Go, which I worked on, after about ten minutes, because those insufferably happy hipsters were making me want to vomit (though I did see, at the real change, that I made it into the movie). And of course, there was my movie - which happens to be a heartfelt romance that ends on a defiant affirmation of the redemptive possibilities of love against all odds - to finish and premiere. I felt like I was being made to tap dance while gunslingers fired at my heels. The movie was well-receieved, and finishing it helped me get back in touch with my own feelings about love independent of my marriage. However, more than one person did point out that happy endings like the one at the end of Black Light don't happen in real life very often. Yeah, thanks for that.

"I'm getting in touch with my inner perv. If I came across a pair of moist granny panties in the laundry room, I would likely take a whiff. If when taking out the trash I noticed a couple fucking in their brightly lit apartment, I would likely creep up to the window & watch with lustful eyes. Definitely with a hand in my pants." - from Jessica's new blog

In August, Jessica and I had lunch, and we apologized to each other and things seemed to be getting better. It was around this point that I saw Inglorious Basterds, which was a perfect movie that I needed in so many ways, and which I had nothing more intelligent to say than "Movie awesome. Nazi scary." I'd started to think things were getting back on an even keel, that I was starting to adjust to this new life, until last week, when she called to announce that she was giving me the kids and did not want to see them again. She said that she was a bad person that nobody could care about and refused to elaborate, except to say that she was getting help. A few days later I got a call from her mother; nobody had heard from her in a few days, she wasn't at her apartment or answering her phone. She's staying with her filmmaker friend now, and there's no real way to preface this part - they're making foot porn together (again, search around and you'll find it). I'm still processing this part, but writing it all out like this helps. After the initial shock passed, I looked at her new blog again. I didn't feel jealous or insecure or any of the things I expected to feel; I felt sad, and concerned for her, and hoping this is just a step towards getting her to the place she needs to go to feel like herself, which she's struggled with for so long. I left a comment poking fun at her, not in a mean way but in the way we used to be when things were good, when we could gently call out each other's bullshit and remind each other how well each of us knew the other. And it finally felt like I was truly saying goodbye.

Now I'm focusing on the good changes which have come about as a result of these past few months and which, honestly, might not have happened if I was still married. The kids are with my parents now, and once I've sorted out daycare and other details, they'll be with me; I'm intimidated by the thought of being a single dad and a little afraid my life will become a bad Steve Martin comedy, but I've missed them terribly and I'm happy they're coming back. I'm moving my camera and notebook into Amanda's studio tonight - it's my first office space and I'm taking my first small steps towards making movies for a living. I've made new friends, and my relationships with the friends who've been there all along are stronger than ever. One of the best decisions I've made stemmed from the desire to turn my negative feelings about the situation into something positive; in September I wrote the filmmaker's ex-wife (they split shortly after Jess and I) a short note explaining that I was going through the same thing and that it had helped me a great deal at the beginning of being alone to have people to talk to. We became friends and, in pleasant and unexpected way, we hit it off. Her name is Annabelle. I couldn't have found a better person to share the very intimidating experience of taking the first tentative steps back towards romance. Whatever happens, I know I've made a lifelong friend; I think we both need that security right now. And no, our motive was not revenge, and yes, it is weird to be seeing your ex's lover's ex. I'm learning that a little weirdness can be a good thing.

There are still days where I don't want to get out of bed, where I feel like everything is basically meaningless and not worth the effort. But most days, I feel like everything is possible, that this has all happened for a reason. It's been a fucked-up year, but it's getting better. And I think I'm ready to start writing about movies again; I certainly have a lot to say about the amazing, beautiful Where the Wild Things Are, especially now that I'm Catherine Keener (not Synecdoche Keener - oh, synchronicities!). So if you're still around, thanks for checking in. I've missed you.
"Thank you for being the best friend I've ever had. No matter what turmoils we've experienced and conflict, we always find our way back into each other's arms. Thank you with every shred and ounce of my body. We are truly blessed. My heart is good and better than ever. I think I might be(don't get your hopes up) finally growing up. I love you with all of my heart and thank you for really being a great friend." - an e-mail from Jess, some years ago

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Kubrick, Hargenson, Goulet

I realized today that, while in the middle of completing my movie, I completely forgot about the most recent quiz at SLIFR. I'm hoping the esteemed Professor Snape will accept the movie as extra credit to make up for my tardiness; unfortunately, he's not known for his leniency.

1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.


2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.

The most interesting to me is the trend of movies that mix romance and sci-fi to explore love from a metaphysical point of view. These include A.I., Solaris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Birth and The Fountain.

3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?

Buffalo Bill

4) Best Film of 1949.

The Third Man

5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?

Joseph Tura

6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?

Seeing as most of my film is hand-held, I sure hope not! Actually, it has become a visual cliche, though I still think it's a valid way to shoot a film. They key, I think, is not to purposefully shake the camera but to try to hold it as still as possible, which better recreates the sensation of seeing through our own eyes.

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?

Dubbed Godzilla and Pippi Longstalking movies aside, I think it was Ran.

8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?

Mr. Moto, but I'm not a big fan of either.

9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).

The Bridge on the River Kwai

10) Favorite animal movie star.

Philip Marlowe's nitpicky cat in The Long Goodbye.

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.

Breakfast at Tiffany's is a lovely film that I can't bring myself to buy because of Mr. Yunioshi.

12) Best Film of 1969.


13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.

In theatres, Halloween II - some interesting ideas sandwiched between a whole lot of ridiculousness, but I won't count Rob Zombie out yet. On DVD, Woyzeck.

14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?

Glenn Kenny's blog is indispensible, and becoming an independent outlet has made his writing far more eclectic and entertaining.

16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji? (Thanks, Peter!)

I must admit that I'm not familiar with Meiko Kaji - looking at her IMDb page, it's time to get familiar.

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?

Olive Neal. Rarrr.

18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.

The Elephant Man

19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.

I loved the inky blacks and sharp contrasts of Public Enemies (though it's worth noting that even Michael Mann and David Fincher, easily the best directors working in HD right now, still rely on celluloid for some scenes).

20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.

Kill Bill

21) Best Film of 1979.

Apocalypse Now. Great year.

22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.

The opening scenes of A History of Violence did a great job of evoking average, peaceful small-town days to the point where I could almost smell the autumn leaves, making the rest of the movie much more disturbing.

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).

The chestburster.

24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.

The Godfather Part II

25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.

Still waiting for Buckaroo Banzai vs. The World Crime League.

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.

The buildup to the bloody baptism in Carrie. I love how De Palma prolongs the inevitable to the point of frustration, the slow motion coupled with Pino Donaggio's score toying with both our empathy for Carrie and our desire to see the prank played out. I love how Sue's attempt to stop it is thwarted by the gym teacher who assumes Sue is there to hurt Carrie - one of many examples in De Palma of terrible things happening as the result of miscommunication. And the close-up of Chris Hargensen licking her cherry-red lips, turned on by her sadistic plan, is probably my favorite shot in the De Palma canon.

27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.

From Vertigo: Judy emerging from the hotel bathroom, bathed in green light and reborn as Madeliene, as Bernard Herrmann's score swells on the soundtrack.

28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)

Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes (Smithee was co-director)

29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?

Buttermaker, no contest. I always thought Crash Davis was a douchebag.

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.

I have a soft spot for Sweet and Lowdown.

31) Best Film of 1999.

In a year almost as competetive as 1979, Eyes Wide Shut

32) Favorite movie tag line.

"Man is the warmest place to hide."

33) Favorite B-movie western.

I used to love watching B-westerns with my grandfather, but I have to admit that the titles and movies are blurred together. For some reason, the only one I can distinctly remember right now is The Shakiest Gun in the West.

34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.

Both Mario Puzo and Peter Benchley were lucky to have their biggest hits immensely improved on film.

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?

Susan Vance

36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.

Robert Goulet serenading a distraught Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City.

37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?

I don't know if I'd go with subversive, but anything that creates gay panic in super-straight dudes is okay by me.

38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)

I could name five hundred, of course, but if I had power over life and death to arrange a meeting, I'd love to have dinner with five wildly different directors and let the sparks fly. Let's go with Martin Scorsese, John Waters, Sam Peckinpah, Jean Cocteau and Dario Argento.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I write doodads because it's a doodad kind of town.

After Dorothy Parker's death in 1967, her ashes remained unclaimed, passing from one cabinet to another, for 17 years; how fitting an afterlife for a woman who once suggested "Excuse my dust" as her epitaph. A common criticism of Parker's poems is that they persistently return to the same themes: despair, insecurity, unrequited desire, failed romances and, almost always, death. Yet the appeal of Parker's work lies in the razor-sharp wit she brings to morbid self-interest - deceptively "light," her poems often cut to the bone. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle opens, in black and white, on a close-up of Parker's lips as she recites a poem; as Parker - played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, perfectly interpreting Parker's smokey, half-muttered speech patterns - speaks, the camera drifting from her lips to her eyes, the camera finds a tactile sensuality in the mordant humor of Parker's words. It's director Alan Rudolph's invitation to the blues; with a film set against the backdrop of the Algonquin Round Table and its revolving cast of artists and intellectuals, it would be more obvious to adapt a blithe, wisecracking tone. But Rudolph's decision to focus his film on the member of the Algonquin who would be most likely to disavow any club that would have her as a member gives his film surprising emotional heft.

Using Parker's own poetry and scenes from her later years as a framing device, Mrs. Parker takes place during the heyday of her reputation as the most savage wit among the Algonquins. The title's "vicious circle" could just as easily refer to Parker's own life, marked by a series of failed or stalled relationships to men like her abusive first husband Edward (Andrew McCarthy) and the charming but unfaithful playwright Charles MacArthur (Matthew Broderick). The breakup of this relationship, and the subsequent termination of their pregnancy, leads to Parker's first suicide attempt; it's remarkable to watch Leigh make an almost imperceptible shift from self-depricating jokes to the very real despair just beneath the surface. Leigh is just as astonishing in every scene, going beyond impersonation to embody Parker's tough, defiant spirit. As with many of Leigh's strongest performances, she seems completely unconcerned with whether the audience is on her side; this makes her a perfect match for Parker, who was her own harshest critic (we spy her, at one point, writing "Please God, let me write like a man") yet remained true to herself.

Rather than providing the endless exposition that would have been needed to introduce the members of the Algonquin Round Table to modern audiences (other than an awkward scene where the founders of the New Yorker fumble over the name for their new venture), Rudolph smartly allows the supporting cast - a who's who of up-and-coming '90s stars - to populate the film like familiar acquaintances. Rudolph, a protege of Robert Altman (who produced the film), has frequently adopted Altman's trademark use of overlapping dialogue. Sometimes, as with the disastrous adaptation of Breakfast of Champions, the result is a mess; here, however, it's a perfect fit. As the camera drifts through countless lunches and parties, characters verbally spar and one-up each other as they barely conceal their desperate desire to impress one another. The words themselves become a major character in the film, which at times plays like a eulogy for the lost art of conversation.

Words also take on an erotic carge in Parker's bittersweet, decades-long friendship with writer and humorist Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott). It is the relationship between Mrs. Parker and Mr. Benchley, as they affectionately call each other, that is at the heart of the film. Longtime writing partners and best friends, Parker and Benchley never quite say what they feel, largely because of Benchley's loyalty to his wife (Jennifer Beals), who can only view her husband's friendship and creative success in terms of the time he spends away from home (Beals and Leigh would reverse these roles in The Anniversary Party, with more sympathy for the jealous wife). Words tie Parker and Benchley together, yet they also use words to keep each other at arms' length - as Parker tells Benchley, "I'd kiss you, but I'm afraid it wouldn't come out right." It's in the unspoken moments, as we observe each character when the other isn't looking, that we realize the depth of Parker's affection for Benchley and the strength of his loyalty to her, and we realize that, for all her failed attempts at happiness, this friendship may have been the great love of Parker's life.

The relationship also serves to anchor the film; Rudolph could have been content to blithely romanticize his '20s-set cast of characters (it'd be easy with such fabulous costumes), but while the film celebrates the Algonquins, it stops short of idealizing them. Parker herself would eventually dismiss her friends as "a bunch of loudmouths," and a remarkable New Years-set sequence late in the film suggests that, as the party began to wind down, what remained for the partygoers was the need to be noticed. Parker saw this in herself - was painfully aware of all her human frailties - and all the booze, sex and sarcasm in the world couldn't finally dull her painful self-awareness. But she remained fiercely herself, even at the expense of happiness, and I think she would agree that an unsentimental, stubbornly sad and largely overlooked biopic is one that suits her best.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

This isn't Dallas, it's Nashville!

It's challenging, when writing about Nashville, to avoid simply listing the seemingly endless parade of great scenes, characters, performances and moments that make the film one of the greatest and most entertaining of all time. Director Robert Altman, tongue firmly in cheek, gives us an early invitation to regard his sprawling vision of the country music scene and America circa 1975 as a sort of cinematic greatest hits record. From the K-Tel-inspired opening credits that serve as a commercial for the movie we're about to see, trumpeting the film's cavalcade of stars presented "through the magic of stereophonic sound and living-color picture right before your very eyes without commercial interruption,"Nashville wears its multilayered narrative (the various threads bringing together 24 principal characters) like a badge of honor. If it was merely an extended cinematic stunt, it would still be very entertaining, but what lingers after the film and expands upon each viewing is not its scale but its intimacy - Altman doesn't build his film out of grandiose statements, but instead carefully, precisely exposes the emotional truth of every single moment we observe, never hitting a false note. While many have tried to attach an overriding thesis statement to the film, to do so inevitably reduces the film's achievement as a rich and eclectic survey of human experience; seeing it in 35mm for the first time at the Brattle a few weeks ago, I realized how few films are as joyously alive.

Wim Wenders once wrote that Nashville is "about noise," and noise - indeed, various forms of communication - is one of the connective threads of the film. Nashville's many dramas play out in overlapping conversations in nightclubs, overheard telephone calls, dialogue carried over the intercoms of recording studios, and communication recorded (albums, newscasts, political diatribes played over loudspeakers) and distributed for mass consumption. Performance, both musical and political, is the dominant form of communication - the movie builds to a campaign rally for Hal Phillip Walker, who is heard but never seen. Walker's platform, which is based less on specific policy than on a general distrust of institutions and a promise to returned to imagined good old days, is not far removed from the populist tunes of the unctuous Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), who we meet as he's recording the Bicentennial-themed rabble-rouser "200 Years" (I always chuckle at the throwaway line "I saw action in Algiers"). Recent American history hangs heavy over Nashville (the scenes at the Grand Old Opry were filmed the day of Nixon's resignation), but aside from a a few carefully chosen references to Vietnam, the recession and the Kennedys, Altman avoids the kind of literal commentary he pokes fun at with Opal from the BBC (Geraldine Chaplin). A flaky reporter with dubious credentials, Opal wanders through the film pontificating about the symbolism of busyards, patronizingly telling a group of black musicians that "I know all about the problems in the south" and desperately trying to meet anyone famous. Opal, and many of the characters in the film - groupie L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall), or limo driver Norman (David Arkin), or sweet, talentless aspiring singer Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) - want to be somebody or at least be near somebody. It's this culture where everybody is a fan, Altman suggests, that has blurred the lines between celebrity and politics both on- and offstage.

This alone would be enough of a subject to carry a feature, but Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury (whose contributions to the film's form are underestimated) make room for relationships, sex, family, race, religion, love and death, subtly tying them together with the film's soundtrack, which articulates the beliefs the characters cling to and which drive them through the story. Altman's camera drifts from one story to another, seemingly omnipresent, but never, with few exceptions, taking the God's-eye perspective that Altman devotee P.T. Anderson employs in Magnolia. Our perspective remains squarely on the ground level, as Altman guides through the city, giving us room to make our own discoveries (it was only on this viewing, through a barely-audible line, that I realized Haven is a racist). Altman's approach is loose-limbed enough to make room for a character like Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum), who rides his three-wheeler, never talks, performs magic tricks and exists mostly as an absurdist punctuation mark. Gradually, however, as in the scene where Haven's brassy manager and (maybe) lover Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley) chokes back tears as she reminisces about working for JFK and RFK, we realize that Altman has been subtly leading us towards this moment all along.

When Altman does use more overt juxtapositions, the effect is earned and often startling. For instance, I found upon this viewing that I hated Tom (Keith Carradine), the pretty-boy folk singer who uses his good looks and feigned sensitivity to seduce and destroy countless women, and I was disappointed in gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin) for going to bed with him. Then Altman cut to the painful scene of Sueleen, coerced into stripping at a fundraiser for Walker in exchange for the promise of a chance to perform; as Sueleen is humiliated by a roomful of leering men (including Linnea's husband Delbert (Ned Beatty)), I understood how a piece of shit like Tom could represent an escape from Linnea (Tomlin is brilliant in the near-wordless post-coital scene, showing us that, for once, a woman has taken more from Tom than he's taken from her). It can be difficult to determine, due to Altman's famous improvisatory methods, whether a contrast like this was in the script from the start or if it was discovered in editing. But there are moments throughout the film that suggest Altman is more purposeful than he cares to admit - in the heartbreakingly quiet moment when Joan's uncle Mr. Green finds out that his wife has died as a happier scene plays out in the background, in the way (as Pauline Kael pointed out in her famous rave) that Haven's "For the Sake of the Children" illustrates Linnea's unspoken feelings and, most deftly, when fragile singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely) collapes on an airport tarmac in a chilling bit of foreshadowing.

If Nashville has no narrative center, than Barbara Jean is certainly its heart. Recently released from a burn ward (we don't learn the cause) and prone to fainting and hysteria, Barbara Jean is the biggest talent in the movie - with a voice that moves audiences to tears, she's the star that everyone in the movie wants to be. Sadly, Barbara Jean wants to be Barbara Jean too - emotionally stunted from years onstage, told what to do at every moment by her controlling, emotionally abusive husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), Barbara Jean could slip away at any moment. When she loses herself, during a concert, in a rambling monologue about her childhood as the audience starts to boo (and as portions of the Brattle audience, sadly, laughed derisively), we can see how her self-perception and self-mythologizing have become tragically blurred. Even Barbara Jean, perhaps more than anyone else in the film, is captive to her beautiful and impossible ideals she is meant to embody.

The film's famous ending unites Barbara Jean with two characters who are just as lost - flighty aspiring singer Albequerque (Barbara Harris) and quiet drifter Kenny (David Hayward). The reasons for Kenny's actions are ambiguous (it occured to me this time that Kenny may not have planned to go to the Parthenon at all); what Altman is concerned with is the aftermath. What a surprise to discover that the seemingly insecure Haven has the courage of his convictions, or that Tom is one of the first to offer help. And when Albequerque takes the stage, revealing unexpected talent, we can see how the spotlight has been passed as she pacifies the confused masses. The implications of Nashville's ending, which finds a crowd immediately disregarding the violence they've just witnessed as they're distracted by a song, are extremely disturbing. But even as Altman has no illusions about human weaknesses, he's also humane and even sympathetic to our flaws. The film's final shot, which tilts up towards the God's-eye view Altman has avoided and finds only a gray sky, concedes that, while there's nothing to see about there, maybe we do all have to believe in something, and a song is just as good as anything else.

Friday, June 19, 2009

I don't want your cat, you dirty pork queen!

Star Trek opens in bold, attention-grabbing fashion, as we join the USS Kelvin in the middle of a deep-space attack by a Romulan ship. With the Kelvin's captain offed by a teral'n at the hands of revenge-seeking Romulan Nero (Eric Bana), first officer George Kirk (Chris Hernsworth) orders the evacuation of everyone on board, including his very pregnant wife Winona (Jennifer Morrison). As I realized I was about to witness the birth, mid-space battle, of one James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), I chuckled at what might be the most literal-minded moment in the recent trend of prequels that fill in our most iconic characters' backstories. I'd been suspicious of Star Trek since its first trailer for precisely this reason, but as the opening continued, a strange thing happened - cheesy as the idea of Kirk's interstellar delivery might seem, director J.J. Abrams isn't afraid to swing for the fences, mining more suspense and emotion out of such an unabashedly broad scene that I soon found myself on the edge of my seat. As the elder Kirk, on a collision course with the Romulans, hears his son's first cries trasmitted from another escape pod, I actually found myself getting misty-eyed (becoming a parent does that to you). For all the talk of Star Trek as a drastic reboot of the franchise, it (like almost all summer movies) is purely status quo. But it doesn't need to reinvent the wheel; in fact, it works as well as it does because it understands Star Trek's origins in Horatio Hornblower and a centuries-old tradition of ripping yarns, and it delivers on the promise of a rip-roaring adventure better than any incarnation of Star Trek since The Wrath of Kahn.

After too much time spent slogging through painfully dry Next Generation movies, it's a pleasure to be reunited with Kirk(Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), here a Starfleet cadet and a Commander, at the start of a lifelong conflict between the mind and the dick that is, at this point, still adversarial. Pine and Quinto are both surprisingly believable as younger incarnations of their iconic characters, and the entire cast fits just as well (except Anton Yelchin - there's just something insufferably self-conscious about that kid). The script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (way better than average for these two) employs black holes and red matter to allow for changes in the Star Trek canon while still accomodating purists, as well as giving Nero a reason for his villainy and affording Leonard Nimoy, returning as Spock, a more active role in the story than a shoehorned-in cameo (if the rest of the movie sucked, the sight of Nimoy in another Star Trek would justify the entire thing). The hard science of the story is ridiculous, of course, if one knows anything about black holes and red matter, and since I like Star Trek most when it veers into pure speculative fiction, I sort of missed the nerdiness (I'm the guy that likes V'ger and parts of Star Trek V, so feel free to disregard my opinion). But this Star Trek succeeds where it counts - in the vision of a military operating as much on reason as force, the Hornblower-inspired focus on what is truly the measure of a man (possible answer: Bruce Greenwood), the childlike sense of wonder at the mysteries of space exploration, and the gratuitous scene of Kirk banging a sexy, green-skinned alien. Gene Roddenberry would be proud.

A similar set of traditional values (minus the busty Orions) are at the heart of Up, the newest feature from Pixar (at this point, the most reliable name in Hollywood). The already-famous dialogue-free montage at the beginning of the film, which takes us through the entire lives of aspiring explorers Carl Frederickson (Ed Asner) and his wife Ellie - from youthful expectations through the disappointments reality brings, fond memories and, finally, Ellie's death - is one of Pixar's greatest achievements and, most likely, the most moving 10 minutes of any film this year. With only Michael Giacchino's lilting score as accompaniment, director Pete Docter and his team of animators create a definitive filmic portrait of what it is to find, go through life with and ultimately lose one's soulmate (two consecutive years that I've cried at a cartoon - thanks, Pixar!). The elderly Carl, adrift in a rapidly changing world, decides to honor his wife's unfulfilled wish - a retired balloon vendor, he uses his resources to fly their house to Paradise Falls, a (fictional) remote spot in South America. The sight of Carl's house taking off, sunlight suddenly refracting through thousands of balloons into a seemingly endless ocean of color, has a visual poetry worthy of Hayao Miyazaki - yet another example of Pixar's seemingly effortless ability to create definitive representations of our collective wonder.

I must admit that, once Carl and his stowaway - chubby and overeager 8-year-old Russell (Jordan Nagai) - get to South America, Up registers as an ever-so-slight disappointment. This is entirely due to Pixar's extremely high standards, as Up is still by far the best option for moviegoing families right now. But after the visionary Wall-E, I expected Carl and Russell to find more wondrous sights at Paradise Falls than a talking dog and a funny-looking bird. Don't get me wrong, the talking dog is hilarious; it's just that the film's second half feels sort of squarely domestic, something I also felt about Docter's mostly great Monsters Inc. (my daughter's favorite movie, so I could be very wrong about this). And when Carl meets his childhood hero, explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), only to find a villian, Up sort of drops the ball on the weightier implications of this kind of disillusionment. What does work beautifully is the relationship between Carl and the quietly lonely Russell, and what this slowly teaches Carl about his own life without Ellie. For a movie about an octegenarian, Up is a wonderful paean to the virtues of holding on to one's youth.

Released, in a delicious bit of fearful symmetry, the same weekend as Up, Drag Me to Hell is a gleefully sadistic compliment to Pixar's heavenly fantasy. The much-touted return to horror by director Sam Raimi was rejected by audiences who didn't realize that, like Raimi's Evil Dead movies, Drag Me to Hell is supposed to be funny. Alison Lohman occupies the role previously occupied by Bruce Campbell in Raimi's films, that of the perpetual ass of every supernatural joke. As Christine Brown, a sweet, mousy bank teller cursed by vengeful Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) after denying the old woman an extension on her mortgage, Lohman is subjected to a nonstop stream of shocks, nasty bodily fluids and the indignity of having many, many gross substances forced into her mouth as she finds a way to break the curse that will end with the Lamia, a vengeful satyr-like demon dragging her to you guessed it after three days. It's a pleasure to see Raimi, after only occassionally indulging his brattier directorial impulses in the Spider-Man movies, going truly old-school here: the insane camerawork, the Stooges-inspired humor (there's even an anvil gag!) and, most all, the willingness to rise below bad taste in the name of a scare or a laugh make Drag Me to Hell feel like the work of a young, eager-to-please filmmaker fresh off Evil Dead 2.

That's not to say that Drag Me to Hell is a time capsule from 1987, as it's a bit too CGI-heavy, alas, to feel completely analog. What is charmingly old-school is Raimi's morality - he gives us a seemingly decent protagonist who, at first, seems unfairly punished for a tough choice, then spends the rest of the movie subtly insinuating that Christine fully deserves to be dragged to Hell. I realize this is done in a tongue-in-cheek way (kitten!), but it's something of a revalation to find that Raimi (a conservative churchgoer who supported Bush in 2004) actually seems to believe in the black-and-white morality that other horror directors can only approach with ironic detachment. According to Raimi, we're all going to Hell if we don't shape up and learn to treat each other with some decency, and now it's clear that Raimi's best films work as well as they do because, no matter how wild they get, they're rooted in a very basic set of convictions. Strange to think of the guy who directed the tree rape scene in The Evil Dead as a right-wing auteur; stranger still that this actually makes me like him more. It helps, of course, that Drag Me to Hell is a blast from beginning to end, a gleefully sadistic spook show (aided by a kickass Christopher Young score) that arrives at an ending that left me in disbelief that Raimi actually got away with it. How exciting to think that, in the confines of the summer movie machine, there are filmmakers who manage to make the conventional feel radical.

Friday, June 05, 2009

One of these days you're gonna take a trip and never come back.

When B-movie director Al Adamson quit filmmaking in the 1980s to start a career in real estate, it may not have been as dramatic a career change as it would seem. While Adamson, like fellow low-budget directors Ed Wood and Roger Corman, was extremely prolific and worked in a wide variety of genres, his meat-and-potatoes exploitation movies show little of the passion for cinema that one can usually find in Wood's or Corman's films. But it's precisely this artlessness that gives Satan's Sadists an amoral charge; a drive-in hit in the same that Easy Rider was changing the way Hollywood regarded the youth market, it's not nearly as good as that film. But it's also a good deal less pretentious and, thanks to Adamson's eagerness to both cater to the counterculture and exploit anti-hippie attitudes, it's a good deal of crude, go-for-broke fun.

The title song informs us that the Sadists, led by the stoic Anchor (Russ Tamblyn), were "born mean," and the movie wastes no time convincing us of this. From the opening scene, as the Sadists intimidate a wholesome young couple necking in the woods and rape the girl, it's clear that we're in for 86 minutes of mayhem as the Sadists terrorize the good, decent normals they encounter. While Easy Rider was squarely on the side of the bikers and had nothing but contempt for blue-collar America, Adamson tries to have it both ways; audience members who would nod in approval at a line about how the world needs more decent young men could regard Satan's Sadists as a horror movie, while the heads in the audience could take it as an existential bummer.

Before killing a hostage, Anchor explains that, while he's got a lot of hate inside, there are a lot of kids out there who have nothing but love in their hearts getting thrown behind bars for smoking grass. The rest of Adamson's attempts at countercultural relevance are just as heavyhanded (the acidhead character is named Acid, for Pete's sake), and I don't think Adamson thought much about the generational divide beyond its profit potential - the trailer even tries to capitalize on interest in the Manson killings! Still, in some of the more brutal moments between the Sadists and their prey, Satan's Sadists captures the uneasy feelings Manson and Altamont inspired and foreshadows the equally crude but more intelligent Last House on the Left.

But whether or not Satan's Sadists works as social commentary, it's a great buds-n-suds movie - even if the references to Vietnam and the peace movement are window dressing for the mayhem, the blood is bright red, the sex is abundant (if frequently underlit) and the trippy imagery is a hoot. Plus, it probably served Russ Tamblyn as the perfect audition reel for Twin Peaks' Dr. Jacoby. I don't mean to sound dismissive of Satan's Sadists - it is what it is and doesn't make any apologies, which is sort of refreshing in a time when B-movies can be hard to distinguish from A-movies. In its willingness to shock its audience to provoke a response, Satan's Sadists aligns itself with the freaks; in his desire to entertain the whole audience, Adamson is a blue-collar filmmaker through and through.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

You don't know where I've been!

When I was growing up, my family took an annual vacation to the White Mountains. As a kid, I didn't get the irony of taking a vacation without leaving the state - all I could think about was Story Land. Founded by a married couple in the 1950s, Story Land is a fairytale-themed amusement part that provided me with my annual dose of enchantment until I reached the age where I was too cool for such things (or, at least, felt obligated to feign indifference). One of the main charms of Story Land was that we knew exactly what to expect every summer; though Adventureland takes place in 1987, I wouldn't be surprised if the real Adventureland is much the same as it was 20 years ago (assuming it hasn't been bought by Six Flags). Adventureland doesn't have the same nostalgia for Adventureland that I have for Story Land - inspired by writer/director Greg Mottola's experiences working there as a teen, it uses the predictable attractions of the park to underscore the anxiety of its characters, who find themselves reluctantly on the verge of adulthood. That Mottola perfectly evokes not just 1987 or theme park culture but the moment we realize we don't know anything makes Adventureland one of the most finely observed movies about youth.

James (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college and, desparately in need of money for grad schoool, gets a summer job at Adventureland. He's assigned to Games, where he meets Em (Kristen Stewart), a dark-haired NYU student who hasn't fully processed the death of her mother two years earlier. James, of course, promptly falls for Em, who has Hüsker Dü in her tape deck, can talk passionately about social injustic over whiskey and beer, knows how to make pot cookies and suggests reservoirs of unspoken feeling - in other words, a girl that any bookish, socially inept romantic might carry a torch for when they're James' age. Stewart and Eisenberg (essentially playing an older version of his character from The Squid and the Whale) have a believable chemistry, and Mottola - who previously excelled at eliciting strong performances from young actors in Superbad - smartly allows his film to be driven by moments like the one where James quietly studies Em's reactions as they listen to a mix tape he gave her as a gift, hoping that Lou Reed will tell her the things he can't quite articulate.

The film also avoids the standard "sensitive guy pursues unattainable girl" formula - James and Em kiss in the second reel, and both have factors that keep them not quite together. These includes James' virginity, which he insists he's keeping for the right woman (we get the feeling that he used to tell himself this, but it's become true), his flirtation with park hottie Lisa P (Margaria Levieva) - whose work shirt promises "RIDES" in contrast to Em's "GAMES" - and, especially, Em's secret affair with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), an older, married park mechanic. In a more generic version of Adventureland, Connell would be the villain, but Mottola makes the character more complex - he's an asshole who uses his charisma and his (total bullshit) story about having once toured with Lou Reed to sleep with younger girls, but he never antagonizes James and even seems to be encouraging his relationship with Em, and we gradually notice the character's total self-loathing. With Reynolds in the role, it's like the sad reality of Van Wilder, and it's to his credit that he seems to get the joke.

Mottola extends this same generosity to all his characters - even Lisa P grows beyond a slut caricature to reveal surprising sensitivity. The film's structure is loose enough to allow effectively understated moments like the one where we realize James' hyperintellectual friend Joel (Martin Starr) is carrying his own torch for Em. And then there's Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), who own the park and fell for one another through their shared dream - Wiig's offhanded delivery of the line "This is how we met" when Hader shows off his carny skills is priceless, and a scene involving a baseball bat made me laugh harder than anything so far this year except for Observe and Report (it's shaping up to be a good year for comedies). Even Frigo (Matt Bush), James' childhood bully, is given shades of depth beyond groin-punching jokes. And the subtle touch extends to the film's cinematography - utilizing a great deal of low-key and often solely available light, it not only makes for a great contrast between the neon-colored days at the park and the dimly lit nights spent hanging out in the middle of nowhere, but it gives the whole film an immediacy that takes you back to your own formative years. Adventureland sidesteps sentimentality completely and never stops to wax nostalgic about the best years of our lives; it earns its laughter and its romantic moments, and does so beautifully.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Play the game (5/14/09)

Last month: Popeye

How much did Arthur get paid to kill Merlin?

The work of director Jody Hill is a much-needed slap in the face to every half-assed comedy that promises "shock humor" while exploiting cultural stereotypes in the most safe, obvious way possible. In the low-budget martial arts comedy The Foot Fist Way and the HBO series Eastbound and Down, Hill and frequent collaborators Ben Best and Danny McBride skewer the regressive, hypermasculine attitudes that other comedies hold up as an ideal. Tae Kwon Do instructor Fred Simmons and burnt-out ace pitcher Kenny Powers (both played by McBride), in addition to being extremely funny, implicitly expose the narcissism and desparation of our Dane Cooks, Van Wilders and Blue Collar Comedy Tours. Observe and Report, Hill's first solo effort as a writer/director, has been condemned to live in the shadow of Paul Blart: Mall Cop; this is a shame because it's much funnier (in fact, it's one of the funniest movies of all time), but also because it, in its twisted way, it eviscerates the banal, soulless mall culture that Blart celebrates. It's the blackest, most subversive comedy to sneak through the studio system since Fight Club, and in the rare moments when I wasn't laughing, I was grinning from ear to ear at the thought that Hill got away with it.

Hill has stated the idea for Observe and Report began with "Taxi Driver as a comedy," and it's astonishing how fully he's followed through with the implications of that premise. His Travis is mall security guard Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), a mentally unstable schlub who takes his job extremely seriously. When a serial flasher (Randy Gambill) starts to prowl the mall parking lot, Ronnie becomes convinced that catching the pervert will prove himself superior to the detective (Ray Liotta) assigned to the case and win the affections of Brandi (Anna Faris), his dream girl, who works at a cosmetics counter. At first Ronnie seems like an affable variation on Seth Rogen's stoner-dude persona, but we quickly learn that Ronnie's macho self-delusions mask very real problems - his bipolar disorder, coupled with his extremely dysfunctional relationship with his alcoholic mom (Celia Weston), have made Ronnie a ticking time bomb who sublimates his violent impulses into his work. For Ronnie, who can't pass the psych exam to become a cop, guarding the mall and particularly Brandi are a way of fighting his own demons - it's the movie's great unspoken joke that Ronnie is able to correctly predict that the flasher will target Brandi because, under different circumstances, he'd do the same.

This is pitch-black material for a comedy, made darker by Hill's ability to mine laughs from the sad reality of Ronnie's life, and Rogen deserves a world of credit, when he could be coasting on the aforementioned stoner-dude persona, for playing an almost completely unlikable character. When a Middle Eastern kiosk worker (Aziz Ansari) being interrogated by Ronnie accuses him of racism, Ronnie responds that "It's not racism - you fit the profile," and the sad, hilarious thing is that Ronnie believes this. Ronnie, in his psychically vulnerable state, has completely bought into the reactionary, ultra-conservative concept of heroism; the irony is that, in the consumerist void he protects, he's actually the most likeable character because he at least believes in something. Brandi, the object of his affections, is the embodiment of everything ugly about mall culture - she's stupid, self-absorbed, mean and oblivious to the world around her - and Faris demonstrates again that she's the most talented actress around at playing idiots. A montage, during Brandi and Ronnie's hilariously painful date, of Brandi doing about a dozen shots (Faris punctuates each with pitch-perfect deliveries of Brandi making observations like "It burns so good") plays like Hill couldn't decide which of Faris' takes to use and instead decided to use them all. The joke of the sort-of date-rape scene that has some humorless people up in arms is that for Ronnie, a few minutes of thrusting into an indifferent, barely-conscious Brandi is the closest thing to romance he's ever experienced. As with last year's Burn After Reading, one can read the characters' respective self-delusion and narcissism as the root of all evils today - I don't know if Hill intended for Observe and Report to shoulder a sociopolitical reading, but it does give frightening credibility to Ronnie's fellow security guard Dennis (Michael Peña), who explains after a day-long drug binge that everything is meaningless.

And yet the brilliance of Observe and Report is that, unlike the "everyone is stupid but us" humor of South Park (still a great show) and Family Guy (definitely not), it doesn't exempt itself or its audience from its scrutiny. When Ronnie single-handedly beats the snot out of several gang members in a scene that may or may not be a delusion (and uncannily recalls a similar scene in Watchmen), the moment is exhilarating even though the violence is painfully real. And when he brutalizes a Cinnabon manager (Patton Oswalt) to defend the honor of kind, Jesus-loving barista Nell (Collette Wolfe), I found myself initially cheering Ronnie's actions before laughing at my own horrifying approval of his violent chivalry. By the time Ronnie finds himself in a prolonged Oldboy homage set to Queen's score for Flash Gordon, I no longer knew what was real or what only existed in Ronnie's head, but I found myself sort of rooting for him all the same. I'm not certain whether Observe and Report is aesthetically or morally defensible; all I know is, when the flasher plotline reaches its climax, I haven't laughed as hard since Walter Sobchak decided to teach little Larry Sellars a lesson.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

You can't get a job without a job.

Back when my mom was teaching Bible studies, she would frequently caution against topical sermons, which she said offer an easy understanding of the lesson at hand but leave the congregation with little sustenance. Perhaps this is why it feels like pointing out that Wendy and Lucy is the perfect movie for the current economic crisis is both obvious and a backhanded compliment. But there's nothing obvious about Wendy and Lucy; the story of a few days in the life of a woman in transit and her dog, director Kelly Reichardt's third feature is proudly, perhaps defiantly elusive. It's a movie in a minor key, but if you find yourself on its wavelength (as I did), it's an emotionally wrenching experience, one person's story as a universal meditation on alienation and loss.

We meet Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her dog Lucy (Reichardt's dog, also named Lucy) as they're making their way to Alaska, where Wendy hopes to find work at a cannery. We don't learn much about what motivated Wendy to make the trip from Indiana, though a tense phone call with her brother-in-law and her anxious encounters with people she meets suggests that money wasn't the main reason. Wendy wakes one morning to discover that her car won't start, which starts a chain of small events that accumulate into a devastating turning point in Wendy's life. Reichardt never reaches for dramatic effect, observing from a medium distance as Wendy's world quietly falls apart - every shot is impeccably composed, using the minimalistic settings to maximum effect. When most movies are becoming faster and louder, to see a film that recalls Ozu and De Sica is a shock to the senses, as Reichardt's deliberate approach places us in Wendy's lowtops.

Williams does an incredible job of letting us inside Wendy's head even in her many dialogue-free scenes. Sporting a pageboy haircut that reminds of Scout Finch, wide-eyed and costumed in almost gender-neutral clothes, Williams gives Wendy an almost preadolescent innocence that makes sense of Wendy's disconnect from those around her (in a way, the film is an overdue coming-of-age story). Reichardt uses the rural Oregon setting to illustrate how most of the country has become unliveable for sub- or countercultural ways of life. A teenage cashier (John Robinson) with a cross around his neck changes Wendy's life forever thanks to his unshakable allegiance to "store policy," while a Walgreens security guard (Wally Dalton) offers Wendy what help he can and uses his sense of humor to find peace with the many irrationalities of modern life; the cashier and the guard are two sides of the same coin, one proudly and the other ironically "playing the game" in a way that Wendy herself cannot. At the same time, Wendy can't relate to the gutter punks she meets along the way and is one of. Perhaps it's this total lack of connection that led Film Freak Central's Ian Pugh to label Wendy and Lucy "the navel-gazing ramblings of a misanthropic Luddite." But I don't think Reichardt is trying to say that human connection is impossible, and it's Williams who lets us know, one small gesture at a time, that perhaps Wendy doesn't even understand what is driving her further and further away.

Wendy and Lucy ultimately hinges on a choice that is bound to tear any dog lover apart. I'm usually reluctant to praise one movie by putting down another, but Wendy and Lucy is in many ways the anti-Marley and Me. In that movie (I assume, and could be wrong), having a pet is shorthand for a comfortable domestic existence. Wendy and Lucy's relationship is more complicated; Wendy clearly has affection for her dog but also seems to rely on the false sense of protection the dog gives her. It's suggested that Wendy takes more from Lucy than she is able to give - as one character rather harshly points out, maybe she shouldn't have a dog if she can't take care of it. And though the movie doesn't end with Wendy, shotgun in hand, taking Lucy behind the woodshed, there is the sense that the change in their relationship has seismic implications for where Wendy is headed, even if we know as little about where she'll end up as we do about where she's been.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Lawnmower Man, The Beaver Kid, and The Clumsy Waiter

It's time for another of the seasonal movie quizzes at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, this time courtesy of one Professor Peabody ("Quiet, you." - did the Professor actually say that, or was it a Simpsons-only line?). I'm shockingly late to turn in my answers this semester, but luckily, there is no due date, so I encourage you to head over to SLIFR and try it yourself if you haven't already.

1) Favorite Biopic

My favorite movie about a real person is Lawrence of Arabia. Biopics tend to be way too formulaic for me, so I generally prefer ones like I'm Not There and Mishima that purposefully break the mold.

2) Dyan Cannon or Tuesday Weld?

Tuesday Weld. Pretty Poison was actually filmed in the town and county where I live.

3) Best example of science fiction futurism rendered silly by the event of time catching up to the prediction

Any of the early-'90s virtual reality-themed thrillers that tried to paint cyberspace as a dangerous alternate reality capable of turning mentally challenged lawnmower men into all-powerful daemons or unleashing a wisecracking Russell Crowe into the world.

4) Annette Funicello & Frankie Avalon or Troy Donahue & Sandra Dee?

Annette and Frankie - my, was Back to the Beach in heavy rotation on HBO when I was a wee lad.

5) Favorite Raoul Walsh movie?

White Heat

6) Sophomore film which represents greatest improvement over the director’s debut

The Terminator has less flying piranhas than Piranha II, but is otherwise superior.

7) Ice Cube or Mos Def?

Mos Def

8) Favorite movie about the music industry

My first thought was Nashville as a default answer, but a quick glance shows that few have mentioned it so far, so perhaps it isn't considered a movie about the industry (it is, but it's about everything). So honorable mentions to Almost Famous and Phantom of the Paradise, respectively the sweetest and most acidic takes on the music industry.

9) Favorite Looney Tunes short

The ending of "What's Opera Doc?" shocked me when I was a kid.

10) Director most deserving of respect or upwardly mobile critical reassessment

I think Sam Mendes is one of the best new directors of the last 10 years, but he's also completely unhip, which hurts his cinephile street cred.

11) Ruth Gordon or Margaret Hamilton?

Oh, Maude!

12) Best filmed adaptation of a play


13) Buddy Ebsen or Edgar Buchanan?

I laughed the first time I read the story of how Ebsen was the original Tin Man but had to be hospitalized because of aluminum dust inhalation. Am I a bad person?

14) Favorite Jean Renoir movie?

I've only seen a few Renoir films so far, and while they were all inarguably brilliant, I have yet to truly fall in love with one. But The Rules of the Game is hilarious and, as I said, inarguably brilliant.

15) Favorite one-word movie title, and why

Alien. It sums up everything that fuels the movie's scares in the most elemental way possible.

16) Ernest Thesiger or Basil Rathbone?

I must admit that I didn't recognize the name "Ernest Thesiger." But after looking him up and realizing he played Dr. Pretorious in Bride of Frankenstein, that alone puts him ahead.

17) Summer movies—your highest and lowest expectations

Highest: That Inglorious Bastards will be as insanely entertaining as a decade of Tarantino's hyperbole promises.

Lowest: That Transformers 2, which will surely be the highest-grossing movie of the summer, will do anything other than further confirmation of my most pompous, elitist assumptions about the horrible taste of most moviegoers.

18) Whether or not you’re a parent, what would be your ideal pick as first movie to see with your own child (or niece/nephew)? Why?

I'm hoping that my daughter will be ready to go to the movies by the time Where the Wild Things Are is released. I think about this subject quite often. When my wife was pregnant with Luna, I read an article in the New York Times (I think) about how kids are becoming increasingly "platform agnostic" - a movie, a tv commercial and a video game on a cell phone all have the same value. So besides wanting to pass on my geekiness, I actually think it's important for parents to encourage an appreciation for movies, books and all stories that inspire curiosity and wonder.

19) L.Q. Jones or Strother Martin

Probably the closest call on this quiz. I'll go with Strother Martin - I was delighted by his performance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when I revisited it a few weeks ago.

20) Movie most recently seen in theaters? On DVD/Blu-ray?

In theaters, Adventureland, which completely surprised me with its warmth and subtlety. On DVD, Brazil, which gets funnier and scarier every year.

21) Do you see more movies theatrically or at home? Why?

At home - we don't have much of a social life, but we have a pretty sweet home theater setup.

22) Name an award-worthy comic performance that was completely ignored by Oscar and his pals.

Though it's looking more and more like a one-off, Adam Sandler's performance in Punch-Drunk Love was the best of its year.

23) Zac Efron & Vanessa Hudgens or Robert Pattinson & Kristen Stewart

To be fair, I haven't seen High School Musical 3 or Twilight, so who knows, they could be really good. Kristen Stewart showed surprising depth in Adventureland, so I'll go with her and Babyface Nelson.

24) Name a great (or merely very good) movie that is too painful to watch a second time (Thanks to The Onion A.V. Club)

I've never been able to rewatch Boys Don't Cry. The film's second half is brutal not just for the violence and simulated rape, but because Kimberley Peirce and Hilary Swank do a frighteningly strong job of putting you in Brandon Teena's shoes - I left the movie feeling violated and emotionally drained. I tried watching it once on cable, but when Brandon and Lana kiss for the first time I decided to change the channel and leave the movie on high note.

25) Beyonce Knowles or Jennifer Hudson?

I truly don't have an opinion. Hudson, because who doesn't like to root for an underdog?

26) Favorite Robert Mitchum movie?

My favorite movie featuring Robert Mitchum is Dead Man. His best performance, of course, is Night of the Hunter.

27) Favorite movie featuring a ‘60s musical group that is not either the Beatles or the Monkees

Blow-Up (featuring the Yardbirds)

28) Maria Ouspenskaya or Una O’Connor?

Maria Ouspenskaya

29) Favorite Vincent Price movie?

His performance in Edward Scissorhands was one of the first to make me teary-eyed. As far as leading roles go, Theatre of Blood is one of the best black comedies.

30) Name a movie currently flying under the radar that is deserving of rabid cult status.

Due to rights issues, The Beaver Trilogy is one of the few cult films left that can basically only be seen on seventh-generation bootlegs. And it's well worth the effort - check out this and other YouTube clips and you'll see what I mean. Sidenote: I've just found out, through the comments on that page, that Groovin Gary died in February. That totally sucks - RIP, Olivia Newton Dawn.
31) Irene Ryan or Lucille Benson (or Bea Benaderet)?

Lucille Benson

32) Single line from a movie that never fails to make your laugh or otherwise cheer you up. (This may be obvious, but the line does not have to come from a comedy.)

"Well, Wildcat was written in a kind of obsolete'm going to go."

33) Elliot Gould or Donald Sutherland?

Elliot Gould's performance in The Long Goodbye is one for the ages, but Donald Sutherland is maybe the most underrated '70s-era actor. MASH, Don't Look Now, 1900, Animal House, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ordinary People, Kentucky Fried Movie...

34) Best performance by a director in an acting role

David Cronenberg is frighteningly convincing as a killer in To Die For and Nightbreed. It's also fun to see him get killed by Jason Voorhees in Jason X.

35) Favorite Barbara Stanwyck movie?

Double Indemnity

36) Outside of reading film criticism or other literature about the movies, what subject do you enjoy reading about or studying which you would say best enriches or illuminates your understanding and appreciation of life, a life that includes the movies?

Good question. I read a lot of philosophy, particularly the existentialists. It's all in the mind, you know.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Spring Cleaning

The combination of the late winter/early spring awards movie glut and my newfound tendency to take more time to write a review has led to a backlog of movies I'd intended to write about but are surely nearing the point where I can hardly remember what I meant to say and you could hardly care. So, in honor of the annual editions of Video Movie Guide I relied on in the pre-internet days, here are some brief thoughts on the a handful of recent movies before I move on to longer responses to two I saw last week - one great, the other an out-of-left-field masterpiece - and my answers to the latest quiz at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.

The true test of a great actor is whether one can deliver a strong performance not just in a well-written tailor-made for him/her but in a weak movie that requires the actor to create something out of very little. In The Reader, Kate Winslet is the only compelling element of a movie that never knows what it is about. The frank eroticism of the first half clashes with the vaguely defined ethical quandaries of the second - the explicit sex scenes feel distateful in light of the Holocaust-related material, which end up feeling trivialized as they're framed within the story of one guy's traumatic, lifelong cock-block. If they weren't bound by the expectations of an Oscar-bait prestige picture, director Stephen Daltry and screenwriter David Hare would have been better off pushing the movie into The Night Porter territory, which at least would have been more interesting. That said, whenever Winslet is onscreen, The Reader briefly comes to life - she finds a complex inner life in Hanna Schmitz that the movie can't support. And yeah, as good as it was to see her finally win the Oscar, she should have won for Revolutionary Road.

Surprise of the year: I sort of liked Knowing. All signs pointed to Nicolas Cage's newest codebreaking thriller being a steaming turd, and I mostly went to figure out what Roger Ebert was thinking when he named it one of the best sci-fi movies he's ever seen. And while it's far from that, I was relieved to find out that the list of numbers predicting global disasters was merely a plot device and I wouldn't be in for two hours of Cage glumly working out code. The film actually shows an interest in the question of whether the universe is random or deterministic (in a popcorn-movie kind of way, but still), and Alex Proyas lends the film a haunting end-of-days atmosphere. It's goofy but likeable, with one of the best plane-crash sequences in memory, and I admired it for following its Biblical allusions through to their logical end (you may enjoy this more if, as a child, you were told that the literal apocalypse was not only real but just around the corner). More writing remains to be done about the ongoing performance art piece that is Nicolas Cage's filmography.

Let the Right One In definitely lives up to the hype and would have easily been on my Top 10 of 2009 list had I seen it in time. I didn't quite think it was a masterpiece, though I may like it a bit more when I see it with the corrected subtitles, which I'm told lend the movie the humor I felt it needed. Either way, it's head and shoulders above all the so-called "horror movies" that a horror fan has suffered through in recent years in search of the real thing. It's beautifully photographed, sincerely creepy (with a too-rare understanding of the importance of atmosphere) and ultimately moving for anyone who has felt like an outsider. I'll definitely revisit this one in greater depth, perhaps around Halloween.

Two Lovers reminds what a shame it is that Joaquin Phoenix was eaten by a pretentious, drug-addled Kodiak bear. His performance as Leonard, an emotionally fragile guy living at home with his parents and torn between two women, is remarkably complex and layered - I was particularly impressed with the way Leonard acts differently depending on who he's interacting with, the way everyone does in real life. I'm more mixed on the film itself - it's handsomely shot, and the performances are believable all-around, but the script ultimately felt a bit thin to me. Still, James Gray clearly knows how to tell a story with images, and I look forward to checking out his earlier films.

Something you probably already know: Sally Hawkins is terrific as Poppy, the incurable optimist whose life we observe for a little while in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. The spiritual opposite of David Thewlis in Leigh's Naked (another great performance), Poppy is filled with gratitude for her life and a desire to brighten the day of everyone she meets. The character could have easily been insipid and annoying, but in Hawkins' eyes we can see that Poppy is hardly naive; the movie is ultimately a winning argument for the virtues of relentless optimism. The scenes between Poppy and Scott (Eddie Marsan), her bitter, misanthropic driving instructor, are easily the highlight of the movie. En-ra-ha, Poppy, en-ra-ha...

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Mola Ram, prepare to meet Kali - in Hell!

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opens with one of the best non sequitors in cinema. After the Paramount logo dissolves to the image of a mountain emblazoned on a gong, the camera pushes in on a large dragon statue spewing smoke from its mouth. But the dragon isn't a priceless artifact or the entrance to a lost city - it's a kitschy stage prop, and we're thrown directly into a lavish, Busby Berkly-style production number ("Anything Goes" in Mandarin). While tentpole sequels usually have an inflated sense of self-importance, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom sets its self apart with its complete irreverance of its audiences' heightened expectations - even the film's title, blocked from our view by the introduction of nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), is mocked for its arbitrariness. And though the willingness of creators Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to try anything resulted in many of the elements Temple of Doom is routinely criticized for - the gore, the frenetic pace, the perceived racism and sexism - it's the film's borderline-sociopathic nature that made it a favorite of mine as a kid. No director can adapt a child's perspective like Spielberg, and if I say that Temple of Doom feels like it was adapted from the bloody classroom scribbles of a gifted, manic 8-year-old with antisocial tendencies, I mean it in the best possible way.

Starting in 1930s Shanghai, Temple of Doom starts with Indiana Jones escaping crime boss Lao Che (Roy Chiao), ultimately landing (literally) in India. Jones, Scott and Jones' ten-year-old Chinese sidekick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) are asked by the shaman of a small village to travel to nearby Pankot palace, which the villagers believe is location of a secret Thuggee cult that has stolen Shiva lingam (an ancient stone said to posess supernatural powers) and kidnapped the village's children. Thinking the stone may be his ticket to "fortune and glory," Indy agrees, and that's all the setup needed for a movie that moves breathlessly from bugs and booby traps to heart-ripping and zombification without ever apologizing for being the cinematic equivalent of a two-hour amusement park ride. More than its predecessor, Temple of Doom embraces the absurdity of its serialized ancestor. We're barely introduced to Wu Han (David Yip), one of Indy's many sidekicks, before he's shot and dies in Indy's arms alluding to past adventures we'll never see. He's just as quickly replaced by Short Round, the rare wisecracking movie kid who isn't completely insufferable - I love that we get the least possible justification for why Indy is travelling with a Chinese boy,I love the abrupt reveal (scored to Short Round's theme music) that reveals a ten-year-old drives Indy's getaway car, and I love that Short Round has his own theme music. Short Round's introduction is one of countless joyous movie moments in the first reel - Spielberg piles one sight gag on top of another in a way that recalls 1941 but without the bloat. Perhaps realizing that he was making a movie about nothing, Spielberg makes Temple of Doom a movie about the joy of moviemaking.

The film famously gets darker when Indy discovers the titular temple, where Thuggee high priest Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) presides over human sacrifices to Kali and forces the kidnapped children to dig for the missing Sankara stones. While Temple of Doom's tendency towards gross-out disturbed many parents and led (along with the same summer's Spielberg-produced Gremlins) to the creation of the PG-13 rating, the movie is actually gory in a way that certain kids are likely to embrace. Movies like Temple of Doom, Gremlins and Poltergeist were, in retrospect, healthy experiences for a literate young kid becoming aware of his own mortality and the resulting anxiety - the famous heart-ripping scene was more amazing than scary, an awesomely graphic externalization of the scary awareness that my body was filled with blood and guts. The whole movie can be seen as taking the perspective of a young boy both curious and afraid of the world beyond his doorstep, which goes a long way towards explaining many of the things it's been criticized for - the perceived xenophobia of the "chilled monkey brains" scene, the increased brutality of the action and particularly the movie's fear and derision of femininity in the form of shrieking, hysterical Willie Scott stem from the puerility that Spielberg understands as clearly as the earnest wonder that is its flipside. And when such willfull immaturity leads to a setpiece as perfectly born out of a child's sense of play as the awesome climactic mine cart chase, Temple of Doom makes a pretty strong case for willful immaturity as a virtue.

The film's casual imperialism is harder to defend, and I must admit that I cringe during the denouement when British troops arrive (accompanied by a triumphant John Williams fanfare) to blow away the Thugees and save the day. It's hard to imagine Spielberg, whose films have grown more morally complex over the years, ending one of his films with such an offhandedly irresponsible white hat/black hat moment today. Indeed, Spielberg has basically disowned Temple of Doom, and as his next feature, The Color Purple, continues a process of maturation begun in E.T., it's hard not to see Temple of Doom as something of an anomaly. And though I think it's a generally positive and perhaps necessary thing that Spielberg grew up, I sometimes miss the wunderkind with Peter Pan syndrome - nobody has ever made tastier cinematic junk food.