31 October 2010

Enter the Void *

Everything below is spoiler heavy. You should know that.

I shouldn't be surprised that a Gaspar Noé film is more interesting as provocative art than it is as dramatic entertainment. The experience of the movie is at times exhausting, overstimulating to the point of discomfort, and tedious in its obsessively circular narrative and thematic directness. The aerial floating and shaky POV camerawork leave one dizzy (hardly by mistake). Each shot is bursting with oversaturation, and any time something can strobe, it does strobe. Being behind the protagonist's head or spending fifteen minutes at a time roving and blinking in their as-literal-as-possible POV made me anxious and eager to move to the safer ground of third-person cameras that don't rotate, float, distort, or stare straight down at everything from an impossible, dizzying height. But of course, that's the point of it all, isn't it? I'm supposed to feel my nerves jangled, my safety net removed. I'm supposed to get antsy and agitated. That's why it's provocative.

And so saying, despite the discomfort that comes with it, I can allow it. What makes the film hard to get behind is the story, which I generously (but perhaps not tactfully) referred to as "Gaspar Noé sucking Sigmund Freud's dick." It's all about mother's breast, confused familial sexualities, and spiraling inward, almost literally into and out of one's own navel. It couldn't be any more obvious about its love of Freudian complexes if it tried. They are telegraphed in every relationship in the story. The day before the story begins Oscar's nerdy best friend Victor (Oscar's foil/surrogate mirrored self?) discovers that Oscar has been fucking Victor's mom. Later in the film, we match cut from young Oscar spying on his parents doing it doggy-style to adult Oscar spying on his sister fucking his mentor/friend Alex doggy-style. Basically the story exploits sexual desire with your mother and with your sister every chance it gets. I'm normally a big fan of cleverly used archetypes, even outdated ones, because you can get a lot of dramatic and philosophical mileage out of the same old playing pieces if you do it right. But here, they were just too obvious and too for-their-own-sake for me, and I found myself groaning at the drama. It's... well, a lot of it is dumb.

But not all of it. I want to give some credit where its due here. Follow with me. So the set-up goes, Oscar is mad in love with his sister Linda. (I understand that they are all each other has after losing their parents as children in a brutally depicted car crash, but it's pretty tough to understand why anybody would love someone as emotionally and mentally stunted as Linda. To be fair, Jen nailed it on the head by pointing out: she needs him. Case closed.) So when he dies -- the roundabout result of the drug dealing he did to "save" her by flying her out to Japan -- he does the directly-referenced Tibetan Book of the Dead thing and sticks around as a disembodied floating camera-eye. He obsesses over falling into lights, chases the things he cannot let go of, and vaguely seeks out reincarnation while basically stalking the sister he's in love with. So even before Linda pees on a stick and it turns up positive (in Japanese), I think pretty much everyone in the theater had predicted that his final reincarnation would be as his sister's baby. But the movie anticipates that and subverts it. Oscar tries to become his sister's baby, but we see him spiral out of her bare belly mid-abortion, foiled by her lack of interest in having a child. He even, after roaming around miserably, returns and tries again to enter the aborted fetus, the camera spiraling in and passing through the graphic remains. Oscar did try it, just as we knew he would, but instead of it being an ironic twist, it was a failed attempt, too easy, too obvious. The character wasn't going to get off that easily.

And so the story continues, the drifting becoming even more miserable and exhausting than before, until Linda and Alex are in a cab that does a headlong into a semi-truck, almost exactly like how Linda and Oscar's parents met their demise so many years earlier. From this point on, the disorienting movie becomes even more disorienting, as we drift away from neon Tokyo and into a sort of even-more-neon version of Tokyo, which we recognize as a massive blacklit model Alex's friend had built earlier in the story. It is fantasy Tokyo, with a massive Love Hotel at its center which Oscar had fantasized while high about being able to float into and see all his friends having crazy sex. And so here at the end, we spend a long, long time doing just that. So long, in fact, that I grew tired and bored of all the sexual bodies, whose genitals glowed with tendrils of light. Anyway, after an exhaustive sequence of drifting through rooms, we land on -- guess who -- Linda, alive and well, fucking a man and asking him to come inside her. Now ghost-Oscar can do what he wanted, and he drifts inside, catches a ride in a sea of semen (yep) and when that one spermatozoa pops inside the egg, he is there, reincarnated finally as Linda's precious baby. The last shots are a little moving in their "this must be what being a newborn baby would really seem like" blurriness, but there's something just a little too obvious about the comfort of mother's nipple, and that the wailing and crying doesn't begin until the moment the umbilical is cut and the baby is carried down the hospital corridor. It's as subtle as a sledgehammer.

I want to say it's nice that the story had, under all its layers, a protagonist who wanted something, had obstacles, and found resolution (and I'm totally okay that the resolution came bitterly, in the form of an obvious inward-turning fantasy). But I can't pretend that the movie isn't 137 minutes long, and I can't pretend I didn't use the word "exhausting" or synonyms for it half a dozen times in describing it. Dramatically speaking, it's got two clear choices and a lot of backstory exposition, cleverly (enough) delivered. Dramatically speaking, the pay off isn't worth the investment. But there's something in here, a philosophical and metanarrative message that has slightly higher dividends. Which brings me (appropriately) full circle here. As a story, as drama, as entertainment, Enter The Void feels lacking. But as art, as a challenge from a provocateur to experience things differently and to look at the world with new eyes, as an exploration of big subjects like sex and death and storytelling, Enter The Void is an interesting (if exhausting) experience.

Seen at Cinema 21.


Well, that's certainly a change of pace from what I've been watching lately.

The movie is a little too episodic, which has the effect of keeping the stakes low (though it does a reasonably good job of making the stakes feel higher than they are, if that makes sense... a clever cheat), but it's a smarter script than I expected, with a lot of nice moments throughout. And, since it's about a couple of brothers and their ostensibly complicated relationship as they are alone in a house and facing strange obstacles from outside, in a sense it's a perfect film for me to check out.

But Zathura is nothing if not a kid's movie, and though it has plenty of smart enough jokes to keep the adults entertained, it never tries to add adult-level peril or emotion or depth to the story. The relationship between Danny and Walter is kind of complicated, plotwise, but the emotions are pretty simple. Walter resents his little brother for dragging down all the fun and for taking away from his attention, and Danny resents his big brother for being good at stuff he's not and for not giving him a fair chance. They do some good stuff with it -- to be honest, I didn't see [SPOILER] the Astronaut turning out to be Older Water, even though it should have been obvious (having his older sister lust after him probably helped dissuade me from jumping to that conclusion; nice work, guys). But the relationship isn't much trickier to figure out than that, and the resolution is so easy it feels suddenly like a Disney film (it's Columbia Pictures, for what it's worth).

In defense of the picture, Jon Favreau takes all this and keeps it fresh, keeps it exciting, keeps it smart and fun, and the same mix of humor and action that he uses in the Iron Man films saves this from being Jumanji II: Jumanji In Space. Because let's face it, the very existence of Jumanji is a counterpoint to any criticism you might level against Zathura. Say what you will, but it's a jillion times better than Jumanji.

30 October 2010

Straw Dogs

After a good talk about helplessness with a friend, I thought maybe Straw Dogs would give me some insight into a slow-build, trapped-in-a-house kind of story. While it didn't -- it's much more concerned with mankind's violent nature and the tendency to deny such things -- it's still a great film to watch. So much tension, and such a slow build! From the very beginning things are begging to fall apart, but Pekinpah isn't going to release any of it for a while. He's going to ratchet things so tight that no element of the story won't snap in the insane, masterful climax.

A lot is made of Amy enjoying the rape, and it's not that I can't see why a lot would (maybe should... maybe) be made of it, but it's also one of the boldest, truest-to-character moments in the story. Her acceptance of her rape, and even her embracing of her former beau/rapist, is a conflicted scene for everyone involved, not least the rapist himself. It's an emotionally telling scene, it's Amy's true nature coming out -- and her relationship to Chris (the rapist) makes it just as akin to date-rape as violent-rape, even though he's holding her down and barking threats at her. But then, true to the themes and true to her character, she is betrayed by her own attempts to find the kind of warmth and attraction that David no longer (if ever?) has for her, when Chris grudgingly holds her down and allows his monstrous friend to have a go at her.

I read in an interview with Pekinpah that he asks critics who call him a woman-hater for this film to watch Bring Me The Head Of Alfred Garcia before passing any final judgments, because he feels that there shows that he ultimately loves women; that in Bring Me The Head they represent the "good pole." I love Straw Dogs, and although I don't think I find it nearly as uncomfortable or unsettling as a lot of people, it's still not an easy watch or one that I need to watch too often. But I'm an even bigger fan of Bring Me The Head, and had never considered it in the light of a counterpoint to this before. Something to mull over, when next I see it.

(On that note: I must hang my head in shame and confess that I've never seen The Wild Bunch in its entirety... something I'm eager to rectify, one of these days.)

29 October 2010

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

The movie falls more under the heading of "creepy" than "scary" for me, with a healthy handful of squirmy-intense scenes throughout. It's a proto-slasher, and it shows (and it has some moments it definitely owes to Psycho), but it's before the the genre became formalized and pretty much utter crap from a dramatic standpoint. In fact, one of the nice things about it is how the first couple of deaths play so quickly you could easily miss them -- especially the murder of Kirk (the first guy). The killers seem to have more in common from what I expect from the decades-later work of Rob Zombie; Leatherface and his family are more sadistically gleeful, misanthropic backwoods creeps than the sex-punishing Norman Bates/evil monster knock-offs that fill up the years between then and now. I guess that's what Zombie was doing: going back to the "roots" of the genre, getting away from cheap moralizing and silly "pure evil." (Neither of which apply to Norman Bates; both of which apply all too easily to the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street copycats.)

I was never really scared, but I was plenty of times engaged in the character's struggle and gripped, unable to look away from the tension of the action. But what stood out to me was something that I also remember noticing from Carrie, another film from roughly that time. The cinematography is a lot looser and more experimental than what I'm used to seeing, and the result is often some clever or beautiful or evocative shots, but the cuts are awkward, unprovoked, maybe even a little slapdash. I think the technology of smaller cameras and the freedom of shooting on location opened up a lot of doors for young filmmakers in the 70s, but editing techniques hadn't refined yet to this new palette. The result is a lot of individual shots that turn out breathtaking but the visuals overall don't flow smoothly. Or maybe it's more deliberate than I give it credit for, and there's some French New Wave influence going on here. The montage of extreme close-ups as Sally's gaping mouth and flickering, vein-filled eyeball as she makes that endless banshee wail of terror during the dinner table sequence was obviously deliberate; but earlier scenes like the strange establishing shots of the Bad Family's house when Kirk and Pam first find it feels more like doing the best with the shots available. Of course I don't know for sure, and it's not like it ruins the film, but editing should be the invisible art, they say, and here (and in Carrie) it very much isn't.

Overall, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn't quite what I expected, but it's close. It had some fake-outs I couldn't decide if were deliberate or not -- the opening crawl seemed to promise that Franklin the brother would also survive, and the majority of the first half of the story was Franklin's more than Sally's -- but overall it moved at the right pace, slow when you want it slow, fast when you want it fast, and with good action and some grueling moments of terror. It pushed right up against being exhausting without ever quite wearing you out, and it had a strange, sudden, kind of beautiful ending that I really enjoyed -- no exposition, no explanation, no reprieve (really) from the torment. Just relief-as-hysteria, some beautiful but graceless dancing with a chainsaw, and a perfectly-oddly placed hard cut to black -- leaving you to decide what it all means.

The Shining

It was really gratifying watching this with my girlfriend since she had never seen it before (hello, Jen). I mean, I watched it to see how a master handles scary, and how a child's perspective (and performance) can carry a story of this magnitude, and on both fronts I was more than impressed, I was moved -- but having a brand new pair of eyes experiencing it all for the first time really showed how it remains legitimately one of the scariest and smartest films put together. It is scary, not just creepy, and it's intense, not just tense.

It's also got a lot going on, storywise, without ever getting too bogged down in the details. There are at least two kinds of "magic" at work here, and while Dick Halloran connects the mysteries of the Overlook to the power of the Shining, it's unclear if he's being literal or trying to help little Danny understand one by relating it to the other. Even if they're related, the spiritual presence of the hotel and its grip on Jack is not the same as the power that Danny, Dick and Dick's grandma share, but the story isn't bogged down by these separate conceits at all, and of course it's enriched by how they interact. (I know it's all based on the Stephen King novel and that even though a lot gets changed in the translation, I doubt either of those two elements changed... right?) It's interesting to look at at this from a script standpoint and wonder who the protagonist really is, because it's pretty unconventional in that sense, but tonight I wasn't looking at the script. I was looking at the sense of terror.

75% of that terror feels performance-based to me, and while I do think Jack Nicholson may be overacting (arguably, all three leads are, and Scatman Crothers isn't exactly a subtle actor either), but it's the specific way he's overacting which not just saves the performance but drives it out of the park. There's something willful and unpredictable in the directions Jack Torrance's manic reactions take during each scene. One example that stood out was, a hearty gulp of whiskey -- the man's first in five long, miserably dry months -- is greeted with a kind of deadpan slackjawed blankness, rather than the ecstatic joy you'd expect (which would also better suit his dialogue, which conveys a sort of ecstatic joy). Throughout, his reactions are brilliantly over the top in all the perfectly wrong ways, and it's unsettling to watch.

Another 20% or so of the terror in The Shining comes out of the editing, of course, especially when you consider that (unless I'm mistaken) child actor Danny Lloyd didn't fully understand the film he was making and never (at the time) saw a cut of the movie -- it's possible I read he's never, ever seen the actual movie. Still, his hammy-moppet reactions are perfect representations of the kind of overdone shock a child would feel when facing a quick flash of hacked-up little girls, or a tidal wave of blood bearing down on you; and his monologue scenes where he talks to Tony are pretty much pitch-perfect and impeccably timed, for just one child alone, talking to and reacting to his own voice. It was interesting to watch this and really think about what it would (will?) take to get the right performance from child actors in a story of this nature. I'm going to have to be bold. I think I can do it, but it'll be new territory for me.

Anyway, this isn't a blog about my projects, it's a blog about the films I watch. The Shining is a masterpiece, and one of my favorite films by one of the greatest filmmakers (possibly only second to Dr. Strangelove? and maybe, depending on my mood, 2001), and tonight all of that was confirmed.

25 October 2010


As to the plot, I get a little confused because Chris (a.k.a. RoboCop's partner Lewis) and her boyfriend (a.k.a. Kirstie Alley's love interest in Look Who's Talking) seem to be the only ones actually in on the prank, and maybe the annoying friend in the ballcap. I guess that means Tommy (a.k.a. The Greatest American Hero) and Sue (who looks familiar and is in things I've seen but I can't place her, so we'll call her Jessica Rabbit's Singing Voice) were actually being totally benevolent when Sue offered her boyfriend to Carrie, and when he charmed the pants off her with his blasé who-gives-a-shit-we're-all-idiots attitude, big blonde mop and easy smile. He even kissed her! More than once! And all the friends who came around and accepted the former pariah... I got confused.

I think what confuses/confused me here is that we're meant to see the story through Carrie's POV, which means we suspect everyone is conspiring to humiliate her because she suspects that. Carrie's a big sheltered dork bordering on homeschool naivete, but she's no fool, and she knows how the others view her. But there are exceptions, whose characters we step away from Carrie to view, such as her crazy mom (who we never sympathize with, even when maybe we should) and her kind-hearted teacher Miss Collins (who we always sympathize with, even when maybe we shouldn't). I think having these less subjective viewpoints led me to believe that we'd stepped away from the limited-viewpoint of Carrie's paranoia and that the conspiracy wasn't all in her head. So not until literally the moment when Sue sees the string attached to the blood bucket did I even have an inkling that this wasn't The World vs. Carrie, and it was only Chris vs. Carrie.

But by the end I get it, and as hell broke loose all over the Bates High (heh) gymnasium in all its blood-drenched, fire-hosed, flaming-inferno glory, I was trying to reassociate my sympathies to the innocents who were being telekinetically murdered. In that sense, it's an interesting take on how a single act of serious bullying not only implicates a community but how much damage it can wreak on both the victim and those around her. It's also a lot less horrory than I thought, which isn't a complaint (even in my horror-movie kick, I'd rather have a good movie than a horror movie). It's more high school melodrama with pseudo-religious witchcraftery afoot. And I'm okay with that.

24 October 2010

Never Let Me Go *

Much like when I tried to read the novel (which, to sum up, I eventually never finished because although I quite liked the world and the characters, I found the narrative voice and structure to feel rough-drafty and distractingly amateur... deliberate or not, it kept dragging me out of the story), I wish so desperately I could have gone into this unspoiled by knowing what it was about (which is how my girlfriend was as we watched it). It's not built at all to be a story about twists and shocks, but it would have been a nice story to experience along with the characters, rather than knowing throughout the entire first act what the Big Mystery was that the children did not understand. Anyway that wasn't a dealbreaker for me, and it's the same experience one would have watching the film having read the (entire) novel anyhow, so it's not really worth griping about, that I knew what Hailsham was all about.

What I did find at least a tiny bit of a dealbreaker was how fast the film moved. We never really went very deep into the moments of the story, the conflicting, confused, unusual emotions of the characters in this world. I'm perfectly okay (kind of grateful, even) that the story never delves into the logistics of a world with (SPOILER) organ harvesting from cloned children raised specifically for that purpose. It felt a little odd that nobody ever addressed the possibility (or impossibility) of running away from the program and living a fuller life as a refugee, but for the most part I'm okay with that, too. But I wanted more details of their lives, more engagement with their situation... more something. It felt rushed, and a little bit glib, and the whole movie I only felt captivated on an intellectual level, thinking about the situation and the ethics of it and everything, but never feeling for them or relating it to my own fears and experiences. It never broke the surface for me. It feels like it could have been a three hour film. That is to say, it feels like it should have been.

To be fair, my girlfriend's experience was quite different. Going in expecting (hilariously) a romantic comedy (and not understanding why I was so keen to see it), she felt a gratifyingly emotional connection to the story and its characters, and although she too had criticisms of the story when all was said and done, it clearly struck her in just the way I'd wanted it to strike me. So that's something. Maybe it's just me, and my foreknowledge of act one, and maybe the movie deserves more credit. I wanted more of a gut-punch than a chin-scratch, but maybe it's just me that didn't get it. (Also, I'm told the UK audiences loved it, so maybe it played well into a more reserved mindset of crowd, or maybe that's a horrible stereotype. Or maybe both.) This devolved a little into chaos. These things happen. I'm on a borrowed laptop, and I'm starting to become self-conscious about how self-conscious I am (you read that right). New rule: no more apologies for brief, scattered, or one-sided posts.

Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.

22 October 2010

The Brood

Here's a horror film that's purely character driven. It's late and I wake up early, and it always bothers me when I have to make concessions of that sort but life is what it is and I can only say a little. The Brood is the product of clearly a different era, but you can't deny that every single scene comes from the drives of the characters. Frank is driven to solve the mystery and protect his child, and everything he does is to that end (though leaving her with her heavy-drinking grandmother early on seems strange, I guess it's better the known evil of boozy grandma to the unknown evil of crazy mom beating her). Hal the doctor is driven to cure those who are sick, though he uses extremely unconventional methods to do so. And at the heart of both stories is understanding Nola, whose every desire and fear is being translated into a literal child-sized monster. Everything, every strange and creepy event or crisis or turn in the story, can be traced back to these three characters. Every action is motivated, and every motivation is consistent and clear. Sometimes the underlying psychologies of the characters are a little too on-the-nose, a little too direct, I admit, but so be it. That's part of the creepy tone of the story. Her most basic urges are becoming manifest. That's what it's about.

Excellent work with child actors and with putting children in the scenes, "witnessing" the violence and horror, too. A bit of nice casting combined with some red-eyed makeup and fake tears and you really believe her both as a traumatized child and a child under attack. The film wouldn't have worked if it had shied away from the children's suffering or fears, or if the children hadn't been in real peril. That's all I have tonight. Like I said, it's late, and in all honesty I hadn't intended to watch this whole film tonight, but I got caught up in the tight pacing and short running time, and just kept watching.

21 October 2010

The Strangers

On recommendation I finally watched this, as an example of a recent "smart" horror film, with characters, and plot points that matter, and a concern for story as well as for scares. I have to concede that this fits that bill pretty perfectly. It's also right in the wheelhouse for the kind of thing I'm doing, and to top that off, first time writer-director Bryan Bertino wrote the script (then called The Faces) and was a quarter-finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship before selling it to Universal. His first film was a horror because he felt he could connect to his audience by scaring them (according to Wikipedia). Right in my wheelhouse, indeed.

The exercise in setting up some reasonably complicated and emotional relationships between the two leads proves a point I think a couple of friends were trying to make to me about horror the other day: it's a genre about things happening to the characters (with, therefore, pretty passive protagonists and very active antagonists or antagonistic forces), and even with all that set-up you end up disregarding most of it as you enter act two. I don't think it has to be quite as sharp a cut between character development and scary stuff happening as The Strangers has, but even with such a hard line separation I was happier having it all there than having none or having sloppy, lazy characterization fill twenty minutes.

The containedness is good, and gives me something to look at and think about. It's not quite how I want to deal with it, in terms of the threat or the reaction to the threat, but it's thoughtful and it works. I'd definitely like to see if I can find a script for this out there, maybe the Nicholls draft even, something before there was a shooting script. The use of handheld actually worked here, even though it was shakier than average. Something about a wide shot of a room, a girl alone, something out there, that all seems heightened by an unmoving but shaky camera. Static shots rendered handheld. Not like I've never seen it done before, but where I might have dismissed it, here I have to admit it helped the scene's tension.

It's hard not to compare this to Ils, but it actually holds up pretty well, and overall maybe better. For my money I found the masks a little off-putting and not-scary, though I enjoyed the man's mask ("enjoyed" meaning "was slightly unsettled/frightened by") and I enjoyed the blankness of not seeing their faces (though I can't help but wonder about the choice to never show us their faces at all, even when our characters see them in broad daylight... I don't hate the choice, but it felt stilted). But the killers themselves seemed pretty good. It sure has its share of miraculous timing, which is kind of a headache for a script-obsessed writer like me, but there were enough scary moments and enough thought given to the sequence of events and characters that I was willing to forgive. Plus, Ils lost a lot of its terror as soon as you figure out that the killers are a) easily tricked and fallible, and b) menacing children, nothing more; the masked invaders in The Strangers are a decidedly more adult, controlled breed of killer. It's not just their masks that hide their feelings. Their every movement is lethargic, as though half-asleep, they're more a menace that moves like molasses somewhere between methodical and maniacal (partially accidental alliteration! how about that!). In the end, they have two brilliantly telling lines, outlining a frightening M.O. for us without any heavy exposition. The first, in response to Kristen's demands of "Why are you doing this to us?" they respond merely, "Because you were home." Second, as they drive away in their beat-up pickup truck, stopping even to take a religious pamphlet from some young Mormon (?) missionaries, the girl (Dollface) says, "It'll be easier next time." This is (like, yes, Wikipedia points out) a proto-Manson family, calculatedly learning how to torment and kill. There's something plausible about this, unfortunately, which keeps the story a little scarier than a lot of supernatural horror stories. This kind of a creeper is a lot more likely to come breaking through your window at night than a tentacle monster or a fanged beast, or the walking dead, or a man from inside your dreams. These people are out there.

20 October 2010


I've been researching horror and "contained thriller" story ideas for a while now, and in a lot of ways Frozen is just what I'm looking to do, so I knew I'd have to see it. I had no idea, however, just how unpleasant an experience this was going to be.

The characters were unlikable in a really incredible way. I mean, it's a horror-ish film (pleasantly, and for a change, there was nothing supernatural, just man vs. bad situation and vs. savage nature) and I sometimes think they try to give you unlikable characters so you can have fun watching them suffer and die. I haven't seen it, to be honest, but I suspect this might be the Paris Hilton-in-House of Wax Effect. But this was different. These weren't characters I wanted to see suffer and die (nor did I get the impression I was supposed to); these were just three unbearably banal people. They look like and for the most part talk like Bros, but they have dialogue like discount knock-off Kevin Smith characters. On so many levels the dialogue tries too hard -- it tries too hard to remind us of the peril, to tell us what the character is feeling, to provide backstory and development through clichés and generic pop nostalgia, and to charm with references to Lucky Charms and obscure Star Wars monsters.

The problem is, Frozen doesn't try in a lot of places where it needs to. The shots, the editing, and the pacing never seem to know what do with themselves, so I'm probably equally tense from frustration that this experience isn't visceral enough as from anything seen on screen, even when the stuff on screen is fairly gruesome. (I had an almost identical reaction to the should-be-horrific early parts of Awake.)

Plus, it doesn't seem to care to keep track of the perils it inflicts on its three semi-characters. There's a lot of talk of frostbite, and we see some reasonably gross (to think about; not terribly convincing looking but that's okay) frostbite-caused badness; there's a lot of talk of needing to pee as well, and the girl even wets herself. I kept expecting all these things to accumulate into some kind of super gross-out climax, but none of them amount to anything. She peels all the skin off her bare right hand, but when she needs it, she uses it with seemingly no problem. Much is made of Joe's gloves being cut through by the "razor sharp" cable as he climbs across to the pole, but apart from some blood in the snow it doesn't come up again. Most notable of all, though, is (SPOILER) when Dan becomes wolf dinner, I know that Joe was trying to be nice and didn't want Parker to see, but we want to see it. At least a little bit. Tease us. It's gruesome when you tease us. It's boring when I'm watching two not-amazing actors cry at each other for two minutes while the score does a thing. And then? And then Dan's body is just... gone. They never even show us the aftermath. The next morning it's gone -- dragged off? no bloody trail? When Parker finally lands in what has to be the exact same spot, the snow is clean and clear. I mean, ignoring how confused I was when she passed through the bloody remains of Joe because I thought that might have been Dan, it would have been a great visceral reminder of everything they've been through if some part of the body was there off camera right or something. (I think at one point early on we see a perfectly clean hand sticking out of the snow, unmoving. That's our aftermath shot.)

So Frozen toys with graphic dismal slow death but it opts out of actually showing you anything or resolving its many sub-crises along the way. It puts three people I couldn't find less interesting in a ski lift and fills their interminable wait with conversations that mean nothing, go nowhere, and are totally artificial. It lacks sensationalism but it also lacks realism. It lacks supernatural terror but it also doesn't really sink its teeth into natural terror. On the one hand, I think to myself, maybe if I react this poorly to most similarly-styled contemporary horror films I should rethink attempting the genre. On the other hand, if the bar for writing is this low, maybe writing a smarter-than-average one is going to be easier than I thought.

I totally wanted to make some kind of bunny slope analogy there, but it's 1 AM and this movie didn't garner the kind of goodwill that encourages clever quips, to be honest. It's an energy-sucking movie. It gave me a lot to think about, because it is a contained thriller after all, but too much of it was unpleasant, and not all of its unpleasantness was the intentional horror-movie kind.

Is all of this arrogant? I know it's arrogant, but what do you want? It just doesn't feel like Adam Green put any thought into the reality of his story here. It doesn't probe very deep externally into the film's world or internally into these cardboard characters. It just doesn't feel like it's trying very hard. At the very least, I hope nobody will ever say that of my works. "What a lazy film."

19 October 2010

羅生門 (Rashomon)

I've been reading about Kurosawa all week, so it was only a matter of time before I started watching his films again. Amazing that this has been my first complete Kurosawa film all year. Obviously the story here is pretty well known, but it was a joy to think about this untraditional narrative from a script standpoint and not just what it means in a grand sense. The order of the events, the details of each lie, fall in a precise order to maximize suspense. In each telling, for example, we know that the samurai is killed, but with each telling the how and why is drawn out with several twists along the way. In the medium's (the samurai's own) telling it appears that Tajomaru is going to kill him at the behest of the cruel, taunting wife, but Tajomaru (in that telling) proves honorable, offering to kill the wicked wife if the samurai just gives the word. In the woodcutter's telling, the protacted amateur sword fight between the two men leaves Tajomaru swordless and the samurai still armed, leaving us to wonder how possibly the tables will turn; followed by the samurai's sword being lodged in a tree trunk at a precarious angle (blade out), teasing the audience that it might even be purely an accident that befalls him. Plus, some details conveniently match up, like Tajomaru's chucking his sword into the bushes to kill the samurai, which occurs both in Tajomaru's own and the woodcutter's versions.

Moreover, it's smart of the story to have each suspect accuse themselves -- confess essentially -- of/to the same crime. Had the wife accused Tajomaru, or Tajomaru claimed the samurai had committed suicide, it would have looked like self-preservation, the most obvious (and understandable) kind of lie there is. Instead we are left to wonder why any of the three would lie to take responsibility. Fortunately the characters are developed enough that we can infer at least possible motives (Tajomaru for the glory, for his pride and reputation; the wife to save face and/or as an expression of her guilt and shame for any collusion, implicit or explicit; and the samurai to save his wife's neck and/or out of shame for his own desire in the moment to do so).

The story is famous for not telling you what happens, and it's difficult to not want to work out some kind of mental graph, a sudoku puzzle of which parts are true and which lies and get to the bottom of this. I'm reasonably sure there is no such solution. But where a lot of scholars and film historians (that is to say, bloggers I've been reading lately) seem to claim that the story's contribution to cinema is to trick us, to leave us back where we started and to prove that no answer is possible, I think Kurosawa may have been a little more holistic than that. I think the answer here is that everybody's right, to a degree, and that truth isn't the same as fact. I like to look at this and not see three or four liars, but three or four imperfect, self-aggrandizing interpretations. Everybody is looking at what happened and telling you the version they want to be true, partially as a series of conscious selections (lies) and partially as a simply skewed set of memories (misremembering), because that's the way everyone's memories are. Memory is hardly infallible, and memory is the primary source of knowledge, especially in this particular story. Therefore, what chance does knowledge have? Truth is barely even a reflection of fact -- more like its echo. A dim, distorted impression that once bounced against actual fact, but that's it.

Okay I got kind of esoteric there. I have been watching Bergman and Kurosawa, after all. What do you expect?

18 October 2010

Ansiktet (The Magician)

This is really a delight to watch, because the themes and philosophical questions come into light early, but the rest of the story is a dense and complicated riddle. What is truth? What is its value? What is magic, or faith in magic? Does it have value, even as a sham? Does the faith people put in a thing give it its true power, and which is more valuable: the faith of the magician or the faith of his audience? Go ahead and replace "magician" with literally any role where one asks for the faith of others.

But The Magician doesn't offer up answers quite as readily as it does questions, partially because it's cleverly playing both sides of the fence. Is there magic, or supernatural forces, or God? Do ghosts haunt us? Do Granny's witch's spells and potions do anything? Does Vogler have any power about him at all? The answer seemed to me to be both yes and no, to all of these questions. (I'm no Bergman scholar, but I know he was obsessed with, among other things, religious faith, and I suspect in some form or other he was a firm believer himself. No matter! Let it never be said he was afraid to dabble in skepticism.)

The best I can say is, this plays out like The Prestige crossed with The Rules of the Game, starring a traveling sideshow act of snake oil salesmen, and taking place in rural Sweden circa 1846. The delineation between the house staff and the upper-crust, and how each is scammed in their own ways, says a lot about the world of the story, the nature of faith and hope, and how it breaks down along class lines. There were many, many great confrontations, monologues, and turnarounds throughout. (I could do better than to point out it "says a lot" or "there were great bits," but this is just a recording of preliminary reactions, and much of it will take more time to digest.) The bit with the fictional love potions -- a collision of cynicism and idealism where both sides colluded to believe, and therefore to produce the supposed effect, was fantastic; both con-man and mark were culpable, as it is with fantasies and faith. For me personally, the actor who is not a ghost but is, who believes he is dying but isn't, who is more successful and convincing as a specter than he ever was as a thespian, was perhaps my favorite embodiment of the questions the film was asking, and there was something haunting in "mute" Volger's way of letting the actor take center stage. The antagonism between Doctors Vergerus and Volger was intense, and sharp, and fascinating -- and only slightly distracting because Gunnar Björnstrand looked shockingly like Kevin Kline with chin scruff in this.

So many layers, and I'm sure I didn't even scratch the surface on my first viewing. This is one disc I'm likely to check out the (Criterion) special features on.

(NOTE: Interestingly, after checking out some of them, I learn that The Magician is seen as a parable about the creative process, about film- and play-directing, about performance, and the relationship between a fickle audience and even fickler critics and the artist himself. All that's super interesting and totally there now that I see it, but I stand by my assessment as well, vis-a-vis faith and magic and truth.)

좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈 (Joheun nom nabbeun nom isanghan nom / The Good The Bad The Weird)

I'm actually glad I just watched Leone's full trilogy before this, because although the characters are pretty clearly (though pretty loosely) based on the titular Good, Bad, and Ugly, scenes are stolen/homaged out of Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More as well. For most of the film, it felt more like the title should have been "The Good, The Bad, The Weird, The Gang, The Other Gang, and the Japanese Army." So many forces were chasing after this one map it got a little Mad, Mad, Mad World-esque. In fact, they play pretty loose with how each group keeps its eyes on the prize, and you just sort of accepted that in this cartoony world the three title characters/heroes were unkillable no matter what happened (the same is true in an Indiana Jones movie; I think this may differentiate action films from action-adventure, and I don't mean this as a complaint). The story is all an action-set-piece delivery system, and it doesn't disappoint in that regard.

The epic chase across the endless desert at the end was ridiculous and fun, and summed up the whole movie perfectly. It was largely impossible to tell who is doing what, exactly, or who is who's main antagonist, but Yoon Tae-goo (the Weird) has the map and is always somehow in the lead. Park Chang-yi (the Bad) looks like Vampire The Masquerade (Jen called it; she's right) and gets hilariously petulant when something gets in his way. And Park Do-won (the Good) is kind of a pretty-boy Korean Clint Eastwood, who apparently just wants to kill this mysterious guy who killed five guys, even though everybody racks up death tolls in the double digits every time a gun is fired. I think I missed something. Anyway he's a bad-ass, too, and likes his rifle.

So it's a mess, but it's interesting to look at the weird culture mash-up on display, and it's entertaining as hell. The only reason the story doesn't collapse under its own circuitous, convoluted weight (mixaphorically speaking) is the same reason that last mega-chase scene worked: it never slows down, and everybody just keeps barreling ahead at a breakneck pace. So long as everything's in motion, you don't have time to stop and think, and the ride stays fun.

13 October 2010


It's disturbing to think that the events depicted in this movie happened within my lifetime, that these kind of atrocities were committed against people not fifty or a hundred years ago but less than thirty. And that many or most of the people who did these terrible things are probably still alive today. But of course, this isn't a blog about historical monstrosities, so I'll talk about what I thought of the film. But because it's late and I'm neglecting my lady friend, I'll be brief.

The long meditative takes and realist approach to the story really work for the story. It's hard to look back on the scenes preceding the punishing end, in which our protagonist (of sorts, who only becomes our protagonist at roughly an hour in) starves himself to death in scenes that frankly make The Machinist seem cheap and gimmicky (there the emaciated human form was done with significantly less gravitas and to less evocative effect), but the best parts of the film for me were all the scenes leading up to this. The first two-thirds of Hunger embody the old tenet of "show don't tell" in a beautiful, kind of Malick-ish way, and makes the long, single-take back-and-forth with the prison chaplain so much more impactful and shocking. After sixty minutes of quietly, stubbornly suffering souls and head-butting confrontations, you suddenly feel like you're in the middle of a sharp-tongued Irish play, which begins light and gets heavy (as Irish plays tend to do).

Maybe it's that I'm a dramatist at heart but it was that sequence that hit me the hardest and stuck with me as the most beautiful and telling. Not for what was being said, but for how it was being said, and what it felt like to come across such a kinetically charged, nearly motionless scene in the middle of all these tense, quiet moments. It also reminded me for obvious reasons of Bronson, but again done with more impact and gravity. In short, this is one of those hard-to-watch movies that's incredibly worth it; every wordless scene was powerful; the torrent of words in the middle were powerful; the visceral slow decline to death at the end was powerful. I don't know much about the politics, and it's certainly a one-sided story (though I suspect it's hard to justify the other side on this one), but as a story and a film it's harrowing in all the right ways, and a true pleasure.

12 October 2010


In certain circles, this movie is all the hype. It was made for $15,000 with a crew of two, it's a science fiction post-invasion (sort of) movie shot for next to nothing that wowed people at South by Southwest and supposedly is getting released in theaters later this month. (A link at the bottom will allow you to "rent" it from amazon.com and watch it now, which is what I did.) It's handheld, shaky, with a tight focus and lots of composited creatures in the backgrounds of wide shots, and it's hard not to compare it on a certain level to District 9. The two plots are pretty different but they share similar views of humanity and morality.

On the one hand, this is really enervating, at least as much so as One Too Many Mornings was, or the short that Blomkamp made before District 9, or for that matter Primer or El Mariachi or Slacker, because it shows what you can do with very little money, a little ingenuity and a good premise or story. Rumor has it Timur Bekmambetov is already producing some new epic science fiction film Gareth Edwards is writing and directing. Just think of that! You make a clever, deceptively simple film and you show off that you can frame a shot, write a scene, and direct some actors. You show you can handle action without overdoing it, you can handle romance without overdoing it, and you can keep the pace moving fairly well, and before your little feature film (made for less than the cost of a new car) hits theaters you're scoring deals and could maybe make a second, incredibly bigger film. That's how it can be done. That's inspiring.

On the other hand, as much as I marvel at its economical storytelling and low overhead, Monsters definitely leaves you wanting more. It feels a tad rushed in terms of events, and just a touch more languid than necessary in terms of pacing. It never feels boring, but some of the meditative moments in the jungle and before they leave Mexico felt a wee bit like scene-padding. I wouldn't have a problem with this except the film has roughly twelve or so scenes, that's it. The trek through the Infected Zone took two nights by my count, and one of those was spent wandering on foot and sleeping atop a Chichen Itza-styled pyramid. How did they move so quickly? Why did they move so quickly? The scenes that are there feel lived-in, thought-out, and real. But where the movie kind of shows its budget is in its limited scope of time. Honestly, I just wanted more story. Like, twice as much.

But otherwise, what I'm given, I'm pretty pleased with. As I implied above, the acting, the cinematography, the dialogue, the pacing, the action, the romantic chemistry even... it all works. The themes take a little while to get going, but by the end I'm pretty satisfied, and in fact they're so beautifully understated that I don't mind. Also, it's got (idealized) Lovecraft monsters, tentacles in the fog. When this does come to theaters, I think I'd like to go see it -- not all chunky and compressed and chugging on my computer monitor -- and see if it all holds up on the big screen.

Seen as an Amazon.com "Pre-Theatrical Rental."

10 October 2010

Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)

Okay, I lied. This truly is the best of the trilogy. With each film, Leone expands in all the right ways. For one, the budget goes up considerably, as does the polish and production value; but more than that, the characters multiply and deepen, the world gets bigger, the plot more complicated (in an interesting way), and the themes become more nuanced. By the time we get to this, the most famous of the three, everything seems to be working together, a perfect storm of a film. The damn thing is three solid hours long, and although it feels it, you're never bored at all.

In fact, the three hours seem almost perfectly broken into equal-sized acts. The first hour is spent building the three characters, particularly the relationship between Blondie (the Good) and Tuco (the Ugly), with the ever-looming spectre of Angel Eyes (the Bad) homing in slowly on a load of money. At the one-hour mark, Blondie and Tuco stumble upon Bill Carson and each learn half the information needed to find the treasure. Act Two is spent bumbling through a mission, the confederates, the yankees, and eventually teaming up with Angel Eyes and his gang. At the two-hour mark, the showdown in the ghost town equalizes the three and sets them up for the final chase to the cemetery. Act Three is spent crossing the final thresholds and squaring off one-on-one-on-one in a fascinating if awfully convenient standoff to end all standoffs.

It's such a film about sides and shifting loyalties! You've got a constant backdrop of the end of the civil war, and the characters bounce between both sides, impersonating with little difficulty whichever side is likely to help their cause. Then you've got Blondie and Angel Eyes, explicitly demarcated for us as "Good" and "Bad" respectively, even though both are fairly underhanded throughout (but it's never ambiguous: Blondie is definitely the compassionate one, Angel Eyes the ice-cold murderer), and this obviously leaves Tuco, our Ugly, as the wildcard, the middle, the shifter. Tuco bounces easily between being as backstabbing and devious as Angel Eyes or as warm and amiable as Blondie (which, for this world, is remarkably warm and amiable, actually), and this has a double effect. First, it makes him the key to the whole story, because shifting allegiances and constantly choosing sides is what the story hinges on in so many ways. It also makes him the most interesting to watch, as he is the most dynamic, unpredictable character of the three. (Eli Wallach is really the star here, if you ask me, stealing every scene he's in.)

The climax of the film hinges on the fact that Tuco has more or less sided with Blondie throughout, that he was never really as bad as Bad, he never really allied with Angel Eyes after all, and since it was a pull for power between two (not three) sides, since this was a tug-of-war between Good and Bad, having Ugly side with Good tipped the scales. In a film all about shifting allegiances, it has to all come down to who the wildcard sides with.

The story deals so well with the absurdity of right and wrong, the brutal pointlessness of war, the fundamental lack of difference between "good" and "evil" as opposing forces, and the soul-wearying effect war has on a culture, not to mention comments on class, desperation, friendship, religion, family, and community as well. It's so rich. Too layered for me to do it justice here, that's for sure. I've heard somewhere or other that Leone's masterpiece is supposed to be Once Upon a Time in the West, but it's hard to imagine a film better than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for revisionist 60s westerns (spaghetti or no). Then again, I said something similar about For A Few Dollars More pretty recently, so.

Only one way to find out.

09 October 2010

Catfish *

Everything I'm about to say will be rife with spoilers. This is a movie that, if you can, you should see without having anything ruined for you. The problem is, even me saying that is enough to ruin the surprises of the film for any intelligent moviegoer, because if you know a movie has a surprise you can't not look for it, even when you try not to. This is how the movie was spoiled for me (and so was Awake and so was, way back when, The Sixth Sense and in a more explicit way so was I'm Still Here) -- by a good friend saying something along the lines of, "I can't really tell you about this film without spoiling it. It involves people meeting on Facebook. You should go see it, unspoiled." He meant well. But the damage was done.

Anyway, going in with that in mind I had the same experience I had when I saw Herzog's Grizzly Man the day after watching Zak Penn's mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness starring Werner Herzog as himself. It made me so skeptical of the film's veracity that I never trusted anything said or done. I was convinced the whole thing was a hoax, or a Paranormal Activity-style drama, and so I kept looking for clues about what was real or not. As it happens, Aimee Gonzales -- the face of the fake Megan Faccio -- was in attendance at the screening I saw, and offered an impromptu Q&A afterward. (She lives in Vancouver, WA, and I can't help but wonder if she comes to town and does a lot of these, if she hung out all day, or if I got lucky by seeing the primetime 7:20 showing on a Friday night.) Hearing some more outside-the-film details from her, including details of a filmed but unused ending in which she and her husband are flown to New York to meet with Nev for an excruciatingly awkward and mixed-emotions first encounter, made me accept more of the veracity of the claim. Angela, the master of so many Facebook sockpuppets, gets painted as a slightly less sympathetic character in Aimee's eyes, which is not surprising, all things considered.

But as to the film itself (as fascinating as the actual story is, I ought to judge Catfish as the film it is and not the story it's based on), I have to say I was really impressed. I mean, the seams of a budgetless documentary shot on point-and-shoots and cellphones certainly shows, but the narrative structure and control of story throughout is grand, including several scenes, interviews, and monologues edited in such a way as to weave layers of visual meaning and build complicated themes out of what could have just been a straightforward this-then-this-then-this story. (Just watch one of the last scenes, in which husband Vince gives a strange bit of wisdom which gives the film its title.)

Further, the sequence when they go to what is supposedly Megan's farmhouse in the middle of the night and discover it empty (abandoned? I was confused about the existence of the penny postcards in the mailbox otherwise... that part felt somewhat staged to me) was incredibly tense, almost horror-movie suspenseful. From a narrative standpoint, the protagonist Nev makes bold choices throughout, has several moments of weakness and self-doubt around halfway through (which he overcomes), and grows and changes as a person from his ordeal. He begins the story a handsome hero, goes on a life-changing journey, and comes home to find that the world doesn't seem the same as when he left -- he's no longer happy to be filmed, he no longer enjoys the packages from Angela, even though he knows the "truth" now. So, tight editing, smart storytelling, bold filmmaking, fascinating protagonists and a hero's journey structure. It almost feels too perfect somehow. Even after listening to Aimee Gonzales it just doesn't quite sit right.

I like this story a lot, and if it's all (or mostly) true they're incredibly lucky to have caught it all and incredibly smart and skilled to put it together the way they did. If the whole thing or sufficient amounts of it are fabricated to tell a story about shifting identities, paranoia, and facing the emotional perils of trusting the digital world so readily, then they've done a very good job of that, as well. Either way, this is a good film.

It's also, by coincidence, the first documentary I've watched all year.

Seen at Regal Lloyd Center Cinemas.

One Too Many Mornings

A personal note: director and co-writer Michael Mohan sent (or had his e-signature at the bottom of) my first congratulatory You're-A-Finalist email from the Sundance Institute, as well as the rejection email which inevitably followed. Plus, he's a friend of my good friend Dave. Although I've never met the man or corresponded with him personally, I feel a weird sort of... not kinship, but acquaintance with him. He's also just made his first incredibly indie, self-distributed feature debut, and everything about this feels like the kind of thing I could do if I really devoted myself to it. So it's inspirational and it's the project of a friend-once-removed; my point is, I went in really wanting One Too Many Mornings to be great, and really worried about if I'd like it or not.

I did like it. I liked it a lot.

It's got a great raw first-film energy. It's sleek and economical and never wastes your time, and the characters have a lived-in rhythm, a way of talking to each other that feels realistic, if not always real. The two main characters never bore me, even when they frustrate me to no end, and their relationship evolves organically. The shots are good looking and the editing and structure is tight. This is a good model for a successful first film. In fact, I have some filmmaker friends I'm going to have to show this to for that very reason. It's not flawless -- some scenes and a couple of the actors and actresses aren't quite convincing -- but it's never enough to bring the movie down. It contributes to that kind of rawness for me.

More than once I felt a scene had to surely be over by now, but it lingered, and another layer was revealed or another unexpected turn (even if just an unexpected gag) would arise and keep the story chugging, and the wait would be worth it. Occasionally that would lend to a sort of feeling of artificial rhythm; I have to admit it comes off as very self-consciously cut from indie-film cloth. And in this case I truly mean that as a compliment: it lives up to what those words should mean. The only other film made in the last couple of years I can think of to say that about that I've seen is Kabluey.

I hope this film succeeds, because I think it deserves to and because it renews my hope in the idea of an indie film being a good indie film. Either way, I bet this isn't Mohan's last film, and that's kind of exciting, because I know a guy who knows that guy. Plus he one time gave me really encouraging and then slightly disappointing (but not surprising) news about my first feature script. In so many ways, Mike Mohan keeps giving me hope. So of course I'm rooting for him.

08 October 2010

Le Cercle Rouge

It's funny that I've seen Le Samourai so many times and yet this was the first time I'd finally sat and watched more than half an hour of this. They're both such steady-handed procedurals, telling almost matter-of-fact stories about cops and robbers chasing each other. Only where Le Samourai was about balancing a smart cop versus a smart crook, Le Cercle Rouge feels more novelistic, sprawling. It's not that it's got a huge cast or anything, but everybody feels like they've got their own stories and their own trajectories here.

The big set-piece heist is fun, more for its tension than its ingenuity at this point. I wanted more conflict between the robbers, particularly Corey and Vogel, who barely knew each other but became instantly best friends at barely the slightest push. I appreciate a good honor-among-thieves story, but moments when a little mistrust would have suited the story were artfully sidestepped without a thought, it seemed. Especially considering how little each man knew about the other, it didn't quite ring true for me, though I get why it had to be for the narrative.

The theme that everybody is a little bit crook was a little overstated for my taste, though I did enjoy that the cops had to pretend to be crooks at the end to catch them, and that two "good guys" (the prison guard, Jansen the sharpshooter) were more like honorable "bad guys," and how noble the criminals seemed, or remorseful of being cornered into snitching. Like the cops are the ones forcing the crooks to betray each other, the cops are the ones who spread corruption while the crooks are constantly struggling against it, trying to stay honorable. That was all strong, but the explicit speeches on the subject from the chief of police never worked for me.

This felt like Le Samourai crossed with a Russian novel, in a good way. Still, I think I actually prefer the stripped down, spartan storytelling of Samourai more. But the story here is rich, so maybe that'll change on future viewings.

03 October 2010

Dawn of the Dead

This movie oscillates between pretty good and pretty awful, across the board. Sometimes the acting is great (Sarah Polley! Ving Rhames! Matt Frewer!) and sometimes not so great (wasn't taken with any of the security guards, and a couple of the generic non-Polley ladies). Sometimes the music is great, but often the music is egregious, loud, and awkwardly shoehorned. Sometimes the pacing is great, but other times Snyder cuts from tragic moment to comic-action moment so sharply (notably, killing Frewer's character and cutting straight into the "everybody loves the mall" montage [one of the only callbacks to Romero's version] without pausing to catch our breath). Sometimes the action is good, and the horror scary, but other times the action is hokey or flat, the horror the same. I don't know why Zack Snyder thinks a slow-motion cartridge hitting the ground and wobbling is so important, but he cuts to those a lot in the middle of fast-paced scenes.

Mostly, I guess I liked this movie. The characters were distinct enough to be interesting but not deep enough to really care about. I wasn't bored, but I was frustrated a couple of times. Then again, I was amused or engaged more often than not, and that's something. I guess the obvious thing is that Snyder changed the zombies, made them fast and savage. It doesn't change much, really, plotwise, except that it adds urgency to the chases and such, but it shifts the tone and theme of the story quite a bit. The slow monsters provide a sense of dread -- it's much more agonizing when you are unable to outrun something methodical but relentless. The fast zombies just make the end of the world so fast, so sudden, that you can't really take it all in, which I think cheapens the impact. When everything collapses so fast there's no time to take stock of the losses. Of course that's the point here, as this Dawn of the Dead is meant to be funner, upbeat and exciting, whereas the humor and fun in the 1978 one is blacker, more gallows-humor, more meditative.

Anyway, it was interesting, and it may have been enough to kick me down a path. I've been waffling for a long time, not committing to this horror/thriller story idea, and maybe something in here knocked something loose for me. It's time for me to do like a Zack Snyder character would do: stop overthinking things, just pick a direction and run.


Boy, I remember when this came out in 2007 and I read just the first paragraph of Roger Ebert's review which advised, "Do not believe anything you hear about Awake, do not talk to anyone about it, and above all do not even glance at the poster or ads, which criminally reveal a crucial plot twist." And so I closed the browser, I avoided posters and trailers, and I promised myself I'd see the movie. I missed it in theaters, then I forgot about it on DVD. It crawled so slowly up my Netflix queue that when it arrived, I'd forgotten at first what it was -- only that it starred Hayden Christensen and I was supposed to avoid any spoilers.

And so finally, about three years later, I sit and watch the film, remembering that maybe it's a little scary -- I know the movie's about surgery and anaesthesia and the film is called Awake and so... put two and two together. Anyway, I hope it will kickstart me toward writing. I'm prepared for twists that will ruin the movie. I can at least say the spoilers remained unspoiled (there's a much prettier poster of the movie I wanted to use for this entry, but to my shock the overly long tagline right there on the movie poster spoils the final twist in a series of twists). But what I wasn't prepared for was how god-awful amateur bad this movie is.

The story is okay, and the premise (without twists) should actually be enough to make me squirm in abject terror. From an opening crawl of text you know that the story is about a man who is rendered paralyzed but otherwise is perfectly alert, awake, and sensate during a heart transplant operation. Yes, they saw open Anakin Skywalker and clamp open his chest and he can feel every moment of it, but cannot move or act. That should be goddamn fucking terrifying. The performances are so flat and even-keel that it only registers as slightly squeamish. The twenty minutes of preposterous writing and acting that precede the actual surgery don't help. Zero thought was given to what the life of a young billionaire might be like. Too much effort was put into weird areas. For example, as far as I can tell, his megacorporation is swallowing up other companies at a rate or two or three a week, but we're supposed to like him because he keeps talking on the phone about all the jobs he's creating; but we're never actually given any real idea of what Clay wants or needs, aside from the fact that his fiancée wants him to tell his mother about her, and his mother seems to have some hold on him, only she really doesn't. Or something.

Anyway, the whole story is about Clay Beresford, Jr., who is laid out on an operating room table unable to act while feeling horrendous pain and hearing some things he'd rather not be hearing. Meanwhile he's the object of a tug-of-war between his hot young lover and his rich milfy mother, and in both relationships he struggles because he is unable to act. As the story goes and the mysteries and situations get more complicated, as bad people reveal themselves and their motives become known, all of the drama unfolds while our protagonist is laid out, unable to act.

Honestly, I have to say, it's a no-brainer why this script doesn't work. It's the world's most passive protagonist, by definition. It makes for an interesting challenge, at least, to tell this story with nothing but deadweight at its center (and poor Hayden Christensen, I keep wanting him to do another role on par with Shattered Glass, but this was definitely not it; he's as much deadweight as an actor as Clay is deadweight as a character). But if you ask me, Joby Harold doesn't get us there. I liked the wandering out-of-body bits and the structure was interesting (despite the überpassive protag) but nothing in the script rings true, not the relationships, the medical details, the procedure, the motivation for the schemes or the schemes themselves. Each heightened emotion clocks in way too low and forced, and for all of the nice photography it never really felt in aid of anything, just pretty.

I know Ebert gushes about the film, and it's not even that I disagree with his points so much as, I couldn't overlook what he overlooked. The movie lost me from the beginning and then just trudged along, one eyerolling scene after another, never rising above. I'll admit I didn't see the twists coming, so that's something, but a story still need strong characters and(/or) a sharply focused theme or throughline to string all those twists on.

If I don't care which direction things are going, why am I going to care if you take me for a sudden right-angle turn?

02 October 2010

Per qualche dollaro in più (For a Few Dollars More)

Compared to the roughness around the edges of A Fistful of Dollars, this film feels much more the work of a skilled director working with a crack team. The photography is crisper, the performances feel more assured, the characters more fleshed out, and the story and dialogue (while a little hurky-jerky in terms of motivation) feels light years ahead to me. Fistful is a movie you can appreciate with a caveat. For A Few Dollars More pretty much doesn't need one.

My one criticism is, the story feels needlessly complicated at times, and is a little too willing to indulge in novelistic side-stories. It takes its time getting into the heart of the action, as well. But many moments stand out, and many images and scenes feel iconic, which makes the slow pace worthwhile. There's even some nice dramatic moments from Lee van Cleef and the actor playing El Indio.

It's been a long time since I've seen all of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and obviously I'll be watching it again, soon, to complete the trilogy, but so far I might like this one best. The world feels the right kind of lived-in and historied, and there seems to be a good balance between darker and lighter moments. Again, if the pacing weren't quite so full of fits and starts, and maybe if they'd cut the movie by about twenty minutes runtime, I'd call it nearly a perfect spaghetti western. As it is, and based on memory, this might be my favorite of the Man With the No Name films.

The Social Network *

It's funny to think that Fincher has now done for a social networking webpage what he'd previously done for one of America's most famous serial killers: told its story through a detail-heavy, exposition-rich series of intercutting narratives and charmingly charmless characters. I'm inclined to say it's funny to think that it works, but maybe it's not; maybe of course it works. Either way, it does work.

The trick is really that all the Sorkiny dialogue and cool montages are all set dressing to the real story, which is the complicated friendship between Mark, Eduardo, and interloper Sean. The legal assistant at the end was right: Mark's not an asshole -- though I'm not sure if I'd call it "trying so hard to be" so much as "having a low-level case of Asperger's" -- and he's a difficult character because he's a believably difficult person. He reminds me of an exaggerated version of myself, or of many of my more computer-geeky or engineering-student friends. Actually, he reminds me also of Graysmith from Zodiac, which is maybe telling. I wanted to try and relate these two characters to previous Fincher characters, like maybe John Doe from Seven or the nameless protagonist from Fight Club (maybe the daughter in Panic Room? almost certainly Michael Douglas's modern-day Scrooge in The Game), but it feels a bit like a stretch, and while I suspect there's some of the same DNA in all of these characters, it would take a more in-depth examination than a here-are-my-initial-thoughts-after-seeing-a-film blog to pull that all together. Okay, yes, I'm copping out, totally. It's late and cut me some slack.

Anyway, this was an impressive piece of filmmaking because it tells a complicated story with a lot of seemingly boring details without being a boring story, and it does it in a way that illuminates some tricky, nuanced, challenging characters. I couldn't give a rat's ass about the veracity of this story, because it's a story, and I'd rather have truth about humans than facts about specific people, and The Social Network has that, plenty.

Seen at Pioneer Place's Regal Cinema.

01 October 2010

An American Tail

Watching this as an adult is a curious experience. I didn't realize how many times I must have watched this as a child, but it was a movie whose dialogue rhythms felt so familiar to me it was like an old song. I've had this experience a couple of times before, most notably with the first Star Wars movie. There were lines in this that I realized I'd heard a million times, knew the sound of, but hadn't understood the words. I'd been too young. It's like hearing a song you grew up on and suddenly realizing what the lyrics are about.

There's not much to say about the story of An American Tail. It's a kid's movie from an era when kid's movies were allowed to be a little darker emotionally but were expected to be even more simplistic narratively -- a trade off, I guess. Like revisiting Pinocchio or The Secret of NIMH, it's marvelous to see how varied the world can be, how legitimately frightening at times, and the songs mostly hold up better than I expected (I'm not generally a fan of musicals, as the pace of them is always a mess, but I can appreciate good songs from a musical). Each and every character (even Fievel) is fairly one-note, but they're distinct and interesting and everybody is given something to do, and something different to want, which is nice. Story wise, it feels a little like it was cutdown from something at least twice as long -- and in particular it shies away from action sequences in a way that's decidedly different from now; nowadays we'd cut short the fun and games or character moments to squeeze in more action, but I think animating chase and fight scenes was a lot harder and more expensive in the days of drawing shit by hand.

Overall it's not great, and I can't not look at it through the rose-colored lenses of my youth, when I loved the everloving shit out of it, but it's also most definitely not terrible, at all. It holds up as well as I'd hoped, and not much more than that.