28 September 2010

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done

As soon as I heard that David Lynch was executive producing a not-quite-murder-mystery film by Werner Herzog I knew I had to see this. Reports that Michael Shannon was basically channeling Klaus Kinski didn't hurt either. Five minutes into the film, this felt like everything I suspected it would feel like. Herzog's daffy madman-poet approach to filmmaking coupled with Lynch's stagey, distancing line readings and something-dark-under-the-surface suburban milieus, plus Brad Dourif and Grace Zabriskie cameos. But the further in I went, the less in love I was.

There's definitely something interesting and bizarre and watchable here, and the story of what seems to me like a schizophrenic man being consumed by his bent worldview and possible hallucinations is certainly ripe for a Herzog-Lynch team effort. The problem I think lies almost entirely in the script, which goes to pains to lay out a forced structure that feels artificial almost to the point of parody. On the one hand (and especially when viewed as a pairing with Herzog's other film this same year, Bad Lieutenant) this parodic approach might seem intentional, but where it felt so easy and jabbing in Bad Lieutenant here it feels stilted and, frankly, a little boring. The more Chloë Sevigny and Udo Kier's characters doled out conveniently portioned pieces of exposition and backstory on Willem Dafoe's cop the less interested in the story I was.

Actually, the more I think about the layout and the characters -- like the obvious and pointless cuts in location that accompany each return to the interviews in progress, or Michael Seña as the over-eager partner who keeps trying to enact movie clichés about hostage situations -- I'm certain it's meant to be the hostage-movie formula turned upside down. But it doesn't change the fact that the structure became so tinny and artificial that I was frustrated more than engaged. Bad Lieutenant made cop clichés feel loose and wild, fun; My Son, My Son makes them feel stiff, like an overstarched shirt.

Still, the performances are pretty great, and the Herzogian moments many (and the Lynchian ones, too), and that all makes it worth seeing, without question. That it's loosely based on real events is interesting. (Wikipedia has some interesting details about Herzog and screenwriter Herbert Golder meeting with the man Brad McCullum is based on.) But my first impression is that it's more of a curiosity than a great film. Who knows. I do have the sense this one'll stay with me for a while, and I liked Bad Lieutenant significantly more the second time I watched it. Maybe when I return someday and watch it again, I'll fall in love.

Le Temp du Loup (Time of the Wolf)

By post-apocalyptic-movie standards of the day, Time of the Wolf must have seemed so bleak and dire, even "realistic." But now that The Road has come along and outbleaked Haneke, I can instead look at this as more of a sociological character study, a look at groups of people and how they interact in a crisis and in the ensuing chaos and reordering -- which The Road definitely isn't.

I admit that I've only seen a handful of Michael Haneke films -- and neither version of Funny Games -- but his view of humanity never seems quite as hopeless as I expect it to. There's always some struggle forward, some semblance of decency or community, even if it starts to feel futile at times. I think he's less interested in long-term nihilism like declaring humanity a lost cause or that cruelty and suffering are eternal so much as he is exploring the ramifications of cruelty. His films depict terrible actions as sudden, quick bursts of violence, and then the story continues through the ripples that follow. His stories are counterpoint to the consequence-free violence and savagery of most films. Humans are resilient; they can bounce back from almost anything, no matter how horrific -- but it takes time, and we're never the same as before.

I want to go on with details and examples, but the truth is I'll be late for work if I try. So instead, if you're reading this, just go watch this or other Haneke films and see for yourself. That is to say, in the words of LeVar Burton, "Don't take my word for it!"

25 September 2010


This is one of those movies I know so well and love so much (and I know I'm not alone), I have almost nothing to say about it. Truth be told, I put this on while I put away my laundry, thinking I'd be interrupted long before it was over, but a delay in plans allowed me to finish it. Can't argue with the chance to sit through a classic.

Everything here moves so smart, with not a single wasted frame of picture or word of dialogue, it's no wonder they use this as the example of a "perfect" screenplay or a "perfect" film production. The themes are tight, the characters are so interesting, and the story works so well -- I want to say the plot lacks a single hole or inconsistency, but you know what? there may be many (I was always unclear why Ida Sessions knew about the obituary names, for example). Even if there are copious plot holes, though, it feels intuitively right. It feels consistent. It's even got totally reasonable red-herring rabbit holes for Jake to fall down, so the final twist doesn't feel like a cheat.

What do you want me to say? I absolutely fucking love this movie. There are a number of movies I can tell you why I love, but I can't be objective about. Movies like Chinatown, Dr. Strangelove, Blade Runner. These are examples of my top-tier movies, movies I'm mostly willing to just love without bias. Sometimes I wish I had more of them.

La Planète Sauvage (Fantastic Planet)

It's hard to think of a more surreal, alien approach to a story about aliens than this. It opens in media res on a silent, terrified human holding an infant and racing away from nightmarish, dangerous things (animals? plants? geometric oddities?) on an endless plain. She thinks she finds safety in the high ground, but a massive blue finger prods her roughly back down the hill. She races up again, looking to be safe, but the finger prods her once more. This continues, a sort of inverse Sisyphus, until the finger grows bored. It lifts the woman into the air, high high into the air, and drops her. She tumbles and dies. The baby is alone and scared. We pull back to reveal the hand belongs to a strange blue creature (a Traag) that looks like Dr. Manhattan bred with a humanoid fish. The story then shifts perspective to these massive, psychic mysterious creatures, and a child named Tiwa who adopts the baby. We watch for a while as she dresses it up in preposterous humiliating outfits, but the baby is a tiny pet, no bigger than a hamster. The baby doesn't know any other way of life.

Traag time moves slower than Om (homme, or human) time, which gives the story a really novel arc as Terr (the baby, whose name is apparently short for terrible but also evokes the word Terre, the French word for Earth) grows into a boy and eventually a man, while Tiwa and the other Traags don't age much at all. In typical future-dystopian fashion Terr escapes and lives among the wild Oms (living in the park!), and his unique skills (knowledge and education) first cause strife within the group but eventually turn the tides and help them win the war. Of course, things are much, much stranger than that when you watch it.

Apart from a surprisingly abrupt conclusion (and some cheating narration throughout which is mostly forgivable), Fantastic Planet is an inspired story. It belongs in the same camp as classic science fiction like Dune and Solaris. It's maybe the smarter, artsier cousin of Planet of the Apes or The Matrix. I'd actually have liked to see them go further with many aspects (I had this same reaction to another kindred spirit: TRON) but overall, I'm totally impressed.

I could go on about the animation style and the music -- both feel dated but perfectly suited to the piece -- but I feel I've run on long enough. Suffice to say it's a great film, maybe a genius one. If you've never seen Fantastic Planet but you like science fiction -- I mean real science fiction, not just robots and aliens being used as a delivery system for explosions and chase scenes -- I think you owe it to yourself to see this film.

24 September 2010

Cat People

Although I watched this for its reputation of remaining scary without "showing the monster," what actually struck me was the characterization. They're all sympathetic, not flat at all (though a bit hokey), especially poor tortured Irena, consumed by passions and a fear of those passions -- so irresistible to men that even her shrink turns into a creep who must have her, but unable to love for fear of devouring anyone she loves -- whether out of an uncontrollable impulse toward violence or a monstrous jealousy, it's a little unclear. The whole movie she keeps telling people the truth, but nobody will believe her. In fact this debate consumes the story so much that much of the tension comes not from waiting for someone to die but from wondering if maybe she is crazy after all, and maybe she keeps letting that leopard at the zoo out instead. Plenty of clues cleverly point to that, leaving both possibilities -- that she's a Serbian cat-woman, or that she's a looney with a stolen key to the leopard cages -- perfectly feasible right up to the final moments of the film.

I've no doubt some pretty intricate theories can be pulled from this film -- anthropological, gender studies, metaphors about married life and jealousy and fidelity -- but I was actually watching for more surface reasons. I wanted to see tension and horror; I wanted to see character arcs. I was given both. Some things when watching felt a little aw-shucks and movie-real (as opposed to real-real, I guess?), but upon reflection they worked for the story pretty well.

Great photography, nice pacing, decent story. Not terribly scary (but I bet it was for its time) and not terribly deep (but not so shallow as to feel like a B-movie). It did everything it aimed for, and smartly. Very little to complain about, actually. Nice work, Tourneur & Lewton!

23 September 2010

I'm Still Here *

It's difficult to say if I'd have viewed this the same way if I'd seen it before Casey Affleck admitted it was all fiction. Not to brag (is this even brag-worthy?) but I never doubted for a second if it was real or not. The moment Joaquin Phoenix started showing up in public looking like the lead singer from the Eels with Casey Affleck smirkingly chasing him with a camera, it seemed like a self-indulgent film project being shot in public. How could it be anything else? And while it turns out that self-indulgence is naturally one of the main themes here, an even bigger one is complacency and voyeurism. "JP" turns in on himself and disappears into his own navel, and we loyally follow him in.

It's a sneaky film about celebrity culture. About the boundlessness and ennui of being a celebrity and the cold excitement of vultures who surround celebrities. At no point in the story does anybody ever once say, "Hey, dude, I think you're making a mistake," let alone, "Hey man, are you all right?" Not his assistants, not his friends, not other actors and celebrities, not the media who eagerly report on his seeming descent into madness, and not the fans or internet public who relish the chance to tear him apart. One of the most telling scenes is when he finally gets up to rap in a club in Miami. The experience is fascinating in an outsider-art way, but the rapping is obviously sloppy, and his performance seems to come through a drug haze. He's angry, slurring, mumbling lyrics about how hard it is to have everything. Most of the audience laughs or stands in shock -- but almost everybody has a cellphone or point-and-shoot camera trained on him. Then Joaquin loses it to a heckler, leaps off stage and gets in a fight with him. This isn't staged (it may be planned, but it's diving into a live crowd), and as the two brawl and beefy security dudes sweep in to stop the ordeal, the entire crowd turns to the fight, cameras still pointed at the action. It's a celebrity beating someone up, a would-be-rapper totally out of control, but the tone of the audience is exactly the same as before. Now the action's over here instead of over there. They still have "oh my god" smiles on their faces, thrilled to be capturing this. These people are not actors. There's only one (known) actor in the room here, but the telling performance comes from everyone around him, caught in the undertow.

The only reason I wonder if my experience would change if it were still claiming veracity is because a good deal of watching I'm Still Here gets devoted to an unconscious guessing game of who's in on it and who's being fooled. I guess that's part of the point: with celebrity culture you never know who takes you at your word and who just glad-hands you and plays the yes-man -- but I found that aspect of watching and wondering a little exhausting.

The editing and photography was occasionally bland or workmanlike (after all, it's "cinema verité") but was at least as often surprising and evocative. The closing moments -- the entire end sequence of traveling to Hawaii (?) to see his father -- was beautiful and telling. Overall I went in with low expectations and came out thoughtful and moved, despite the raucous Borat-style antics throughout. Which I guess is as good a mark of success as any.

Seen at the Hollywood Theater.

19 September 2010

The Jacket

This is a curious film. I don't know the actual story of its production (I may look into it after writing this, or I may just leave my assumptions alone), but it feels like one of those movies that barely got made. The story concept is generally strong, but the grandfather-paradox-heavy patness smacks of young screenwriter to me (ahem). The performances are a little uneven but generally good, and the cast is certainly great, but the dialogue and characterizations (particularly motivation) are a little too easy, glib, or unnatural. The photography is a little too flashy, especially when it leans uncomfortably on high-contrast extreme close-ups of the lips or eyes of Adrian Brody, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kris Kristofferson. For me, the editing consistently drew attention to itself, which as they say defines bad editing ("the invisible art"). But it's not like this is a bad movie, at all. Just a very calculated movie. A very designed, constructed, anti-naturalistic one.

The Jacket reminds me of The Butterfly Effect or The Machinist or maybe a Natali film like Splice or Cube (that's the second time I've been reminded of Cube recently). It's dark, high-concept, stylized in a sort of generic way, and the story never quite gels, never quite earns plausibility, but feels somewhat worth watching anyway. It's a good movie that doesn't seem to have any idea how to be (or maybe any hope of being) a great movie.

17 September 2010

Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars)

It's interesting to note that in this, the film that made Clint Eastwood, the actor looks just a little too pretty-boy to be believed as the badass stranger he's meant to play. Because he went on to embody this archetype so absolutely over the next two decades, there's a kind of cognitive dissonance in watching him here. It's like watching a man in an ill-fitting suit, even though you've seen that man in the very same suit dozens of times and you know it's a perfect fit.

A cursory glance through Wikipedia tells me that this was Leone's first spaghetti western, and that it was early in the genre's life, which makes sense. Like Eastwood it feels like the genre and the director are both finding their footing here. It's a little rough around the edges, but it's definitely got something. I wonder how we'd view Fistful if it hadn't been followed by For a Few Dollars More and of course, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, among so many others. If Leone and Eastwood hadn't gone on to be the defining names of this type of storytelling. Taken on its own merits, it's a western remake of Yojimbo (itself an adaptation of Hammett's Red Harvest, such an awesome road from mobsters to samurais to the old west), and it's got a lot going for it but it's also clearly a b-movie in a b-movie genre; it doesn't quite transcend. It's impossible for me not to see this through the eyes of someone who's seen later, greater works in the genre, not to mention who's acutely familiar with the source materials that led us here. Trying to view it as a stand-alone piece, I think it's fine, but that's about it.

Also, this film influenced more than just the stylistic choices of Leone's later films and spaghetti westerns in general. Eastwood would later direct two films of his own, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, about a stranger who rides into a corrupt town, fights the forces that be with cold brutality and shifting allegiances, and then rides back out at the end. In fact, if memory serves, he remains nameless in both films and they're implied sequels to The Man With No Name. More to the point, though, I found both of them to be stronger films than A Fistful of Dollars, definitely the work of a man with a firm grip who'd found his voice and his style. But I guess it all started here.

Devil *

Right off the bat I could tell two things about Devil, before we've even met our characters. The first thing I could tell came from the disorienting, slightly thrilling title sequence photography, which consisted of helicopter shots of (what I assume was) Philadelphia upside down! The shots were really effective, in that I felt affected by them, but I couldn't tell you to what end, and the more of them they showed me the more I couldn't help but try and find meaning in them. It's an upside-down world? We already live in an underworld of sorts? Going down is not as safe as it seems? Yeah, nothing. So the first thing I knew was, this movie was going to occasionally do something because it was cool or evocative or pretty or disorienting without really giving much thought to what that really meant. This was not a surgically precise film, it was a sledgehammer. This was not the tightly controlled sniper picking off a very specific target, it was a shotgun blast.

The second thing I could tell came from the voiceover, which would come back throughout. In general, common wisdom in screenwriting is, voiceover is bad. Voiceover is awful. Voiceover is, as they say, the devil. It's lazy writing, often telegraphing or shorthanding more complicated things and rushing the story to the audience in the least engaging way possible: by outright telling them. There is a reason lectures are so poorly attended; writers please take note that if you are going to just tell me stuff, it had better be really amazing stuff. Many films have made use of voiceover narration to prove it can be done wisely. Wings of Desire, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club, The Informant!, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, off the top of my head, all use it in unique and worthwhile ways. Devil tries to. Devil fails. The voiceover continually updates us on a preposterously specific and relevant "series" of bedtime stories, folklore of the devil that's so concrete and exact that all other accounts of the devil should hereby be dismissed as hogwash, because they don't involve five people in a room together with one of them being an impostor; they don't happen out in public, which is clearly how the devil would pull his tricks (and does, if you believe Rodriguez's mother [or grandmother's?] stories). The voiceover also telegraphs events in a way meant to be suspense-building but in fact neutralizes any chance of surprise throughout. Comments like "Also he kills bystanders trying to help" and "He always makes sure a loved one comes to see the last death, to 'make us doubt everything' " really kill any chance for the movie to surprise me.

Whenever we would cut to the drama inside the elevator, or at least inside the building, I was passingly engaged in the characters, though hoping for more. But I would check out at best, groan at worst, whenever we hit a new chapter mark and the latino security guard's voiceover would kick in with some weird little gem that was way, way too exact to be in "every story" his crazy mom/grandmom would tell him at night (how boring for this kid to hear variations on such a rigid formula! it'd be like watching a whole lot of romcoms or action movies or contained thrillers back to back! oh wait...). So the movie for me moved in mildly aggravating fits and starts.

Somewhere in there is an interesting story, but it would have to have the devil premise (which is the whole point, unfortunately) completely exorcised. Even a supernatural killer would be okay, but it can't be Satan please. Focus on the characters and the drama and not on the cliff's-notes narration and you might find something worth filming. The dialogue and acting and containedness of it all reminded me of Cube, which also flirted with being a better movie than it was, but actually came a lot closer. In the end, Devil was short enough that I don't regret seeing it, but it was neither scary enough, engaging enough, or intelligent enough to justify itself for me, as-is. M. Night stories are just too obvious, too blunt, and collapse too easily under even the slightest of scrutiny. This is no exception.

But man, it feels like it's been a while since I watched a movie.

Seen at Century 16 Eastport.

01 September 2010

Bad Lieutenant

This was interesting to watch immediately after the Herzog film. For one, I think there's a little more remake going on that they admit. Although the primary crime and the third act are definitely different, and the central themes are clearly more spiritual in Ferrara's and more moralistic in Herzog's, the stories share an awful lot of similarities, like the sexual abuse of authority, the gambling-himself-into-a-hole subplot (and the requisite sympathetic bookie) and the twisted way the title character can't let go of his case.

As I said earlier, the new one feels like it riffs on the same themes but tells a different story. Cage's Bad Lieutenant and Keitel's Bad Lieutenant are both self-destructive, brutal monsters of men, both driven by a weird anti-hero's moral principles (almost a noir-hero's sense of right and wrong taken to telling extremes). But where Cage's character seems to be reptilian in nature, an aggressive walking id trying to stay one step ahead of the terrible wake he leaves behind him, Keitel's character's is haunted by a sickening loss of faith and a repentant respect for and guilt from his religion. I'm not sure which is simpler, but they're drastically different.

(One quick tangential note, thrown here in the middle because I had no way to connect it to the other comparisons I've made here: Nicolas Cage's slowly-deteriorating voice and body language reminded me increasingly of Woody Harrelson's Larry Flynt, in a way that I always chalked up to heavy pain-killer use distorting one's ability to speak. Nonetheless both times I was reminded of it. Here, Harvey Keitel's character reminded me a ton of his role in the other film he did in 1992: Mr. White from Reservoir Dogs. They are both mean-spirited quasi-good-guys who kill and steal and cheat but have strong moral backbones, and they both break down into sobs in almost exactly the same way. It's almost disappointing, because the two characters lose a bit of distinction when placed side by side, and both movies came out the same year, so. Yeah. Anyway. Just something I thought of, comparing the heroes of these two movies to other well-known characters.)

The end of this one, the first Bad Lieutenant, stands in contrast as well. In Port of Call Nicolas Cage's hero (McDonagh) pushes past some threshold of immorality and comes out miraculously, impossibly clean -- and ready to start the pushing all over again. In Ferrara's film, Harvey Keitel's nameless hero comes off to me as more furious at the world, daunted by its miracles, and lost when confronted with grace. He's a man who expects the savage, merciless law of the jungle to prevail, and crumples when he has to face greater powers than himself, forces of good and forgiveness. Or that's what this atheist pulled from the Catholic-heavy imagery. Maybe someone more spiritual can do more with that. In the "original," he is "redeemed" by helping the rapists escape, and then he is released from further sin by murder. In the "not-remake," if he is "redeemed" it is by discovering the cold, morality-free nature of nature, and committing enough "evils" that eventually something came up "good," and he is pointedly not released from further sin at all. In fact, it is implied he stands on the cusp of beginning again, though this is left open to interpretation.

Although both are pretty good films, story-wise there's no question which I'm a bigger fan of. Moral righteousness in the face of a Catholic ideal of guilt and baptism vs. moral ambiguity in the face of a capricious and arbitrary world? Yeah. Sorry, Mr. Ferrara. You made a great movie, and a brilliant character study, but put me on Team Herzog.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans

I liked this when I saw it last year in theaters, even more than I thought I was going to. Nicolas Cage gives not just a typically batshit performance; he gives a surprisingly nuanced batshit performance. He gives us a character that actually evolves and develops throughout the story, and it's fascinating to watch.

The script is fun as hell, too. I admit to not yet having seen Abel Ferrara's original (edit: Now I have), but I know this isn't a remake at all. It feels -- and this is clearly wild speculation -- more like riffing on a theme than any kind of homage or remake. And to that end, this story about a "bad cop" who keeps pushing further is great. There's so much tension in watching someone pulled tighter and tighter and waiting for everything to snap, explode, collapse.

But the story here is smart. The moral world of Port of Call is complex and unnavigable. Even the good cops play loose and dirty with the law. The authority doesn't really get involved, and the worst punishment seems to involve being kicked out of the game -- and even that is shockingly temporary. The deeper into depravity Terrence McDonagh goes, the more he drags along those loved ones foolish enough to tether to him. Eventually he pushes well past the limits we even expect him to, until he seems to break miraculously though some kind of membrane and come out not just clean, but having yanked his entire world inside out with him. The bad guys get caught and/or killed, his loved ones have become a (clean?) "family," and he himself has been promoted from Bad Lieutenant to Captain.

At the end, we have two perfect codas: first, we see Terrence back on the prowl for preppie kids with easily snatched drugs and girlfriends, proving he hasn't changed his ways at all, and the cycle will continue itself; second, we see Terrence lost in a drug-haze in a hotel room, encountering Chavez, the felon whose life he saved in the prologue. It was the act of saving this man's life that transformed him -- it permanently damaged his spine and put him on pain pills (making him Bad) but also won him a promotion and the reputation of a hero (making him a Lieutenant). So this encounter at the end is a major moment -- will (or even can) Terrence be saved by the man he wrecked his own already-questionable life saving? The answer at the end is as obtuse and enervating as the iguana shots during the stake-out: it's Terrence and Chavez, sitting together against an aquarium wall. Chavez looks spaced-out, possibly bored. Terrence looks like... is he about to laugh? What is going on in his mind? Then -- "Ha!" -- a single half-chuckle, like he's about to tell you what's so funny, and then that cut to black. That's all you get.

It's morally ambiguous, but more aggressively so than films usually get, and madman poet Werner Herzog is a perfect match for the material. A lot of elements that feel like they wouldn't work really work. It's a strange movie -- what Herzog film isn't? -- and I'm glad it exists.