Archive for 2008

Film: Ari Folman: Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on July 6, 2009 by baker

With its literal facade, film is a pristine quantifier of certain realities, as well as a clunky forum for exploring intangible things like memory and the soul.  What it shows is at some level unassailable, and denies interpretation: a chair is a chair, a tree a tree, and for the most part – particularly in motion pictures – action is certain.  Its great virtue is showing things happening: Eadweard Muybridge’s galluping horse, the Lumieres’ Arrival of a Train at a Station (1895), the overwhelming impetus of modern cinema as a whole.  What it is not good at, from a mechanical standpoint, is casting light on how experience shapes us.  What makes us who we are as individuals.  Most films, then, provide backstory that gives a character personal purpose, a reason for strong action, and a clear goal, as a bullheaded (but efficient) solution to the alternative: that watching action as we actually live it would offer terrifyingly little closure or purpose for our wayward lives.  In this way, understanding a film need not strain the bounds of basic observation.

Up til now, the closest I’ve ever seen a film come to representing memory as a transient vapor would be Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 (2004): jagged, full of color and shape but such fleeting detail.  Fluid and impressionist, Wong captures time and experience out of the corner of his eye, as roaches darting across the kitchen counter: a few he catches and squashes, but most get away under the toaster, half-seen in a glance.  Richard Linklater tries something similar in Waking Life (2001), this time building an entire film out of floating, animated gestures, little snatches of scenes befitting his main character’s dreamy semi-consciousness.  But it’s the animation that sets the film alight: elusive pseudo-shapes, defined by color and form instead of detail, and entirely free to wobble and distort at will.  Both films abolish the illusion of observed reality that film so easily conjures, and the next logical progression would seem to be Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.

I’ve heard that Folman has never worked with animation before this film, and if it’s true, it’s my opinion that he’s found a wildly effective style that lifelong animators should envy.  Formally, his animation is not overwhelming or advanced, mostly three or four layers composited into largely static frames.  And after a spellbinding opening sequence featuring a pack of dogs tearing through city streets, Folman settles on talking heads for a while.  But slowly his method shows itself.  Even in these chatty scenes, specific moody details appear: rain, cigarette smoke, breath in a snowy field.  Eyes peer.  Folman builds these scenes out of natural, subtle behavior, as his characters (a filmmaker, ostensibly Folman, and his various wartime buddies) do shots in a bar, smoke, pause in speech to collect their memories, observe each other.  The details are critical for setting up what follows, and what makes Waltz with Bashir an enormously powerful emotional experience.

When Folman slips into the half-formed memories of the Israeli-Palestinian war, screen time passes much slower than dream time; attention darts from one exploding tank to another, and bullets drop bodies with messy, indistinct bursts of gore.  A sniper shoots a tank commander through the throat; the man standing beside him can’t understand why he’s slumped over and not moving even as both of them are sprayed with his blood.  Spatial confusion sets in; a boy fires an RPG through a sun-dappled forest.  The soldiers acknowledge that it is a boy, and destroy him with gunfire.  Another soldier finds himself the sole survivor of an ambush, and he swims to safety in the calm, dark Mediterranean, under cover of night and the soul-wrenching isolation that accompanies him.  Bashir acquires a meditative dreaminess on par with its clearest ancestor, Apocalypse Now (1979).  As the story’s filmmaker struggles to recollect curiously absent memories from the war, a fragmented, druggy flow comes over the film, and for a time all narrative pretense drifts away as we march, huddle, and float with these characters in their own ill-focused, impressionistic memories.  Which are all too often not their own, or vary from one another’s.

To be sure, Folman is animating things happening, but he adds a further layer that confounds a simplistic interpretation of observation: that we are most definitely watching a film.  Acknowledging a film’s filmness from within has the capacity to uproot a motion picture from a place of storytelling and replant it in the realm of highest art, bestowing a greater sense of purpose on film as a unique art form.  It speaks to us with strengths – and weaknesses – as nothing else can, and Folman asks us to consider that a film is neither reality nor truth, but rather a depiction of moving image, full of its maker’s opinions and elipses, and utterly crafted toward a broader design.

Folman’s protagonist, a filmmaker, has somehow blocked out his memories of war, and spends the film in discussion with his old friends.  Their stories are to us what they are to him: vague illustrations replete with impressions of emotional memory: tracers zipping through fields; haunted, empty streets; a row of men executed by machine gun against a wall.  But then there is a reporter, whom the soldiers witness walking calmly through gunfire as his cameraman crouches in terror.  The reporter has no fear, completely insulated from danger by his camera.  A psychiatrist offers the filmmaker the story of a soldier who brought his camera with him during the war, and only began to feel fear after his camera broke.  And masterfully, Folman includes a small touch criticizing the truth in the act of filming, when one of the protagonist’s buddies gives him permission to illustrate his child at play – but with drawings, not a camera.

One final gracenote in Bashir arrives at the very end, and coming as it does after such loving attention to the way our dreams and memories reveal themselves to us, it is startling, profoundly disturbing, and beautifully justified, giving absolution to the suffering and reflection of Folman’s characters.  War films are incredibly hard, it seems, to make anew, as Hollywood fetishizes dismemberment and softer films focus on conventional character development, with war as backstory.  Folman sifts Waltz with Bashir down to our tangible disturbance in failing to grasp what lingers in our subconscious – and eventually, I believe, in the closing shots, to what’s necessarily destroyed should we ever grasp it: the reason for making art at all.

Film: Oliver Stone: W. (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on February 6, 2009 by baker

The most encouraging part of the aftermath of Barack Obama’s inauguration two weeks ago was the response from the rest of the world: the parties in Kenya, the good wishes from leaders across the globe.  I worked with two separate British production crews last week, both of whom seemed as relieved as any Americans I know to have not just a brilliant, charismatic black man in office, but a near-polar opposite of his predecessor, who sat stone-faced at the Capitol as Obama, standing a few feet away, tore down the former administration’s ideology, sharply criticizing both its excesses and its shortcomings as decidedly – if not in so many words – un-American.  In the two weeks since, a lot of us have been in a sort of slushy haze of happiness, as though we’ve finally discarded a bad relationship and started a new one that shows how much the last one hurt.

In that light, Oliver Stone’s W. is a curious thing.  I’m glad I saw it first when it came out in theaters, before the election, when McCain and Palin still stood a chance at the White House and resentment for George W. Bush still hung heavily around our collective neck.  Now, post-election, post-inauguration, W. feels at once like a better film and an unwelcome, redundant specter of the old relationship we abandoned.  With a new love in place, the old can’t serve us anymore, even in its instructive failure.  Or maybe we just don’t want it to.

It’s not without some irony that Oliver Stone makes this film.  He was once the most energetic of American filmmakers, splashing his guts across the screen with an artful wrecklessness approaching dementia, threatening to decog the gears with brute, impassioned force.  He wound up with pseudo-masterpieces like Born of the Fourth of July (1989), JKF (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995), gorgeous, lustful films hampered only by Stone’s interpersonal ineptitude; he simply cannot build complex dynamics between characters with any tact or subtlety, and any scene that demands it clogs with syrup.  Stone is a man’s bleeding-heart man, filled with gutteral, inarticulate emotion that flows best with vinegar, with aggression.  The most visceral relationship in any of his films is between Mickey and Mallory, in part because Stone recruited two of the boldest young actors alive to play them, but also because when Mickey and Mallory are not making love with the extravagance of teenagers, they’re killing people – perhaps the least tactful act imaginable.

Extravagance is Stone’s specialty, but since the mid-90s, there’s been another dimension to his films that has alternatively served him well and destroyed his expressionistic cache.  It’s a sort of cartoonish excess, the other side of a tenuous tonal line that, until Natural Born Killers, he never really crossed, although he was clearly aching to.  He treated his last great film, Nixon, with his usual restrained solemnity, but his next film, U-Turn (1997), displays a grostesque lampoonery – a black, black circus of slapdash behavior, disgusting in its excess.  His camera, never a stranger to vertigo, reels off the reels, and his storytelling collapses in a viscous overabundance of phlegm.  A phase of Stone’s development as a filmmaker is over, and despite abominably tone-deaf attempts like Alexander (2004) and World Trade Center (2006), he never returns to the austerity that used to work well for him.

But Any Given Sunday (1999), silliness aside, is full of enthusiasm, a certain mindless joy of filmmaking that seems somehow beneath Stone but will serve in grandeur’s absence.  His strongest traits are on full parade: dizzying camerawork, staccato sound editing, red-blooded characters steaming into battle.  All pretense of sobriety is gone.  Back in the late 70s and early 80s, when Stone was writing films like Midnight Express (1978) and Conan the Barbarian (1982), he was a cocain addict; he claims he gave it up during the writing of Scarface (1983), after which he disappeared for three years before emerging in 1986 with two films – Salvador and Platoon – of great sincerity and structural looseness.  I’m not sure it’s at all unreasonable to suggest that now, after once again casting aside the druggy glut that characterized his work in the 90s, he’s gotten back to something closer to himself: stylish films of well-meaning simplicity, hinting at greatness.

And more or less, that’s what he has made of W. With screenwriting credit carefully attributed to Stanley Weiser (who places probably too much emphasis on Bush’s daddy issues), Stone positions himself as the film’s sculptor of sound and image, not its author.  It’s an unusual credit sequence, akin to Elton John putting Bernie Taupin’s name before his own, and serves to distance Stone from W.‘s content.  He gets to paint Bush instead, to color him with a mixture of Josh Brolin’s characterization and visual aplomb – endlessly stuffing his face, skulking Nixon-like through rooms, kicking his feet up, all captured with a camera that embraces Brolin’s performance with an exaggerated warmth, a wool blanket a touch too heavy for the weather.  The effect is light comedy, just shy of affection.  Criticized in the past for humanizing Nixon, Stone seems content to view Bush as a self-caricature, a sincere man whose essential fecklessness shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  But his actions do have consequences, and Stone ultimately excoriates him as oblivious, his camera crawling close into Brolin’s eyes as they peer out at a world far too big and ambiguous for him.

Still, it’s hard not to see the parallels between Bush and Stone: men who live by their gut before their brains, gorging compulsively and expressing with relish – not to mention endowed with names of such perfectly earthy simplicity – and I think Stone, in spite of himself, feels a certain brotherly compassion for Bush.  The world has grown increasingly unforgiving of Bush, embittered over his staunch neglect of human rights and international cooperation, and Stone’s sad-clownish portrait smacks of an apology more than anything else.  Bush, he suggests, really was misunderstood, misunderestimated; he might has made a good leader if he weren’t so understandably fettered with the need to be appreciated.  I don’t know if this is the right instinct on Stone’s part.  In a sense it’s beside the point, because Stone gets to play with his camera for two hours at Bush’s expense, and the chuckles along the way are almost nostalgic for us.  There was a time when Bush’s incompetence provided so much fun, as well as a convenient target for our anger.  He was a great cosmic joke, but for all our incredulity that the joke existed and bore long-lasting ramifications that Obama will now have to undo before he can get around to governing, the irony was worth laughing over.  How else to live with it?

Now, in February 2009, it just feels old, and so does the film.  Nostalgically, this is no more Stone’s fault than it is Bush’s – or Obama’s, for that matter – but it does have something to do with Stone’s approach these days.  He’s lost the drive to plumb and invigorate.  His broad strokes blend together without edges, without snap, and I suspect he’s happy with that.  And although there are scenes reminiscent of Stone’s dextrous way with palace intrigue – the magnificent setpieces with Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney, conjuring up the Axis of Evil and ogrishly strategizing the colonization of the Middle East – the problem is that the film lacks any broader perpective on Bush or his administration’s legacy, limiting the depth of its insights to Freudian impressions of Bush as a man.  The film itself drifts away on a breeze, pleasantly enough, but it reminds us of things we’re happy to put behind us.  The future is so much brighter, and carries so much awesome potential.

Film: M. Night Shyamalan: The Happening (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on January 21, 2009 by baker

It’s hard to overstate what a monumental achievement is M. Night Shyamalan’s brand new major motion picture.  No longer need M. bravely navigate the vast, deep sea a mid-sized fish among whales and sharks; with the masterful orchestration of dramatic and emotional turmoil that is The Happening, M. establishes once and for all that he is a great big aquatic creature who can chomp on all the littler fishes and eat their bones too.  He exhibits a twenty-first century understanding of man’s subconscious, while exposing the inherent deceit in conventional drama and tapping into a wondrous new arena of fear, heretofore unexplored by modern art.

The Premise, familiar to anyone who has read the title, is that a thing is taking place.  Hardly new territory for the developing master, M. plums the existential, faintly mythological, terror inherent in such an occurrence in the opening scenes.  Helpfully stereotyped New Yorkers become uncharacteristically catatonic as Something happens around them, after which they kill themselves in inspired ways – a hairpin through the neck, a flying leap off a construction site.  To be fair, M. has the most trouble with these opening scenes of mass death, allowing them to adhere too closely to disorienting, unpredictable naturalism, and not close enough to M.’s superior insight into man’s true nature.  It’s a mistake he won’t repeat.

For very soon The Unseen Force unleashes not widespread panic and extensive social disarray, but something akin to meditative complacency, as millions of New Yorkers quietly abandon their lives aboard trains bound for Bucks County, with narry an obstructive thought to destination, nor even further action.  Faintly, I am aware that M. knows something.  Something I don’t know.  Something, maybe, none of us know.  It’s as though he, M., has projected himself into the very living consciousness of modern man and forecast his future. In the pastoral cornfields of southeastern Pennsylvania.

This, too, should not surprise us. M. has long posited Bucks County as The Once and Future Mecca for discovery of all kinds, the geographic point of critical mass where Man meets his Destiny. Here, in Signs, he showed us the definitive meeting in the cornfields of man and extraterrestrial; in The Village, is it the nexus of hope and deception, embodied – not without a certain visionary delirium – by a cloak of 17th century Puritanism in the natural, isolated greenery. Now, M. cuts straight to the mortal chase, bestowing the power of death on Bucks itself, a place as characterized by Vegetation as is man by the struggle between Fear and Love. As ordinary folks pick themselves off beneath lawnmowers, slamming their cars into trees, jumping out of windows, the inevitable showdown pits M.’s heroes (cleverly cast Marky Mark and the daughter of the guy who shot The Black Stallion – neither, then, unfamiliar with exposure), trapped in their little human bodies, against the unyielding, invisible, virtually silent forces of breeze and plant hate.

Scoff if you must, ye of atomic and cancer fears, but this is the epic stuff of myth, of eventual legend. M. taps into the subconscious of our subconscious, past our ordinary terrors and into the realm of fears not yet feared. Of the fears our myopic mistreatment of the world will soon engender, paradoxically located at the point of mankind’s oldest emotion: vengeance. Abel’s worst nightmares, dreamed in the leafy Garden of Eden, would not have prepared him for the horror wrought by Cain, any more than our deepest digressions into The Unknown would prepare us for the awful hurricane of retribution rained down on us by M.

And NOTHING would prepare us for the way M. resolves the crisis and restores our faith in humanity. The big fish – the masters of cinema – have fought a constant swim against the tide between expectation and dramatic resonance, but M. proves himself the biggest fish of them all by abandoning the swim entirely and calling the tide’s bluff. Expectation has nothing to do with life, M. (and God, through the story of Cain and Abel) tells us. Mysteries do not crop up to be explained. Things happen. As we grapple with their meaning, we self-examine, compelled to counter unknowable reason with personal belief and experience. In that gap between what we understand and what we don’t, we find our True Selves, our Convictions, our Love and our Generosity, oblivious to crude earthly fact or the threat of certain bodily destruction…for in the Cosmic Sphere of Existence, we are Really Nice.

Redemption is ours.

And then, like a fart in the wind, the poisonous mystery can vanish.

Film: Gus Van Sant: Milk (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on January 19, 2009 by baker

It’s obvious – now; finally – that Gus Van Sant is utterly adrift.  He has plain ears, terrible casting judgment, no discernible visual style, and an untenable idealistic streak which he’s been gracious enough to hide in the closet in near-masterpieces like Elephant and Psycho. For the last decade, scattered among the worthy tearfests he’s made for cash, he’s been squandering his personal dignity on projects that should excite college students and Upper West Siders only, although he’s managed to wile his way into (the pants, probably, of) stars like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s little brother in order to make the bloated, guileless, malignantly self-indulgent Gerry, the most inspired deployment of celluloid and dolly track since whatever NYU student film crew last descended on Union Square.

At least in Last Days, Van Sant showed the tact to include an enlightening non-sequitur of a gay sex scene; another extended take of Michael Pitt wailing like a lovelorn hipster and even the Billyburgers might have walked out.  Van Sant would self-improve to take a master class from Christopher Nolan or Spielberg: nothing but walls and the paint that dries upon them is static, and locking down your point of view for really, really long minutes on end does nothing to illuminate the wondrous miracle of life.  Curiously, he even seems to have ignored or forgotten the moral of his own tales: wasn’t the lesson of Good Will Hunting to follow your heart, live your dream, aspire to your potential as a complete person?  Or just to climb (heterosexually) into bed with Minnie Driver?  Does not the Last Days non-sequitur start to look like a cry for help?

However confused he may be both as a sexual being and a cinematic craftsman, with Milk he’s retreated into the comfort of his own lazy whimsy.  The film is regressive in all ways: it’s visually muddy, as though the film has been sitting in a vault for thirty years (first order of business: jettison the glaucomatic Harris Savides once and for all), the minimalist soundtrack begs for a Ben Burtt or a Leslie Shatz, or frankly anyone with a modicum of ProTools experience (those NYU kids will work for college credits), and Van Sant has finally given up on casting altogether, snagging anyone with a recent Oscar and that actor’s troupe.  The consummate achievement of Sean Penn’s prissy, precious performance as Harvey Milk is that it makes you yearn for his Shakespearean days of yore, loftying it up for Eastwood and Iñárritu.  Weighed down under the heavy, muting blanket of Van Sant’s deadening thumb, spending much of the film whispering into a microphone and the rest bucking and heaving to self-express, Penn embodies the tone-deaf solemnity that Van Sant employs whenever he’s dramatically lost – in a pinch, Van Sant seems to feel that grandeur, ladies and gentlemen, has no business on the big screen, unless you can embezzle it directly from Hitchcock.

But all these problems are insubstantial next to the crowning dilemma of a film like Milk: that it is by nature regressive, a homily for a failed 40-year-old grassroots agenda for social change, invalidated as recently as this past November by the great state of California.  That self-destructive idealism that Van Sant so gallantly represses, when he can, is on full fantastic display here, crooning off-key for a time when sexual deviants could infiltrate and upend the civic status quo and get away with it.  Idealism is perhaps the wrong word; something closer to hopeless self-delusionism would be a better fit, a subconscious need to imprison oneself in one’s own fantasy universe where the laws of social gravity don’t apply, a happy place where cold, hard naturalism trounces submission to the awe of life’s real beauties.

Looking back over this review, it’s clear that Gus Van Sant is essentially a victim of self.  He is trapped in a closed world where the sharp edges and slippery surfaces of culture and drama can’t touch him, and he is enamored of this place.  He refuses to strive or stretch, to commit to bolder expressive tactics that might better serve him both commercially and artistically.  So long as Van Sant treats art as a monocular output of idiosyncrasy, he will be alone in the wilderness of human connectivity, unable to function as a contributor to the inspirational wellbeing of the masses, as a cog of the grand social mechanism.  In the meantime, we await his Finding Van Sant.

For suspicions of bad taste, homophobia, and sincerity, please see this post.

Quantum of Solace: A Word About Pretension

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , on January 18, 2009 by baker

Quantum of Solace is the title of an indie rock band’s second album, not a James Bond film. Yes, I know what you think it means, but you don’t get brownie points for replacing what might have made a perfectly good sentiment regarding the new direction of the Bond films with big fancy words like quantum. Look it up. It’s a physics term that has only tangential relation to its intended meaning here. What makes Bond’s melodrama too cool for words like “measure” or “comfort”? And if you have to resort to manly words that don’t actually mean what you mean them to mean in order to avoid the inevitable sticky sentimentality, maybe your damn Bond should man up and stop being so broody.

Film: Charlie Kaufman: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on January 18, 2009 by baker

I find Philip Seymour Hoffman to be almost unbearably truthful an actor. His commitment to his characters as suffering human beings is at least as transparent as Brando or De Niro at their best, and often more visceral in effect: his body is a fat precision instrument – from his thinning hair to his shapeless waist – that seems capable of tuning into complicated, discomforting emotions like a divining rod. His eyes are eternally heavy, his mouth half closed, unmotivated to hamper or temper the flow of oxygen into his round chest. His breathing carries at least as much expressive force as his words. If he does not divine truth with his body, then his body is simply a conduit for it, a smither or an artisan of truth.

Actors could argue this is the essential quality of their craft, and that his craftsmanship is impeccable; it’s not alchemy, it’s intelligence, concentration, and mastery of body language. But craftsmanship does not ring. It may convince, but it does not reverberate, any more than a tin bell tinkles without sweetly resounding. To make us consistently smell the very living odor of life onscreen requires such an unflagging grip on the discordant business of existing as to render the rest of the film irrelevant to it. Hoffman may be too good for conventional cinema. He too easily reveals its architecture.

But that I am mentioning his performance at the beginning of a discussion of a film as structurally undisciplined as Synecdoche, New York should be cause for concern. I’m not prepared to argue that Hoffman is the strongest element of this film, because I’m not sure that dramatic strength is an appropriate diagnostic tool in this case, but I will say that he reveals truths that Charlie Kaufman overlooks. To pair Hoffman’s gutty ectoplasm with Kaufman’s esoteric preciseness (not to be confused with precision) only underscores Kaufman’s problem of not knowing when a point has been made.

There’s a lot to be admired in Kaufman’s strange and loving dreamscape, in spite of the overwhelming depression it may inspire. As a director, Kaufman is about as gifted as his probable mentors Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, and of a similar visual bent, but unlike them he never really knows where a camera should be, or what it should be doing. I don’t think he really cares that much; he seems to feel that a camera is a functional piece of equipment, like a light stand or a wing, that achieves a practical end rather than contributes to a film’s mood. And here I am not talking about the lighting or the costumes or the set design, which are fine, but about his framing and sense of visual rhythm. They lack visceral cohesion with the performance Hoffman is giving.

As a writer, Kaufman suffers from terminal inertia. This is the real source of his troubles. It’s clear from the outset of a Kaufman-written film that the writer has a thoroughly inhabited sense of his story, his characters, and his narrative’s quirky, spunky dynamic, and Synecdoche is no different. It may even be clearer here. He slides his way through tart and amusing character development, shuffling along what promises to be a strange and perplexing series of interactions and setpieces toward a climax of rumbling profundity, but about halfway through Synecdoche, the wheels come off and the wagon begins sputtering of its own momentum down the crabgrassy slope of self-important self-doubt, as Kaufman dramatizes and redramatizes the same points, and every possible offshoot point, his story generates.

It is not enough to explore the pathetic life of Hoffman’s theater director Caden Cotard, or the genuinely magnificent conceit of the theater piece he begins to develop from his own pathetic life, but also the sea of pathetic supporting players around him, as well as their iterations within his play, as well as the pathetic state of affairs they are all in, and the patheticness of death, the last curtain, and the patheticness of death as the encroaching end of a pathetic life. Nobody in the film sees a way out of misery, which Kaufman sees as the ultimate truth, since he jettisons the few characters who try. He revels, and repeatedly rerevels, in a sort of bland, effortless depressiveness as, evidently, the only codifier of existential truth.

And this clashes painfully with Hoffman’s performance. Say what you will about the depressing quality imbued in the performance; that is a matter of preference and pain threshold, not acting quality. But it has no place in a film committed to bleakness as a truthful outlook. It’s a question of sieve-like reception versus re-re-reenforced assertion. They blend like oil and water in the subconscious, refusing to gel, like things do in a great film, into a colossal, unified statement of purpose and intention.

As cinematic failures go, Synecdoche is no crime. It’s enormously ambitious and, in spite of the obvious indifference to convention, eager to impress. It doesn’t hate us or think we’re stupid, and it does have moments and whole scenes of low-key comic enlightenment. But Kaufman behaves like the friend of a friend you met at the bar who had a few confidence-building scotches and became oblivious to the fact that his stories have grown quite boring. Like the drunk, Kaufman is so intent on making sure you got his point that he leaves you with nothing to think of for yourself.

Update: The Happening

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on January 18, 2009 by baker

Just heard on TV: “The director of The Sixth Sense brings you his first R-rated film: The Happening. Starting Friday the 13th”.

We are FUCKED.

Film: Steven Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on January 18, 2009 by baker


Summer. Maine.

We are in the process of tearing down an ancient red tin shed in the backyard and building a new wooden one in its place. I spend my evenings running barefoot in the cooling grass, sweaty and grungy and entirely happy with my place in the universe. I am ten years old.

There came a late morning – surely a Saturday, since my father was home from work – with the sun streaming through the kitchen window, when the natural order of my cosmos took a sudden turn for the monumental. My father suggested we go see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Not for my birthday, not in return for mowing the lawn (my brother was still burdened with that one), but simply because the man must have suspected I would be in awe. Even at that age, I would pore over the TV Week to see what movies would be playing on Cinemax or TBS, and what time, so that I could pop a tape in the VCR and record whatever segment of whatever movie I couldn’t catch in person, for whatever reason. Jaws was a favorite. So was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, of which I had the last twenty minutes on a tape that regularly saw the wheels of the VCR early Saturday mornings – often before sunrise – while I ate a bowl of sugar with Golden Grahams or Shredded Wheat.

This may have been my third or fourth movie seen in a theater in my life, after Return of the Jedi, ET, Flight of the Navigator, and possibly one other. We weren’t a theatergoing family; I think the next one I saw was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, for my birthday in 1991; the intervening two years were a long boil on the stew of my imagination, in which moments from that summer 1989 event simmered and fermented and solidified into cardinal benchmarks of my moviegoing sensibilities. The rats. The tank chase. Books aflame. Rapid decomposition. That sweet, sweet Alison Doody.

It’s fair to say, with respect and deference to the influence of, say, Tarkovsky, Tarr, and Herzog, that outside of the sight of a woman jerked violently back and forth by her legs through the calm evening waters off Amity Island, no other film provided such a lasting basis for me as a filmmaker and a film viewer. Two years ago I saw Last Crusade at the Ziegfeld, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the most unadulteratedly entertaining films Spielberg’s made, full of delightfully kinetic action setpieces, fantastic bickering between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, and intoxicating sights such as the canyons of the American West and Petra. And a veritable cornerstone of my burgeoning sexuality in the form of sweet, sweet Alison Doody.

It is with a sense of deep betrayal and personal affront that I report that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has taken pornographically blunt advantage of my youthful memories, cashing them in for a quick, cheap fuck on a warehouse floor against a green screen, with no thought toward romance or protection. I cringe for all of the many single-digit-year-olds slurping sodas and crinkling candy bags in the theater around me, who, if they remember the movie at all tomorrow, will have no idea that they have been violated already, their moviegoing identities badly skewed before they’re self-aware enough to notice, for somewhere down the road they will find themselves critiquing other films against the formative influence of this lazy, wretched half-baked ratatouille of pilfered joy.

Lazy is the key word. Not long ago, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg gave a joint interview in which Lucas warned that audiences would reject the film, and Spielberg denied as much. This speaks volumes, since Lucas is given story credit, and the movie’s problems start there. The stuff that made the Indiana Jones films so enthralling in the past is almost entirely absent here: deft dialogue (delivered swiftly), expedient character development amid and between action sequences brimming with wit, muscle, and fluid grace. Lucas mentioned the audience rejection of his recent Star Wars films as evidence of the certain failure of Crystal Skull, but stops short of suggesting what twenty minutes of this movie make abundantly clear: that the problem is Lucas, and his inability to fashion any communicative cinematic element, such as interesting action or insightful interactions among characters. He’s also got an astounding way with dialogue in those films, and has evidently schooled screenwriter David Koepp here with truly astounding results.

Ineptitude seems infectious, or perhaps the input of too many executive-level folks in the development stages proved too diverse to coalesce; either way, Crystal Skull holds together about as tightly as a gob of wood chips, and with far less, I don’t know, grace. That word keeps coming to me in describing the Indiana Jones films, because at their best, they’re remarkably graceful in pace, plotting, and cinematic fluidity, cutting like butter and zipping along with high-end invisible grease. The impetus to tackle not only Indiana Jones as an older man, but also his Brando-son, and Marion, and John Hurt – I’m still not sure what he’s all about – and Ray Winstone – just, come now, STOP already – and THEN the plot (I think it’s about aliens. At some level) overwhelms any hope for cohesion to the degree Spielberg has attained in the past with at least two of the three previous films. Oh, and let us not discuss Cate Blanchett here. Let us forget we saw her in it. Goddesses shouldn’t be crucified like criminals. Forgiveness implies judgment, and that’s for other people.

Here, there is one thing worth admiring, in the same way one can admire a turkey sandwich or modern air travel. For the first time since possibly Schindler’s List, Spielberg has taken his Aderol and not tried to infuse every frame with so much Steviepants. Actually, the graphic calmness of this movie is so out of character with contemporary Spielberg that I’m filled with enormous doubt that he actually directed the thing. He may want to consider taking me up on my doubt. Not that he should return to the chaotic perfectionism that ruined Munich. I just think maybe he was bored to tears this time around. Like everyone else, it seems.

You know, I didn’t need this. Three solid movies worked fine – better than fine, really; dramatically fine, even classically fine. Indiana Jones didn’t need to achieve military rank or graduate away from thugees and Nazis. Marcus Brody didn’t have to die, and Marion Ravenwood never had to come walking back onto my screen again. It’s not because I don’t care, guys, it’s just that I own you now, and you don’t get to change.

Film: A Preemptive Word About M. Night Shyamalan

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , on January 18, 2009 by baker

Ten days from the eve of the release of Master M. Shyamalan’s latest magus opus The Happening, a speculative gesture toward the universe of individualistic profundity that inhabits his films. I feel uniquely suited to The Task, having seen every major film he’s made since The Sixth Sense, easily the worst of M.’s progressively brilliant catalogue.

At the time of The Sixth, M.’s problem was a distinct lack of commitment to the personal nature of his plot twists. “Alive” to “dead” has a certain mythic stature, but lacks M.-based dimension. Surely he saw the problem at once, and moved to correct it in the subsequent Unbreakable, giving witness to The Cinema’s first (to my knowledge) and heretofore only whip smart ending involving naturalistic comic book heroism. Fantasy and salt-of-the-earth reality coalesce to form a striking indictment of purple-clad men, but M. shot into The Stratosphere of personal filmmaking three years later with the jolting psychological revelation in Signs – psychology of otherworldly proportions.

Not content with the earthly sideshow melodrama of Mel Gibson’s religious fanaticism, the wearing of foil hats, and the crushed-car death of his wife, M. posits a race of aliens who would consciously travel potentially light years through space and certainly time to make art in cornfields – on a planet overwhelmingly irradiated with a toxic liquid. Nevermind the artistic drive of these sentients; the psychosis compelling them to risk life and scaly limb for the sake of creation alone inspires a complex mix of anxiety, awe and, really, personal introspection. Would I do the same? Would I support a friend doing the same? Alone with my thoughts at night, the question still Haunts me.

The quandary frightened us, upending the illusion of self-willed destiny we maintain as a matter of necessity. M. graciously scaled back a bit in his next outing, confining his great paradoxes to this, our own, mortal coil – and answered the fears of The Many. Conjuring a pod of intellectuals going out of their way to force their own destiny, of The Village M. fashioned a blazing blood-red beacon of hope for those of us jangled to the bone by insecurity, by the untidy, discomforting rigors of programmatic modern life, by Bush and his scare-mongering control tactics. The albino savior, raceless and more or less sexless, leads us to freedom from the arch confines of intellectual oppression. And we are redeemed.

Abject irresponsibility undoubtedly led most of the studios – and here I am talking about Disney – to pass on M.’s next project. They saw The Truth layered throughout, and yielded shamefully. Lady in the Water, a searing, scathing, rapacious diatribe against evil itself, shocked and disturbed in ways M.’s previous work could only think about, lightly. Expansively addressed to both The Everyman and the giant cat-wolf monsters of Wolfgang Petersen’s inimitable The Neverending Story, M. adds a touch of class and grass to the proceedings with the sensitive casting of Paul Giamatti, and with grass, but he does not stop there. Conscious of the thematic limitations of his prior work, M. addresses himself, as Himself, the god and creator of the rapidly strengthening M. Night Shyamalan universe. The boundless Storyteller. The Prophet. The Lord of Redemption, attacked and belittled by those of no faith and less intellectual and aesthetic authority. The Power of the Story Denied. Thought Denied. Belief Denied. Life Denied. Consciousness Itself Denied.

We are drained. It may be impossible for M. to top himself here, although the title The Happening suggests a keen awareness of the perils of excessive directness. His latest may have to be an entirely black screen with a silent soundtrack to completely destroy our blown minds.

Film: Errol Morris: Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on January 18, 2009 by baker

Errol Morris is not a terrific storyteller, really. He’s a marvelous interviewer, eliciting stunning frankness through his Interrotron, and his collaborations with cinematographers Robert Richardson and Peter Donahue are intoxicated with light and motion, paring action to its sparsest visual expression. His editing is patient, and that may be his downfall – as a storyteller, anyway. Like Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter; Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, and most clearly The Fog of War, he cuts Standard Operating Procedure to the meditative rhythms of introspection rather than driving narration, slowing what might have been speedier plotting – in the choppy hands of more literary filmmakers – to the near halt of interrupted memory.

For a few years, since seeing The Thin Blue Line, I found this both spellbinding and tedious beyond reason, in the way that, say, watching the earthly progress of a rising tide might be. Especially in that film, where I felt Morris was trying to convince me of his subject’s innocence of murder, his method seemed beside the point, slow for the sake of lingering on details that have no functional, legal meaning: the slosh of a milk shake, the blast of gunsmoke. The artfulness was not beyond me, but for what reason? It seemed counterproductive, and worse, his storytelling was slack as a result.

I have since continued to feel this way, watching The Fog of War, or Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (Mr. Death seems to have married this inclination perfectly with the man himself, Fred Leuchter, whose introspection seems at best halting and fixated), but lately it’s affected me differently. A recent review of The Fog of War struck me less for its protracted narrative than for its fluid commingling of first person recollection and immediate visual breakdown of those very spoken thoughts. His images, and the rhythms he employs to piece them together into a story, seem more intuitive and moody than they are necessary, almost as though they are a copout, a way to avoid showing talking heads for two hours. Except that he does show talking heads, talking a lot – and his images evoke extraordinary mood.

Standard Operating Procedure is in every way a standard operating Morris film. We have seen the same methods, used to even greater emotional and narrative capacity in the past. Nevermind that this time his subject is a prominent contemporary moral conundrum – the prisoner abuse documented by photographs at Abu Graib – Morris is doing nothing new. In fact, he may be slipping. His interviews are more numerous than usual, more lackadaisical in tone, and go on and on and on when the dramatic arc of the film might be considered complete. Yet when he got around to it, I was mesmerized by his filmmaking. Danny Elfman’s pulsing Danny Elfman score at last seems loaded with the gothic horror weight Tim Burton always hoped it carried (but that Tim Burton’s films never supported), and it’s generously ladled out over recre after recre, as prisoners are beaten, humiliated, tortured, and violated by a largely unseen pack of U.S. Army personnel. Only they are seen, repeatedly, in the photographs they took of themselves in the act, as well as their interviews, and in the interviews of each other. This marriage of retrospect and instant analysis now, in Morris’ career, has graceful flow, of the lofty, smoky bent of a man morally attuned to judging the actions of his subjects from a distance – and inasmuch as one is morally willing to allow him that judgment, pulling it off. I let him, because I agreed with him. But judgment aside, his craft is absolutely impeccable. It’s so pleasurably precise, in fact, that I cared less when his storytelling slowed to a predictable shuffle, and then stuttered to a whimsical close with an observation about the birds returning to the walls of the prison every evening. Which isn’t even the end of the film, but the last moment that has stayed with me.

I feel roughly the same about Morris’ filmmaking style as I do about David Lynch’s. For everything I love about both – their immaculate visual craftsmanship, their wonderfully wayward editing choices, their monomaniacally personal approach to subject matter – when it’s time to fill in the plot gaps and make a narrative whole out of the cinematic experience they’ve conjured out of spit and imagination, I just get a little bored. The kind of boredom I feel watching most narrative-driven films, the kind that creeps in when the mechanics of storytelling are less interesting than the mysterious impetus to ensure the story is adequately told.