Friday, April 30, 2010

Reeling and Rocking


A year or so ago I reviewed the Japanese girl rock movie, Linda Linda Linda, or rather, kind of reviewed it, while linking to a YouTube clip of the title song. I love that movie to pieces. So when one of my correspondents told me that they liked another Japanese girl rock movie better, I was intrigued. The movie in question is Nana (2005, directed by Kentarô Ôtani), which is based in turn on a manga. The movie itself isn't especially concerned with the healing power of rock and roll as an object unto itself (as Linda Linda Linda was), so much as it uses music as a plot device. It could be anything, really. Anyway, the plot of the movie follows two girls who are named Nana who meet by happenstance on a train to Tokyo. The first Nana, who we met in a pre-credit concert sequence, is an aspiring rock star who is world weary already even though she's only 20. The other Nana is going to Tokyo in pursuit of a boyfriend who went off to art school there. The second Nana is kind of a gushing schoolgirl, and naive to put things mildly. Things end badly with her boyfriend, who clearly doesn't want her around him. Also by happenstance, the two Nanas wind up as roommates. It's a mutually beneficial relationship: rocker Nana teaches schoolgirl Nana to be independent, while schoolgirl Nana plays matchmaker for rocker Nana and her ex-boyfriend (now a successful rock star in his own right).

This all sounds kind of fun, but it's also kind of limp, and I think I knew it was going to be kind of limp when it got into the habit of starting songs as diegetic musical numbers and then truncating them, almost like the filmmakers didn't actually have complete songs to play with (it eventually gets out of this habit, but the damage was done early; it's also likely that this was a necessity when the run-time of the film got long, unfortunately). I didn't dislike the movie, really, but I did kind of resent that it wasn't better, and I wish it was more in love with rock and roll, and in love with better rock and roll at that. That's NOT a problem that Linda Linda Linda had.




The three men profiled in It Might Get Loud (2008, directed by Davis Guggenheim) don't have a problem with loving rock and roll. They are, respectively, Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White. The movie opens with White cobbling together a one string guitar from a board, a couple of nails, a coke bottle, and a pick-up. White is endlessly inventive. All three are endlessly inventive in their respective ways, which the movie goes into in great depth. The conceit is that they've all three been assembled into a warehouse to talk about playing guitar and maybe to play some, too, which is the promise that the movie makes. Then it fails to deliver on it. Oh, there's a ton of guitar. True, but you don't really see the three of them really come together and jam until they play The Band's "The Weight" under the closing credits. It's a good way to keep the audience in their seat during the closing credits, I guess, but it seems like a cheat. You never really have a sense of them interacting. One wishes that White's prediction at the outset that "there might be a fist fight" had come true.

Still, it is a nice portrait of each guitarist in turn, with Jimmy Page coming off the best--he's really turned into a lovely old man, but there's still a boy in him, as evidenced while watching him play air guitar to Link Wray's "Rumble" or playing air guitar with a theremin. It's White, though, that makes the strongest statement about the nature of his art, when he plays a Son House song and then declares that he's spent his entire career trying to play that song. In one other respect, the movie is a success: it makes me want to go home and play guitar.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dribs and Drabs


I'm getting a little backlogged on reviews, so here are some quick hits to get caught up.

Horror and related:

I Sell the Dead (2008, directed by Glenn McQuaid), in which amiable grave robber Dominic Monaghan recounts his life of crime on the eve of his execution. Not really a narrative, per se, so much as a collection of vignettes; the horror movie equivalent of a picaresque. It has an interesting production design that recalls the roots of the horror film in the graphic arts, and a striking artifice that's the product of being filmed in front of a green screen. It's intrusive some of the time, but it works well enough. It's certainly better than some of the cheaper productions of the past (Ed Wood's cardboard sets for instance). The filmmakers obviously spent their money on the cast rather than on sets, including Ron Perlman as the confessor, Larry Fessenden as Monaghan's partner, and Angus Scrimm as the Doctor Knox figure. It has some good moments, particularly after our erstwhile resurrectionists start dealing in the undead, but on the whole, it's kind of lackadaisical. It takes a while to get where it's going. Still, parts of it are pretty funny, particularly the first encounter with other worlds.

Christine (1983, directed by John Carpenter) is one of Carpenter's most underrated movies. It's stripped down from Stephen King's ungainly novel into a lean, mean horror film, though it is perhaps let down by at least two of its leads. It has some terrific character work by Robert Prosky, Roberts Blossom, and Harry Dean Stanton, and it makes fun use of old rock and roll songs to boot. Still, the real star of the movie is the car, a menacing 1958 Plymouth Fury, which is appropriate given the eponymous title. The story itself strikes me as a masculine version of Carrie, though it's a bit more sinister than Carrie. It kinda sorta borrows the ending of Carrie, but only if you squint your eyes. It dispenses with the ghost story element of the book, and suggests that Christine was just born bad (which it accomplishes in a droll assembly line sequence to start the movie), much to the betterment of the whole. Unfortunately, I streamed this from Netflix and the print they have for streaming is in the wrong friggin aspect ratio and it's WAY noticeable. Note to self: revisit this sometime soon.

Civilian:

I'm sucker for a swashbuckler, and there was a LONG drought for swashbucklers in the last quarter of the 20th Century, so The Mask of Zorro (1998, directed by Martin Campbell) was a welcome return. The mantle of Zorro is passed from Anthony Hopkins to Antonio Banderas in the course of this movie, and there's a hint of The Count of Monte Cristo in the way Hopkins's elder Zorro goes about taking his revenge on the enemy who imprisoned him for 20 years. It's not canon, but it works. The film is so much fun to watch that I'm not inclined to be a stickler. What this film restores to the action film is charm and romance, a model adopted in part by the Pirates of the Caribbean films a couple of years later (they also borrowed Zorro's screenwriters). This is the film that made Catherine Zeta-Jones a star, and she was gorgeous in it, but the real pleasure for me was watching Anthony Hopkins, dressed all in black, snuffing out candles with a bullwhip. I started thinking wicked, wicked thoughts about that, and I can't remember the last time an action movie had that effect on me. But that's just me. The film's not without its faults, but it's at least in the neighborhood of the great Zorro films with Fairbanks and Power.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Chasing the Dragon

Taken on the level of its plot, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009, directed by Niels Arden Oplev) is not particularly distinguished from other similar crime thrillers. Disgraced journalist Michael Blomkvist is hired by a wealthy capitalist Henrik Vanger to find out what happened to his missing niece, who vanished some forty years in the past. The investigation brings Blomqvist into contact with professional computer hacker Lisabeth Salander, a goth girl savant with deep scars from her past, and in contact with a series of related crimes that appear to be motivated by the Vanger family's old ties to the Nazis. Pretty stock stuff, truth to tell--Agatha Christie would recognize its outlines--but expertly rendered. That's only the plot, and movies are often so much more than their plots. This one certainly is. The plot here serves mainly as a crucible in which to test its characters, and how those characters react is what makes the movie fascinating.

The original Swedish title of this film is Män som hatar kvinnor, literally "Men Who Hate Women." This is the major theme of the movie, and it's a narrative thread that brings Lisabeth out of the shadows of what would normally be a supporting role into the lead. The movie may nominally belong to Michael Nyqvist's Blomkvist, but it's Lisabeth who holds the screen against all comers. Played with brittle rage by Noomi Rapace, she's dramatically different from most movie heroines. Bisexual, pierced and tattooed, possibly an Aspie, she is a fundamentally damaged woman who nevertheless turns the tables on the narrative, just as she turns the tables on the rapist who abuses her. Rape and violence towards women are rampant in this movie, including at least two pretty graphic depictions, and it is tempting to class parts of the film as a rape/revenge fantasy. The movie is too smart for that, though. It weaves its rape content into a broader theme about misogyny on a far more sinister scale. This movie almost has to have a female protagonist, because putting a male protagonist amid these elements might seem apologetic.

The character arcs the film pursues for both Blomqvist and Lisabeth are essentially redemptive. Blomkvist seeks to recover the muse he has lost in the process of losing a libel suit, while Lisabeth is trying to live with a violent past. By the end of the film, both seem to have found their way back from the wilderness. Watching them work through their demons is the real pleasure of the film, and it's what keeps the audience watching--never bored in the least--as the movie unreels its longer than usual running time.

I have to say, though, that I was a bit disarmed when the credit for the Swedish Film Institute came onscreen at the beginning. It was like I was starting a Bergman film. Parts of the film look like Bergman, but that may be an unavoidable consequence of filming in the same light, because the filmmaking on display here is very different. This is the computer age, after all, and Lisabeth is a computer savant--the film actually shows what she's doing, which is unusual for hacker's in movies--and the movie takes its cues from multimedia, often providing exposition in layered images superimposed on one another. The obsession with images is descended from Blow-Up, if you want a reference point for this film's structure, but it doesn't look much like that film, either. I like, too, the way it inverts the gender dynamics of its final confrontation with the murderer, by making Blomkvist the loose cannon who goes poking around inadvisably and by making Lisabeth the knight errant. It's a neat trick on genre conventions. Finally, I like the relationship that develops between Blomkvist and Lisabeth--lovers, eventually, but an odd coupling. Lisabeth knows everything about Blomkvist, as he notes, but he knows almost nothing about her. She leaves him that way, too.

One measure of a good movie is whether or not the characters wear out their welcome. Do you want to spend more time in their company after the credits roll? For me, for this film, the answer is yes, and fortunately, this is the first film of a trilogy. The other chapters, The Girl who Played With Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest have already been filmed. I'm looking forward to them.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Seeing Red

On the whole, I'm glad I didn't take in the Red Riding Trilogy all in one go. I could have. My local theater ran them all at a special discount on one night. I think that might have been a bit much to take. One a night was just fine.

Red Riding 1974 (2009, directed by Julian Jarrold) sets things in motion. Someone is abducting and murdering young girls in Yorkshire. The police claim that they haven't any leads, but that doesn't stop young crime reporter Eddie Dunford from picking at the threads of the case and unraveling it. It's a story that leads him straight into a swamp of police corruption and shady real estate deals, to say nothing of s paedophile who sews the wings of a swan to the back of one of his victims. Pretty soon, the police take an interest in Dunford and begin pointing him in directions that serve their interests. They certainly don't serve Dunford's or the public's.

Red Riding 1980 (2009, directed by James Marsh) picks up the pieces of the first film, some six years later when the case of the Yorkshire Ripper opens the Yorkshire police up to scrutiny. The central figure in this film is one Peter Hunter, an investigator brought in from Manchester to sort things out. Hunter had his investigation of the Yorkshire police interrupted after the events of 1974, and he's looking to pick up where he left off with this case. This is complicated by dissension in the ranks of his own hand-picked squad of investigators, among whose number is an old girlfriend.

Red Riding 1983 (2009, directed by Anand Tucker) splits its purview to two protagonists: Maurice Jobson, a cop who we've seen in the previous two movies turning a blind eye to corruption that disgusts him, and John Piggott, a lawyer who is hired to represent the feeble-minded patsy that was framed for the child murders in the first film. Another child abduction sets off the action in this film, but the movie is constructed of the invisible elements of the first movie, and hinges upon it.

These movies were made for the UK's Channel 4 and in addition to being made by three different directors, none of whom is known for gritty, miserablist noir like this, they were filmed on three different film stocks. This has the effect of giving each of them a certain visual "feeling." The first film, for instance, has a distinctive visual murk resulting from filming on 16mm film, while the second film has the merciless clarity of deep-focus 35mm and the third makes use of high-def video to play with exotic lighting patterns and effects. Yet, in spite of the visual diversity of the filmmaking, there's also a visual unity that stems from the setting itself. It's a dour, dreary place, the north of England, even in the sunlight.

The movies are populated by some truly scabrous characters, and one strains at the thought that any police department in the developed world could possibly be as corrupt as the West Yorkshire police. Still, it has the ring of truth, even in a fictional setting. Our various protagonists are a mixed lot. Eddie Dunford is the purest of these characters, given that he's young and uncorrupted and given that Andrew Garfield plays him as a fairly likable crusader. Paddy Considine's Hunter is a bit more world weary, weighed down by his own personal transgressions and by a sense of failure regarding the events of the first film. Piggott and Dobson in the third film, played respectively by David Morrisey and Mark Addy, are both completely tarnished.

On the matter of filmmaking, these are made by expert hands, but there's a disconnect between the elan of the films and their narratives. The screenplay--all three films are adapted by Tony Grisoni from the novels by David Peace--takes some awful turns. Most disconcerting is the tendency of our various protagonists to become sexually involved with witnesses on very short acquaintance. This is most jarring in the first one, in which Dunford falls into bed with Rebecca Hall's grieving mother after she is clearly offended by him and the way he goes about his profession, but the way Jobson hooks up with the medium in the third movie is almost comical in comparison. Do real people behave like this? Probably not. And, while on the whole it is the second movie that seems under the tightest narrative control, it still asks us to believe that a hit squad of cops can get away with a mass shooting at a nightclub. More globally, the movie posits a universe in which the cops protect a child murderer as a matter keeping corrupt business propositions viable, one of which is a trade in pornography. This, even after the initial case is resolved. For the most part, it's best not to think about the narrative. If you do, the whole house of cards might come tumbling down. Best to groove on the moods and moral ambiance of the whole project, because as a mood piece, Red Riding is a piece of work.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Juvenile Delinquency


Every time I read something by comic book writer Mark Millar, I get the vague feeling that he's kind of a douchebag. I got this while reading The Authority. I got this while reading Ultimate X-Men. I got this reading a scattering of Civil War. I haven't read Kick-Ass, but I got that feeling again from watching Matthew Vaughn's 2010 movie version. It's a troubling film. It's an amoral film. It's a film that is undeniably fun to watch.

Now, I realize that I'm not this film's target demographic. This film wasn't made for middle-aged women. It was made for adolescent and just post-adolescent boys, and that's part of what troubles me about it. I'm not particularly troubled by the beating Frank D'Amico, Mark Strong's villain, delivers to Hit-Girl near the end of the film, as some critics are. I'm more troubled by the sexualization of Hit-Girl in the sequence immediately prior to that action mayhem. The movie puts eleven year old Chloe Moretz into a sexy schoolgirl outfit as a means of getting into D'Amico's headquarters. And just prior to that, we get some of the secondary high school boys lusting after her after seeing her capacity for violence. Seriously, this is just sick. We also get the dubious pleasure of watching that same eleven year old character watch her father burned to death. This is all part and parcel of Millar's playbook. He likes outrageous ideas like this for their shock value, and don't give me any bullshit about it being satire. It's an extension of trends in comics since Frank Miller uncorked the grim and gritty superhero archetype in the early 80s and protests of "realism" are going to fall on deaf ears when it comes to a movie in which our teen-age hero ends up donning a rocket pack and wasting a raft of bad guys with mini-guns mounted on his back. At its most basic, this is a more explicit, more virulent version of the superhero wish-fulfillment power fantasy, one that feeds both fanboy sensibilities of "cool" and their sense of entitlement to groove on even the most reprehensible imagery so long as it feeds that sense of "cool."

But does this matter?

"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all."--Oscar Wilde

In the interests of full disclosure, some of my favorite movies include the likes of Dirty Harry and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Dirty Harry is an even more troubling power fantasy than Kick-Ass could ever dream of being, and TCM's only reasonable justification for existing is the very force of its film making. So I need to own up to the fact that while I was watching Kick-Ass, I was grooving on how it was made. It's an accomplished movie that knows how to provide the kinetic thrills that are the stock in trade of action movies. It gets the adrenalin flowing. Not only that, but it's almost classically austere in the way it films action. It's not a run and gun movie. You see the geography of the scene. You see every loving bullet impact. You see bodies in motion, sometimes in slow motion that renders the action balletic in the manner of John Woo's best films. Since this is becoming a lost art, it's exhilarating to watch it executed well. Further, the various characters in Kick-Ass are performed with aplomb: Both Aaron Johnson and Chloe Moretz are destined for stardom (Moretz in particular is one of those preternaturally gifted child actors a la Jodie Foster or Dakota Fanning). It's reassuring to see what a fine actor Nicolas Cage can be when he's put in the right situation. Hell, hearing Cage affect a combination of William Shatner and Adam West as the voice of Big Daddy is kind of a hoot.

In any event, while I watched it, I was immersed in the world it was presenting and that's the aim of movies like this, after all. Shall I take the film to task for accomplishing exactly what it sets out to do?

If I apply Oscar Wilde's dictum, this is very well made, not badly made at all, and that's pretty much all she wrote. Right?

Right?







As a side note, here's a further opinion on Mark Millar. Thought I'd share.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hit to the Body

Audiences going in to Jennifer's Body (2009, directed by Karyn Kusama) expecting a quirky comedy horror lark on the evidence of screenwriter Diablo Cody's Juno can probably be forgiven for balking at the jolt delivered by this film's second murder sequence. This isn't what they were buying tickets to see. They got an actual horror movie. Likewise, teen age horror fans can be forgiven for balking at the film, baited by the promise of a topless Megan Fox (which doesn't happen) and a fun horror movie that delivers boobs and blood. What they got is a female-centric movie about women and the relationships they form. Again, not what they were buying tickets to see. It's a movie that's neither fish nor fowl. But it's pretty good at what it's trying to do.

The story involves two friends: Anita, whose nickname is "Needy," and Jennifer. They're an unlikely pair, with Needy being kind of a nerd while Jennifer is a wet dream of a cheerleader. But, as the movie rightly notes, playground friendships can be deep. One night, Needy is dragged away from her boyfriend to go see an indy band at a roadhouse with Jennifer. The band is looking for a break and they've decided on a pact with the devil. They need a virgin to sacrifice and they've chosen Jennifer. Unfortunately, Jennifer isn't a virgin, and even though the band gets the success they crave, Jennifer becomes a demon in the bargain, one hungry for human flesh. So she begins preying on her male classmates, with a special eye for the ones Needy is friends with.

Structurally, this is a distaff slasher movie, but there's a striking difference between this and a standard slasher movie: none of Jennifer's victims "deserves" it. The moral judgement is absent. The guys she kills aren't rapists or stoners or even womanizers. They're just normal kids. The movie compounds this by giving them quirks that show them to have normal interior lives. This is pretty good writing (and nevermind the Diablo Cody-speak that some people can't get past). There's a point to this: it's a repudiation of the moral universe of the slasher movie. By inverting the gender dynamics of the victims, it takes away the planks of that morality, because, when you come down to it, the victims in most slasher movies don't deserve what they get, either. This film is careful not to turn its monster into a hero, too. All of this has the perverse effect of amplifying the horror quotient in a way that a gorier boobs and blood opus might miss. Plus, it defuses the horror film's usual veneer of misogyny. This is important, because, as I said, this is a movie about women and their relationships. True, it's abstracted through the lens of the horror movie, but Jennifer's Body is still about two best friends who become estranged. The "BFF" (a grouping of letters explicitly referenced in the movie) is a kind of relationship that boys generally don't enter.

Amanda Seyfried's character, Needy, is an interesting variation on the slasher film's 'final girl' archetype. She's totally the type: socially awkward, nerdy. In another movie, it would be plain to see that she's the final girl the minute she walks on screen. But this movie twists things a bit. Needy, unlike Jennifer's man-eater and unlike every other final girl ever written, has what seems like a normal adult sexual relationship with her boyfriend. She doesn't pine for someone unobtainable to a girl of her social stratus. If there's a misstep with her character, it's the fact that no amount of frumpy clothing can hide the fact that Amanda Seyfried is gorgeous, though that too may be an intentional commentary on the usual frumpy girl who turns out to be beautiful behind her glasses.

Jennifer herself is a pathetic monster and by the end, the audience has some sympathy for her. This is accomplished mainly in the scene where she's sacrificed to the Devil. Give Megan Fox some credit here, she performs this scene perfectly: no longer the bombshell, she's a victim and a teenage girl who is in way over her head. She joins a long list of sympathetic monsters with whom audiences relate.

What really seals the deal for me regarding this picture's bona fides is the second murder scene, in which Jennifer lures Colin, one of Needy's gothy friends--a nice kid in spite of all the black clothing--to the killing floor. This is cross-cut with a sex scene that goes horribly bad in which Needy senses the awful things that Jennifer does even as her boyfriend enters her. It's a bravura scene that pushes the film out of the realm of the comic. It's a feel-bad scene and there's nothing funny in it. It goes for the throat.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Blast from the Past

One of the downsides of having a voracious movie habit is that you'll over-fish the waters eventually. I'm running out of good films noir, for example. I mean, I enjoy looking at the second tier noirs--some of those are even my favorite films in the idiom, but eventually you're into third and fourth-tier films and you find that the thrill is pretty much gone. Still, there are unearthed gems, so I keep poking around. I think that's the way that the Criterion people do it, too. How else to explain their interest and love for such forgotten films as Overlord or, more germane to my film noir problem, Blast of Silence. Blast of Silence (1961, directed by Allen Baron). This film is pretty obscure. While it was released by Universal (in their "Universal International" days), it comes out of the dawning New York underground movement. It also comes at the tail end of the classic noir period, and you can see the self-consciousness of post-noir filter into the way it's constructed. The voice over narration ties it to the classic noir, while the way it is shot ties it to the neo-Realists, and the French New Wave, who constructed their films in part from classic noir and the neo-Realists. It looks like a nouvelle vague film. Note the softness of this image:

That's not the kind of image that you find in the abstracted world of the classic noir. It looks more like one of Truffaut's shots of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows.

The story is mostly banal. We follow hitman Frankie Bono out of Cleveland on a job that takes him to the Big Apple at Christmas. Once there, one of the suppliers of the tools of his trade identifies what his job is and tries to shake him down, meanwhile, Bono runs across old acquaintances who don't know what he does for a living. He's torn between the ruthlessness of his job, the alienation it entails, and a desire for a "normal" life. These conspire to suck him into the bleak downward spiral of a classic noir protagonist. This narrative is accompanied by an interior narrative, delivered in voice-over by Lionel Stander, that's a portrait in anomie and psychopathology. This is a counterpoint to the documentary-style adopted by the camera, which portrays the hustle and bustle of Christmastime New York, from Rockefeller Center to Harlem to the bleak swamps to the east where generations of criminals have dumped bodies.

The beginning of the film is arresting, all right: the soundtrack tells us that all routs into New York are shrouded in darkness and that emerging into the city is like being born, full of piss and vinegar and hatred. This immediately marks Blast of Silence as an art film of sorts, rather than a stock genre exercise. Unfortunately, it never quite shakes off the genre, and it suffers for it because it doesn't trust the genre to cover its ass. There's a whiff of pretense in this movie. Still, it's better to take a swing at the fences than the alternative, I suppose. Plus, it's short at 77 minutes, so it doesn't collapse under its own weight.

In any event, this film can be seen as a kind of bridge between the classic noir films and the urban alienation film of the 1970s. It's hard to watch this movie and not see a bit of Travis Bickell in Frankie Bono.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Seriously...


It's always dangerous to take the Coen Brothers at their word, so when they say in the DVD supplemental material that the fake Yiddish folktale at the beginning of A Serious Man (2009) has nothing to do with the film that follows--that it's essentially a cartoon short before the feature--that should be an alarm bell right there. It has everything to do with the movie that follows. Or maybe it doesn't. And that's the point. Nothing in this film is certain. How appropriate is it, then, that when we first see our protagonist, Larry Gopnik, he is explicating the story of Schrödinger's Cat.

The opening scenes of A Serious Man concern a man on his way back from market who is helped on the road by a man who his wife claims has been dead for three weeks. He is a dybbuk, a ghost, and to invite one into your home is to invite ruin. This man shows up as invited and the wife stabs him with an icepick. Consequently, he wanders back into the night. Now, the question here is this: is this man actually a dybbuk? The movie doesn't say so conclusively. Do the actions of the wife curse their house? The movie doesn't say. Are the movie's actual protagonists related to these people, and are they therefore cursed? The movie doesn't say. The filmmakers invite you to make your own connections, and that's at the heart of the movie, because they've set things up such that you can never know what's actually going on. Is Larry Gopnik's wife having an affair? It doesn't say conclusively. Is his brother some kind of idiot savant, a mathematical genius? It doesn't say conclusively. Is God actively destroying Gopnik's life? The movie doesn't say. Without opening the box and killing the cat, we can't know. The Coens like this sort of thing. It's the box at the end of Barton Fink stretched out to feature length.

All comedies are predicated a little bit on schadenfreude. Mel Brooks once described the difference between comedy and tragedy thusly: "I cut my finger. That's tragedy. A man walks into an open sewer and dies. That's comedy." The Coens know this, and push the envelope. This movie doesn't evoke gales of laughter. It's more interested in the nervous variety, the "thank God that's not me" variety. The movie darkens considerably as it goes, until there's nothing funny about the ending at all, except that it's not happening to the viewer. The film's casting is just about perfect for this, because everyone on screen is vaguely familiar, but not overly so. Michael Stuhlbarg as Gopnik in particular navigates a tricky performance that requires him to be sympathetic and pathetic at the same time, while raging against an indifferent cosmos. He's the lynchpin of the movie. But this is not a movie-star driven movie.

A Serious Man takes from Fargo the virtue of a seeming verisimilitude, drawn, as Fargo is, from the Coen's upbringing in Minnesota. This effect is amplified by the fact that it's a period piece, set just far enough in the past to cement the place and time in the mind's eye. I don't think this would work in a contemporary setting, but it works beautifully in the late sixties. The film's sense of verisimilitude is further cemented by the ethnic details, also presumably from the Coen's upbringing.

The ethnic details are more important than the time period though.

For all the Judaica on display in this movie, it might very well be an atheist's movie. You can't really tell. God, if he exists in the film's universe, is silent on the matter, and his representatives on Earth, in this film a series of ever "wiser" rabbis seem to be talking out of their asses. Gopnik, for his part, understands the math of the universe--he says so to a Korean student who may be bribing him or may be blackmailing him--but he doesn't understand the consequences. The student's father, who threatens to sue him for defamation, tells him to "accept the mystery." The end of the movie consists of two cross-cut sequences in which Gopnik caves to an act of "moral turpitude" then receives an ominous call from his doctor, while his son waits to get to shelter as a tornado touches down just beyond his school. Is this the hand of God showing itself? Or is it just a bunch of random disasters? More than one critic has likened the film to the Book of Job, because the film really goes out of its way to heap shit on our hero, but even at the end, it doesn't say for sure. And for a comedy, even a dark one, it sure does deliver a shuddering chill as it cuts abruptly to black.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Harried and Harryhausened

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977, directed by Sam Wanamaker) is very much the least of the Sinbad movies. It's woefully miscast. Patrick Wayne (son of The Duke) is WAY too white American to be a credible Sinbad, and it gives the juicier female lead to Taryn Power (daughter of Tyrone Power), rather than to Jane Seymour, who blows her off the screen. This is more or less the same movie as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, in which an evil sorcerer has disfigured the rightful ruler and Sinbad must convey that ruler to a magical wellspring. Along the way, monsters are battled, and at the end, our heroes look on as two monsters battle each other. Unlike that movie, this movie shows our heroes to be complete morons, especially the wise man, Melantheus (played by former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton). The heroes keep just telling evil queen Zenobia their plans, which is irritating in the extreme. If they keep mum about it, the movie has no drama. This kind of special pleading is a hallmark of bad screenwriting. Ray Harryhausen's monsters remain a delight, but there's not enough of them to sustain the movie, and even these show some flagging invention on the part of the artist. The first monsters we get are these demonic insect men:

These are pretty good. But it's downhill from there. The giant walrus seems thrown in just to have an encounter during a slow part of the movie (which, unwittingly pads its length).


And the final monster is this sabertooth tiger, which is not one of Harryhausen's finest creations. It looks like a stuffed toy rather than a threatening monster.

For the most part, you can see the roots of how modern blockbusters are made in this film: you have a monster encounter at the end of every reel--approximately every ten minutes--to keep the kids' attention from wandering. Unfortunately, that doesn't work any better as drama here than it does in more recent fare. Unfortunately.




Speaking of Harryhausen, the new Clash of the Titans (2010, directed by Louis Leterrier) is surprising in at least one respect: it satisfies the Alison Bechdel rule. There are more than two women in the film with speaking parts. Two or more women speak to each other about something other than a man (in this case, Cassiopeia to her daughter, Andromeda, on the subject of defying the gods). Rah, rah, feminism. Otherwise, this sucks all kinds of ass.

This film is stitched together from bits and pieces of the original film without borrowing its overall design. Some elements seem thrown in just for the sake of echoing the old movie. Calibos, for example, seems like a throw in excuse to make giant scorpions. The contempt for the original film exhibited in this one is manifested in a throwaway bit, in which Perseus finds Bubo the owl in a bunch of scrap and tosses him aside. Mind you, the original is no great shakes and the owl was ridiculous, but why antagonize the people who grew up with it by trashing it. Feh.

Allegedly, the whole reason this exists is to update the special effects from Harryhausen's charmingly homemade stop-motion puppets to state of the art, photoreal CGI. But what, I ask, is the point of state of the art special effects if the film is edited so fast that you can't see anything? I challenge anyone to tell me what this film's harpies actually look like (apart from having wings). There were two points during this film where I said aloud "Hold. The camera. Still." If I say anything during a movie, I'm usually having a bad time, so this is telling of my experience. The way the film plays fast and loose with mythology is irritating, too, but not nearly as irritating as the way it wastes relatively good actors in the background in favor of Sam Worthington and Gemma Arterton, neither of whom exactly holds the screen. Polly walker gets four minutes of screen time? Elizabeth McGovern is even in this? Really? I almost gave this points for having some background extras at the palace in Argos dressed in the Minoan snake goddess outfit (sadly no boobs are visible), but screw it, it's anachronistic. Ralph Fiennes must have done this without preparation during some down time on the set of Harry Potter, because his performance is basically Voldermort in mythological drag. Lazy.

In a nutshell: Loud, pummeling, illogical, incomprehensible, pointless. Tremendous resources misapplied wholesale. A great steaming pile.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Silence is Golden


There's something wintery about the anti-Western. Altman felt it in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Sydney Pollack felt it in Jeremiah Johnson, and you get it full-bore in Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence (1968), a film that razes the Western to the ground and sows salt in the soil.

The movie is set in Utah somewhere during the period thought of as the Old West. I can't pinpoint it any closer than that, because the movie is strangely anachronistic. Utah is a territory in the film--Utah became a state in 1896--but our hero, Silence, carries a broomhandle Mauser rather than the stock guns of Western gunfighters. The broomhandle Mauser was first manufactured in Germany in 1896. So there's a disconnect. Further, the events of the film are based in part on the Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857. As with most other Westerns, I prefer to think of this film as an abstraction of history, but this one seems even more anachronistic than most. Silence's gun of choice also Europeanizes the film, which may have been its intent.

In any event, our hero, Silence, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant without any dialogue, falls in with a group of "outlaws" who are being hunted by bounty killers. And by "outlaws", I mean Mormons, though the movie never uses the word. The bounty killers are led by Klaus Kinski's Loco, who'd rather bring 'em in dead than alive. It's a pretty stock set-up. What happens at the end of the movie is NOT stock. At the end, Loco draws a wounded silence out into the open by holding the captured outlaw families hostage. Silence has been sheltering with Vonetta McGee's Pauline, a widow whose husband was killed by Loco, presumably as part of the same bounty on anyone who wasn't a white Christian. She follows him to try to stop him. In the showdown, Silence, Pauline, and all of the "outlaws" are massacred. The end.

Sergio Corbucci's spaghetti westerns are all laced with with a Marxist point of view, and this one is no different, though it's more pessimistic than most. This movie is a critique of the Western's notions of heroism, when in Corbucci's worldview, the West was settled at gunpoint by genocidal murderers. This, at least, has some basis in history, and it may be why the rest of the movie is so ahistorical as a means of softening the blow. The heroic gunfighter prevailing against all odds, Corbucci seems to be saying, is bullshit.

As if to emphasize the point, the landscapes in this movie are bleak snowscapes. We first see Silence on his horse struggling through snowbanks, which eventually unhorse him. This is a kind of fimbulwinter for the West, a prelude to the twilight of the gods. It's the end of the world. The movie it most reminds me of is Hideo Gosha's Goyokin, which indulges in the same motifs of bare trees, snow, and crows. The symbolism is the same in both movies.

The silence of our main character, and his European-ness, are presumably both representative of Europe at the time the film was made. America was indulging in massacres anew in Vietnam in the name of its ideal of democracy, and Europe didn't have a voice in the matter. I could see Corbucci making the same film again in the 2000s.


For what it's worth, the studio behind The Great Silence compelled Corbucci to film a "happy" ending for the film, which is included (appropriately without a soundtrack) on the Fantomas disc. This ending just goes to show that an ending doesn't need to be happy to be satisfying, because it's just ridiculous.