Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Angelic Visitations

So, I have a friend who loves Ewan McGregor and hates Tom Hanks. I wonder if she saw Angels and Demons, the 2009 sequel to The Da Vinci Code, and if she did, I wonder what she made of it. Director Ron Howard is back, and proves once again that you can never actually tell what your going to get from him from movie to movie, even within the same franchise. Regarding McGregor, because he's playing a priest and representative of the Vatican in this movie, there was NO chance that we would get to see his endowment in this movie, which, frankly is disappointing. But then, this was made before the current scandals that are tearing the Catholic Church asunder really started to break. A missed opportunity, but you're not going to get that from a Ron Howard film or a film starring Tom Hanks anyway, so what the hell, eh?

In any event, to recap: I hated The Da Vinci Code, which I thought telegraphed its plot so thoroughly that the CSI-style flashbacks were wholly unnecessary. The sequel is quite a bit better, and not just because it dispenses with the flashbacks. It also throws in enough red herrings to make the plot at least a little bit more surprising. Plus, it takes its cues from The Abominable Dr. Phibes, though this film is Phibes on speed. Hanks is back again as symbologist Robert Langdon, who in this film is recruited by the Church (as opposed to being thwarted by it in the first movie) to help decipher the clues in the abduction of the four preferati (leading candidates for the papacy), on the eve of the conclave. The evidence points to the reappearance of the Illuminati, about which Langdon knows a bit. Meanwhile, a vial of antimatter has been stolen from the Large Hadron Collider and turned into a bomb that threatens to destroy the Vatican. So we get another treasure hunt. In most respects, it's the same movie as the first one, minus the goofy conspiracy. The conspiracy in THIS movie is only preposterous, which is one of the reasons that this is better than its predecessor by quite a lot.

Some things I liked about this film are things I liked a great deal. First: Tom Hanks has a MUCH better haircut in this movie. You may think that's a small thing, but did you SEE the haircut they gave him in the first film? Seriously. In a more sober vein, I also like the idea that Langdon is an atheist hero and admits to it when pressed by McGregor's Camerlengo: "Tells me I'm not meant to. Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive." Further, he doesn't recant at the end of the movie, which is amazing given the strong Catholic appeasement the movie indulges. I also like the depiction of the Large Hadron Colider, which, lets face it, IS one of the places in the world that could probably make that quantity of antimatter. It's also a spectacular location. The science here isn't ignorant, nor is the movie's token scientist/eye candy, Ayelet Zurer, whose role is to explain what antimatter is and to act as a foil for Langdon, someone he can spout exposition to. It's not that bad, really. There have been a LOT worse versions of this character. I also like the film's instinct for the jugular. There are several "themed" murders in this film (a la Phibes), and they are wonderfully ghastly. Finally, Rome remains one of the most photogenic cities in the world. The Eternal City, indeed.

So, all in all, a surprise. It's not a great movie at all. It's a popcorn movie that's fun while you're watching it. There are even a few things along its running time that stick in the memory. I'm glad that I didn't pay money to see this in the theater, though, because when you insert an economic element, it tends to change the amount of slack I give a movie. Take that however you like.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Dish Best Served Cold...

Of all the varieties of genre fiction, crime fiction has always been the one that has been most attractive to filmmakers with a more artistic bent. Oh, the reasons are easy enough to see: crime fiction can be sociological or existential, it can provide horrifying moral conundrums for its characters, it can examine the roots and consequences of violence. As a result, you're more likely to find a crime drama at the art houses than you are to find a science fiction film or a western. And the art house--and the video equivalent of the art house, The Criterion Collection--is where I found Revanche (2008, directed by Götz Spielmann), a film that takes a stock crime story and telescopes it out into a meditation on revenge, forgiveness, and guilt. It transposes a story that would ordinarily be filmed in some kind of stylized fashion by a more genre-oriented director into the flat, long take aesthetic of Eastern European art cinema. Director Götz Spielmann strips the film of anything that might heighten or manipulate the audience's emotions--no score, very few close-ups, an Ozu-esque camera placement, and cold, subdued light--and it lets the characters stew for the camera. Most of the characters' emotions are internalized. It's a cold, emotionally distant way of filming, and it will alienate some audiences. It took me a while to get into it, myself.

The story follows Alex and Tamara, he a low level flunky for the owner of a brothel in Vienna, she a Ukrainian prostitute. As the film opens, the brothel's owner is trying to move Tamara into a higher level of clientele, with strings attached, of course. Tamara owes the owner a large sum of money and Alex would like to raise the money to open his own bar, so he hatches a plan to rob a bank. In one respect, Revanche shares an element in common with more conventional crime films: When someone says "Nothing can go wrong," as Alex does, you know something WILL go horribly, horribly wrong. And so it does.

This brings the film's other major players into the picture. Robert and Susanne are a cop and his wife who are growing apart due to their inability to conceive. Robert ends up killing Tamara by accident during the course of the robbery, and Alex finds himself neighbors with Robert and his wife when he hides out with his grandfather. Revenge burns in his eyes. What follows is fairly surprising, and is not a turn of events that would ordinarily play out in a more commercial film. The universe of this film is more Krzysztof Kieslowski than Sam Fuller.

The shot that opens the film is a fair summary of the arc of the story: We see a tranquil lake with the woods reflected on it until someone throws a rock into it and shatters the reflection into a cascade of ripples. Most films would follow the ripples or cut away, but this one keeps its gaze steady and waits for the ripples to abate, restoring the tranquil lake and the woods, and that, more or less, is what the film as a whole does. The film couches things in other symbolism, too, as Alex repeatedly cuts logs into shorter pieces in his grandfather's barn (impotence), then takes to mechanically chopping wood with an ax (rage). At one point, Robert and Alex meet in the woods and Alex takes the high road and Robert takes the low, which telegraphs Alex's redemption and Robert's masochistic embrace of his status as a scapegoat. For the most part, though, the film doesn't club you with this.

Oddly enough, the film has it both ways. Alex has his revenge, in a way, in a harsh table top revenge fuck with Susanne, while the film diffuses it with Alex's refusal to take revenge on Robert with violence. It's a strange crime film, this, in so far as it promises revenge in its title, but steadfastly refuses to pander to the audience's desire to see it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

We are Stardust, We are Golden

Without claiming that The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973, directed by Gordon Hessler) is a great movie--hell, without claiming that it's even a good one--I have to confess that the experience of seeing it is one of the most treasured memories of my childhood. We--my dad, my brothers, myself, and one of my cousins--saw it at a shithole theater in one of the suburbs of Boston on a trip to see family in 1974. On this same trip, I also saw my first pro baseball game (Cleveland beat the Red Sox 4 to 3 at Fenway). Not a bad vacation for a kid on the first vacation she can remember. Anyway, I remember being totally entranced by Sinbad, and not only for the Harryhausen effects. A pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker was a deliciously sinister bad guy and John Phillip Law remains my favorite of the three Harryhausen Sinbads for the simple expedient of being the one least like an American White Man. In any event, it's the one that captured the mystique of The 1,000 Nights best, I think.

I haven't seen it since I was a tot, though. For some reason, this is the Sinbad movie that fell through the cracks. I can't ever remember seeing it on television--hell, I can't remember ever even seeing it listed on television. The first of the Harryhausen Sinbads, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, used to play all the time at kids matinees and then on cable, and the third one, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, came out just as cable television really started to ramp up, so it was gobbled up and put into the rotation on HBO a year or two after its theatrical run. But not The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. In order to see it again, I would have had to deliberately seek it on home video. And, frankly, I didn't want to revisit it as an adult, because I was afraid it would ruin my perfectly good memories of seeing it in the theater.

Obviously, I finally decided to revisit it. You can blame the instant watch feature on Netflix for this. It made the choice poisonously easy. Imagine my surprise to discover that it actually kinda sorta holds up. Oh, it's obviously a kids movie--Caroline Munro's heaving bosom not withstanding. The characters are mostly here to fight monsters or (in the film's climax) look on as monsters fight themselves. The Sinbad movies gave Harryhausen all kinds of artistic license to include anything he felt like animating. This movie gives us a centaur (who bears a striking resemblance to both the cyclops in the first movie and the troglodyte in the third), a gryphon, an animated ship's figurehead, a nasty little homunculus, and, best of all, a statue of the goddess Kali come to life. For my money, Kali is Harryhausen's best monster, and the fight between her and Sinbad and his men easily ranks with the skeleton duel in Jason and the Argonauts as a peak of his art. Kali is possibly Harryhausen's most convincing effect, but don't take my word for it. See for yourself:

Of course, you can see the flaws in the movie writ large in that clip, too. The natives on the isle of Lemuria (where our heroes and villains find the Fountain of Destiny) are goofy as all get out, kind of like a mime troupe improvising a native ceremony without any concrete direction. And Kali herself is completely ignorant of Indian culture. Be that as it may...

In any event, chalk this up as a pleasant surprise. Sometimes, an adult sensibility doesn't obliterate the things you loved as a child, and that thought makes me happy.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ghost Stories

A friends of mine works as a rape crisis first-responder, and when I told her I was going to see The Ghost Writer (2010), Roman Polanski's new film, she said "Have a good time. I won't be seeing it." She views Polanski only as a rapist--with some justification, I might add--and boycotts Polanski's movies on general principles. For the most part, I can't argue with her, but I still go see Polanski movies myself. I justify this to myself by noting that more than a hundred people work on most movies, so it's not an individual enterprise like painting or music. I usually wind up having to re-think that position after I see a given movie. It's almost impossible to ignore the personal elements of Polanski's own biography in his films, and this one is no different.

The story here revolves around a ghost writer hired to doctor the memoirs of Adam Lang, a British Prime Minister whose previous ghost writer died under mysterious circumstances. During the course of writing those memoirs, Lang comes under indictment by The Hague for ordering the kidnapping, rendition, and torture of terrorist suspects on behalf of the Americans. Meanwhile, the ghost begins to piece together his predecessor's work (and the reasons for his death).

The parallels to Tony Blair are unmistakable, and I'll get to that in a minute. First, I want to point to the irony of Polanski making a film about a character who can't leave the United States for fear of arrest, which is a weird mirror image of his own situation prior to his recent arrest in Switzerland. As I said, you can't escape his biography in his movies.

The cast in this movie is uniformly excellent, and Polanski himself is in fine form. This is the kind of thriller he seemed born to make in his heyday. It reminds me of one of his "apartment" movies writ large, but it also has the merciless clockwork precision (and menace) of Chinatown. It's the kind of thriller that Hollywood itself is no longer interested in, one in which there are no action sequences as such, but in which danger is always elided. There's a shot of a woman standing in the background on a telephone in this movie, and when we hear a snippet of what she's saying, we know that only bad things are going to happen. Polanski always did paranoia well. This has a terrific cast, by the way, with Ewan McGregor as the ghost and Pierce Brosnan as Lang, and Tom Wilkinson, Kim Catrall, Olivia Williams, and even Eli Wallach in significant supporting roles. Brosnan, in particular, always surprises me in these kinds of roles. Add this to his resume along with The Tailor of Panama and The Matador as another anti-Bond performance. He's good at tired rage. If I have a quibble with the film qua film, it's that in order to set up its pessimistic ending, it requires the ghost to do something pretty stupid. But it's a small detail in a film that otherwise turns the screws tight. Plus, the final image is worth the contrivance.

I mentioned earlier that the parallels to Tony Blair are unmistakable, and I'd like to expand on that a bit. Amid all the ink spilled on movies about the Iraq war itself and their relative box office failure, one thing that seems to fly under the radar is the way that the war influences movies of all kinds, not just war movies. Examples would include movies as diverse as Dawn of the Dead and Iron Man. This movie is more overt than most, but it's still a smuggler, and a harshly critical one, at that. The war, the film tells us in the subtext, has exacerbated the sociopathic tendencies of intelligence agents and national security. It has created merry little fascists out of even the best intentioned of politicos.

In any event, what we have here is one of those caustic genre exercises that acts as a sly sociological commentary. They don't make enough of these these days. Maybe one day soon, one will be made by a director to whom I won't have to grant Orwell's benefit of clergy to enjoy.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Blog of the Dead

Of George Romero's original trio of zombie movies, the one I have the least acquaintance with is Day of the Dead (1985). This isn't really an accident--I didn't like Day of the Dead the first time I saw it and I didn't like it any better when I saw it again in the mid-90s. There are two reasons for this, really: first, it's populated by wholly unpleasant characters, even the heroes (a fault compounded by generally bad performances from all involved); second, it's easily the most nihilistic of Romero's original trio. The younger me found this to be off-putting. The older me still finds it a bit off-putting, but the older me is also a bit more forgiving of this sort of thing. When I originally wrote about the film for my old web site, some thirteen years ago, I noted:

"Romero is too talented to make a totally uninteresting movie when he is working in his own self-invented sub-genre, and there is actually material here that holds one's attention, but most of the film's best moments are provided by Tom Savini's thoroughly repulsive grue. Given that the principal aesthetic virtues of Night and Dawn of the Dead are not provided by their grue would indicate that Romero is using his effects as a holding action until he can make the movie he really wants to make."

Some of those interesting things seem a lot more important a decade further on. Alone of Romero's zombie films, Day of the Dead is not an allegory, per se. True, you could consider the underground fortress in which the movie is set--a mine shaft littered with the detritus of a ruined civilization--to be a kind of a grave, but that's not what the movie is really about. What this movie seems to be saying is that our species needs to out grow our propensity for violence or we will all die in a global abattoir. To this end, and to make the point, the movie's heroes maintain a corral for a stockpile of zombies, as they pick over the corpse of the world looking for a way forward. This, of course, is the point of the first half of the movie and it's tedious barrage of recriminations between the film's two factions. It's the bickering of children (certainly, the schoolyard taunts issuing from Steel and Rickles are intended to reinforce that view). The military gets the brunt of the film's disdain, bearing the world's racism and sexism as a matter of course. The film's mad scientist, Dr. Logan, is looking to impose his will on the zombies. It gets him killed in the end. In contrast, there comes a point at which McDermott (the helicopter pilot) is obliged to throw his gun away. He lives. We need to move past violence, the movie seems to be saying, but it may be too late. The movie has an ostensibly happy ending, with Sara (Lori Cardille) waking from a nightmare only to find the other two survivors fishing on the beach. But is this a happy ending at all? The movie begins with her waking from a nightmare, after all, and we've seen what that gets her. Further, the tropical setting of this end is foreshadowed by the tropical decor of McDermott's corner of the base, complete with soundtrack cue, and that, too, proved to be a false refuge. The nightmare continues.

Some of the elements of Day of the Dead find their way into Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, a film that continues to surprise me. It originally surprised me by being worthy of its predecessor. These days, it surprises me by holding up to repeat viewings. This has the best cast of any zombie film that I can name. Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames invest the film with more committed performances than one would expect, and the movie is the better for it (in contrast, Romero's originals are plagued by dodgy acting). It also has terrific cues on the soundtrack, made possible by its big studio backing. This film also shows some influence from the Stephen King/Steven Spielberg school of horror when it grounds itself in suburban reality at its start. We see the world before the fall, rather than as the fall is in progress. Rather than soften the blow when everything flies apart, it intensifies it instead. But more than any of that, it has an instinct for the jugular. You see this in its razor sharp opening salvo, which is 13 minutes of pedal to the metal horror filmmaking. You see it in its willingness to follow the character arc of the film's pregnant character to its logical extreme. This jugular instinct is what it borrows from Day (rather than the original Dawn). Unlike Peter and Fran, who escape to an uncertain future in the original, our heroes escape to the universe postulated by Day in the remake. In fact, the filmmakers have it both ways in the remake, giving the audience who leaves before the final credits roll a hopeful ending, while giving die-hards a brace of nihilism on the way out to their cars. It's a neat trick.

One thing that struck me this go around (and which struck me with Day as well) is the way all of the children of Night of the Living Dead exist in the now. There is no chronology from film to film that makes any kind of sense. The zombie disaster is always a plague of the moment, and the fallout, whether it's the death of consumer culture in the 70s or the burning buildings on the horizon in the remake of Dawn (so reminiscent of 9/11 and Oklahoma City), is always the destruction of the present. This, more than anything, is what makes these films eternally popular, I think.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Crush Me With Your Thighs.

I have to say that after long periods of watching very serious movies with subtitles, I start to long for the simple things in life, specifically action movies that blow shit up real good. Right now, I'm sitting on a trio of very serious movies from Netflix, and I haven't been able to get into any of them. So I took a flier for the first part of March and went for the comfort food movies.

In the blowing things up real good department, I must express a certain amount of dissatisfaction with Hancock (2008, directed by Peter Berg), in which Will Smith plays a disaffected superhero trying to turn his life around. The movie is frontloaded with mayhem, but its big climax is surprisingly toothless. I mean, you have two superheroic characters in this movie, but at the end, in a shootout at a hospital with some common robbers, neither of them has any powers. This is a failure at a fundamental level, in so far as when you have superheroes, you need supervillains. Otherwise, you're just rehashing those Marvel Comics TV series from the 1970s where there was no budget for the heroes' heroics, to say nothing of any villain's villainy. In a Will Smith blockbuster? There's no excuse. Also, I wish the movie had forgotten about Will Smith and did something more interesting with Charlize Theron. All in all, a missed opportunity at every level. I watched this on Netflix's instant watch service, which seems an appropriate way to watch this, because I have the least amount I can invest in it other than time.

I'm trying to remember the last film by James Cameron where I didn't have to preface my enjoyment with some kind of apologia. Aliens, maybe. Certainly not True Lies (1994), a bang-up Schwarzeneggerian epic compromised by a deep and nasty streak of misogyny. This is a bit of a surprise, given that Cameron has traditionally featured strong female characters in his films, but this film, even more than The Abyss, seems informed by the director's serial marriages and divorces. It manifests itself in a "family values or else" storyline and in a casual use of the word "bitch" that starts to draw blood as the film unspools. By the time Jamie Lee Curtis's character finds her own inner strength, the film has gone to great lengths to degrade her and even then, her inner strength is defined by her husband and her strength has been fetishized. It's bad shit, and an unfortunate undercurrent for a film that, at its core, is a state of the art (in 1994) example of action filmmaking. The comedy bits mostly work--especially those involving Bill Paxton, who gives a particularly selfless performance here--and the big set-pieces are generally scaled and executed with aplomb. Pity.

The Pierce Brosnan reboot of the James Bond franchise confronts the essential sexism of the action genre Bond inspired head on. It hasn't changed Bond himself, who is just as unapologetically sexist and misogynistic as ever, but it has changed the world around him, which is why when Goldeneye (1995, directed by Martin Campbell) walks through all of the Bond tropes as if it were following a checklist, it all seems kind of fresh. This film provides Bond with a new, female boss. Judi Dench's M is prickly and harsh and doesn't have any time for Bond's charms. Samantha Bond is a radical departure as Miss Moneypenny. She seems to have a life of her own, and even if she IS still mooning for 007, she gives as good as she gets in this movie, as if there has been some leveling of the playing field. The movie-specific female characters are an interesting departure, too: Izabella Scorupco's Natalya has smarts and initiative on her own such that, when the time comes to choose between the love interest or the mission, it's her that does the choosing instead of Bond. And Famke Janssen's sadistic Xenia Onatopp goes into the Bond canon as one of the best evil henchmen. The erotic dimension to her depravity is refreshing for the way the movie puts it in the foreground. It doesn't hurt that Janssen holds the screen better than anyone else in the movie, and the expression on her face as she crushes her victims to death between her legs is an expression I wish someone would put on MY face in the throes of passion.

I wish Sean Bean was as compelling as the evil mastermind behind everything, but there's a kind of petulance in his character that puts me off--and, trust me, I would NOT kick Sean Bean out of bed for eating crackers under any other circumstances as a candidate for giving me that expression. In any event, all of the elements are put together perfectly--did I mention the credit sequence? One of my favorites from the Bond series, with Tina Turner doing the honors on the soundtrack--and even if it's not a transcendent Bond film, it's certainly an archetypal one. Director Martin Campbell saved the transcendent Bond film for Brosnan's successor in the role, some eleven years later.