Monday, May 31, 2010

Fish Story

Every time I revisit Joe Dante's Piranha (1978), I can't help but think that it's the living end of the New World Pictures eco horror films. Dante, screenwriter John Sayles, and producer Jon Davison, provide a movie that has all of the elements demanded by the drive-in audience of the day: blood, boobs, a social conscience (to assuage the guilt of wallowing in an exploitation film like this one), anti-establishment posturing, the whole nine yards. Further, the film doesn't even try to "transcend" these elements, whatever that means. No, it positively wallows in them. This isn't really any different from other New World eco horror films like Frogs and Humanoids from the Deep. I'll grant you all of that. But these particular filmmakers are too smart for that game. While it wallows in the conventions of a stock drive-in rip-off of Jaws (the filmmakers prefer that it's a rip-off of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which it specifically name-checks), it's also a sly commentary on them. It's the exploitation film as meta-text. Dante has subsequently proven that no one does this kind of thing better than he does. This goes a little bit beyond homage. It seeps into the very structure of the film.

One example: Dante is extraordinarily adept at the match cut, in which the first image of the next scene is a comment upon the last. In some cases, he has this reversed, and some cuts are comments on scenes yet to come. As a result, the first time we see Heather Menzies's character, one of our ostensible heroes, she's playing a Jaws video game. This is a sly dig at the notion that the film is a rip-off of Jaws, but it also matches the mayhem in the film's final act. As I said, commentary and structure both. There's also a Godardian element to this. In the lab at the beginning of the film, there are a number of fish mutants, including a Harryhausen-esque stop motion beastie that has NOTHING to do with the movie. He's a throw in. Why is he there? Because the filmmakers felt like throwing him in, no other reason. It doesn't hurt that he's pretty creepy, and charming at the same time.

I don't know that this is the first of the self-aware horror movies--Wes Craven had already been making them for years at this point--but it's certainly the film that created the template for them: Know the rules, let the audience know that you know the rules, break them in creative ways. Piranha clues in a movie-savvy audience with its opening shot, a steal from another, more famous movie.

Of course, none of this would matter if the film wasn't fun and scary, which it is. It has pretty good fish puppets, courtesy of Rob Bottin. It has fairly engaging performances from its leads. The film is refreshing in so far as our two leads are totally responsible for the disaster, and the film doesn't let them off the hook because they're the protagonists. Beyond Heather Menzies and Bradford Dillman, the film is littered with entertaining character actors: Barbara Steele as a sinister government scientist, Kevin McCarthy as the creator of the piranhas, Dick Miller as a weaselly resort owner, Paul Bartel as a stuck-up summer camp dictator, Belinda Balaski as an unfortunate camp counselor. I met Belinda Balaski recently; I asked her what she did to Joe Dante to make him want to abuse her so in his movies. She kind of laughed at that. Barbara Steele gets the movie's punch line. Ostensibly talking to the press, she assures the audience that there's no danger from the piranhas after they've been dispatched. Of course, Steele is the closest thing to an old-school horror icon in this movie. She's an actress known for portraying sinister characters. Would YOU trust this face as she tries to reassure you?

I don't think I would.

There's also a refreshing urge to one-up Jaws, something that none of the other Jaws rip-offs ever even attempted to do. Piranha does this in two ways. First, it has a MUCH higher body count. There are two feeding frenzies at the end of the film that leave bodies littering the beaches. Dante, ever taking jabs at the media, has a TV announcer describe it thus: "Terror, horror, death. Film at eleven." Second, the filmmakers have taken note of Spielberg's willingness to have the shark gobble a little kid in Jaws, so they serve up an entire summer camp of them and DON'T back away from it. The kids are fair game just like the adults. It's kind of a mean thing to do in a film that is otherwise amiably funny, but it's a touch that keeps it firmly in the realm of the horror film.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Square Deal

So, I was sitting in the theater before The Square (2008) started to unreel, and I thought to myself: "Wow, all of these previews make me want to see those movies." The previews were for The Secret in Their Eyes (this year's Oscar winner for best foreign film), Please Give, and Exit Through the Giftshop. I don't get that "wow, I want to see that feeling" very often at the multiplex, but I've been getting it a LOT at the arthouse these days. That's because the multiplexes aren't interested in movies anymore; they're interested in product. Movies like The Square--a movie I paid to see on the strength of its trailer and on word of mouth from a friend whose taste I trust--used to be the mainstream. Hollywood USED to make movies like this one, and like Mother and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo all the time and they were not considered specialty items. The Square, like those other two films, is part of one of the great American film genres, Film Noir, that Americans themselves have largely abandoned in favor of juvenila.

Yes. I am officially an old fart.

Here's a trailer for The Square:

Anyway, The Square (2008), is the feature debut of director Nash Edgerton. It's written by his brother, Joel, who co-stars as hapless arsonist, Billy. It's one of those movies in which its characters take one misstep and it leads, Rube Goldberg-like, to an intricate, unlikely road to hell. The filmmakers have appended their 2007 short film, "Spider," to open the film, and it's an instructive companion to The Square, in so far as both films hinge on everything going wrong in spectacular fashion, but one is a comedy and the other is a tragedy. Oddly enough, the comedy is much more graphically violent than the tragedy, which just goes to show that Mel Brooks was completely right when he said that "I cut my finger. That's tragedy. A man walks into an open sewer and dies. That's comedy." "Spider" is short, sharp, horrifying, and hysterically funny. (As a note to my horror friends, this short contains an injury-to-the-eye scene that would make Lucio Fulci weep with envy.)

The feature film itself follows likable enough contractor Ray Yale, who is cheating on his wife with his neighbor, Carla. Ray is also taking kickbacks from his sub-contractors while he works on a new development. Carla, meanwhile, has discovered that her husband has a sack full of (probably ill gotten) money hidden in their house. Between them, they contrive a scheme to steal the money, burn down Carla's house to convince her husband that the money is gone, and then skip out on everyone. To this end, Ray contracts arsonist Billy to burn down the house. Unfortunately, the arson doesn't go quite as planned. Neither does anything else. Soon, the bodies are hitting the floor.

The narrative here follows three separate strands. First, you have Ray and his contracting problems, including a blackmail scheme, a body dump underneath a foundation that resolutely refuses to get poured, and his suspicious wife. Next, you have Carla, whose husband is on to something shady, and who knows almost immediately that his money was stolen, not burned. Finally, you have Billy and his shy, traumatized girlfriend, who feels like he was duped into committing murderer. These three strands circle around each other for most of the movie, then converge at the end. The center of it all is Ray, played by David Roberts, who becomes more and more unhinged as the movie goes on, but Billy the Arsonist is an interestingly complicated character, as is Lily, his girlfriend, played with timid intensity (is there such a thing? There is here) by Hanna Mangan Lawrence. The men in this film are certainly a rugged bunch. They're still manly men in Australia.

In any event, the movie handles it all with a sure hand. Stylistically, the movie contrasts tidy drawings with the messy ways that human beings collide--Billy even comments to Ray that his drawing of Carla's house is a "nice drawing, mate." The movie even takes time out for amusing digressions. The romance between Carla's bulldog and Ray's poodle, for instance, has a magnificent punch line. For that matter, so does the movie. Every time you think it can't get any worse for our heroes, it does, in increasingly audacious and increasingly horrifying ways. The filmmakers have a gift for one-upmanship. I mean, you know from the outset that things are NOT going to turn out well for anyone, but the movie is still surprising, not only for its twists and turns, but for its instinct for the jugular. As the beginning of "Spider" opines: "It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye."

Edited after the fact. You can watch "Spider" on YouTube:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back Thirty Years Later

I originally saw The Empire Strikes Back (1980, directed by Irvin Kershner) on the day it opened. I saw it again three days later. It was the first film I ever saw more than once in the theater and it was the first film I ever went to by myself. Over the course of that summer, I watched it again several times. I was already a movie addict by 1980, but 1980 was really the first year that I went overboard with my addiction and Empire is partly to blame for this. Oddly enough, I can only remember going to see four movies in the theater in 1980. The other three were Superman II, Oh God! Book 2, and My Bodyguard. In scanning through all the movies released in 1980 on the IMDB, I note that I've seen most of the ones that are still in print, and a goodly number of others to boot, but I saw them all on cable or video. For what it's worth, 1980 was a pretty crummy year for movies.

They say that the golden age of science fiction is 12. I was 13 when Empire came out, so I was right in the sweet spot for it, but watching it again as an adult on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of its release was instructive. Virtually alone of the Star Wars movies, Empire takes a huge detour into the realm of high drama and high tragedy. Oh, the whiz-bang element is still there, especially in the film's first act, but at about the one hour mark, it transforms itself. It is no longer about boys playing with toys. It's about love, betrayal, guilt, generational conflict, epistemology, and spiritual transformation. It's heady stuff. That it does all of this without sacrificing the high adventure narrative is one of the better juggling acts in movies.There are two things that really drive home the difference between this film and its predecessor. The first is the introduction of John Williams's "Imperial March", which probably gets more airplay to this very day than any other piece of music in the Star Wars series. It sets the tone early. The other is the way cinematographer Peter Suschitzky films Darth Vader. In the first film, Vader never really got any special treatment beyond the sinister design of his costume. In this film, he becomes a terrifying apparition.

Vader as a demonic figure.

It's set up beautifully: we see Vader going through subordinates like they're popcorn, followed by a brief glimpse of what he looks like underneath the mask. Vader figures prominently in the turning point of the film, when Luke is tested by the Dark Side. Here, Vader is milked for all that he's worth: lit from behind, he's a shape punctuated by sinister lights, when Luke "defeats" this vision, he sees his own face beneath Vader's mask. This prefigures his appearance when Luke arrives at the carbonite chamber on Bespin. Vader is again a backlit shape looming against the background of smoke. This encounter, of course, ends with the revelation that Vader is Luke's father. This kind of cinematic doubling is something the other films in the series never come near.

This is the first time I've seen Empire since the 1997 re-release. In the interim, I've heard countless complaints about how horrible the performances are in the prequels, but to my eye, they aren't any worse than the performances in the original films. The second half of Empire is an exception, and it, too, has a cinematic function. During the first half of the film, Han Solo and Leia bicker like schoolyard children. Their by-play isn't the banter of adults. Seriously, it's not. And you get the feeling that the actors know it, because they overplay it. Again, at roughly the halfway point, when Han and Leia start to develop a more adult relationship, the performances suddenly change tenor. The broad nature of the first part of the film causes this shift to jump out in stark contrast. Suddenly, you're watching adults with adult problems and the actors seem to recognize this and dial it down accordingly. This is most evident in Mark Hamill's performance, which takes him from brash young man into the depths of despair. The terror manifested on the actor's face in his final confrontation with Vader is a tour de force.

Skywalker in the underworld.

The two new most important characters introduced in this film are Lando Calrissian, the morally compromised administrator of Cloud City, and Yoda, the ancient Jedi master. Neither of these characters would have fit in the universe of the first film. Lando, in particular, is weak-willed and unprincipled in a way that Han Solo never was, while Yoda is a deep mystic who has no patience for young Skywalker and his schoolboy image of what a Jedi Knight actually is. He gets my favorite line in the series, too, when he notes that "luminous beings are we, not this crude matter." I don't actually believe this (the atheist in me rebels), but it's the ONLY time that this series ever comes near actual poetry and transcendence.

Also new to the series is the feeling that there's an actual war going on. The first film's battle against the Death Star is all well and good, but it's mostly models and it's mostly ships flown by characters to whom we haven't been introduced. The battle of Hoth, on the other hand, is a ground battle, where you see human beings rather than model ships: it's a slog of infantry against tanks in a shitty environment. It feels more like a war film than a swashbuckler, which makes the swashbuckling later in the movie take on greater dramatic weight. Even the space battles in this film are better, in part because they're choreographed with a greater sense of three dimensions. The dimensional aspect of the scenes where the Millennium Falcon tries to evade the Empire and then navigate an asteroid field have a giddy rush of speed that is largely absent in the other films.

It's common wisdom these days among people that claim that Empire is the best of the Star Wars movies--and I'm certainly among them--that this is so because it's the one that George Lucas had the least involvement. I don't know if that's true or not, but it certainly feels different than the others. Certainly, director Irvin Kershner's pronouncements on the matter suggest that the look and feel of the movie is more his doing than Lucas's. I think you can find supporting evidence in the special edition enhancements that came along for the 1997 re-release and afterward. This is the edition that I watched this time out. First: the alteration of Vader's dialogue with the Emperor harms the movie a little bit by telegraphing the film's shocking revelation at the end. Second: the visual design of Cloud City is marginally harmed by taking out the walls and putting in windows. The original interior design of Cloud City was an excellent art-deco space, and changing the lighting throughout hides a little bit of its beauty. On the flipside of this, though is the addition of the Wampa, which was only half-seen in the original. The new scene (which is significantly NOT CGI) is pretty good. In any event, this film is probably the one that is least harmed by Lucas's after-the-fact noodling, perhaps a testament to the fundamental soundness of the original item. It's a pretty great film.

The things you notice when you scan for screen caps. The flaming black blob on the left side of this explosion looks to be the unfortunate pilot of the first TIE fighter destroyed by the asteroids. This is kind of a neat touch that went by too fast while watching the film.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Boy's Best Friend...

If I tell you the plot of Bong Joon-ho's new film, Mother (2009), without spoilers, you might be tempted to make assumptions. Here it is, for all that it might be worth: Mentally handicapped Do-Joon is arrested for the murder of a young teen-age girl. His mother, completely convinced of his innocence, sets out to clear his name in spite the airtight case the police have assembled. And do you know what? I haven't told you ANYTHING about the movie, because any assumptions you might bring to this particular plot are dead wrong. This movie unfolds with an ever more surprising sequence of events, until it climaxes with a scene that shocks the audience out of their preconceptions completely. It's a dazzling high wire act. In thinking about this movie, it strikes me that this is what Strangers on a Train might have been like had Hitchcock kept Patricia Highsmith's ending. It reminds me, too, of Max Ophuls's The Reckless Moment and of Cornell Woolrich's The Black Angel. It dwells firmly in the same kind of indifferent cosmos. This is film noir at its blackest.

Even more amazing, though maybe not too amazing to filmgoers who have seen the director's other films, is the way it sneaks up on this. The opening movement of this film is a wry social comedy, much as the opening of Memories of Murder is broadly comic. Bong is a humanist, I think, one in love with people and particularly one in love with his characters, but he's not too in love with them that he won't murder his darlings. What's the point of having characters in a thriller if not to put them through the wringer? This movie does that in spades.

At the heart of Mother, oddly enough, is not the crime itself, but rather a jaundiced view of familial relationships. Certainly, our title character's relationship with her son is deep, but it's also completely bonkers. The image of Do-Joon, an ostensibly grown man, sleeping in the same bed with his mother, hand on her breast, speaks volumes about how completely dysfunctional this family is. It's kind of creepy, actually. With this family, as with the family in The Host, the ties that bind aren't necessarily ties of love, so much as they're ties of necessity. Without them tethering these characters together, they would be adrift.

South Korean filmmakers, perhaps more than any others, put a high gloss polish on their films, and Bong is no different. This is a beautiful film to look at. As a plot construction, this is all over the place, providing all kinds of red herrings and narrative dead ends. This would ordinarily be a failing of the conventions of the mystery genre itself, but in this film, they serve as texture. Most of the loose ends tie themselves up eventually, though not in the way that you expect. As a cinematic structure, rather than as a plot structure, this is as pleasing a composition as you could like. The repetition of its opening shot late in the movie provides a satisfying symmetry, even as the implications of it sink in. The last shot of the film, however, is a marvel, in which our heroine finally lets herself become untethered from her son and joins the dance of all the other lunatics in the world. It's set against the sun in the same way as Leatherface's final dance in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The world, it seems, is spinning WAY out of balance.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Talking a Blue Streak

"Language is a virus from outer space" -- William S. Burroughs

The variations on Rio Bravo as filtered through Night of the Living Dead continue to spread through pop culture like a virus, which is interesting, given that "infection" is the chosen vector for most zombie movies and their close cousins. Personally, I think the fever has run its course, but that doesn't stop other people from continuing to make zombie movies, and I'm still occasionally surprised by them. Case in point is Pontypool (2008, directed by Bruce McDonald), which has an interesting infection vector and an agreeably creepy cinematic structure.

The story follows down on his luck DJ Grant Mazzy through his workday at a flyspeck talk radio station in the basement of a church in Pontypool, a flyspeck town in rural Ontario. He's obviously used to a bigger market than rural Ontario, because he chokes on the podunk local interest stuff that makes up his show. One hilarious example is a family of faux Middle Eastern singers who come on the show to perform, but he also has a man in the air doing traffic that is faking the helicopter sounds from his car and lost pet reports. As the movie opens, and just before the film strikes its first uncanny note, he's bitching to his agent on his drive to work. On this particular day, something weird is afoot, as reports from his man on the street describe outbreaks of riots and murder. As the day progresses, Mazzy and his two-person staff find themselves increasingly isolated from news, and increasingly alarmed at the information that IS coming in. As the film enters its last act, as a doctor who is an eyewitness to the mayhem makes his way to the station to provide Mazzy with information, it becomes increasingly clear that it is elements of language that are the infection vector, that "infected" words are driving people into a homicidal frenzy.

It comes as no surprise that Pontypool is based on a play. You have, essentially, four characters, a limited set, and a conservation of time and place. This follows Aristotle's unities faithfully, which intensifies the tension during the film's first couple of acts quite nicely. The unity of place in particular emphasizes the claustrophobic sense of being trapped by a universe gone mad, and here, Pontypool is a true descendent of Night of the Living Dead. It even samples some of its imagery even though, for the most part, the "zombies" are a threat described at second hand and kept off-screen.

Because this is essentially theater, it has to rely on its performances, a potentially fatal flaw for a movie from this sector. Fortunately, it has a couple of corkers in Stephen McHattie as Mazzy, and Lisa Houle as his impatient producer, Sydney Briar. This is a rare horror movie in which the characters--and importantly, the sound of their voices--is more compelling than the monster or the gore. Indeed, it's a rare horror movie in so far as big chunks of it consist of McHattie talking to a microphone without boring the audience. Kudos to him. The nature of this film's infection vector (and the quality of its actors) allows the film to indulge in some delirious verbal gymnastics towards the end, particularly when Mazzy convinces Sydney that the word "kill", which has infected her, is really "kiss." When she ultimately says "kill me," is about as startling a moment that has ever been put in a horror movie using that line. On the whole, the movie makes dazzling use of its sound design. Parts of it are an arresting sound collage, and the whole thing is a showcase for McHattie's voice. I've seen McHattie in a LOT of things, but I never noticed how smooth his voice is. Has it always been like that? If so, I don't remember it. The film's play on languages is suggestive, too, of why this could NOT have been set in the United States, given that part of its plot turns on both of its lead characters being bilingual. Also appropriate: it ends with a voice-over collage of news snippets that function as an audio analogue of Night of the Living Dead's closing photo montage.

Zombie movies mostly act as metaphors, and this one functions as one, too, if you're sensitive to that kind of thing. Without actually lampooning talk radio, it suggests that it is an incitement to violence, which is an obvious conclusion. More interesting is its flight into semiotics and how language as a symbology is inherently dangerous. The metaphor for an infection is particularly apt. Heady stuff, really, and not the sort of thing you expect from a movie like this. It makes it a lot better than it might otherwise be with a different Maguffin.

But, of course, it's not perfect. Once the movie gets into its third act, it becomes pretty clunky. The arrival of Dr. Mendez at the 50 minute mark or thereabouts is a deus ex machina. His only function is to deliver exposition and theory to point the leads out of their predicament, and just like the gods from the machine of old, he's yanked off-stage just as soon as his function is complete. The "talking cure" that Mazzy develops seems absurd on the face of it, regardless of the scenes it allows to happen. The shift in relationship dynamics between Mazzy and Sydney at the end of the movie seems contrived, too, but it's not cringe-worthy (I think the doctor's entrance and exit probably are cringe-worthy, but be that as it may...).

In any event, Pontypool is evidence that, however tired I'm becoming of zombie movies, they aren't anywhere near played-out. While this is partially an academic exercise (which is a sign that the whole sub-genre is nearing the end), it functions just fine as a horror movie even if you don't care about the deeper levels, and not a bad horror movie, either.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Houses of Cards

By an odd coincidence, all three of the movies I watched last week are built on shaky structural experiments.

Appleseed (2004, directed by Shinji Aramaki) is an experiment in combining the visual hand-drawn aesthetic of traditional animation with 3-D CGI and performance capture. It has some cool action sequences punctuated by long stretches of so much talky exposition that it makes one want to scream. The story, such as it is, surrounds the integration of the next generation of artificial humans with the original model. There are cyborgs and warrior chicks aplenty here. For the most part, I'm not very impressed by the amount of CGI and motion capture in this, even if it is mostly made to look hand-drawn. Disney and the Fleischers experimented with rotoscoping almost eighty years ago. Disney never made much use out of it because he thought it looked wrong. There's a reason that classical animators exaggerated movement and anatomy, and one misses it here. Only the robots seem really, ahem, animated. Ah, well. Mostly sterile, but okay if you have a fetish for mecha, I guess.

Passage to Marseille (1944, directed by Michael Curtiz) is just a mess. It has a great cast--Bogart, Lorre, Greenstreet, Claude Rains--but it also has an arcane flashback within a flashback within a flashback structure that short circuits any kind of narrative motion. Bogart plays a hard boiled Devil's Island escapee who becomes a pilot for the Free French. That sounds pretty good on paper. Sydney Greenstreet is the evil Vichy lackey commanding a transport boat. That sounds good, too. But none of it coheres because you lose track of how everything relates to each other chronologically. I mean, it's watchable--there's always something interesting going on, and Curtiz was a great director for creating cinematic unreal estate--but, sheesh, what a waste of a great cast.

Melinda and Melinda (2004, directed by Woody Allen) is one of Allen's bifurcated movies (kind of like Crimes and Misdemeanors). It tells two versions of the same story, one tragic, one comic, with two different casts except for Rhada Mitchell, who plays the catalyst in both halves, and occasional other characters, who cause the stories to intersect. But really, none of this matters, because it's the framing material that the movie is REALLY about. It's about two playwrights basically bouncing ideas off of each other at dinner, with the comedy and the tragedy as the ball being bounced between them. As a result, one gets the feeling that we're watching Allen detail and deconstruct his writing method. He even puts a version of himself in the movie--played by Will Ferrell of all people. This all might be very interesting, I suppose, but it's not much of a movie. Also, Allen's stock New Yorkers make me want to take him on a drive out through fly-over country to find new (arguably less self-involved) characters to play with.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Quiz Time

Final exams are over in my fair city now, but in the spirit of the season, I found this quiz on Susie Bright's blog. It originates on my old favorite, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Heck, I'll play.

1) William Demarest or Broderick Crawford?

Broderick Crawford. I love a heavy and I can't remember ever seeing William Demarest as a heavy. Plus, you have Highway Patrol vs. My Three Sons. So Crawford it is.

2) What movies improve when seen in a state of altered consciousness?

As a matter of pure speculation, I imagine that The Giant Claw would improve with an altered state of consciousness. As a lifelong teetotaller, I don't have first-hand knowledge.

3) Favorite studio or production company logo?

I like the old AVCO/Embassy logo, mainly for the abstract designy-ness of it.

4) Celeste Holm or Joan Blondell?

Oh, Joan Blondell for the win. Mainly for this:

5) What is the most overrated "classic" film?

My usual response to this sort of question is "there's no such thing as an overrated film, just films that other people like that you don't." My current answer is "Citizen Kane," because calling something "the greatest x ever made" is by definition overrating it. And I LOVE Citizen Kane.

6) What movie do you know for sure you saw, but have no memory of seeing?

I have no memory of Now, Voyager. I've seen it at least twice.

7) Favorite Hammer Film?

For the nonce, it's Kiss of the Vampire, because it gave Roman Polanski the idea for The Fearless Vampire Killers and because it's batshit insane on its own.

8) Gregory Itzin or Joe Pantoliano?

Joe Pantoliano is my favorite Steve Carrella in movies based on Ed McBain. Plus, he was Guido the Killer Pimp. So there you go.

9) Create a double feature with two different movies with the same title. No remakes.

Spellbound (the Hitchcock movie and the documentary about spelling bees)

10) Akiko Wakabayashi or Mie Hama?

Mei Hama for me. Mainly because "Kissy Suzuki" is one of my favorite Bond names.

11) Can you think of a (non-porn) movie that informed you of the existence of a sexual act you had not known of prior?

I can't think of one. I'm almost tempted to say Shortbus, but that's cheating.

12) Can you think of a black & white movie that might actually improve if it was in color?

Jezebel with Bette Davis. I mean, come on! That red dress is a freaking plot point! Screams to have been made in Technicolor. Sigh.

13) Favorite Pedro Almodovar Film?

All About My Mother because it's the one where Almodovar finally "clicked" for me (plus, I LOVE Antonia San Juan's character). I was tempted to say Broken Embraces, but I need to see it some more times.

14) Kurt Raab or Udo Kier?

Oh, Udo Kier definitely. One of these days, I'm going to write a slash porn story teaming Udo Kier's Baron Frankenstein in a love triangle with Helmut Berger's Nazi from Salon Kitty and John Phillip Law's Diabolik. It'll be epic.

15) Worst main title song

The main title song from Aldo Lado's nasty Night Train Murders, which sours me on an otherwise sterling Ennio Morricone score. Morricone should have done the title credits.

16) Last movie you saw in a theater? On DVD, Blu-ray or other interesting location/format?

a. Iron Man 2 with my brothers. Before that, it was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I'm hoping to see Bong Joon-ho's new film, Mother, tonight or tomorrow.

b. Lucretia Martel's The Holy Girl. Martel might be a legitimately great director.

17) Favorite movie reference within a Woody Allen movie?

I liked all of the quotes from German expressionism in Shadows and Fog. Hated the movie, though.

18) Mary Astor or Claudette Colbert?

The difference between an "actress" and a "star." I don't know that I have an opinion. I love Mary Astor in Act of Violence, but that's about it (for what it's worth, I hated her Brigid O'Shaughnessy; I thought she was all wrong for the role). I love Colbert in Torch Song and The Sign of the Cross, but I can't say that I like the movies. Call it a wash.

19) Favorite trailer (provide YouTube link if possible)?

Psycho, hands down. I love that it's Vera Miles at the end of it, not Janet Leigh. Hitch knew how to screw with an audience's head.

20) Oddest double bill you either saw or saw listed in a theater

Hmmm...that's a toughie. One that I saw, I guess: Conan the Destroyer and Iceman, which might actually have been a triple bill with either Gymkata or Red Sonja, but I don't remember. We left halfway through the second feature, in any event.

As a side note, this is a double feature I'd like to see on a marquee (but not necessarily in the theater): The Godfather Part III and Not Without My Daughter!

21) Favorite Phil Karlson film?

Hmm...Probably Kansas City Confidential, but I like The Phenix City Story and Scandal Sheet an awful lot.

22) Favorite “social problem” picture?

Um...Do the Right Thing, maybe? I don't know that I have one.

23) Your favourite Harryhausen film/monster?

Speak of the devil: the statue of Kali/Shiva

24) What was the first movie you saw with your significant other?

Life is Beautiful.

25) John Payne or Ronald Reagan?

John Payne, hands down. Reagan never defended Santa Claus.

26) Movie you feel a certain pressure or obligation to see that you have not yet actually seen.

I occasionally feel the pressure to see Fight Club. I'll pass.

27) Favorite “psychedelic” movie (Hey, man, like, define it however you want, man…)

"Begone Dull Care", methinks.

28) Thelma Ritter or Eve Arden?

Thelma Ritter, mainly for Pickup on South Street and Rear Window.

29) Favorite iconic shot or image from a film?

Oooh. That "iconic" is a qualifier, ain't it? Probably the last shot of The Searchers. My favorite shot in movies, though, might be the last shot in The Conversation.

30) What is the movie that inspired the most memorable argument you ever had about a movie?

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, of all things.

31) Raquel Torres or Lupe Velez?

Lupe Velez's life had a tragic ending, so I remember her better. But Raquel Torres was in Duck Soup and wasn't driven to suicide by her religion. So thee you go.

32) Favorite adaptation of Shakespeare to a film?

Chimes at Midnight. Followed closely by Throne of Blood and Kozintsev's King Lear.

33) Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (in 3D)-- yes or no?

Oh, sure. Why not?

34) Favorite movie rating?

X, because it's not copyrighted by the MPAA and anyone can use it. That seems kind of democratic, don't you think?

35) Olivia Barash or Joyce Hyser?

Joyce Hyser for genderfucking in Just One of the Guys and STILL flashing her boobs (no binding!).

36) What was the movie that convinced you your favorite movie genre was your favorite movie genre?

The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (horror, not sci fi). Man, that film makes an impression when you see it at ten years old.

37) Favorite Blake Edwards movie?

Victor/Victoria. The runner up is S.O.B.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rust Never Sleeps

As franchise blockbusters go, the first Iron Man movie was pretty surprising. It was anchored by strong character work from all involved, and it reached beyond its canned thrills for some surprisingly deep subtext. It was almost inevitable that a follow-up would lose some of the original's lustre, and so it has. The new film, Iron Man 2 (2010, directed by Jon Favreau), reunites most of the principals of the first film (exceptions are Jeff Bridges, who got killed off in the first movie, and Terence Howard, who got the ax after feuding with Marvel), and adds a bunch of other supporting characters, including Sam Jackson's Nick Fury, Scarlett Johansson's Natalie Rushman, Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke's Whiplash. This is, all told, the makings of a pretty good indie drama, but we get the canned superhero thrills instead.

That might sound overly harsh, because, on the whole, Iron Man 2 isn't bad at all. It mainly suffers in comparison to its predecessor.

The new movie is still built around Tony Stark, as played by Robert Downey, Jr. What was only hinted about his character in the first movie emerges full bore in this one. He's his own worst enemy, a self-destructive playboy with serious guilt complexes and a boundless ego. He's a pretty complex character, and it's telling that Stark, unlike say Bruce Wayne, can carry the movie all by himself. Watching Downey inhabit the role is a pure pleasure. If ever there were a character and an actor more perfectly suited to each other, I don't know who it is.

Where the movie trips itself up is in its plotting. This has three distinct major plotlines and a couple of minor ones that vie for the viewer's attention, with none getting enough time to be wholly satisfying on their own. First: We have Stark's self-destruction, in which he bears the burden of saving the world with a weapon that is slowly killing him. Second: We have the machinations of Stark's enemies--mainly Mickey Rourke's Ivan Danko/Whiplash, but also Rockwell's incompetent industrialist and Gary Shandling's grandstanding Senator. Finally, we have the Avengers, being orchestrated by Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. Although all of these threads do eventually intersect, it gives the movie the feeling of being overstuffed. And, really, the only one of these threads that's really interesting as narrative is the first one. The other two are fun, but seem perfunctory, like the movie HAD to do these things. As a result, they don't really resonate, even though individual elements will tickle the fancy of fans of the character. Maybe that's what's wrong. It bends over backwards to include a ton of elements from the comics whether they advance the narrative or not (and don't get me started on the credit cookie at the very end). This seems like pandering.

Some general thoughts on elements of the movie:

I've been hyper-critical of Scarlett Johansson in the past. I've never thought she was much of an actress. Surprisingly, she brings an "A" game to her role in this movie. She's really good in a part that could have been a disaster. Thankfully, they chose not to give the character an accent (a possibility, given the character's origins). She's well-conceived, and visually well-designed. Kudos to the costume designer.

Even though Mickey Rourke's supervillainous persona is Whiplash, the character himself is another supervillain, The Crimson Dynamo, and at the end the movie conflates the two. This is an interesting solution to the demand of fans to see the various rogues galleries on film. This also makes the character a LOT more interesting than he is in the comics. Hell, he doesn't really bear a resemblance to either character, so he might as well be sui generis. Rourke does a terrific job of humanizing him while still making him seem like a really bad guy to know.

Sam Rockwell's character is interesting, but I wish the actor could have toned down his "Sam Rockwell"-ishness. Of the major cast members, he's the one that doesn't quite "get" what the movie is trying to do. Ah, well.

The movie gives thanks in the credits to numerous comics writers and artists who have worked on Iron Man over the years. For the most part, Stan Lee's contribution to the character was pretty much covered in the first forty minutes of the first film. Almost none of what's in this film comes from Lee. It mostly comes from David Michelinie and Bob Layton's version of the character, which, for the most part, is probably the definitive comic book Iron Man. Still, it's nice to see Gene Colan get a shout out in the credits (he is Whiplash's co-creator, after all).

The Iron Man movies seem like they have a fair chance of supplanting the James Bond movies for depicting day-after-tomorrow high tech. These films are basically science fiction, and as science fiction, they do a fine job of imbuing their world with a "wow, when can I have THAT!" sort of mindset. The Bond comparison isn't totally frivolous, either, given the heavy presence of Marvel's Bond knock-off, S.H.I.E.L.D. In any case, this movie is a gadget-lover's wet dream.

Where one could argue that the Tony Stark in the first film is a reconstructed neo-con (and, in fact, I argued exactly that in my review of the film), I think this film falls more on the side of a Randian fantasy. (No secret here, given that the superhero archetype is inherently fascist.) This film is arguably conservative in its outlook, venerating a wealthy man who is getting results while the Government is the problem. On the other hand, the primary thrust of this is to show how irresponsible that man is when given the weight of this responsibility, and how self-destructive it is to even attempt it. This is cunningly constructed to speak out of both sides of its mouth.

Stark's relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) continues to be modeled on a romantic comedy, which is fine and appealing, but there's way too little of it in this movie. It's the one element of the first film that I really missed this time out. On the other hand, Happy Hogan (director Favreau) gets a somewhat bigger part this time out. On balance, I'd rather more of Pepper Potts.

The action sequences in this film were storyboarded by animator Gennedy Tartakovsky, and sometimes this is evident (the scene where the droids drop from the sky to surround Iron Man and Warmachine is the most obvious instance). Sometimes, though, what works in animation doesn't work so well in live action (or, at least, live action plus digital effects). Most of the battle at the end of the film happens at such a distance from the camera that it's mostly a light show where you can't really see what's happening. This is something of a flaw. On the other hand, the Grand Prix sequence is a bravura piece of filmmaking, but it happens too soon. It's the first action sequence in the movie. The filmmakers should have contrived a way to place it later in the film. Given the plot mechanics, though, I think they were kinda strait-jacketed.

Anyway, as I said about another equally "plot-compromised" recent movie, the real key here is whether or not one wants to spend any more time with these characters once the screen fades to black. At this point, the answer is still yes, but the desire is a little bit diminished.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Stranger than Fiction

Because they take so long to make, it's hard to trace patterns of influence among documentaries. In spite of that, it's also hard not to see the widening influence of Capturing the Friedmans. What once was played for shock is now stripped down to raw emotions. This is especially true in two (relatively) recent entries into the transgender documentary subgenre. This is a welcome development, even if it hasn't completely erased the cliches of the form (you can still play the transgender documentary drinking game with these movies if you like), but it has greatly diminished them (so you won't get sloshed). There's an uncanny similarity between them, too.

Red without Blue (2007, directed by Brooke Sebold, Benita Sills, and Todd Sills) was first out of the gate, documenting the lives of a pair of identical twins, one of whom is gay and one of whom is a transsexual. Mark and Clair Farley are clearly close, but, as the film unreels, they were also clearly unhappy as young people. The film describes their upbringing in Missoula, Montana with a raft of home movie footage and photographs, intercut with footage of the principles as they were when the documentary was made. Rather than focus on Clair's transition from Alex (which is the elephant in the room), the film is more interested in exposing the wounds that make their family what it is. As such, it gives each member equal weight. When their mother admits that she doesn't think of the twins as her children anymore, but rather as young people she knows, it speaks to a kind of estrangement that most families can't endure. And, of course, theirs doesn't. It's a raw film that touches on a suicide pact, molestation, and the alienation of queer youth. The movie frames all of this in a kind of dream narrative, a film collage accompanied by languid indie pop that kind of takes the edge off of some of the emotional charge, but it might be hard to watch otherwise. Even so, that both Mark and Clair seem to emerge as relatively happy people is kind of miraculous.

All of this seems like a warm up for Kimberly Reed's Prodigal Sons (2008), though. Reed is herself the subject of the movie, and like the Farley twins, she hails from Montana and returns there during the course of the movie. Like Red without Blue, Prodigal Sons is about siblings, in this case Reed and her adopted brother, Marc. But where a screenwriter might have been able to come up with the story of the Farleys, there's no way one could have come up with the story of the McKerrows.

Reed used to be a golden boy when she was growing up as Paul McKerrow: uncommonly handsome, the quarterback of the football team, the dream of every parent. Marc, who was adopted at the time that Kim was conceived, always dwelt in her shadow. Both siblings underwent life altering transformations later in life, Kim underwent gender transition while Marc had a horrific car accident that resulted in the removal of part of his brain. All things considered, Kim was by far the luckier of the two. And after all of that is established, and after we've seen Marc rage at his sister who remains a golden girl after her transition, even after we've seen that Kimberly is fundamentally well adjusted even in the context of a potentially awkward high school reunion in Montana, the narrative drops a bombshell concerning Marc's biological parentage. All the while, Prodigal Sons, like Red without Blue, is documenting the relationships involved with a striking and uncomfortable intimacy. It's a bitches brew, to be sure, and if the film ultimately leaves a ragged end, well, that's life I guess. It doesn't necessarily provide a tidy narrative. It's a bracing film.