Friday, May 30, 2008

The Aesthetics of Torture: the Uneasy Mixture of V for Vendetta

Adapted from a famous Alan Moore graphic novel, V for Vendetta has all the elements of a fun, subversive, intelligent movie—a future British fascist government with many parallels to our own, a highly literate villain/hero who cheerfully quotes Shakespeare while throwing knives at villains, Natalie Portman sporting a chic near-bald hair-do, and the Matrix-making Wachowski brothers behind it all, but somehow this ambitious film never jelled as it should have.

Sometime after 2015, the United States no longer exists, but Britain carries on underneath a red and black Orwellian totalitarian state ostensibly run by Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Proclaiming slogans like “Strength through Unity,”and “Unity through Faith,” the government tortures anyone who spreads dissent, and its fear-mongering propaganda keeps its people obedient. One night in London, Natalie Portman’s character Evey Hammond runs up against the “yellow-coded curfew” that gets her in trouble with the FBI-like Fingermen. Just when they look ready to attack her, a Batman-like avenger named V (Hugo Weaving) shows up wearing Zorro duds, a Michael Jackson black wig, and a grinning Guy Fawkes mask. After dispatching the three Fingermen with ease, the talkative V invites Evey up to the roof of a building to witness his takeover of the city-wide sound system. He plays Tchaikovsky to wake everyone, and then he blows up the Old Bailey with a bunch of fireworks for extra visual flair.

Always maintaining the chivalric cool of his hero the Count of Monte Cristo, V then takes over the main government television station so that he can announce the revolution that will take place on Guy Fawkes day, November 5. V also starts killing off various people who tortured him a long time ago in a medical facility that resembles a cross between Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Meanwhile, her association with V gets Evey Hammond in trouble with the Gestapo-like police who like to put hoods over people’s heads and steal them away in the night, so she has to hole up in V’s pad, the Shadow Gallery, where he keeps lots of books, paintings, and classic soul records in a jukebox. If V were Batman, then we would learn of his handsome dashing alternate identity, but here he keeps on his grinning mask throughout the film with Phantom of the Opera-like overtones. Try as Hugo Weaving can (formerly the agent Smith of the Matrix movies), it is hard to act with a mask on.

I found myself continually comparing this film to the original Matrix. Whereas the earlier classic found a way to blend Hong Kong action with a massive conspiracy undermining our notions of reality, V for Vendetta keeps getting bogged down with its message. The filmmakers had so many political axes to grind, they had a hard time dramatizing them all. So perhaps the government may have unleashed a virus that killed thousands of Britishers. Since it was a footnote in the complex storyline, it was hard for me to care. In an action film where one normally gets pumped up with the fight scenes, it’s difficult to sympathize with the perspective of someone getting tortured. That requires a level of empathy hard to attain in any case, let alone in a fast-paced commercial property. When later the film suggests that torture can have its good points in refining one’s soul, I balked at that altogether.

Looking winsome and smart, Natalie Portman acts well, but like the similarly youthful Orlando Bloom, she lacks backbone as a lead. Acting across from a man with a mask, she has to carry much of the emotional weight, and as much as Portman may cry in the rain, or rage against the fascists, I never really believed her drastic changes of heart later in the film.

Clearly, the Wachowski brothers want us to see the Bush administration in a sinister light, to connect the dots and fight oppression, but V’s strategy of fighting a government with terrorist tactics creates a moral ambiguity that I found muddled. Graphic novels can trivialize torture, as do films that congratulate themselves for their political awareness.

Disneyfying Joyce: the Retro Future Design of Meet the Robinsons

I’m not usually a fan of animated films designed for children. Madagascar made me feel trapped in the theater. Flushed Away had its diverting moments, but the film was frenetic and over-crowded with plot, and all I really remember were the singing slugs. One gets bored with the predictable elements of these films like the cute talking animal sidekick, the winking popular culture references, and the derivative villains who laugh fiendishly.

In the case of Disney’s computer-generated feature Meet the Robinsons, you get Bowler Hat Guy, a tiresome bumbling villain with a long mustache who could easily battle Dudley Do-Right, but the film has some things going for it. Most importantly, the original inspiration came from William Joyce’s children’s book A Day with Wilbur Robinson. Joyce is an excellent illustrator of such works as The Leaf Men and Santa Calls. His playful yet exact oil pastel illustrations draw on unusual influences such as The Wizard of Oz, 1940s advertising art, the 1939 New York World’s Fair’s vision of the future, and the Futurism movement in Industrial Design of the 1930’s. A Day with Wilbur Robinson simply depicts a boy’s visit with a bizarre family, but the book likes to juxtapose deadpan language like “It’s kind of dull here today” with pictures of a giant locomotive steaming through the living room as a Robinson uncle shoots himself from a cannon. Dinosaurs hang around the pool because someone left the time machine on, and much of the plot concerns a boy’s search for some missing teeth. Since the book was optioned by Disney back in 1990, Joyce cranked out one screenplay after another as they considered a live action version, but finally CEO Michael Eisner green-lit the production of a computer-generated feature, wisely appointing William Joyce and John Lasseter (the director of films such as Cars and Toy Story) as Executive Producers.

The resulting film still displays the dangers of Disneyfying a good book. The plot has now grown to encompass the story of an orphaned boy-inventor named Lewis who just wants to join a family before he turns 13. On the day he’s ready to show off his first major invention, a memory machine, at the school science fair, the aforementioned villain causes the invention to break down in front of the judges. Then he steals it on a Radio Flyer red wagon. Despondent, Lewis returns to the roof of his orphanage to bemoan his failure, but fortunately a mysterious boy named Wilbur whisks him off on a time machine into a bright blue future.

Combining elements of Back to the Future, The Wizard of Oz, and The Jetsons, Disney summons up a whimsical retro-vision of a future where inventions have erased all pollution from the blue sky, commuters ride bubbles to work, and insta-buildings pop up like toast on the horizon. Once he manages to crash the time machine, Lewis encounters a Robinson family much like the one in the children’s book. He finds an octopus butler, a full-scale train in the living room, and a parent who likes to train frogs to sing Frank Sinatra songs. Basically, they are all adults who still retain the playfulness of childhood, and the movie just throws all of these eccentrics at the viewer so quickly that Lewis has to recap who they all are to Wilbur just so we can vaguely keep track of them.

Naturally, in Back to the Future fashion, time travel has the capacity to change the “space-time continuum.” Since he has already stolen one of the time machines from Robinson Industries, Bowler Hat Guy eventually fouls up the future by selling Lewis’s first invention to a large conglomerate back in his present day. His bowler hat is actually an evil robot that can fly around and speak in beeps and whistles like the R2D2 robot in Star Wars, and the film flirts with the possibility of a dystopic future of hat-tormented zombies in an over-industrialized wasteland.

Aside from the trumped up story, I still liked Meet the Robinsons for what it did not include: animal sidekicks, syrupy emotional scenes, or easy wish-fulfillment for its hero. While the film can resemble a positive reinforcement therapy session as the Robinson family cries out “What a special kid!” to Lewis even when he messes up, the movie still benefits from a sense of invention. Sitting at a desk, Lewis has to work for his success, drafting his invention plans on a school journal, and often throwing his unsuccessful ideas away. Let’s hope that the Disney corporation will learn from his example.

The temptations of the hero: Beowulf

Way back in AD 507, in cold, primitive Denmark, there’s not much to do but party down all night in the mead hall. Given that director Robert Zemeckis used the same performance capture technology in Beowulf that he used for Polar Express, all of the partyers look slightly stiff and cartoonish. That’s because he connected digital sensors to the actors’ faces and bodies and then figured out a way to electronically reconfigure their facial expressions and gestures within the computer generated world of the film. On the one hand, this gives Beowulf a freewheeling visual style that can be quite delightful, especially in its action scenes. The camera’s point of view can zip about wherever it likes—from the magic cave to the bottom of the ocean. As the Danes get drunk, the camera’s point of view flies out to the frozen woods so quickly, the tree limbs whistle by. But meanwhile the actors look buried in digitalized pancake makeup, and I found myself wondering—is that John Malkovich under that CGI mask?

The film begins with the grotesque sight of plump King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) gyrating around in the firelight without much clothes in drunken toga style revelry. His youngish Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) looks on with disdain. The Danes’ mead-soaked fraternity partying bothers the large deformed monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), so he abruptly appears and shreds a bunch of the drunken soldiers while shrieking in a sickly blue light. By the next morning, most of the Danish court is dead, so Hrothgar says “What we need is a hero.”

Conveniently, a Viking ship stops by with buff Ray Winstone as Beowulf proclaiming “I’m here to kill your monster.” With his trusty redhead sidekick Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), Beowulf impresses everyone as a good possible monster-slayer, although the snarky Unferth (John Malkovich) has his doubts about exactly how many sea monsters Beowulf really killed by plunging his sword into their eyes. As everyone party once again the mead hall to lure Grendel back, Beowulf shows his aesthetic side when he proclaims Queen Wealthow “beautiful.” Then when she starts to play her harp and sing, he once again calls it “beautiful” before going to sleep in the buff. Since he says a “sword is no match for demon magic,” Beowulf chooses to fight Grendel naked. In order to hang on to the PG-13 rating, the filmmakers had to be very clever about how to shoot this scene without showing too much buff blond hero, and I was reminded of similar camera tricks in Austin Powers movies. Anyway, by yelling “Tonight will be different! I am the ripper, the terror, the slasher. I am the teeth in the darkness! The talons in the night! My name is strength! And lust! And power! I AM BEOWULF!,” he does manage to rip off Grendel’s arm, thereby mortally wounding the monster.

Apparently, Beowulf did not read the fine print, because soon after Grendel slinks home to die, his enraged mother slaughters most of the Viking warriors and hangs them from the mead hall rafters. When Beowulf goes to complain to King Hrothgar, he says wistfully “I hoped that she had left long ago.” So now, Beowulf must go off to a crevice in the mountain to face a largely nude but gold-accented Angelina Jolie wearing anachronistic high heels to show off her demon legs.

Can Beowulf resist Grendel’s mother’s charms? What happens to the gold Royal Dragon Horn? As the film girds its loins for a final fight scene with a dragon, I remained impressed with its visuals, but ultimately skeptical of the flashy (or flashing?) techniques the filmmakers used to jazz up an old famous poem. For all of its machismo, blood, boasting, and drunken carousing, Beowulf ultimately appears uncertain of its masculinity. He can kill monsters galore, but at heart Beowulf proves just as dumbstruck before modern celebrity as the rest of us.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Packaging Civil Rights: The Uplift of Glory Road

In 1966, a division 1 basketball team from the small Texas Western College came out of nowhere to win the National NCAA championship against the top-seeded University of Kentucky. The final game gained historic status because their coach, Don Haskins, had an entire African American starting lineup for the first time against the all-white Kentucky team, turning the game into a kind of emancipation proclamation for black athletes still facing racist notions about their inability to “lead” or “hold up under pressure” in game play.

The Disney film Glory Road chronicles this story, and while it seemed promising enough in the preview, I found the resulting film smugly self-congratulatory, bombastic, and generally annoying. Josh Lucas plays the Coach with the same blue-eyed good looks that he brought to the role of a pilot in Stealth. We first see him coaching a girl’s high school team, but then he gets the nod to coach for Texas Western in El Paso, so he moves into the guy’s dorm with his poor wife and kids. Without much of a budget, he quickly and unconventionally recruits seven African American players from places as far off as the Bronx and Chicago. He tells them things like “No girls, no booze, no late nights,” so they test his mettle by partying late at a Bodega club. In reply, Don Haskins forces them to run splits the entire next day. When one athlete does poorly at school, Haskins brings over his mother to make sure that he studies by sitting in class with him.

Unfortunately, the only thing to separate this film from The Bad News Bears or any other underdog win-one-for-the-Gipper movie is the race angle. The moviemakers make a stand against the various racists on the college board of trustees. Racists lurk in bathrooms or contemptuously pour their drinks on the African American athletes, but there’s no real dramatic tension in vilifying racists. Occasionally, one of the athletes will have problems with a heart condition or a forbidden Hispanic girlfriend or something, but they remain minimally characterized like everyone else. The coach’s wife played by Emily Deschanel has it the worst because she has to play the long-suffering woman who waits by the stove and says “Is all this worth it?” when she receives threatening racist letters as a result of the team’s growing success. Or she has to stand around cocktail parties and feel increasingly isolated as the 1960s socialites make stupid racist comments around her.

While the African American athletes try to liven up the film with their jokes and spirited acting, they too eventually succumb to the formulaic storyline, the newspaper montages, and the rapidly edited games. Eventually, as the team takes on national importance, coach Don Haskins decides that this is “more than just a game now,” and the film takes on a flag-waving righteous air that reminded me that the prolific Jerry Bruckheimer produced this film. Never one to display a light touch thematically, Bruckheimer has milked our sentiments before in such films as Top Gun, Pearl Harbor, Con Air, and countless others. Bruckheimer has already made Glory Road once before in the form of Remember the Titans (2000). In that film, Denzel Washington plays a high school basketball coach hired to field a symbolic team of African American players just after Virginia schools were integrated.

Effectively, Bruckheimer recycles cookie-cutter feel-good stories for symbolic uplift, and the history of civil rights gets streamlined for Disney profit in the process. The best part of the film occurs during the end credits when the real players, now middle aged, speak of their struggle and the excitement of winning. Their voices have an integrity that the rest of Glory Road never attains.

Putting the Batman hype in context: Batman Begins

Back in the 1940s, working for DC comics, Bob Kane came up with the idea of Batman. Swiftly and economically, he sketched out Batman’s backstory within a few panels: as a child, Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents’ murder by some thug in the night streets of Gotham. Enraged and seeking justice, he grows up concocting his secret bat alter-ego persona in the bowels of the Wayne mansion with his trusty butler sidekick Alfred, and soon enough he’s out fighting crime. Simple enough, but now, many Batman movies later, with largely a dead horse, er, franchise to flog, Warner Brothers has inflated the importance of those first few comic panels to the level of hallowed scripture. In Batman Begins, we see young Bruce (Christian Bale) waking up in a Tibetan jail with Liam Neeson telling him that if he wants to seek true justice, he needs to pick a rare blue flower and climb a mountain. Young Bruce then discovers a Ninja school up amidst the frozen tundra with some bald warrior guy who looks like Yul Brynner (Ra’s Al-Ghul), and there Bruce learns how to swordfight from Liam Neeson in almost exactly the same way that Orlando Bloom did early on in Kingdom of Heaven, only now Neeson’s beard looks poofier. There are hints of Kung Fu mysticism and Hollywood-style therapy as Wayne confronts his feelings of guilt and anger over his parents’ death, and his fear of bats. Then, once he learns of their nefarious schemes to destroy Gotham, he sets the Ninja school on fire, saves Liam Neeson’s life, and returns home to fight crime.

If this earnest kind of thing sounds like your cup of tea, there is plenty of tea to drink. The movie clocks in at almost 2 and a half of hours of overly close-up murky fight scenes, loud metallic crunching noises, sets exploding into flames, computer-generated bats, Katie Holmes looking concerned as the assistant prosecutor, Christian Bale acting sullen, and lots of welcome celebrity cameos from the likes of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman (who seems to wear a red Groucho Marx mask as policeman Gordon). The neo-expressionist design is reminiscent of Metropolis with subways speeding high up in the air over to the big Wayne skyscraper. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman try to inject small amounts of humanity into their scenes, yet the film is clumsily slow, solemn, and earnest about its material, and the largely humorless Christian Bale does not help matters. Director Christopher Nolan made the innovative Memento as a maverick young independent, but now I can only imagine the studio pressures he worked under with this project. About half way into the movie, the plot seems to start all over again with various bad guys plotting to drive all of Gotham crazy with CGI horror movie visions by training a microwave emitter on the city’s water supply that has been dosed with a hallucinogenic drug. Checking my watch, I kept gasping at the late-inning plot complications. Is this a movie or a mini-series?

The film has some pleasures in the way the Batman fan can see things coming. Bruce Wayne stumbles across a batcave under his mansion and returns to install a crude freight elevator system. Later, the fledgling Batman has to experiment for awhile with his batgear, and at first he has difficulty jumping around the city buildings at night. The new Batmobile looks more abstractly militaristic, like a cross between a stealth bomber and a tank, and Batman pilots it over a series of rooftops under helicopter searchlights as he shows flamboyant disregard for the cops getting in car wrecks. I also liked the occasional calm moment when Batman would stand and brood over the skyline like a large gargoyle.

But the moments of calm don’t last long. Batman has to save the drugged Katie Holmes from Uzi-wielding bad guys and a SWAT team by calling in a bunch of computer-generated back-up bats before the final chase/fight scene on an out-on-control subway train takes an enormously long time to crash through a high-rise parking lot with a lot of tearing metal and grandiose explosions. With all the thuds and bangs, I could sense a studio endlessly beating a good idea into the ground.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The new cinematic primitive: The Wachowski brothers and Speed Racer

Anthony Lane, of The New Yorker, dismisses Speed Racer as of "no conceivable interest to anyone over the age of ten,” but I found the film more enjoyable and thought-provoking in some ways than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Speed Racer uses an astonishing amount of technique to dress up its deliberately crude inspiration, but let us not forget that Eric Stoltz wears a Speed Racer t-shirt as he deals heroin to John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction. In its ferociously shallow way, Speed Racer strives for a trippy apotheosis of neon colors even as it reflects Wachowski brothers’ dread of Hollywood corruption.

The film invites the question--what was so great about The Matrix? Aside from granting Keanu Reeves the Godlike status of “the One,” The Matrix took pleasure in imagining the world as a computer program that hides a monstrous machine that uses immobilized deluded humans for energy. It could be a metaphor for fascistic takeover of modern day entertainment, what Jonathan Franzen might be describing when he writes “Technological consumerism is an infernal machine” in his novel The Corrections. Jean-Luc Godard often spoke of how Hollywood has reduced cinema to a “commodity,” its oppressive influence on European cinema likened to totalitarian regime’s control over our consciousness, and Speed Racer shows some Godardian influences. For instance, Godard liked to emphasize the artificiality of the image by placing his characters in front of posters. Speed Racer likes to do the same, notably when Edward G. Robinson appears on the wall of the inside of a villain’s truck, I guess to remind us of Little Caesar and the dawn of gangster films in 1931. Speed also tears off the poster of one of his racing heroes from his bedroom wall, after he learns from the corporate CEO E. P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam) that all of the Grand Prix races have been fixed.

The one recognizable theme of Speed Racer, aside from the importance of family, is its dislike of corporate cooptation. Once Speed (Emile Hirsch) establishes his talent on the race course, Royalton attempts to lure Speedy into joining Royalton Industries by showing him around the factory, giving him a suit, and generally treating his family, who otherwise run an independent business making race cars, to all kinds of corporate perks. When the conscience-torn Speedy eventually refuses to sign, Royalton cannot restrain himself from giving Speedy a snarling history lesson in the corporate control of racing since it began. He also threatens to ruin Speedy with lawsuits and highly publicized slanderous accusations that Speedy cheats on the course just as his lost brother Rex, another excellent racer, was accused. While The Matrix kept its villainy subtle in the cold formal clothes of Agent Smith, every bad guy here telegraphs his nastiness either by snarling or by sporting a poor complexion.

In this manner, the Wachowski brothers find a way to make car racing a way to battle corporate corruption. Speed doesn’t just want to win, he must race to maintain his economic and spiritual independence, which is a bit ironic in such an expensive commercial film. In the way, the film embodies a kind of paradox. It actively defies what it is. Aside from these high goals, the movie often evokes the kinetic rush of arcade racing games such as Out Run (also seen in Donnie Darko) where young women shoot starter pistols or wave flags or cheer maniacally as the brightly colored race cars slide around the track, hop over one another, and dangle by one tire from falling into the abyss. The race scenes are fun in their way. It’s just too bad that the brothers felt obliged to include so many heartfelt scenes where Mom (Susan Sarandon) or Pops (cuddly John Goodman) give pep talks to Speedy about how they love him. Mom says she’s proud of him “Not because you won, but because you stood up, you weren't afraid, and you did what you thought was right.” Since all of the actors have proven themselves capable of much more in other films, they appear like so many sell-outs, prostituting their gifts in day-glo bright polo shirts. No matter how many excellent Coen brothers films he’s starred in (why can’t the Wachowskis be more like the Coens?), John Goodman looks like an emasculated teddy bear here, making me realize that perhaps the film version of The Flintstones may be the founding film of the new primitive aesthetics on display in Speed Racer. As the love interest, Trixie, Christina Ricci is mostly reduced to cheering on the sidelines or wondering, bemusedly, as to whether Speed has any interest in girls at all. He may appear to be a young man, but his mind is locked within a 12 year old infatuation with racing.

Technically, the Wachowski brothers include all kinds of surrealistic distortions. The computer graphic backgrounds seem to keep everything in sharp focus, thereby eliminating any sense of depth perception, especially outdoors. The ravings of the radio announcers, endlessly hyping Speed's driving skills, oblige the filmmakers to insert talking heads into the race scenes that wipe cut rapidly, blending one scene into the next. The editing is so rapid, much of the film swirls into a kind of candy-dazzled blur of bright blues offset with yellows and reds. I had a hard time telling if the film was beautiful or just demented.

Overall, though, I very much enjoyed the eye-candy graphics of the film. It reminded me of 1960s light shows, and it all has a trippy Japanese iconic weightlessness that would suit a rave well. With its shiny surfaces and fast food interior design, Speed Racer is the ultimate glossy media product, visually but not verbally a worthy successor to Toy Story. It’s just a shame humans had to be involved.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Iconic cowboys in love: the contradictions of Brokeback Mountain

It feels like the last taboo, an unwritten law: Thou shalt not depict gay cowboys. Yet by calmly and meticulously doing just that, Ang Lee gets the last laugh at all of those insecure heterosexual guys who have their masculinity threatened by the topic. Yet, when watching Brokeback Mountain, one immediately sees why cowboy love makes a natural subject for a film. You still can include all of the swooning unspoiled mountain scenery, the iconic Western duds, the horseback riding adventures, the tendency to act with one’s cowboy hat over one’s eyes, but now the subject has been turned on its head. One realizes one has seen two lovable cowboys before, especially in films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and usually they had more fun chumming around out in the wild, but not like this.

Brokeback Mountain begins simply enough with Jack and Ennis (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) meeting awkwardly in 1963 as they take on a summer job herding sheep across Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Randy Quaid plays the gruff, suspicious fellow who hires them, and the two cowboys spend much of the beginning of the film wishing they had something else to eat beside beans as they ride horses and carry baby sheep across mountain streams. At high altitudes, the weather gets cold, so they are obliged to share a tent where Jack initiates an intimacy between them that Ennis initially wants to deny, but finds he really can’t.

I had thought the whole film would take place up on the mountain and the story would get coy and melodramatic fast, but screenwriter Larry McMurtry, working from a short story by Annie Proulx, quickly separates the two men once the summer ends, and they lead more typical heterosexual lives for years. Conflicted by his attraction to Jack, Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams), and fathers two girls in rapid succession. Jack returns to his life of rodeo riding, but both men can’t seem to shake Brokeback Mountain or the memory of each other from their heads. Ennis’s natural cowboy reticence adds tension to the film because he can’t express what’s going on.

As iconic as a Marlboro Man, Heath Ledger is good at looking away and squinting into the sunlit distance. His character can express himself by beating up some random guy in a truck or by smoking cigarettes and drinking beer all night in a bar, but his relationship with Jack does not compute. When he was young, his father led him out to see a man who had been savagely tortured, dismembered, and killed once his fellow cowboys figured out that his “friend” was gay, so Ennis’s whole cultural upbringing does not allow his sexual orientation to really exist, and yet it does anyway.

Ultimately, Brokeback Mountain shows Taiwan-born director Ang Lee’s take on the conflicted nature of the cowboy as he represents reticence, independence, and the wilderness. Lee suggests that even as American men resist being domesticated by women, the West has already become more an idea than a reality. Compared to the sweep and grandeur of camping in the mountains, crude civilization constrains us more and more each day. By depicting a love story that society does not allow to exist openly, the film is full of small moments of connection that are all the more compelling because they are so constrained. A simple gesture like placing a shirt in a paper bag carries within it all a mother cannot say to Ennis because her entire culture, let alone her husband, won’t allow it. Interestingly, given the way the story works out, the institution of marriage is shown to be just as problematic as gay unions.

The film very carefully does not tilt its bias in any direction, refusing to allow anyone to appear the easy villain. Much of the time, Hollywood movies tend to treat pro-gay sentiments as a politically correct badge of honor. For instance, “The Family Stone” makes a point of affirming the younger son’s open relationship with another man, but that is all the film does. Beyond their approved status, the two men didn’t have any real characters. Instead, they are treated as symbols for the filmmaker’s liberal sentiments. Brokeback Mountain resists this easy way out by allowing Ennis and Jack to have their flaws. Their relationship is enormously destructive to their marriages, but we don’t feel easy condemning them because of Ang Lee’s evenhanded treatment of everyone.

Within its gorgeous cinematography and graceful understated acting, Brokeback Mountain carries a radical agenda. By forcing us to associate gay love with the pristine wilderness of Wyoming, it questions our most basic symbol of tongue-tied masculinity, and the many ways the cowboy’s code of honor makes him both iconic and self-destructive.

How to package soul: Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls

Like the western, the musical as a genre has largely disappeared from cinemas since the 1950s, with the occasional exception like Chicago and last year’s mediocre The Producers. For the generation raised on Mtv, watching characters break into song in the middle of a conversation can seem bizarre, but a well-choreographed musical number can be as uplifting as ever, even if it seems old-fashioned.

The makers of Dreamgirls, a film adapted from a successful 1981 Broadway musical, are well-aware of the risks, so they’ve promoted the film heavily. The movie itself seems unusually self-conscious of its fickle modern audience, so it moves quickly from show-stopping number to number. The plot loosely retells the story of the 1960s rise of Motown’s The Supremes in Detroit, only with Jamie Foxx playing the Berry Gordy Jr. figure known as Curtis Taylor Jr., Beyonce Knowles getting the Diana Ross role (Deena Jones), and Eddie Murphy blending together James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Jackie Wilson in his role as James “Thunder” Early. If you don’t mind the cheesiness of the melodramatic plot shifts, Dreamgirls neatly showcases Detroit rhythm and blues within the historical context of race tensions in the music industry. For the most part I liked the music and the performances, but the film eventually overwhelmed me with its willingness to please.

The film begins with Curtis Taylor Jr. owning a car dealership, but he needs three backup singers for James Early, so he discovers the three Dreamettes singing at a local talent show. Wearing handmade dresses, and sporting wigs that they choose to wear backwards to make them more hip, Deena Jones, Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose), and lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) find themselves losing in a rigged contest, and they aren’t exactly thrilled at first at the prospect of singing backup. I was expecting Beyonce Knowles to dominate the storyline, but the film focuses much of the time on the relatively unknown, once American Idol near-winner Jennifer Hudson. Her Effie White character has the vocal ability to star in the group, but her greater heft makes her image less salable than the more conventionally beautiful Deena Jones. Perhaps relieved to be in a good movie for a change, Eddie Murphy has no problem acting and singing (I can still remember his satire on James Brown back in his Saturday Night Live days). In a film that can be a bit too PG-13 at times in its effort to be something the whole family can enjoy, Murphy brings some edge to the proceedings. At one point his bump and grind causes a square white couple to walk out of a show in Atlantic City. When the star struck Lorrell Robinson asks him what R & B means, James Early replies: “Rough and black.”

After Curtis Taylor Jr. launches the Dreamgirls as their own act, they have to face a music industry that steals African American songs and repackages them for white consumption. After Taylor replaces Effie with Deena as the lead, Effie starts to miss rehearsals and act irresponsibly, leading to her eventual dismissal from the group which prompts perhaps her best song “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” The R & B works best when the accompanying emotion is most hopeless, the stakes highest, and Jennifer Hudson brings a surprising amount of pathos to her role as the plain singer amongst all of the other highly packaged beauties. Later, as success leads Curtis to become more manipulative, eventually selling out the emotional core of the songs to disco, Deena Jones finally revolts against him. One can imagine Beyonce Knowles enjoyed singing about breaking out of her gilded cage of popular packaged success.

While Dreamgirls definitely has its schmaltzy side, it retains its edge by acknowledging how hard it was to find crossover success in the midst of the sexism, the racism, the Vietnam war, the payola, and even the Detroit riots of the 1960s. The Supremes were trailblazers both in the way they showcased African American talent and well-tailored female glamour for the first time. While the actual history of the Supremes is a much sadder story of Florence Ballard’s decline after being supplanted by Diana Ross, “Dreamgirls” imagines an alternate universe in which Effie White has a chance to reclaim her former status. In the process, Jennifer Hudson announces herself as a definite star.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Domesticating the Action Hero: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

What do you do when your iconic action star shows his age? Harrison Ford was already 39 when the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark cemented his fame after his success as the scallywag Hans Solo in the Star Wars franchise. Now that Ford’s in his later sixties, writer George Lucas and director Stephen Spielberg have lovingly crafted a new 1950s adventure that flirts with science fiction genre-elements as it finds new Soviet villains in the height of the cold war. For much of the first half, I enjoyed watching Ford return to form, especially after the dismal roles he has played in recent years in movies such as Firewall and What Lies Beneath, but something goes wrong as one underground Tomb Raider set after another thunders and erupts in the latter half.

It’s hard to criticize a contemporary blockbuster. Crammed with incident, designed like a theme roller coaster ride with enough of a kinetic kick to drive 13 year old boys to want to rewatch the film repeatedly all summer, these concoctions tend to evaporate in the mind quickly, leaving little but cynical studio marketing strategies as an aftertaste. I did like seeing Mr. Jones reestablish his presence by putting on his fedora after snarling Soviet soldiers pull him from the trunk of a car. When Cate Blanchett abruptly appears as “Stalin’s fair-haired girl” Irina Spalko in a grey uniform, boots, and a black page-boy hair-do, I had to laugh. She’s channeling the razor-tipped boot lesbian Rosa Krebb in the James Bond film From Russia with Love, only Irina carries a sword, and she likes to use psychic warfare for the Soviet fatherland. She enlists Indy’s help in locating a particular crate in a government warehouse that looks very much like the one where the Ark of the Covenant is buried in at the end of the first Raiders. Indy obliges her and then eludes gunfire to effect several hair-breadth escapes into the desert Southwest, just to run into an test atomic bomb blast which he somehow survives by hiding in a refrigerator. After conveniently getting scrubbed clean from any leftover radiation, Indy deals with two FBI men who suspect him of skullduggery because one of his former associates has turned communist.

Once the filmmakers establish the paranoia of the red-baiting era, they largely drop it because a young fellow needs to show up for audience identification, in this case the Fonzie-like greaser Mutt (Shia LaBeouf). Mr. LaBeouf has done good work in Disturbia, and he made his presence known as well as he could amidst more charismatic shapeshifting robots in Transformers, but here he’s just . . . present, yet another bland pretty-boy Hollywood product. One can sense that Lucas needed a young replacement for Jones, but he has no real interest in developing a character. We learn that Mutt likes knives and motorcycles. His character briefly flirts with teenage rebellion by stealing things. He cinematically appears out of a cloud of exhaust riding his motorcycle beside a train, and he likes to comb his pompadour, but that’s really about it.

As Mutt and Indy wend their way down to Peru to investigate a Lost City in the Amazon, the mystery of the E.T.-like crystal skull, and engage in elaborate chase scenes with in the jungle, I found myself brooding on the baby-boomer generational power-struggle on display. Jones has the brand, the fedora, the whip, and the charming smile, but he’s too old for a young leading lady, so Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) shows up to notify him that Mutt is actually his son. To heighten the drama, the three leads run into quicksand so that Indy can learn of his parentage while in mortal peril. Mutt tries to persuade him to grab hold of a snake to save him, but we know that Indy doesn’t like snakes, nor does he seem to know what to do with the cheesy family dynamics of the later adventure scenes. Where’s the edge in mom and pop and junior romping around the Amazonian jungle as every cave yields its secret easily?

After getting bored with the last half hour of Crystal Skull, I worked out what made the first and the third Indiana Jones film work (I walked out on the second). The first film accomplished its goals due to sheer speed, the freshness of the idea, and the filmmakers’ joy in recreating 1940s adventure serials with updated techniques. The third film, The Last Crusade, proved unexpectedly delightful because cunning Sean Connery was determined to upstage Harrison Ford every chance he got, and hilariously he succeeded. With Crystal Skull, one takes pleasure in seeing the hero resurrected, and that nostalgia carries the film for awhile, but once he joins up with a son and his mother, no amount of poison darts, scorpions, and corpse-filled crypts can alleviate the feeling of domestication that settles like radioactive fallout around Indiana Jones.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Too Much Flourishing of the Wand: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Welcome to magical Hogwash, I mean Hogwarts. With due respect for J. K. Rowling and her series of beloved books, I found the newest installment of the Potter film series crowded, repetitive, and confusing, with occasional hints of British wit and some excellent acting.

Having defeated the ultra-evil Voldemort (snake-like Ralph Fiennes without a nose) in the last movie, Harry should be able to loosen his tie a bit, fly an Orc around or something, but no. The Order of the Phoenix keeps emphasizing its “dark” grim world of adolescent wizard angst as if to make up for its flimsy magical wish-fulfillment of the series’ basic premise, so the cinematography darkens and the teens tend to look glum. The film begins with a lonesome Harry tormented by Muggle punks in the playground during one of his endless summers with the Dursleys—his stupid adopted family back in dull realistic England. Forced to save the life of Dudley Dursley from an attack of cadaverous Dementors by chanting a Patronus charm, Harry finds himself suspended from Hogwarts which leads to his trial in the Kafkaesque Ministry of Magic.

In this world of corrupt authority, puritanical judging, and paranoid administrators, the one newspaper The Daily Prophet seeks to undermine Harry’s achievements by distorting the story of his fight with Voldemort and casting suspicion as to what exactly happened in regard to the death of Cedric Diggery in the last movie. So, when Harry arrives back in Hogwarts, people suspect him of all kinds of skullduggery. Also, the kindly Dumbledore, a sort of cuddly Merlin amongst the bearded headmaster set, has his authority usurped by the delightful Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) of the Ministry. Looking like a cross between Queen Elizabeth II and Laura Bush on a power trip, Dolores gradually takes control of Hogwarts by issuing decrees, enforcing new draconian rules, and creating a world of paranoia and narcing. When Harry tries to stand up to her and her watered down curriculum, she orders him into her office lined with meowing kittens on plates. Then she forces him to write “I must not tell lies” with a special quill, the words simultaneously cut into his hand. Ms. Umbridge is fun because she smiles and looks so chirpy and frumpy in her ruthless quest for power.

For awhile, the film develops some momentum as Harry, Hermione, and Ron rebel by forming a “Dumbledore Army” that trains in a secret Hogwarts room, but meanwhile visions torment Harry due to his mysterious spiritual relationship with Voldemort. As much as he might want to pursue a relationship with Cho Chang or maybe with the blond flakey Luna Lovegood, Harry hears that “Voldemort is on the move,” as someone says, and so he must prepare for the last big special effects-driven showdown with his arch-nemesis. With his shorter haircut and leaner features, Harry is nothing if not tormented. At one point, when talking to his father-substitute Sirius (Gary Oldman), he says that “I feel angry all of the time. What if I’ve become bad?” At another point, he gets painful magical brain therapy sessions with my favorite instructor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) who seems to look upon the entire world of Hogwarts with a mixture of boredom and disdain.

As much as the movie tried to get me to care about Harry’s angst, I just couldn’t, nor could I really believe in its windy, watery, broken glass-splattering, light-show wand battles. For teenagers, the film caters to their wishes for approval and achievement, their hatred of schoolyard taunts, their defiance of authority, and their search for love and friendship. Whenever a mythological creature shows up (like a giant, or some centaurs), you can bet it will come in handy during the climax. For those well-versed in the books, these movies are increasingly like class reunions, where you welcome back old friends. But they can also resemble overcrowded witch/wizard conventions where the only character that has any screen time to develop is dear old Harry.

The pleasures of the apocalypse: Will Smith in I Am Legend

Now that the world sustains over six and a half billion people, one wonders about whether or not humans are subject to the same laws of population overshoot and collapse that other species share. When you fill up a Petri dish with enough of a reproducing single organism, its population tends to balloon, abruptly use up all of its resources, and then die off quickly. I’ve heard that the earth can indefinitely sustain about 2 billion people, so that leaves over 4 that need to go sometime. Why not everyone all at once, and why not soon?

Such is the premise of I am Legend, based on a 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, and starring Will Smith as perhaps the last man on earth As a military virologist, Robert Neville (Smith) has proven immune to a mutated virus that killed off 90% of humanity before some of those infected by the virus (known as Dark Seekers) ate most everyone else. So now, Neville wanders around a grandiosely decaying New York City in 2012. He hunts for deer with his German shepherd Sam in Times Square, plays golf off of a fighter jet, and sends a radio message daily that says “I am a survivor living in New York City … I can provide food. I can provide shelter. I can provide security. I will be at the South Street Seaport every day at midday when the sun is highest in the sky.” So he waits for someone else to appear, and insofar as the film does not explain anything, the vision of a crumbling New York serves as a great playground for the camera. Partially made up of computer-generated effects, the landscape reflects back on 2009 or so, so we still can recognize posters for Broadway shows like Rent and The Producers. I especially liked the film poster that blends together the emblems of Batman and Superman in some future blockbuster sequel. There are traffic jams still rotting on the streets, and buildings quarantined with clear plastic. Grass masks lions in the streets, and Robert grows corn near a pier by the destroyed Brooklyn Bridge. Every now and again, he has flashbacks to 2008 when the military sealed off Manhattan in a futile attempt to stop the airborne virus. Huge mobs tried to take a ferry or a helicopter ride off the island as the pandemic spread.

After a great start, however, I Am Legend gets less original and more cheesy as it goes on. The mob scenes have exact parallels in War of the Worlds and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. When his dog Sam leads Robert into a dark warehouse that holds a “hive” of the Infected, the film quickly turns horrific as Robert nervously flashes his light on blood-stained stairways, but I’ve already seen these kinds of fast-running zombie types more effectively portrayed in the 28 Days Later films. As long as we don’t see them, the Infected make for great monsters, but when they do finally appear snarling and salivating like rabid dogs, their computer-generated images looks fake and cartoonish. In the 1971 film version of I Am Legend--The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston-- the Infected were played by actors with pasty makeup and Inquisition-style black robes, but they at least seemed more recognizably human than those that face off with Neville.

For his part, Will Smith proves passable for the lead, but his acting seems forced in places, mostly because he only has his dog or mannequins to react to, and his comedic charm is ill-suited to portray the effects of years of isolation and stoic endurance. Smith seems to want to convey as much humanity and tenderness as he did in The Pursuit of Happyness, which seems out of place in a deserted future. As plot complications pile up and other people arrive, I Am Legend sells out many of the interesting premises raised at its beginning. To make a profit on its 200 million dollar investment, the film needs action, and therefore antagonists, but I liked the film best when Robert Neville wanders the city alone. It might be fun to explore a world emptied of grasping humanity.

Samuel L. Jackson and the Damaged White Folk in Black Snake Moan

How do you make a movie about a dirty blond nymphomaniac chained inside an African American man’s shack in the deep south? Very carefully. Writer and director Craig Brewer fashioned the award winning Hustle and Flow in 2005, which concerns a Memphis pimp who manages to redeem himself by making a hip hop recording. In that film, Terence Howard conveys such earnest desire to succeed as an artist, one almost forgets his character’s culpability as an exploiter of women. From the movie’s point of view, pimping is just another hustle, a means to survive in the Memphis slums. Similarly, Black Snake Moan takes the politically charged image of a woman chained and presents it as just an awkward form of tough love.

Apparently, Craig Brewer thought up Black Snake Moan while filming Hustle and Flow, and while the new film is definitely edgy and original, the story suffers from the Brewer’s heightened concern with the audience’s ethical reaction, and no doubt Paramount studio was concerned as well. While much of the first half of the film creates the conditions with which Samuel L. Jackson (Lazarus) might realistically chain Christina Ricci (Rae) to a radiator in his house, much of the conclusion turns into a long therapy session where Rae and her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) confront their various psychological problems, thereby neutralizing whatever subversive tendency the film has.

For awhile, at least, Black Snake Moan shows plenty of attitude. Strutting around the dirt roads of backwater Tennessee in her daisy dukes, cowboy boots, and ripped t-shirt, Ricci gives the finger to a large combine that gets stuck behind her. Since her boyfriend Ronnie has just shipped off to Iraq, Rae drowns her sorrows with beer and a potpourri of designer drugs that eventually leaves her passed out and bloodied on the side of the road.

Meanwhile, farmer Lazarus has problems of his own: his wife has run off with his younger brother, leaving him angry enough to run a tractor over his wife’s rose patch next to the shack when he’s not threatening his brother with the edge of a broken bottle in the neighborhood honky-tonk. As he throws out her stuff one morning, he stumbles across the town tramp (Rae) nearby, so he carries her inside and starts to nurse her back to health. When investigating her status in town, he learns of her nymphomania, (“She’s got that itch, you know,” as one of her lovers says), so he gradually decides to chain her inside as a crude form of intervention. When she finally wakes up and realizes that she has a large chain tied around her waist, first she tries to escape, and then she tries to seduce him, but Lazarus says with Biblical fervor “I mean to cure you of your wickedness. I ain’t gonna be moved. You ain’t going to bend my will. I’m gonna suffer you.” Samuel L. Jackson is well-suited for the role, especially if one remembers his Ezekial 25:17 speech in Pulp Fiction where he turns a gangster murder into an old testament judgment. There his speech rises to a climactic “And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee” before he and John Travolta shoot the drug dealers in the room.

In Black Snake Moan, Jackson never gets such a show-piece line of dialogue, but his acting abilities easily match Ricci’s for good old southern histrionics, and one can sense that he enjoys the outrageous premise of the movie. You can tell that the filmmakers are concerned about blues authenticity because they begin the movie with some archival footage of 1930s blues legend Son House saying “There’s only one kind of blues—the one that consists between male and female.”

For a time, the two leads have nicely tense scenes, but, unfortunately, Justin Timberlake appears back in town, and the film devolves quickly into histrionics. Craig Brewer wants to make a point about how we all suffer from anxieties, but when the film turns to curing Rae and Ronnie of their problems, I suddenly wanted to leave the theater. Some plot shifts are worse than getting tied down with a forty pound chain.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Price of Frivolity: Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006)

What’s a young princess to do in a big old palace on the outskirts of Paris? In Marie Antoinette, writer and director Sofia Coppola seeks to answer that question by bringing a punk rock sensibility to the fashionista set of 18th century France. Even before Sofia got started as a director, I have been a fan of her dad’s work. Francis Ford Coppola largely wrote and directed the Godfather series and Apocalypse Now. Sofia grew up playing around her dad’s sets (she appears as the baby getting baptized during the multiple shoot-outs of the climax of The Godfather), so instead of just remaining bored, useless, and rich, she jumped into directing by writing a screenplay for 1999’s The Virgin Suicides. With the success of Lost in Translation in 2003, Coppola established herself as an auteur who specializes in films about trapped rich girls.

While Lost in Translation was still a modest independent film, Marie Antoinette is the largest production Coppola has had to work with, and the strain shows. Part of the problem lies in the script. How does one condense Marie Antoinette’s life into a film without falling into period piece doldrums? Coppola solves that problem by beginning with Marie’s introduction into the court society of Versailles at age 14, and then emphasizing how she gradually learned to adjust to palace life. Her young husband/dauphine Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) is so inbred that he has difficulty doing anything with her in bed, so the more vivacious Marie (Kirsten Dunst) gradually turns to gambling, fashion, and wild parties to keep herself amused and sane in the midst of all the bizarre protocols of the French aristocracy. Coppola depicts the ludicrous nature of court rules when Marie awakes in her chamber. Once she’s up, she has to wait for various ladies to pay their respects before she even puts on her dressing gown. She says to the Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis), “This is ridiculous,” and the Comtesse replies with “No, this is Versailles.” Much of the film hinges on whether or not Louis XVI will ever develop the nerve to sleep with her, and in some ways Jason Schwartzman’s understated performance stands out the most. Basically, the prince is a complete dipweed, more interested in his lock collection and hunting than in Kirsten Dunst, but he knows well enough how to sit and eat sumptuous banquets and walk with a crown on his head once his grandfather, Louis XV (Rip Torn) dies.

To avoid any sense of a history lesson, Coppola spices up scenes with music from alternative bands like Gang of Four, Joy Division, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. When Marie decides to turn her frustration with her husband into a serious interest in high fashion and bouffant hair-dos, the soundtrack plays “I Want Candy” as she parties into the night. The opening scene of the film has Kirsten Dunst leaning back as her maid puts on some Manolo Blahnik pumps on her feet as she fingers one of the many chocolate cakes around her. She then winks at the camera, as if asking the audience “Wouldn’t you like to be queen?” For awhile, as Marie has an affair with a young Swedish soldier (Jamie Dornan), the answer is diverting enough, but the film ultimately overdoses on aesthetics at the expense of plot, and the storyline drags in the latter half. Marie figures out how to escape the palace by cultivating the lifestyle of a pseudo-peasant in her villa nearby. She takes care of chickens and milks the cow, but meanwhile the real starving peasants prepare to revolt.

The film has difficulty retaining narrative momentum until the revolutionaries overthrow the Bastille, and then things start to perk up again. As King Louis XVI looks befuddled at increasing roar of the mob in the distance, he and Marie again sit down to their extravagant dinner, but they’ve been living in a bubble for so long, they have no means to adapt. One can see parallels between the French government’s increasing debt and the situation in America today, but Coppola never takes the storyline far into politics or the reign of terror. She keeps the movie light, frivolous, and visually sumptuous to the end. Marie Antoinette would approve.

Cats hunting for one smart mouse: Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

10 years ago, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck co-wrote the excellent Gun Van Sant film Good Will Hunting. After winning an Oscar for their screenwriting, both men became Hollywood stars. Since then, Affleck has taken various missteps (recovering some with his direction of Gone, Baby Gone), while Matt Damon just keeps finding one smart vehicle after another culminating with The Bourne Ultimatum.

Deeply intertwined with the previous two films in the trilogy, Ultimatum concerns Bourne’s quest to find out his origins as a rogue CIA-brainwashed assassin. As he hop scotches around Europe and Morocco seeking information such as the top secret Operation Blackfriar file, high-level CIA officials Noah Vosen (David Strathaim) and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) quarterback multiple surveillance teams to try to track him down, figure out his motivations, and then kill him.

With his slightly bland All-American WASPy jock’s face, Damon doesn’t look that much like an action hero, but that may be the point. He knows how to blend in to the crowd and act ordinary as he evades the various cameras hunting for him. While other films might emphasize guns or explosions, director Paul Greengrass, who also directed United 93, focuses on the way public spaces in cities have become massive centers for surveillance. We all have been forced to get used to security cameras trained on us in gas stations, banks, and public squares. The Bourne Ultimatum meditates on our uneasy relationship with the camera, the desire to not be seen, to find ways to disappear from the media grid. Greengrass uses handheld cameras and whip-fast editing to keep the audience in complete suspense as Vosen screams out “Give me eyeballs on the scene,” forcing his agents to scramble to find some camera to zoom in on Bourne. In London’s Waterloo station, Bourne arranges to meet a reporter for the Guardian, but once he notices CIA agents swarming around, he slips a new cell phone in the reporter’s pocket, gives him a call, and then directs him through various surveillance phalanxes. As the agents say “Target is on the move” into their sleeves, Bourne has the reporter bend down in the crowd to tie his shoe to elude them.

When not evading the CIA, Bourne has to confront various hit men using whatever tools come to hand. When running across the roof of a Moroccan casbah, he grabs some pieces of drying clothes off the line, wraps them around his hands, so he can grab the top of a glass-lined wall to vault over. When fighting with a trained assassin, he’ll use anything--a book, a magazine, or even an oscillating fan to stop him.

Back at the CIA, Noah Vosen proves heavy-handed, sending out kill orders for Bourne and just about any glamorous starlet he may run into, such as Julie Stiles. We learn that Vosen has been indulging in black ops, interrogations, tortures, lethal actions, what he calls the “sharp end of the stick” in CIA tactics, so Pamela Landy questions his authority, creating a power struggle within the agency. There are hints of the Abu Ghraib-style abuses in the secret files that Bourne seeks to uncover, so the film hints at dubious shifts in recent American foreign policy decisions and fantasizes about a change in direction. Still, the movie maintains a nice moral ambiguity about its hero. Bourne can never be a James Bond because the circumstances of his training are too twisted. He has reflexively killed too many people, and he only partially knows what is going on. As a mouse, however, Bourne knows how to spy on the cat, and make it trip on its own tail, and that’s what makes The Bourne Ultimatum one of the sharpest action films.

Tasteful Hints of Death: the Ambiguities of Stay

“An elegant suicide is the ultimate work of art,” says Lila Culpepper (Naomi Watts) at one point in Stay, and it makes sense in context. Working in the deliberately ambiguous tradition of The Sixth Sense, Donnie Darko, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the makers of Stay are not so much concerned with creating a coherent storyline as composing a film noir mood piece on big city alienation, guilt, and insanity. It doesn’t quite hold together, but I like films that tease you with some deeper secret under the surface.

So what happens? I’m not sure. In the beginning, an accident takes place at night: a tire blows out on Brooklyn Bridge and/or a young man torches his vehicle and walks away from the crime scene. We focus on Henry Letham’s (Ryan Gosling’s) impassive face that morphs into the face of Ewan McGregor (as a psychiatrist named Sam Foster) bicycling to work in a large, impersonal, but expensively tasteful office building in New York. Looking burned out, unwashed, and depressed, Henry Letham shows up for his psychiatric appointment and announces that he hears voices. He also likes to burn things because he’s “practicing for Hell,” and he plans on committing suicide on Saturday evening, about three days away. Foster considers committing him, but then lets him go after Henry says he’ll visit again. Intrigued by his new case, in part because Henry can predict the future, Sam suddenly morphs back home to his impeccably grey and tasteful Pottery Barn yuppie apartment to talk for awhile with his artist girlfriend Naomi Watts, who, it so happens, has attempted suicide not too long ago by slashing her wrists in the bathtub. Sam offers to take a bath with her (in a bathroom that looks as much fun in its artful way as the one in Psycho), but then he finds out that she hasn’t been taking her Klonopin because she can’t paint on meds. He’s worried she might try to kill herself again. She, on the other hand, would like to meet Henry.

For much of the rest of the film, Sam investigates Henry’s weird case, trying to track down his former girlfriend Athena who used to wait tables in a diner. When it finally becomes time to commit Henry to the asylum for delusional, suicidal tendencies, Sam and some mental health officials break into Henry’s apartment just to find some bullets and “Forgive me” written in tiny print millions of time all over the walls. At another point, Sam happens to play chess with a blind colleague (Bob Hoskins) in their tastefully modernist office building, when Henry shows up, freaks out, and says the blind man is his father, only his father has been dead for months.

Stay is difficult to write about without mocking it slightly, and I can see how other viewers might find it a bunch of hooey over nothing, but I liked the way its plot is almost unimportant compared to its use of set design, thematic repetition of images, and editing where one scene always morphs or match cuts into the next. Compared to most mainstream releases, Stay is anti-commercial and oddly experimental.

The film has the effect of a dream that keeps trying to maintain its reality, but increasingly fails, and meanwhile everyday incidents carry ominous overtones. After awhile, in the rainy night city streets, Sam starts to experience the same thing twice. His investigation becomes a labyrinth that keeps circling back on itself like a spiraling staircase, and one increasingly gets the feeling that Sam is Henry on some level, perhaps, and that all the identically dressed twins and triplets he keeps walking by betray that we’re in some alternate reality. In the city, as Lila says, “everyone is exhausted.” There are dead sparrows by the tree that was struck by lightning, a stripper in a peep show bar dancing incongruously in front of the rear projection of home movies of Henry’s youth. Are we in the land between the living and the dead? I still don’t know, but in its mannered, dark way, Stay suggests how one’s life may look in retrospect--a series of random scenes with one’s passions neutralized by time and distance. It is our job to decipher what, if anything, they signify.

The Invasion of the Nervous Studio Executives: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and the Body Snatchers

In the mid-1950s, during the height of anti-Communist paranoia, Jack Finney wrote a novel called The Body Snatchers, which carried the plausible premise that the last vestiges of humanity are systematically being replaced by creepy conformist drones. Aliens arrive from outer space and replicate people, leaving them functional but otherwise emotionless and mechanical, erasing the human spirit. After the successful and now iconic 1956 film version, filmmakers have remade the story twice, and perhaps that was enough.

Now Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig star in The Invasion, and for multiple reasons the film does not gel. Warner Brothers studio did not like the original cut by German director Oliver Hirshbiegel, who, by the way, had never made a film in English before. So they brought in a new director and the two brothers who made the Matrix series, Larry and Andy Wachowski, to patch together a new version with several scenes reshot. The resulting film shows how too much pre-screen test marketing and studio interference can make a mishmash of a good but now tired story.

After a hook where Nicole Kidman’s character Carol Bennell strives valiantly to stay awake by ransacking a drug store for speed, the movie then backtracks to news footage of a space shuttle crashing and fragmenting over the US, infecting untold amounts of Americans with an alien contagion. Brought in by the government to quarantine the fragments, official Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) immediately comes in contact with a contaminated piece of metal. Soon enough, he calls his estranged former wife Carol and asks for his son Oliver to come visit him. We can tell something is wrong due to the glazed expression in his eyes, and the way he says
“I’m fine. I’m really fine. It’s such a nice house. I want to see Oliver.” Carol reluctantly drops her son off, and goes out to a swank party with handsome Dr. Driscoll (Daniel Craig), but there’s something wrong. One of her patients claims that her husband is no longer her husband because she saw him casually break his dog’s neck one afternoon. A pseudo-Census department official visits Carol late at night asking to see her for a survey, and he tries to break her door down. In short, everyone’s suddenly acting like soulless 1950s conservatives dressed in business formal clothes. Meanwhile, Carol cannot get hold of her son on her cell phone.

The studio interference becomes more obvious as the invasion develops momentum. Instead of simply telling the story, the editors inserted bits and pieces of action scenes out of sequence. Sometimes these intrusions illustrate patches of dialogue. As Dr. Driscoll conceives of the idea of stealing a police car and busting out of a quarantined section of the city with Carol, we see it happen on screen like a dream reverie. And there are too many jagged cuts where I found myself disoriented unnecessarily. Why is there blood on that wall? How did Carol end up in the subway? Perhaps the filmmakers intended the discontinuity to reflect Carol’s increasingly sleep-deprived and paranoid mindset, but the technique threw me out of the story instead of engrossing me in it. Perhaps the Wachowski brothers wanted to accelerate the movie by chopping out the dull parts.

Moreover, one can’t help but feel sorry for the actors. Compared to his rough-edged stripped-down Bond character, Craig comes off as mild and bland here. Now aged 40, Kidman looks amazingly well-preserved, but also a little silly running around Baltimore in her designer skirt and grey sweater, trying to tell who is real and who is Xeroxed. Her dilemma shows how any actor, no matter how A-list, is at the mercy of the filmmakers who frame her within a shot. If their hands seem unsteady, she can look trapped in the murk.

Lastly, the body snatchers lack an edge this time around. They rely on vomiting in drinks and on people’s faces to spread the contagion—an unsavory way to take over the world, and the movie doesn’t seem to know whether to resort to cheap horror effects or pseudo-profound reflections of the inherent violence in human nature. Yes, perhaps the alien strain can save us from recent events in Iraq, Darfur, and even New Orleans, but mainly the film conveys the anxiety of a studio losing money. In this mash-up remix that ultimately resembles The War of the Worlds with its cop-out ending, you can sense the studio executives’ fear of a bomb. As someone says to Carol on the street, “You’re sweating. They don’t do that. They will know.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Good Snuff: The Virtues of Nimrod Antal’s Vacancy

In 1960, director Alfred Hitchcock deliberately turned away from the big budget production techniques of North by Northwest to make a small cheap film about a woman visiting a hotel. The result was Psycho, perhaps his most enduring masterpiece, and it shows that you don’t need lots of bravura large-scale sets, an international cast of stars, and lots of special effects (such as what will descend on the movie viewer in the upcoming blockbuster summer). Sometimes a deliberately modest film can be more enjoyable and effective because it can concentrate on what films do well—lead the viewer to identify with a character, and then put him or her into an entertainingly dangerous situation.

Hitchcock directly influenced the storyline of Disturbia, which lifts liberally from Rear Window. Now, with Vacancy, Hungarian director Nimrod Antal lightly borrows some elements of Psycho. Instead of Janet Leigh stealing $40,000 from her employer and lighting out for her boyfriend in California, “Vacancy” begins with a couple with California plates getting off the main highway and getting lost in the mountains. Kate Beckinsale plays Amy Fox, an amusingly sulky and passive aggressive woman who is endlessly irritated by her soon-to-be-divorced husband David (Luke Wilson). When David almost runs off the road because of a raccoon, Amy remonstrates and fusses at him at length. After letting a dubious-looking mechanic fix, or perhaps further mess up their car, David curses as their vehicle dies two miles away from a decrepit Pinewood motel. When the couple finds that they can’t get a mechanic in the middle of the night, they reluctantly get a room from a creep hotel manager (Frank Whaley) who has cheap glasses, a sickly grin, and a penchant for watching horror films.

Much of the pleasure of Vacancy lies in the grungy details of its set design. Their “honeymoon suite” is nasty, with lots of dusty browns and greens, a large cockroach in the bathroom, brownish liquid coming out of the tap, a nailed-shut back window, and sheets that make Amy decide to sleep in her clothes. They no sooner try to rest when someone starts banging on the door connecting their room to the next, which is weird because, as the manager points out, they are the only guests in the motel. David pitches a fit to no avail, but then after the sound dies down, he notices that the videos in his room all show people getting attacked and killed. The problem is, the snuff film video action takes place in the very same room that they are in, and they need to think of a way of surviving the evening before various men wearing green masks break in.

One could dismiss Vacancy as just another horror film with a Videodrome fixation on our sick fascination with violent images, but the movie does have its good points. For one thing, the plot does not descend into the usual torture-porn tactics of Hostel or Saw. We do not see people getting tortured for the fun of watching them suffer. Instead, the film just hints at the violence to ratchet up the suspense. Secondly, Vacancy effectively second-guesses the viewer about what will happen next, especially because David shows unexpected skill in thinking up techniques for surviving. Also, I liked the casting because both of the stars play against their usual type. I’ve never seen Luke Wilson in the kind of action role where he has to think fast and act efficiently or die. He usually plays nice guy characters in dramas or comedies. Moreover, I am used to Kate Beckinsale playing an impassive leather-clad vampire warrior in the Underworld series. In this film, she moves from sulky-spoiled to scared-hysterical and beyond with frightening plausibility.

So, as the summer goes on with all of the blockbuster wanna-bes straining to give you so many thrills per minute, remember the dramatic effectiveness of one couple’s fear in a grungy motel.