Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tom Cruise Agonistes: the rigidities of Valkyrie


I confess that I couldn't watch Valkyrie except through the lens of Tom Cruise's insecurities. Now that Michael Jackson has been sadly reduced to tabloid fodder and Madonna struggles to avoid becoming grotesque, Tom, that other 80s icon, grows increasingly defensive about his media image. How many other major movie stars have bothered to fashion an elaborate website to reconstruct their reputations, complete with adoring footage from earlier movies and pretentious music (Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathusta" no less)? The website has to be seen to be believed, proclaiming over and over "Remember what a big movie star I am?" How many others gain notoriety by spouting Scientology dogma in leaked and highly popular videos? Fox of Tractor Facts asked why we tend to revile Cruise so much, and I would answer because Tom comes off as arrogant, especially in vanity projects such as Mission Impossible III. So with a blend of envy and repulsion, people would like to see him cast down like some tragic figure drunk on his hubris. One watches Cruise's recent films as if they were great shrines full of close-ups devoted to his grandiloquence and vanity, and by God, we had better approve or else suffer another media onslaught trying to persuade us to like him. As I wrote in my review of MI III, "One way or another, the man continues to get attention, and after awhile one even gets tired of hearing others say they are tired of Tom Cruise."

So, now having assumed the leadership of United Artists studios, Tom is the executive producer and star of Valkyrie, a World War II drama based on a true story about Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the Nazi who led a plot to kill Hitler with a bomb and then take over the government of Germany with the Valkyrie contingency plan. The film establishes at the outset what's at stake by quoting the oath all soldiers swore to Hitler--their unconditional obedience to Hitler, and their willingness to die for him no matter what. We first see Stauffenberg in Tunisia, South Africa, writing treasonous thoughts in his journal (which struck me as risky). He proclaims that Hitler must be stopped because by this point (towards the end of the war), Hitler is clearly the enemy of Germany due to the SS, the Gestapo, the concentration camps, and so on, so there's never any ambiguity about the heroism of the guy. Then planes attack the Germans, nearly killing the Colonel. As the camera dwells lovingly on the bullet-strafed and unconscious Colonel lying in the sand, I wondered how much Cruise enjoyed playing the martyr.

Once the Colonel (now missing an eye, a hand, and some fingers) returns to Berlin and starts to hatch his treasonous plan, I realized that the film is not as bad as MI III, mostly because Valkyrie does build to an effective bombing scene that generates suspense. But I've scarcely ever seen such a self-important erect piece of uber-masculine filmmaking. Even the poster has a tall erect red line rising over Tom's head. As if to make up for the lack of action, the music frequently punctuates scenes with kettle drums and bass. Doors slam, plane engines roar, teletype machines rattle, and soldiers snap into position with numbing frequency.

Tom surrounds himelf with high caliber actors, notably Kenneth Branagh (!?!), Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Terence Stamp, but they are all so well known, they continually threw me out of the picture. As also happened when I saw the star-studded The Day the Earth Stood Still, I kept thinking about the other recent films these men have appeared in. Wasn't Nighy a high level vampire? Didn't Stamp just embarrass himself by playing the baddie in Get Smart?

At any rate, the film moves with clockwork rigidity. General Fromm (Wilkinson) says he's happy that someone "with balls" (Cruise, naturally) has arrived at his office. Looking concerned, Stauffenberg tells his wife that "If I fail, they will come after you" and their cute blond children. More soldiers ride in jeeps or stand stiffly in formation as the Colonel says "Redeem yourself. Only God can judge us now." The film has its moments, but in all of its defensive stiff command, its utter inability to lighten up, it is still Tom's myth designed to counteract criticism and especially any mocking videos. All of the booming, crunching thunder of the film just wants to drum us into submission. In this respect, Valkyrie is yet another long, self-righteous, self-serving piece of Tom-promoting propaganda. Hitler would have been proud.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Holocaust and Hogan's Heroes: one note about The Great Escape

Having rewatched and enjoyed The Great Escape (1963), in part to honor Jason Bellamy's skillfully designed The Cooler, I had one question about the film. A skillfully made blend of The Magnificent Seven (also by Sturges, and with several of the same actors) with Grand Illusion, The Great Escape is satisfying in every way except for the scene in which fifty of the recaptured prisoners get abruptly massacred out in a field late in the movie. The scene has Squadron Leader "Big X" (Richard Attenborough) just beginning to acknowledge how the escape effort kept him alive, and then he looks up, surprised, as the scene cuts to a machine gun firing, and then a long shot of the truck in the distance, so the massacre is more suggested than shown. Later, everyone learns that all fifty were killed.

I was just wondering, how is the viewer supposed to respond to that? With shock? A sense of tragic injustice? For me, the scene fell flat just because it was the one time in the film in which the Nazis behaved in a recognizably remorseless way. For much of the rest of the movie, even as I enjoyed the Hogan's Heroes-esque defiance and ingenuity in setting up the escape from the officer POW camp, the Nazis seem weirdly lax and surprisingly easygoing. They even discover a tunnel under a stove and no one seems to be punished.

I understand that the film is fairly accurate to its source material, so I wonder how much my perspective of the war has been influenced not only by Hogan's Heroes (which strikes me as a sinister, propagandistic lie), but also by more recent films such as Schindler's List or The Pianist. Once one knows enough about the Nazi treatment of enemies, I wonder if one can appreciate a film like The Great Escape (or Inglorious Bastards, for that matter) as it was originally meant to be taken. These films have a kind of innocence with conveniently gullible Nazi villains, and yet knowledge of the Holocaust and other atrocities make this kind of gung-ho film more problematic.

This post was written as more of a question. What do you think? I write all of this heading out the door to see Valkyrie.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Besmirched in Oil: notes on Clouzot's The Wages of Fear


“It’s like prison here. Easy to get in. ‘Make yourself at home.’ But there’s no way out.”

"When we enter the world of The Wages of Fear, we do so by way of an opening shot (later appropriated by Sam Peckinpah for the opening of The Wild Bunch) in which cockroaches are tied together and casually tortured by a half-naked child on an oily, muddy street in the oily, muddy village of Las Piedras. A flavored-ice vendor passes by, and the child abandons the cockroaches to covet treats he can’t afford. But still he has to look, to lust after the unattainable. Once the vendor passes, the child returns to the roaches, but a vulture has already taken his place. With a single stroke, Clouzot has set in motion his primary theme—that men are constantly searching the horizon to the detriment of all else in their immediate world. Men are “goal oriented,” addicted to the “quest,” itching for the “heroic” opportunity. Or so we tell ourselves. Clouzot says no. Men are wanderers. Adrenaline junkies. Mortally terrified of home and hearth."
--Dennis Lehane's "The Wages of Fear: No Exit"

1) In 1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot released The Wages of Fear, a particularly nihilistic and delightful suspense-thriller adapted from a novel by Georges Arnaud. After a leisurely expository opening that depicts the plight of a bunch of expatriate men trapped in poverty and squalor in the fictional South American town of Las Piedras, an oil fire three hundred miles away obliges the American Southern Oil Company to enlist four of those men to drive two trucks full of explosive nitroglycerin across ramshackle mountain roads. If and when the nitroglycerin arrives, then the SOC can use it to put out the fire. Even though they know it is likely to be a suicide mission, men compete for the job and the $2000 pay that may get them out of the country.

2) The Wages of Fear depicts a nice range of debasement, exploitation, and corruption, both political and personal. I like the image of the customs official sitting on his spine and massaging one bare foot on the table as he accepts a ten dollar bribe from Jo (Charles Vanel) to let him into the country. The relationship between the American Southern Oil Company and the natives instantly reminded me of Halliburton's human rights violations.
Moreover, Mario is dismissive and rude to the lovestruck bar maid Linda (Vera Clouzot). Mario dumps her in the mud when she tries to appeal to him to not go on the suicide mission. If you work hard and try to get ahead, as Luigi does, then you end up with concrete in your lungs, and a roommate who calls you a "chump."

3) Oddly, insofar as it focuses on a group of expatriates trying to escape a country while hanging out in a bar, The Wages of Fear resembles Casablanca, only without the American patriotism and the love story (quite the opposite). Clouzot calls attention to the similarity by the way he shoots a plane flying overhead, the path of the plane's shadow suggesting the possibility of escape.

4) In this movie made 50 years before this age of peak oil, how did Clouzot know so far in advance just how destructive American love for oil would prove to be? The Southern Oil Company officials cynically view the loss of human life as a natural consequence of their pursuit for profit. Clouzot perfectly emblematizes the negative effects of oil late in the film when Mario and Jo have to immerse themselves and the truck in an oil pool, with Jo getting his leg crushed in the process.

5) The Wages of Fear resembles Deliverance in the way the adventure defines each man's strength, but there's not much heroism for anyone, only each man's relative ability to confront and manage his fear. Mario admits to his fear at the outset, yet he weathers it the best, whereas the older Jo (Charles Vanel) proves a coward under the pressure of the truck drive. Fear wears men down in this film, and even though the classic set piece action scenes may resemble something out of an Indiana Jones film, no one gets to enjoy Indiana's impervious defiance of danger.

6) Oddly, I like the opening scenes in Las Piedras the best, perhaps because of the black and white cinemagraphy of Armand Thirard, perhaps because the squalor is so extreme, and yet there are moments of joy mixed in with the despair amongst the villagers, and the extremity of their hardscrabble existence is so compelling. As Clouzot explained in an interview listed in the Criterion edition booklet:

"The striking setting, the complex human drama, and the terrifying accessory of the truck loaded with explosives allowed me to choose as my target--in a series of episodes linked to each other only by the lonely human characters--not the picaresque narrative but the epic. Yes, an epic whose major key was courage, and its antithesis. Because it's contrast that's at the foundation of my cinematic conception. In the script, as in the unfolding drama, as in the characters, as in the editing, I sought a montage of permanent shock."

Clouzot's extreme, shocking, and despairing vision back in 1953 turned out to be prescient---an accurate picture of the human cost of our current dependence on oil.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Notable Film Links--Special Holiday edition--December 24, 2008

---In "Gone Away, Come Back: Mickey Rourke," Sheila O'Malley meditates on the ups and downs of Rourke's career for The House Next Door:

"Rourke's star-power ended up isolating him more and more, and you can see it in films like 9 1/2 Weeks, where that character floats in an unconnected world, alone, his only connection to humanity through the brief affair with the woman. Although that film was a giant hit and made him the sexiest man in the world for a brief season, it is a harbinger of things to come."

---For those interested in Tom Cruise, check out Juliet Lapidos' popular guide to Tom's recent unauthorized biography, or Stephen Metcalf's theories as to why the "Cruise persona was never meant to reach maturity" (both from Slate). Or, if you prefer, you can wonder with Fox of Tractor Facts "Why Do People Hate Tom Cruise?" As Fox writes,
"I mean, really people. There are some Grade A imbeciles to go after in Hollywood, so how about backing away from Tom Cruise for awhile, yeah?"

---Film School Rejects warns holiday revellers to stay away from The Ten Worst Christmas Movies of All Time.

---T. S. of Screen Savour continues to expand his Hitchcock series with an excellent post concerning Rear Window (1954), which has the double advantage of not only being one of Alfred's best, but it is also T. S.'s favorite film. As he wrote about Jimmy Stewart,

"Hitchcock knows we root for Jeff because beneath those blue pajamas and that full cast, he is Jimmy Stewart. Jeff is a protagonist in every sense of the word, but not necessarily a hero. The director has planted us firmly onto the same plane as Jeff, allowed what Jeff knows to be largely what we know (and the dialogue allows him to reaffirm the details and facts for us), and transfers our allegiance to him. But Stewart's performance is unsettling in the greatest of ways because he allows Jeff to be so oblivious to the fact that he is violating the rules of society. Looking into the courtyard is similar to photographing an object, but it is the act of interpreting – or simply allowing that which you see to become more important than your own personal business – that leads him into trouble."

---T. S. also wrote appreciative articles about "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas." For those interested in learning about the "the friction between the rock of Jesus and the hard place of cruel, quotidian living" in Schulz's classic, check out Joseph Lanthier's "An Atheist's Guide to A Charlie Brown Christmas." (Hat tip to GreenCine Daily).

---Film in Focus features an interesting Chris Rodley interview with David Lynch about Dune (1984) as part of their Great Directors series. As Lynch said,

"The closer I get to finishing a movie, the more I start projecting my fears onto it. Not only have I seen it over and over, I start seeing where I've made mistakes. I see my fears double-­exposed with the images on the screen. And it just keeps getting worse until I can't stand being in the editing room. I can't see it. I just see fear and horror… And so I really don't even remember finishing the film.

To hear what people were saying about me after Dune could have completely destroyed my confidence and happiness, and you need to be happy to make stuff. I was almost dead. Almost dead! But because of The Elephant Man they couldn't discount me completely. If I'd just made Eraserhead and Dune I'd have been cooked! Dune took me off at the knees. Maybe a little higher."

---Writing for The New York Times, Wendell Jamieson offers a contrasting view of the "Pitiful Dreadful Life" of George Bailey in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Then again, we always knew that Pottersville "looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night."

---Nathaniel R, of The Film Experience, enjoys studying the implications of the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list of "The Top 1000 Films of All Time."

---Lastly, Anne Thompson of Variety found an excellent Frosty the Ad Man Mad Men spoof in this witty E-card.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

15 Tips for Writing a Movie Review

1) Study all of the classic films and read Pauline Kael's reviews and the works of other major critics religiously. Quentin Tarantino once said "I would study Pauline Kael's reviews like class assignments." Philip Lopate's American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now (Library of America, 2006) provides an excellent survey.

2) What is one's basis for judging a movie? I like Pauline Kael's answer in her essay "Outside the Circles or What is a Film Critic?":

"new films are judged in terms of how they extend our experience and give us pleasure . . . our ways of judging how they do this are drawn not only from older films but from other works of art, and theories of art . . . new films are generally related to what is going on in the other arts . . . a wide a background as possible in literature, painting, music, philosophy, political thought, etc., helps . . . it is the wealth and variety of what he has to bring to new works that makes the critic's reaction to them valuable."

So, develop a background in all that as well.

3) Choose the movie and the theater. I prefer afternoon screenings due to the relative cheapness and lack of a crowd, although a large enthusiastic audience on a Friday evening can definitely affect one's review. You don't have to pick the most critically noteworthy releases. I like the critical challenge of writing a good review on a stupid movie.

4) Once you have selected a film, very carefully stay away from reviews, other people's opinions, Rotten Tomatoes averages, etc. before you write the review. I usually encounter at least one yahoo who likes to blurt out what he has read on a given movie, whereupon I stop him by saying SHUT UP! and running from the room.

5) Bring a small notebook and a pen, and take notes while watching the film. I usually write down the interesting dialogue, but also sometimes other responses (written cries of disgust, for instance) can make for a good lead.

6) Go home and sleep on it. Sometimes, I might brood over a film for several days, but usually one good night's sleep helps let the movie marinate in my brain for long enough.

7) The next morning, get out your laptop and write down all of the quotes that you can read from your notebook.

8) Then consult with the Internet Movie Database for basic information about the director, actors, studio, etc. IMDB will usually also guide you to the studio webpage promoting the film. Browse in that as well. Production notes are often useful.

9) Start to draft your review. Listen to your gut response and never cave in to the general buzz around a film. Over time, I've learned that in the competitive world of film blogging, having a differing opinion from the consensus view helps make your review stand out. You have to be faithful to your gut. That's really all you have.

10) Try to make your review entertaining, engaging, and free of cliches. Look for patterns in the directors and/or the lead actors' previous films. Try to support opinions with evidence from the film. Enliven your writing with details. Try to imagine what the studio's goals were in making the film. Who is the targeted audience? Imagine the original pitch that theoretically made the film an attractive thing to produce. I like Griffin Mill's take on what makes a film marketable in Robert Altman's The Player: "Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings."

11) Beware of writing spoilers. That usually means you should try to not include the latter third of a film. It can be difficult to analyze a film effectively without including the ending, but I usually just hint at the structural problems of a movie without giving the ending away.

12) Show your review to someone else who can edit it. I'm still surprised by the many mistakes my wife can find in my reviews on a sentence by sentence basis. Watch for repeating words and sentence structure. Beware of boring the reader with a pedestrian and overly long plot summary. Try to keep your style lively by maintaining a conversational voice.

13) Watch for relying on glib snarkiness. Put downs are great fun to write (check out Roger Ebert's great compendium of snide comments in "In the meadow, we can pan a snowman"). I often get excited by the anticipation of panning a bad film for that reason alone, but vicious slicing remarks can become a bad habit. Strive for a more nuanced and level-headed critical response even as you try to make the review fun to read.

14) Pauline Kael was quite good at incorporating quotes from other critics into her reviews, usually to show how they didn't get the film. Kael shows how juxtaposing the style of another critic with your own can help create interesting tensions in your review.

15) Publish your review and listen carefully to feedback.

Other suggestions?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Salvaging his career again: Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar (1997)

Note: Another review from my preblogging days, which I dug up due to the many odd parallels between Liar, Liar and Yes Man. Since I decided to keep it in its original form, some things in it are now incorrect, such as Carrey's 20 million dollar paycheck.

I must confess: I'm not much of a Jim Carrey fan. I saw him in Batman 3 but studiously avoided watching the Ace Ventura movies or Mask, where he stars with Cameron Diaz in her first major film. His next to most recent film, Cable Guy, tanked in the box office, and this week's Liar, Liar constitutes his attempt to win back his massive fan base with a good old return to form.

He's the monkey man, young Jerry Lewis incarnate, a good argument against the continuing existence of white males. When he was young, Carrey sat in front of mirror and practiced making funny expressions and for his pains he now earns 20$ million a picture.

Having said all that, I must admit that Liar, Liar is actually a pretty funny movie, and in this respect it resembles another film starring an overpaid comic who badly needed a hit--The Nutty Professor, Eddie Murphy's remake of an old Jerry Lewis film. (Who would have guessed that Jerry would supply some badly needed grist for 90s comedy?) In The Nutty Professor, Murphy reinvented his bad boy persona by lampooning the worst traits of his character in the Raw and 48 Hours era movies. As the alter ego of the kindly bumbling professor, Eddie could viciously mimic his sexist, domineering, showboat early self, and by doing so redeem himself.

In Liar, Liar, Jim Carrey does much the same thing. When he, as a scumbag defense lawyer, finds out that he cannot tell a lie, all of a sudden his insufferable overacting becomes effective because for once his abrasive humor is aimed directly at himself. He even makes some self-parodic comments to that effect, noting to his son that some people make good money making funny faces. So for those 24 hours of movietime when he cannot lie, Jim is quite funny, and I admit I laughed. In fact, the nearly full theater was full of people laughing. All criticism breaks down in the face of such a roar.

Otherwise, the movie has nothing but a limp sentimental plot about a bad father learning to be good with multiple references to It's a Wonderful Life. When the little long-haired five year old son, Justin Cooper, first simpered when his daddy didn't show for his birthday party, I thought the filmmakers' flute music was pouring on the sentiment with a trowel. But when this theme comes back with strings and some oboes, I realized they were pouring on emotion with a shovel, a diesel shovel, a dump truck as the movie progresses. When Carrey admits with his rubber expression that HE LOVES HIS SON! I missed his earlier slimeball self. But ultimately it doesn't matter if we don't believe in his change of heart; he's incapable of that kind of subtle acting anyway.

Audiences go see him to make bathroom humor or smirk out lewd jokes with women with obvious cleavage. He's the jerk we can all laugh at, the cartoon man in the age of cartoons for those of us who can stomach him, and with market pressure no doubt hanging on his 20$ million paycheck, this time he delivers.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Substitute City: Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (1998)

Note: A review from my preblogging days.

Do you want to be a star? Warren Beatty asked Madonna in Truth of Dare "What's the point of living if you're not on camera all of the time?" Garrison Keillor wrote a song that went "You better be a star, a star every minute / and that People magazine, you better be in it."

Jim Carrey lives out the ultimate star nightmare in The Truman Show, a frightfully plausible horror/comedy that logically explores the implications of our media culture. Adopted at birth by a corporation, Truman grows up surrounded by secret cameras hidden in buttons, mirrors, doors, radios, etc. Unbeknownst to him, all the world's a soundstage and he plays the lead in an immensely successful 24 hour C-span-like TV show.

He lives on an idyllic island reminiscent of those new Disneyworld housing developments where people live out safe Cracker Barrelesque lives in a ghastly perpetually deathless Happy Days rerun. It's the best of all possible It's a Wonderful World for Truman, but something's amiss. Why did a studio light fixture fall from the sky? Why did his long dead dad reappear as a homeless man, just to be whisked away? Why does the one love of his life Sylvia (Natascha McElhone) say that she's not supposed to speak to him? (She's not part of the script.) It turns out that a subversive political organization has been trying to break onto the set for years to tell Truman what's up, and now he's starting to suspect something.

Director Peter Weir approaches this elaborate conceit carefully by plunging us into the TV show at the beginning of the movie. We watch Truman go through his everyday routine and all of the odd camera angles constantly remind us that we're spying on him. We get implicated in the vicarious enjoyment of invading a man's most intimate privacy.

Like John Travolta in The Boy in the Bubble, Carrey has no trouble playing the one real person in a world full of fakery, and he cuts up on occasion, but this is essentially a prison break movie from an alternate reality. Smile and play the game of being a happily married insurance salesman and he's okay. Begin to walk off the prescribed path of his role and he discovers catering services for actors where an elevator should be, walls of flames on the perimeter of the island, and fake doctors incapable of performing surgery.

The movie carries such quiet force because it comments directly on our heavily-media-influenced lives. If you devote 40% of your day to the fictional pleasures of TV, movies, novels, video games, etc., aren't you living in a world of contrived appearances much as Truman does? With all of the technological developments in surveillance--hidden cameras in banks annd ATM machines, people spying on email accounts and social security records--are we much less spied upon that Truman? If the movies help define our dreams, can't they entrap us in their "reality"?

Peter Weir said that he intentionally stayed away from the metaphorical implications of The Truman Show while rewriting and directing the movie, but the plot reverberates much like a Kafka story, raising far more questions than it answers. How much do our lives resemble advertisements? If people imitate movie stars, how much of their identity remains? The Truman Show suggests the boundary lines between the real and the simulated are much more fragile than we think.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Yes is the new whatever: Jim Carrey in Yes Man

Yes Man defies analysis. It is not particularly bad, nor any good either. It exists as perfect HBO fodder, a consumer product designed to occupy in a cloying and formulaic manner one hour and 44 minutes of the viewer’s short life. It tells the story of Carl Allen (Carrey), a man who processes loan applications for a living. Divorced, he lives alone, and he faces the numbing effects of habit and routine. By saying things like “You’re dead, Karl. You say no to life,” an old friend persuades Carl to go to a cult-like self-help seminar where guru Terrence Bundley (Terrence Stamp) gets him to agree to a covenant where he will say yes to anything anyone asks him. Carl says yes, whereupon his life becomes an adventure of spontaneous opportunities.

So far, okay. After giving a beggar a ride and all of his money, Carl runs out of gas, and has to walk a long way to a gas station, but then kooky Allison (Zooey Deschanel) rides up on a scooter, and she volunteers to give him a ride back to his car. On the way, he wears her helmet embellished with large cartoon eyes. She takes their photograph together, and then she gives him a kiss for no obvious reason before scooting away. The film posits that if he hadn’t said yes to the bum, he would not have found the beginnings of romance. Soon Carl finds himself agreeing to lessons in flying, guitar, and the Korean language, and later we get the pleasure of seeing how all of those skills will pay off.

I kept staring at Carrey’s face. He’s made his career out of making funny faces, and I especially liked his work in The Truman Show, but something went strange with his 2007 vehicle The Number 23, an unfunny mystery/thriller about a man who becomes obsessed with a number. The Number 23 earned an 8% on Rotten Tomatoes. All of a sudden, Carrey went from a possible leading man to a has-been who looked deranged. I haven’t seen the film, but everything about Yes Man seems in reaction to The Number 23. By making a bland, life-affirming romantic comedy, Carrey seeks to erase the memory of that career misstep, but there’s still something haunted about him, he’s become a joke-meister no longer quite content with his gags, and no longer secure with his paycheck. Therefore, the only way to see any value in Yes Man is within the framework of Carrey’s media redemption. He realizes that he was wrong, so now we get the opposite--bogus uplift—Carrey saving a man from jumping off a ledge by singing a folk song to him with guitar accompaniment—“Step back from your ledge,” etc. All of his attempts to “squeeze every drop of juice” out of the EXPERIENCE of LIFE struck me as compounding a more sophisticated form of despair on top of the misery of his earlier negative self. This film suggests that if you become a pawn of others, then life will pull you from your WASPish shell of safe denial and set you free!

Meanwhile, Deschanel continues to get sadly typecast as quirky. She played the lead in M. Night Shyamalan’s quirky apocalyptic The Happening. Here, she fronts a quirky band called “Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome” when she’s not quirkily leading jogging and photography groups around the Griffith Park Observatory (of Rebel Without a Cause) in the morning. To fit the romantic comedy structure, Carl and Allison have to rethink things later, so she gets to act a little, but mostly her characterization remains as bland and blank a version of therapeutic LA goofiness as the rest of the film.

Late in the movie, there are more hints of desperation in the way things keep happening (an FBI bust, a car crash) to gloss the fact that due to its openness to all possibilities, all tension has vanished from the screenplay. In a last attempt to generate excitement, the screenwriters lift a page from Jason Statham’s Crank of all things by having Carrey ride a motorcycle wildly across LA while wearing a hospital gown. Just as Steve Carell does towards the end of Get Smart, Carrey shows his rear (funny!), and that’s when I realized what the ironic poster of Yes Man reminds me of—the cheesy photo of Carell in the poster of The 40 Year Old Virgin. Perhaps, Jim Carrey wants the more wholesome and less manic stardom of Steve Carell. After the disastrous reception of The Number 23, any kind of stardom will do.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

20th Century Fox’s Christmas Turkey: Notes on The Day the Earth Stood Still

. . . what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall--

--Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer

1) Let’s start with accuracy. As far as I could tell, the earth never does stand still in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

2) In the classic 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien shows up on earth with his robot to tell everyone that we need world peace or aliens will destroy us. In the 2008 version, Keanu Reeves shows up to tell Jennifer Connolly that humans must be eradicated for the planet’s survival.

3) Jon Hamm appears briefly to remind us that we should have watched Mad Men instead.

4) A large green glowing sphere hurtles towards the planet Earth. You can tell things are tense because some federal agents kidnap astral-biologist Helen Benson (Connolly) so she can work with other scientists in trying to figure out what to do about this Armageddon-esque asteroid(?) that’s going to hit Manhattan in about 78 minutes!

5) Fortunately, the thing slows down and lands peacefully in Central Park. In a Close Encounters of the Third Kind moment, Helen almost shakes the hand of an alien who appears in a glimmering sheen of light, but then naturally some trigger-happy soldier shoots the alien. Then a tall, one-eyed robot appears out of the globe to turn off all of the machinery in the area. The robot looks quite retro in a pulp comics way. Increasingly, I had a hard time taking this film seriously.

6) Other globes land around the world in a fashion reminiscent of Independence Day.

7) Kathy Bates takes command as Regina Jackson, the woman in charge of the US government once the president disappears into some secure bunker. She’s concerned about how the aliens have probably learned all of the US’s military secrets from a satellite.

8) After a surgeon peels away the placenta-like glop from the alien’s skin, it turns out that the alien Klaatu is . . . Keanu Reeves! After the cheesy image of the robot, the casting of Reeves is the second major mistake of the filmmakers (by the way, director Scott Derrickson also made Hellraiser: Inferno). I never could believe Reeves is anyone but Keanu, no matter how expressionless he looks in a suit, and no matter how many pithy lines he speaks. When the scientists ask him what he was before he was human, he replies, “Different.”

9) Then, in an extraordinarily unlikely maneuver, the sinister US officials reminiscent of The Man Who Fell to Earth leave Klaatu alone with an interrogator so that the alien can use some mind-meld powers to escape the compound. He eventually appears in a train station so that Derrickson can refer to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

10) Klaatu meets up with Helen and her overly cute African American adopted son Jacob (Jaden Smith of The Pursuit of Happyness). Probably nobody intended this at 20th Century Fox, but I could not help but be grimly reminded of the interracial family adventure dynamics of Australia.

11) As Klaatu, Helen, and Jacob run from the military and the police, we get to know their car, a cute silver Honda. This product placement struck me as oddly similar to that of Edward Cullen’s Volvo S60R in Twilight. If that wasn’t enough, Klaatu stops by a McDonalds to discuss the fate of the earth with some other alien in a human’s body. This alien says he can’t help but love these humans, God bless ‘em.

12) Basically, the film is an extraordinarily wishy-washy treatment of a contemporary apocalypse. While Children of Men had a very simple yet effective premise—no more babies, and excellent use of mise en scene to convey its sense of a sterile world, TDTESS mostly relies upon random television news footage to remind us that people across the world are freaking out about those green globes. In Children of Men, Theo and Kee take refuge with Michael Caine’s character, the hippie political cartoonist Jasper, where Theo smokes dope. In TDTESS, the gang takes refuge with John Cleese of all people, where they listen to Bach. Klaatu says “It’s beautiful,” as he begins to understand in his alien way that people are not all bad.

13) Reeves can play God all he likes, but no one likes a wimpy indecisive sense of divine judgment. I prefer films in which the threat to humanity is remorseless and cold. With over-population, humans are likely to have a die-off just like other species, and I don’t foresee much mercy when that happens. TDTESS also flirts with the possibility of a peak oil meltdown, but never (spoiler alert!) really delivers on anything. While the first TDTESS served as a kind of parable, the 2008 TDTESS just dithers with its darker implications.

15) What is TDTESS’s real threat? Watching poor Connolly plead “We can change!” over and over? Seeing insufferable Jaden Smith weep over his lost daddy? I would say forcing the audience to sit through the obvious CGI murky grey particles as they swarm around in the film’s climax.

16) Like a rusty old Chevy, TDTESS keeps trying to fire, keeps trying to fill me with wonder over its Spielbergian lighting effects, its mists, and its ominous pronouncements, but the film ultimately left me wondering the most about the chain of studio compromises that led to this overbaked Christmas turkey.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Notable film links--December 13, 2008


---Writing for Harper's Magazine, Wyatt Mason tries to understand the difficulty of writing film criticism in his essay "Flailing at Williams":

"Film criticism, it seems to me, is the hardest place to get any serious critical footing. Said another way, because film is a waterfall of particulars so very hard to get a handle on, film criticism most often throws up its hands and claps along instead of coming to grips and terms. It is no accident that one of our wittiest writers, Anthony Lane, is known for film criticism the chief virtue of which is not how probing and deep it manages to be but how dependably entertaining it is."

---For WellMedicated, Andrew Lindstrom compiled an Ode to the Box Art of the one company that is cooler by far than any other--Criterion.

---For Film for the Soul, Ibetolis explores the many meanings of Brazil for his Soul Focus series:

"It's about the will to escape through dream, It's about unrequited love, the quest for the dream woman, the endless sprawling banality of the modern world, the over-reliance of technology and the eventual dehumanising of the human spirit. It's about bureaucracy gone mad, a world teetering on terrorism and state control, mindless consumption and feckless morals, it's Gilliam's 'the modern world is rubbish' in overdrive."

---I like the way some people insist upon a positive response to some films. For instance, Catherine Bennett of The Observer dares to dislike Mamma Mia!, even though, as she says, "there appear to be few doubts among its millions of supporters about the dodginess of any woman who discovers herself to be immune to its life-affirming effects."

---In the same vein, Jim Emerson of Scanners finds that "Critics better love The Dark Knight, or else!" He wonders, if someone doesn't like the film, "what might those consequences be? Perhaps . . . death?!?!"

---For The New Yorker, James Wood revisits the author Richard Yates, who wrote Revolutionary Road:

"Yates’s work is probably most radical in its obsessive treatment of the question of gender. (I suspect that this is where “Revolutionary Road” had the greatest influence on the conception and the narrative argument of the TV series “Mad Men.”) His stories and novels return repeatedly to the weakness and hysterical anxiety of mid-century American masculinity."

---In Film Studies for Free, Catherine Grant lists an excellent A-Z of her "Favorite Scholarly Film and Moving Image Blogs."

---In her list, Grant also includes one of my favorite blogs, Dan North's Spectacular Attractions. His post "Cloverfield's Obstructed Spectacle" shows how J.J. Abrams withheld information in every stage of the film's publicity and in its final product. As he puts it, director Matt Reeves and producer Abrams "ended up co-opting an aesthetic which gleans its power from a paradox--that the ubiquity of images and camera-eye-witness accounts does not make events easier to comprehend of come to terms with."

---Lastly, the 20 actress meme, started by Nathan at Film Experience, has begun to take over the blogosphere. I especially liked the selections at Only the Cinema, The Cooler, Screen Savour, and the inimitable Arbogast.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Film Doctor's Ten Most Disliked Films of 2008

10) The Eye

This was one of those films where I sat in the theater wondering whether there may be something more interesting elsewhere in the Cineplex. Jessica Alba got an eye transplant where she can suddenly see spooky things. I couldn’t even review it.

9) Iron Man

Many raved about this film, and I confess I enjoyed watching Robert Downey Jr. unsuccessfully try out the jet propulsion boots. Otherwise, the film struck me as endless metal crashing, pinging, and banging on metal. The most poignant moment—Jeff Bridges’ bald head looking scrawny and swamped by his big knock 'em sock 'em robot outfit.

8) Get Smart

This film confirmed my suspicions about the decline of modern man. Women will survive and prosper. Men won’t. It may not be such a bad thing.

7) The Love Guru

See Number 8. Again, poor Jessica Alba.

6) Step Brothers

See Number 8 and 7. Further proof. There is no hope.

5) Charlie Bartlett

A vile rip off of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, even down to the minor characters and the shot composition style.

4) Bangkok Dangerous

With long dyed hair, Nicholas Cage tries to look soulful in a clumsy Thai hit man flick that you can’t even enjoy on a campy level. What is going on in Cage’s mind? Why is he in these films? Why are there so many of them?

3) Death Race

Watch the men race. Watch the camera zoom in and out. Race, race, race. Die, die, die.

2) You Don’t Mess with the Zohan

If you are not convinced by the argument concerning 8, 7, and 6, Adam Sandler should remove any remaining doubts.

1) Mamma Mia!

A deeply disturbing film in which middle-aged people writhe endlessly and grotesquely to dated pop. Views like a bad acid trip.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Electrifying the Blues: notes on Cadillac Records


The gypsy woman told my mother
Before I was born
I got a boy child's comin'
He's gonna be a son of a gun
He gonna make pretty women's
Jump and shout
Then the world wanna know
What this all about
But you know I'm him
Everybody knows I'm him
Well you know I'm the hoochie coochie man
Everybody knows I'm him.
---Muddy Waters


1) Written and directed by Darnell Martin, Cadillac Records mostly succeeds because of its subject matter. I have heard of the Beatles' and the Rolling Stones' near-worship of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and other rhythm and blues pioneers on the Chess Records label, but no one (to my knowledge) has tried to dramatize this story in a major release film. Even though the finished product bears a strong resemblance to Dreamgirls' depiction of early Motown, Cadillac Records acquaints us with the intersection between Mississippi blues and the burgeoning record industry of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and that period's oppressive atmosphere of institutionalized racism helps the film avoid some of the cliches of rock and roll biographies.

2) The film has a nice design sense. The opening montage blends together Chess record labels, Cadillac logos, and early Cadillac cars until that ultimate travesty--the atrocious Cadillac Escalade appears, as if to highlight the product placement. (Why would Cadillac make yet another SUV that looks no different from any other except for the shiny hubcaps?) Otherwise, I can fully understand why everyone fetishized the earlier Cadillacs.

3) Cadillac Records does have its problems. Since it compresses about 16 years into its story arc, the film tends to telegraph upcoming conflicts in obvious ways. Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) asks his harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short) to drink some alcohol after Walter learns of his mother's death. The camera follows the flask as if it is the portent of doom, and so it proves to be. The screenplay has the breathless rush of hitting one high point after another that never allows the actors to breathe much within scenes, except when they are performing. Scorsese had a similar problem with the nonfiction material of Goodfellas. Otherwise, Cadillac Records moves fast, and keeps highlighting new performers (such as Mos Def as a bemused Chuck Berry) to keep the viewer off-balance.

4) Adrian Brody seems a little too handsome for the part of studio impresario Leonard Chess, but otherwise the performances are consistently excellent. Jeffrey Wright creates a surprisingly watchful and meditative Muddy Waters whose story provides much of the movie's plot. Born and raised as a Mississippi sharecropper, Waters proves an endearingly level-headed early blues star. He enjoys "making the pretty women's jump and shout," but he's also very conscious of the larger race dynamic of the period. He tells Little Walter "We gotta take all that comes. Half the time that's gonna be a bunch of bullshit, so you need to cool out." He's also aware of how Leonard Chess may be taking his royalties for his own enterprises. When acknowledging how everyone's screwing each other in the record business, he says "That's the blues, man."

5) Other stand-out performers include Mos Def, who seems tickled to be playing Chuck Berry, and Eamonn Walker, whose version of Howlin' Wolf is intimidating, authoritive, and oddly moral for a musician. Wolf treats Muddy Waters as something of a sell-out, and it's fun to see Jeffrey Wright stand and look away, acting as if there might be some truth in that claim.

6) Beyonce Knowles shows up late in the film as the blonde trouble-maker Etta James, and she steals every scene she's in. She wins the Warren Beatty prize for skillfully executive producing herself. In every scene, her 1950s print dresses and her blonde do' look so much better on her in a Mad Men way than anything more contemporary. And she gets to play the rock star trainwreck role, complete with the de rigeur heroin near-overdose. Given her moods, Adrian Brody keeps trying to calm her down. Instead of giving in, she yells out "Get me a bottle of gin!" Her histrionics are much more satisfying than her work as the relatively bland Diana Ross-like character in Dreamgirls.

7) In the end, Cadillac Records enthralls not only because of its music, but due to a sense of poetic justice. The combination of Blues music, record technology, and the promise of the American dream integrated the airways, creating the rock and roll revolution as if by accident. Even though Americans were slow to appreciate the longstanding musical genius of Muddy Waters and Chess Records, the Europeans knew it all along. And yet we still need to be reminded just who it was that Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys were stealing from.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Why I love the local Regal Cineplex

1) Last year, after watching Grindhouse late one Thursday night, I walked out the cineplex to find my Honda Accord had been stolen. In a display of sympathy, the manager gave me several free tickets and pointed out that that kind of theft occurs quite often, so they always have a police presence in the parking lot on Friday and Saturday nights. Funny how I learned that after the theft. My car was never recovered, and now I'm always careful to park in a place where someone in a ticket booth can see the vehicle.

2) One afternoon, this past summer, I saw the saddest thing--a dozen local middle management guys walking out after seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, all of them wearing plastic fedora-like Indiana Jones hats as they returned in a manly fashion to the plant across the street.

3) Every time I visit, I like to check out the posters in the lobby, but the advertising barrage is omnipresent. You hear ads as you walk up to the building, and in the bathroom. Ads appear on flat TVs in the lobby, and you can no longer sit and talk quietly with your friend in the theater before the movie starts, because Coca-cola, the Gap, Sprint, the National Guard, and St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital all have urgent appeals for our attention. I can remember when theaters used to just play radio songs under mood lighting with the curtain closed. Even the later local ads in slide show format had a certain cheesy charm. Now we get macho propagandistic videos conveying how cool it is to take orders in the military.

4) Lastly, thanks to my Regal Crown Club card, I sometimes get a ticket or food free. Yesterday I went to get the Free Small Popcorn, by using a voucher, but the employee at the concession stand said that I would have to pay a dollar because the reward had expired on Dec. 3, 2008 (according the fine print). I told the employee that the corporate management is composed of a bunch of weasels. Could he tell his manager that? He said yes, he would.

5) Perhaps I was just being peevish. Viewed objectively, I overreacted to this last bait and switch, but it felt like the last straw after years of indignities in an atmosphere of co-opted consciousness and corporate control.