Sunday, August 30, 2009

Decadence in the early '80s--notes on The Informers and The Last Days of Disco

I didn't realize that the two DVDs I set aside to watch this weekend would make for such a matching pair--both The Informers (2009) and The Last Days of Disco (1988) attempt to encapsulate the youth culture of the early 1980s, but their point of view and their approaches are radically different, and the contrast between the two is thought-provoking. Some notes:

1) Oddly, given that it came out this year, Bret Easton Ellis' The Informers has aged more, in part because the 1995 book that inspired the movie was comprised of brief sketches that Ellis wrote on the side when he was composing Less Than Zero (1985) and The Rules of Attraction (1987). With Less Than Zero, Ellis established himself as the successful chronicler of decadently nihilistic LA youth culture, a world where boredom, Wayfarer sunglasses, and early music videos formed a kind of rock star glamour for jaded and yet handsome-and-rich-enough-to-envy disaffected teens.

Later, Ellis switched his locus to New York and ironically mixed the "greed is good" yuppie ethos of the early '90s with serial killing in American Psycho (1991). Yet the problem with all of Ellis' depictions of youthful narcissism and Play It As It Lays-Joan Didion-esque "deep" posturing (with everyone endlessly lighting cigarettes and gazing with apathy off into the distance) lies in his difficulty in making anyone care about these characters who certainly do not care about each other. Moreover, this aesthetic based on youth does not age well. Ellis' recent novel Lunar Park (2005) was an embarrassing metafictional rip-off of Stephen King, and one can only wonder about his upcoming sequel to Less Than Zero to be released soon.

2) So, while I enjoyed the re-creation of Ellis' world in The Informers, the weaknesses in the writing accumulate as the film goes on. While many writers of short fiction build their stories to some realization or epiphany that adds depth to the characterization, the vignettes of The Informers do not. Instead, what you see is largely what you get--a man kidnapping a child for profit, a very jaded rock star who beats his groupies, the spoiled disaffected children of a studio mogul who fools around on his pill-popping wife--and so on. The fundamental emptiness of these people may be Ellis' existential point, but beyond the glamor and the bored posturing in their underwear, the characters have little room to grow or change. Late in the movie, one coked up young fellow named Graham (Jon Foster) wonders why no one has bothered to explain right and wrong to him, but Ellis is having too much fun shocking his middle-American prudish audience with all of this decadence to adequately to convey things like morality and consequences. When that happens, such as when one fellow gets hit by a car, or another contracts AIDS, the film is both too heavy-handed in its sense of fate, and the characters too apathetic and rich for the viewer to get involved. The Informers suffers from the same problem that Robert Altman's Short Cuts did (which was also cobbled together from several stories): in the attempt to bring all of these mini-narratives together, both films sell out on their original premises.

3) In a side note, I disliked director Gregor Jordan's treatment of Winona Ryder. As a newscasting neurotic love interest for Billy Bob Thornton's philandering film mogul, she deserves far better (I also found it awkward to see her in such a small role). Also, Chris Isaak seems poorly cast as a fraudulent lush dad on a trip to Hawaii. Many of the "name" actors in The Informers appear stranded in underwritten parts. One can understand why Mickey Rourke treats the movie as a warm-up exercise for The Wrestler.

4) In contrast, and with the new Criterion DVD release, The Last Days of Disco (1998) returns with the alienated majesty of a film we did not properly appreciate the first time around. As the third in Whit Stillman's trilogy that began with the excellent Metropolitan (1990), and the more forgettable Barcelona (1994), Disco now looks way better to me than it did in the theater 11 years ago. Disco includes Chloe Sevigny in perhaps her best film, and Kate Beckinsale holding her own as a bitchy American (quite a contrast to her campier work in the Underworld series). Many of the guys can also be found in Stillman's earlier films, especially Chris Eigeman whose character Des helps run a Studio 54-like disco. As far as I can tell, Stillman was in love with Eigeman, since he dominates the entire trilogy. Even when (spoiler alert) Des threatens to leave the country late in the film, Stillman brings him right back for the last scene. Whereas Ellis rains down judgment on his characters, Stillman has too much affection for his to allow much to happen to them even when they catch a venereal disease or break the law.

5) But the chief thing I admired about The Last Days of Disco is the cultivated, urbane, witty dialogue and the subtle Woody Allen-in-his-prime sense of moviemaking craft on display in the story-structure, the acting, the costuming, and the period mise-en-scene. Stillman cheats a bit with the disco music. He plays it at such a low volume that one can hear every bit of the conversation, whereas in real life, the characters would have had to yell at one another incoherently over the disco beat. Regardless, The Last Days of Disco views like the last sophisticated film depicting that time period, a cultural rarity by today's standards, and therefore a delight. Even as he chronicles the end of an era many people might want to forget, Stillman conveys more hope for America's decadent youth than The Informers would care to acknowledge.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Notable film and media links--August 27, 2009

---Interview with R. J. Cutler, director of The September Issue:

I was sitting there thinking, "The handful of people in that room are deciding what's going to be sold throughout the fall season."

"Right there, they're deciding what people will wear. That's what they do. You know, when the minister of finance for Louis XIV convinced him that France should become a major exporter of fashion, that it should be one of the leading industries, he appointed a minister of fashion. And that minister of fashion would decide where the hemlines were and what the fashion in the court would be, every year. That decision affected the world's fashion because it was exported from France to the rest of the world. This is what Anna is doing! She's sitting there as minister of fashion of the world, with her associates, and declaring what we shall wear." Also, behind the scenes of The September Issue.

---The original short film by Shane Acker that inspired 9.

---Imomus defines the 00s decade:

"Other things that looked dead or dying this decade: I personally stopped going to the cinema. Why sit behind someone's head in a fleapit when you can download all you need to see and project it at home? Copyright effectively died, overtaken, de facto, by events on the internet. Magazines and newspapers ended the decade looking very unhealthy indeed, although books seemed strong. Young people got a lot less interested in cars, leading some to label Japan a post-car society. Detroit pretty much collapsed. The polar ice caps melted rapidly; climate change is a fact. Banks -- having invented what they thought were clever ways to spread risk around, and play with planet-sized sums of entirely fictional money -- looked pretty shaky. As a result of the financial crisis, some declared the thirty-year neo-liberal project to privatize, incentivize and globalize over. Nicolas Bourriaud declared postmodernism dead, replaced by something he called the Altermodern. Attacks in the British press helped to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy."

---Mediaweek imagines 2014--the future of media:

"The internet will become the glue that holds all the other media channels together.

Ed Stivala, managing director at N3W Media, says: "Over the next five years, the internet will become a utility in our lives, in the same way that you purchase water and power."

Stivala imagines a future where your alarm clock will wake you according to how congested the roads are for your commute to work, and your car automatically maps out fuel stops. He adds: "Your virtual diary will keep track of your shopping list and whether you are planning to watch any cookery TV programming that week. You will no longer need to think about when you need to visit the supermarket, because your virtual diary will schedule it."

The internet will also become a moveable feast, increasingly accessed on the go. Google's Howe believes this means voice search will become "significantly more prevalent". He says: "We're testing it now. You search via voice into a smartphone and you get the results by voice, text or image. Users will be able to ask a question into their mobile and we will provide the most relevant answer, depending on what the algorithm says."

---Tama Leaver considers the future of journalism.

---Michael Erard's "Short Manifesto on the Future of Attention"

---"Best science visualization videos of 2009"

---A thought-provoking video about the social media revolution (with thanks to The Chutry Experiment).

---Edward Cone's "Blogger's Lament": "As David Weinberger, the author, blogger and philosopher of the Internet age, has said, on the Web everyone will be famous for 15 people."

---I like the way zombies are being considered by scientists and specialists in international politics. Why not be a zombie as a good career move?

---VW explains why it is time to follow the dude.

---Lastly, Stephen Marche wonders--"Why are you working so hard?" Why indeed?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Post Grad: Bledel's choice and the damage done

Post Grad is so bad I almost find it intriguing. It leaves behind many questions. Why are songs played so loudly in this movie that the lyrics distract you from the action on the screen? Why is Carol Burnett, one of my favorite comediennes, degrading herself in this fashion? Why is Michael Keaton doing the same? Why is it that in other fields people gain in stature and dignity with their accomplishments, and yet the film industry wastes its veteran performers in this way?

In Post Grad, Burnett plays the quirky granny of a quirky, goofy, and trashy family known as the Malbys that includes Ryden (Alexis Bledel) as the daughter who just graduated from college and Walter (Michael Keaton) as Ryden's idiot dad. Uniformly, all of the actors are wasted, diminished, and shamed in this movie for no good reason beyond the fact that writer Kelly Fremon has difficulty fashioning a paint-by-numbers formulaic screenplay, and perhaps also because director Vicky Jenson has a tin eye for shooting scenes.

Take, for instance, the writing. After a credit sequence that cleverly imitates a social media site complete with Bledel and others introduced on imbedded videos, the film begins with a graduation scene much as Say Anything and Ghost World do. Ryden has plans of working for a big publishing house in LA, but fate transpires to prevent her from attaining her lifelong dream job, so she has to go back home to her tacky family and hunt around for work while riding a kid's bicycle. Meanwhile, her dweeby friend Adam (Zach Gilford) pines with unrequited love for her as he has difficulty deciding between playing generic acoustic guitar songs for a living or going to Columbia Law School.

In this inert movie where each scene dies long before the next trundles into place, new developments are often forced. For instance, the Malby family walks noisily into the graduation exercises, crumpling a bag of Cheetos, and generally being loud until another parent asks them to be quiet. Grandma Maureen (Burnett) replies with "I'm dying." Later, to augment this dying theme, she tries out coffins in a funeral home (ha). Then, when Ryden accidentally breaks a pink coffin, the Malby family carries it home on the roof of their car and park it in front of the house next to the plaster gnomes (ha, ha). Objects tend to arrive in this film with small arrows pointing at them to connote significance. We learn to watch for the next chocolate-covered ice cream bar as it gradually assumes the meaning of true love, and I'll refrain from even mentioning the go-cart derby theme that helps Ryden's younger brother gain independence.

Writer Kelly Fremon also has trouble arranging for her characters to meet. Ryden needs to fall for a handsome Brazilian fellow (Rodrigo Santoro) living across the street in order to initiate a love triangle, so Fremon arranges that meeting by having the Brazilian guy's cat poop on the Malby's driveway. Walter steps in said crap and then storms with his daughter across the street to curse the guy out. Mission accomplished. Later, Walter will run over the same cat on the same driveway to inadvertently finalize his daughter's romance.

As Post Grad labors its way through several bogus climaxes (go-cart race!), the now de rigueur Devil Wears Prada-influenced music montage, and its patently unlikely The Graduate-esque conclusion, I wondered . . . what of Alexis Bledel? Given that my wife is a heavy-duty Gilmore Girls fan, I have suffered through several shows and wondered how it works--why people (mostly women?) like its relentless machine gun witty banter, its romantic intriques, and the terminal chirpiness and the glazed eyes of the creepy denizens of Cuddly Hollow (or whatever that New England town is called). Given all of its problems, The Gilmore Girls is far superior to Post Grad, so what happened? Why did Bledel choose this film? Did her career fall off of a cliff? Was the modest success of The Travelling Pants series not enough for her? Did she arrange for the occasional Gilmore Girls reference in Post Grad? The Malby's lawn decoration plaster gnomes could refer to the similar ones owned by that deranged motormouth character played by Sally Struthers in the TV show. Did Bledel like the screenplay because it roughly follows what might have happened to Rory at the end of the TV series? Did she feel obliged to keep herself in the media eye? Luke Harrington of MovieZeal notes how Bledel tends to play the straight man in Gilmore Girls, and that doesn't translate well to starring roles. So, yes, she plays a variation of Rory in Post Grad, and one wonders how much her acting mannerisms may congeal after all of those television episodes. She smiles, and is charming. She may yet star in other good movies, but I still wonder if she knows how much damage this career choice has caused.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Revenge of the Giant Face": 14 notes on Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds

1) Out in the countryside of Nazi-occupied France, a farmer (Denis Menochet) notices some Nazis driving his way, so he orders the women indoors and takes a moment to wash his face. Colonel Hans Landa (Christof Waltz) walks up, shakes hands with the farmer, and asks if he can join him inside. The farmer says yes even though he is hiding Jewish refugees under the floorboards. Once inside, the Colonel admires the man's daughters, pronouncing "each more lovely than the last." Then he asks for some milk, and they sit and talk at length, with the farmer pausing at one moment to light his pipe.

2) What's amazing about this leisurely beginning is how thoroughly this differs from just about anything in the original 1975 version of Inglorious Bastards. Instead of following a band of escaped military prisoners as they rampage around occupied France, Tarantino chose to spend much of this version indoors. At times, watching these scenes feels like eating at a restaurant. Tarantino knows how to elicit feelings of both hunger and bloodlust in the viewing audience.
You know that the entire scene may well explode in a spasm of gunfire, so why not drag it out some, light a cigarette, order some strudel, and then wait on the heavy cream?

3) Oddly, the Inglourious Basterds themselves, including the highly entertaining Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine), are not all that important to the movie, perhaps because their methods lack subtlety. As we get to know the lithe French blonde Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), we realize that, in proper Kill Bill fashion, she's the main focus of the film, in part because she owns a French cinema, and because she is the only one of the farmer's hidden refugees to escape with her life.
In effect, Basterds begins much like the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, by showing just how evil the bad guy is (and yet Waltz consistently steals the movie with his gracious conniving investigations).

4) Tarantino includes a brief clip from Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936) where the young boy Stevie obliviously holds a time bomb in a film canister. QT uses this allusion to illustrate the flammability of nitrate film stock. The scene has the dubious distinction of blowing up an innocent boy (small wonder that rebel filmmaker Tarantino would refer to it, although Hitchcock later regretted it).
Also, the scene masterfully shows how to build suspense with cuts to various clocks and the psychologically manipulative touches of the boy playing with a small puppy before the bomb goes off.

5) Almost as a sop thrown to the critics, Tarantino even includes a suave British spy Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) who writes movie reviews and has authored not one but two books of film criticism. Hicox attempts to help the Basterds kill off a bunch of high level Nazis in Shosanna's theater, but he embodies Noel Coward or George Saunders cool amidst the slightly cartoonish British high command (which includes a supremely unneeded Mike Myers as General Ed Fenech).

6) The Myers cameo exemplifies my biggest problem with the movie--the uneasy shifting between the cartoonish and the more cultivated characters. While Landa is delightful, Hitler (Martin Wittke) sputters like a grotesque red-faced goon, a caricature so broad, I thought Tarantino owed the actual Hitler an apology.
The film kept shifting between pulp and class in its treatment of the actors--from the beautiful cinematography and nuanced acting of the opening scene to the torture porn aesthetics of Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) getting whipped in garish lighting, Aldo Raine sticking his finger in Bridget's bullet wound to get information, or Eli Roth beating a Nazi's head in with a baseball bat at length (a scene that reminded me of the last moment of Death Proof). At his best, Tarantino synthesizes B movie violence into something stirring and spaghetti western-operatic. At other times, he too obviously caters to the aggressive stupidity of his male audience.

7) Like Public Enemies, Basterds ends with a metacinematic scene where you watch a movie within a movie that communicates in multiple directions simultaneously. I loved the intertitle "Revenge of the Giant Face," since once I saw that face looming on screen, I was reminded of the Wizard of Oz in all of his smoky greenish hyped glory, only this time the face is that of a woman laughing in flames. Whereas Public Enemies ends on a sweet note in which Dillinger projects his love for Billie onto images of Myrna Loy, Inglourious Basterds ends with a sense of old testament judgment.

8) And the judgment of Basterds is a peculiarly cinematic one, showing how movies can create more satisfactory conclusions than the more arbitrary results one gets in real life.
The giant face shows the power of an actor prominantly featured on the big screen and his or her ability to dominate the viewer's consciousness. As David Cox points out in The Guardian:

"the centrality of cinema to the [Basterds] film goes far beyond the usual allusions to movie styles and tropes. Not many war films feature a plot-essential film critic or a spy whose cover happens to be big-screen stardom. A bricks-and-mortar cinema becomes the crucible not just for the film's climax but for the making of history itself. A film-within-a-film counterpoints the main drama, the plot turns on the importance of film in war propaganda, and silver-nitrate film-stock fuels the epochal conflagration that crowns the proceedings."

9) Basterds includes one Cinderella-esque scene in which Hans Landa lovingly places a shoe on Bridget von Hammersmark's (Diane Kruger's) foot.
I was about to read all kinds of theories into that gesture until I realized that it was another chance for QT to indulge in his foot fetish.

10) Judgment is really Tarantino's forte. Before shooting several men in Pulp Fiction (1994), Samuel L. Jackson (as Jules Winnfield) pronounced these words from Ezekial 25:17,

"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee."

11) What are most of Tarantino's scenes except variations on this? And what are Nazis but perfect fodder for this tendency to depict justifiable homicide, thereby catering to the audience's fascist tendencies even as the film condemns fascism? Whether it be in a basement, a farmhouse, or a theater, Tarantino casts judgment on his characters, working out the peculiar (and often funny) perversities of a willful fate. As Shosanna proclaims at one point (oddly echoing Donnie Darko), "Burn it down to the ground."

12) As for those who get to enact these punishments, often that pleasure goes to QT's female characters when not to African Americans like Jules. As Will Leitch of New York magazine points out, "Despite his video-geek frat-guy bravado, Tarantino’s films are as much about female empowerment as the macho shenanigans of tough guys."

13) Given this vengeful emphasis, how does Tarantino stop Inglourious Basterds from being a cheap wish fulfillment fantasy? By giving the Nazis some of the best characterizations of the movie. Hans Landa is less of a cartoon than Brad Pitt's macho hillbilly Aldo Raine. Another Nazi officer proves extremely smart about both German accents and popular culture (in a game, he reasons out a reference to King Kong with the most meager of clues). The Nazis are often like cats playing with mice, revelling in their power to read duplicity. That and their ability to represent absolute evil gives Tarantino some of his best material in years.

14) Echoing the self-mutilation of Charles Manson's followers, Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine) cuts a swastika into the forehead of captured Nazis in part because he "cannot abide" the thought of them taking off their uniforms one day and getting away with it. In proper Scarlet Letter/mark of Cain fashion, he marks the men for life for their sin, thus dispelling any leftover moral ambiguity, and at the end of the film (slight spoiler alert), he feels so proud of himself for cutting a swastika so well, he proclaims it his "masterpiece." Thus does Tarantino gratify the viewer's desire for cinematic vengeance. As he said recently in an interview, “Watch the movie closely, and you’ll see how personal it is. Here’s a film in which cinema brings down the Nazi regime, metaphorically and literally. What could possibly be better than that? In this story, cinema changes the world, and I f***ing love that idea!”

Friday, August 21, 2009

Notes on the original The Inglorious Bastards (1978) directed by Enzo G. Castellari

In August of 2008, I watched the original The Inglorious Bastards on DVD, and wondered how on earth Tarantino could translate such a cheesy but otherwise entertaining film for modern audiences. Now that I've seen his successful adaptation, I'm all the more impressed by how different it is. Here are my notes from that time.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tired Pulp: Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997)

[In honor of the wide release of Inglourious Basterds, the Film Doctor dug into his pre-blogging vaults to find this of-the-period review of Jackie Brown.]

Boasting a top notch cast, writer, and director, Jackie Brown proves a truly oddball creation--the perfect '90s replica of the kind of film you might see on Saturday afternoon TV chopped up into little pieces by long repetitive ads about the advantages of aluminum siding. Quentin Tarantino, epoch-making and Travolta remaking writer and director of Pulp Fiction, had the rights to the obscure Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch even before he made Pulp. He also really likes Pam Grier, the now 40-something star of '70s violent blaxploitation movies like Foxy Brown and Coffy (she also has minor roles in films like Mars Attacks and Escape from LA). So, when Tarantino decided to settle down a bit from making cutesy appearances in Girl 6 and From Dusk to Dawn, he returned to his seventies roots with Jackie Brown.

So, given all of the hype, what do you have? A basic bait and switch noir plot involving a half million dollars. A stewardess for a Mexican airline, Jackie Brown (Grier) begins the movie getting busted by some ATF cops, one of them played by Michael Keaton, for carrying money and some blow in her overnight bag. Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) bails her out because he sells weapons illegally, using Brown to smuggle the money to LA. In one early entertaining scene, Ordell shows off his wares to Robert DeNiro as bikini-clad babes fire off rounds of ammo on video ads ("Nothing gets between me and my AK").

Meanwhile, DeNiro, who plays a complete bonehead ex-con, gets stoned with Bridget Fonda, a lithe spacy surfer girl in a beachside apartment. We learn that Ordell spends a significant portion of his time killing people who might cop a plea to the police and thus ruin his business. We also get to know a bail bondsman named Max Cherry (Robert Forster) who befriends Brown. Eventually, Jackie Brown works out a way to get the half million for herself as she plays the cops, Ordell, and everyone else simultaneously.

Having said all that, why see the picture? DeNiro and Fonda spend an awful lot of the 2+ hour movie trading bong hits in Ordell's living room (at one point she watches her young dad, Peter Fonda, on TV in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), a cute touch). I didn't mind DeNiro acting as a moron but the joke gets old. He and about 8 other men show up in 99% of the movies out these days, and I'm getting sick of seeing him. Pam Grier performs well, but her role lacks passion since she has to spend much of her time calculating her next predictable move. Samuel L. Jackson gets the most to do, but he makes several unbelievable errors in judgment later on. We never really see his weapons business in operation, and so his criminal world remains abstract, unrealized. If he's so smart, why does he hang out with the likes of Fonda and DeNiro's characters? At one point he has to lecture them on excessive daytime drug use. Robert Forster gives a quiet, restrained performance, but I got tired of looking at his crinkled face in close-up.

All in all, there are too many leisure suits, VW vans with beads, toe rings, red lit bars, and Delphonics songs. I don't see any real merit in exactly reproducing a mediocre '70s film. In contrast, Pulp Fiction had plot twists, wit, and continual surprises, a real charge throughout. Jackie Brown feels weirdly tired, as if Quentin Tarantino has already become jaded with fame. Even the sex and violence is listless, almost absentminded. Using a kind of grunge aesthetic, he wants to rub our noses in the dank gritty bail bondsman's office, the banal food court at the LA mega-mall, and the Flintstones furnishings of Jackie Brown's apartment. If anything, the movie reminded me of how much '70s style remains all around us everywhere we go. I would prefer a better reason to dwell on it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Notable film and media links--August 18, 2009

---The dangers of internet addiction:

"If humans are seeking machines, we've now created the perfect machines to allow us to seek endlessly. This perhaps should make us cautious. In Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin writes of driving two indoor cats crazy by flicking a laser pointer around the room. They wouldn't stop stalking and pouncing on this ungraspable dot of light—their dopamine system pumping. She writes that no wild cat would indulge in such useless behavior: "A cat wants to catch the mouse, not chase it in circles forever." She says "mindless chasing" makes an animal less likely to meet its real needs "because it short-circuits intelligent stalking behavior." As we chase after flickering bits of information, it's a salutary warning." Also, more on information addiction.

---One possible result of that addiction? According to Anthony E. Zuiker, "Our attention span is getting shorter and shorter and it is killing the traditional formats."

---Christopher Hitchens looks at The Baader Meinhof Complex:

"The Baader Meinhof Complex, like the excellent book by Stefan Aust on which it is based, is highly acute in its portrayal of the way in which mania feeds upon itself and becomes hysterical. More arrests mean that more hostages must be taken, often in concert with international hijackers, so that ever more exorbitant “demands” can be made. This requires money, which in turn demands more robbery and extortion. If there are doubts or disagreements within the organization, these can always be attributed to betrayal or cowardice, resulting in mini-purges and micro-lynchings within the gang itself."

---My favorite new video game.

---Tarantino has arrived with his profile in The Atlantic.

---Heather MacDonald explains how Foucault has gotten so passe if one looks at today's prisons:

"Such surveillance, said Foucault in Discipline and Punish, turns inmates into powerless subjects of the “disciplinary” state. Foucault called jails and prisons “Panopticons,” after a circular prison model by eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham that let guards observe a large number of inmates from a central position.

But jails and prisons are also reverse Panopticons; to walk around one is to be under constant observation from the inmates. The moment that Deputy Warden Thomas Hall enters another Rikers punitive segregation unit, inmates watching from their cells unleash a torrent of obscenities: “ . . . Hall!” “Call Hall!” While the authorities’ surveillance of inmates is often protective—as in the ubiquitous suicide watches—the inmates’ surveillance of the authorities can be aimed at corrupting them. Like surveillance, power in jails flows between officers and inmates in multiple directions."

---Meanwhile Wired wonders how to escape the surveillance of everyday life.

---Vadim Risov looks at the new puritanism--R-ratings for smoking in movies.

---Dystopian New York.

---Gentlemen Broncos looks promising, When in Rome less so.

---The perfect academic topic: cannibalism. The perfect academic cartoon.

---Lastly Peter Jackson celebrates the creative potential of today's "great video cameras":

"You know, in the old days it was very difficult to make movies 'cause you had to have 35 millimeter cameras, which were phenomenally expensive. Or you had to have rich parents that could send you to film school. Nowadays, anybody, any kid or young person with a desire to make films ... (has) access to this equipment. You have great video cameras and the quality's fantastic. You can make soundtracks and do visual effects. You can do very competent computer effects quite easily."

..."There are no excuses anymore. If people really want to make movies, they can go out and do it. And I think we're going see in the next 20 or 30 years a real influx of creativity to the world of entertainment because I believe a lot in the young generation coming along ... the pop culture generation who now can grab these cameras and go make films with them."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The nature of oppression: questions about District 9

[Note: I wrote this post mostly for those who have seen District 9, not to introduce the movie in a review format. So watch for spoilers.]

"One billion people, one-sixth of the world's population, now live in shanty towns."

Apartheid as a subject would probably not work well for a summer blockbuster. Throw in some aliens, however, then people can see a shanty town. Hence the basic brilliance of Neill Blomkamp's District 9. By combining edgy Orwellian/Kafkaesque political overtones with summer blockbuster conventions (firefights, aliens, neat sci fi weapons, mechanized Iron Man battle suits), Blomkamp has obliged us to look at something that many would just as soon not see--the evil effects of political oppression, xenophobia, racism, immigration, and dislocation. One can find parallels wherever one group invents rules and regulations designed to disenfranchise another--from the US treatment of Native Americans "obliged" to live in reservations, or Japanese-Americans shipped off to internment camps during World War II. You can also find parallels in the Nazi treatment of the Jews before and during WWII (and Wikus calls attention to this point by calling District 10 a "concentation camp"). Now, as a film blogger, my historical knowledge is mediocre at best, so I'll put the rest of my half-baked thoughts in the form of questions.

1) In the Wikipedia entry on District 9, I learned this:

"MNU's eviction and relocation of the aliens is based on District Six, a former inner-city residential area in Cape Town, South Africa. The district was declared a 'whites only' area by the apartheid government in 1966 and the population of 60,000 forcibly removed to Cape Flats, 25 kilometres away during the following years."

How accurately does District 9 reflect the history of this eviction and relocation, and how does it differ?

2) How much does District 9 reflect colonialist oppression, especially when it becomes clear that the MNU wants to harvest biological material from Wikus for profit? At one point, someone mentions that he has become the "most valuable business artifact on earth," so nevermind if he might die in the process of gathering info from him. The film implies that when if comes to high-level commercial and/or corporate interests, human life and suffering are of no consequence. How much is this true today, or does Blomkamp exaggerate the evil powers that be in the film? I like the way MNU hires mercenaries to do their dirty work much as Halliburton has been accused of in Iraq. [Note: Daniel Engber of Slate finds this anticorporate bias banal.]

3) How much does the arms trading theme in District 9 comment upon American arms sales worldwide?

4) District 9 is full of surveillance images, as if Blomkamp meant to show us how easily one could reconstruct a story of one man from all of the surveillance cameras that follow him through a city at one time, just as in Enemy of the State or Orwell's 1984. After a certain point, of course, this conceit breaks down when Wikus hides out in the alien slum where cameras are unlikely to be. But still, it left me wondering how much Blomkamp might be commenting on insidious surveillance techniques in Africa and elsewhere.

5) Blomkamp is very innovative in his use of special effects--what Wired calls its "Grungy Alien Realism." Instead of heightening his science fiction images of aliens and the space ship hovering overhead just as in Independence Day, Blomkamp deemphasizes them and surrounds them with trashy, everyday squalor. The only other films that I know that do something this would be Children of Men and perhaps Blade Runner. Are there others? In this respect, District 9 is the opposite of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

6) I also liked the way the MNU bureaucracy played such a large role in District 9. Instead of being an action figure (at least at first), Wikus starts off as a dweeby and deluded bureaucrat who believes in his mission of getting aliens to sign release forms to arrange for their dislocation. His scene with the alien Christopher Johnson is telling because when Christopher refuses to sign, Wikus quickly comes up with another rule to get what he wants. The film shows how those in power impose obscure, arcane laws on the oppressed. This impersonalizes the subordination, masking the aggression underlying it. How much did Apartheid use the same techniques?

7) What other movies use the central idea of a man or creature metamorphosing throughout the storyline? Alien, Slither, Spider-Man, and Cronenberg's The Fly all come to mind. Wikus must change for him to understand the aliens' point of view. Otherwise, just as the humans casually call the aliens "prawns," there's often the tendency to stereotype the other as less than human. Whereas usually summer blockbusters favor the point of view of the dominant power, such as in G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, District 9 forces Wikus and the viewing audience to better understand the oppressed, and that's what makes the film revelatory.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Year 2004: Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi)

Ibetolis of Film for the Soul has once again kindly allowed me to write an entry in his Counting Down the Zeroes series, this time covering the best films of 2004. I chose Spider-Man 2. Here's the link.

I also reviewed Spider-Man 3 in 2007 (by way of contrast).

Friday, August 14, 2009

Notable film and media links--August 14, 2009

---High-fructose corn syrup propaganda.

---Sheila O'Malley examines the constructed personae of Cary Grant for The House Next Door:

"Cary Grant said:

"To play yourself—your true self—is the hardest thing in the world. Watch people at a party. They're playing themselves…but nine out of ten times the image they adopt for themselves is the wrong one.

"In my earlier career I patterned myself on a combination of Englishmen—AE Matthews, Noel Coward, and Jack Buchanan, who impressed me as a character actor. He always looked so natural. I tried to copy men I thought were sophisticated and well dressed like Douglas Fairbanks or Cole Porter. And Freddie Lonsdale, the British playwright, always had an engaging answer for everything.

"I cultivated raising one eyebrow and tried to imitate those who put their hands in their pockets with a certain amount of ease and nonchalance. But at times, when I put my hand in my trouser pocket with what I imagined was great elegance, I couldn't get the blinking thing out again because it dripped from nervous perspiration!"

---The Film Freak Central Blog treats us to a video studying the camera techniques of Mad Men.

---I don't know if I agree with this post at all, but it shows how Lady Gaga provokes in a style worthy of Madonna.

---Stephanie Zacharek explicates a key scene in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.

---Poor Conde Nast.

---Trailer reactions: The Fourth Kind looks manipulative; linking Zac Efron and Orson Welles makes my brain hurt; apocalyptic Legion has Paul Bettany (who I liked in Wimbledon), a Satanic granny, and lots of special effects-laden doom, but I wonder whether including angels with wings (in fight scenes?) is a good idea; Did You Hear About the Morgans takes a city couple and plunges them into cow country, the exact same plot as Hannah Montana; Sin Nombre intrigues; Law Abiding Citizen looks generic but has a fun premise.

---What were the real Mad Women like?

---Om Malik discusses "The Evolution of Blogging":

"Blogging needs to be social. There are many reasons for this, but the most important one — in my mind — is the changing nature of content. “We will all be streaming life moments as more and more bandwidth is available both at home and on the go,” I wrote two years ago. It’s already happening. Today most of us walk around with newfangled smartphones that are nothing short of multitasking computers, essentially content creation points. And they’re networked, which means creating and sharing content is becoming absurdly simple to do. With the increased number of content creation points –- phones, camera, Flip video cameras, Twitter -– we are publishing more and more content.

Most of this content is disjointed, like random atoms. In the past, I (and others) have referred to this as the atomization of content. These atoms need to be brought together in order to make sense. But while many have argued that self-hosted Facebook- or FriendFeed-styled services could fill this role, I disagree. As I’ve said in the past, “We have two choices in order to consolidate these — either opt for all-purpose services such as Facebook (as tens of millions have done) or use our blogs as the aggregation point or hub for all these various services.”

---With Dogme 09.8, Jim Emerson considers "Ten limitations for better movies." As they say, get a tripod!

---Darrell and Doug Waters show how to make an impressive short film with minimal funds.

---Lastly, which Bond will win?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Notable film and media links--August 11, 2009

---Paul Harris of The Guardian attempts to understand our love of apocalyptic movies:

". . . experts say the trend towards apocalyptic thought does not only reflect anxiety over a difficult period of history but, just as important, changing times. Indeed it is often the concept of change as much as the concept of destruction that triggers popular interest in apocalyptic themes, according to Professor Barry Brummett of the University of Texas at Austin. Brummett notes that the first world war produced more apocalyptic popular culture than the second world war, despite the latter being on a much bigger and more destructive scale. "The key thing was that the first world war was new and different. That's why it triggered more apocalyptic thought," Brummett said.

In this interpretation it is the fact that the world seems to be changing so quickly that is triggering apocalyptic themes in our culture. The advent of a new internet-based economy, the rise of China, new ways of fighting wars, changing demographics, growing environmentalism and even the election of America's first black president all add up to a wave of huge change."

---In the same vein, Slate considers "different scenarios for America's downfall," and Woody Harrelson demonstrates how to kill zombies with a bowling ball.

---A. O. Scott introduces us to A Streetcar Named Desire: "What attracts us more--beauty or brutality?"

---Craig of The Man from Porlock explains how Goldie Hawn interfered with the otherwise promising Swing Shift (1984), directed by Jonathan Demme:

"But you couldn't leave well enough alone, Goldie. By all accounts, during pre-release screenings, you (and the studio) got nervous at Demme's politics, which reportedly takes a critical view of how women were exploited for manual labor and then abruptly dismissed once the war ended (not exactly Reagan Era material), and took umbrage at his characteristically inclusive ensemble approach. (Your producing partner complained that you came across as a `blonde extra' rather than the star.) Most of all, you panicked at the implications of Kay's infidelity, that your fan-base might reject your portrayal of such a character. So you removed or re-jiggered some of the original scenes and added new ones."

---For The New York Times, Brad Stone shows how much technology has taken over our free time:

“Things that I thought were unacceptable a few years ago are now commonplace in my house,” she said, “like all four of us starting the day on four computers in four separate rooms.”

Technology has shaken up plenty of life’s routines, but for many people it has completely altered the once predictable rituals at the start of the day.

This is morning in America in the Internet age. After six to eight hours of network deprivation — also known as sleep — people are increasingly waking up and lunging for cellphones and laptops, sometimes even before swinging their legs to the floor and tending to more biologically urgent activities.

“It used to be you woke up, went to the bathroom, maybe brushed your teeth and picked up the newspaper,” said Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University, who has written about technology’s push into everyday life. “But what we do first now has changed dramatically. I’ll be the first to admit: the first thing I do is check my e-mail.”

---Slate's creepy mixtape of Meryl Streep's accents.

---Scott Kirsner of Cinematech compares authentic with inauthentic videos.

---Two trains collide.

---Instant reactions to trailers: Uwe Boll returns to responsible ethical filmmaking with Rampage; Dead Snow looks crude; New York, I Love You could be great (to judge by Paris, j'etaime), but the trailer seems too sweet; It's Complicated (Streep overkill?); The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (general overkill?); I wonder about the schmaltzy computer-generated afterlife in The Lovely Bones.

--With the help of YouTube, Lauren Luke redefines the media star and poses "a challenge to a multibillion-dollar cosmetics industry."

---Mike D'Angelo examines the "meet-hot" scene of Double Indemnity.

---Lastly, proper therapy after suffering through G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Boys with toys: notes on G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

1) No one forced me to go. There I was, buying tickets at the Grand 14 cineplex at Market Commons in Myrtle Beach, and instead of entering the theater, I tried to walk away, past the Coldwater Creek, the Barnes & Noble, and the Anthropologie store. I listened to a few snippets of a canned Billy Joel song blasted out of a speaker hidden in a bush by the sidewalk. I tried to reason with the younger fellow with me as we passed the prefab "beautifully designed village setting": "Our lives are very short. Shouldn't we spend the next two hours doing something other than watching G. I. Joe? We could go see A Perfect Getaway instead. We could go stand in that field," I said, pointing. Ultimately, we turned back. Yet, even in the cineplex, I still had a hard time actually entering the theater, so I lingered out in the lobby and stared at the Shutter Island poster.

2) Much like Transformers 2, G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra exists to market a line of Hasbro toys. In this case, the "Joes" are an elite corp of fancy soldiers who hang out in the "Pit," an underground bunker in the Egyptian desert near the pyramids. These soldiers are led by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), which elicited this conversation with my fellow viewer:
"I hated to see so many good actors sell out, such as Dennis Quaid."
"Dennis Quaid sold out a long time ago."
"True."

3) After an extended firefight in the woods at night, a top secret band of evil bad-ass leather-clad soldiers steal some warheads from a military convoy. One member of this band is the Baroness (Sienna Miller), an evil variation of a formally sweet blond "Ana," whom we learn about via flashbacks. The Baroness looks like this:

In her evil form, Miller's character sort of resembles Sarah Palin, which I thought was funny and somehow appropriate.

4) Anyway, G. I. Joe mostly consists of a compendium of science fiction/military blockbuster-wannabe cliches. At times, I was strongly reminded of Armageddon, Star Wars, Bond films, and The Fifth Element, but director Stephen Sommers shot G. I. Joe in a very grainy, fuzzy, difficult to decipher, and cheap CGI style, with granular special effects much like the ones used in The Day the Earth Stood Still. That's my chief gripe about the film. The Fifth Element pays the same slavish attention to sci-fi formulae, but at least it has much visual flair to make it more engaging. G. I. Joe looks like it was slapped together under a tight Paramount deadline. Much as Sommers fails to prepare the viewer for the next scene, he tends to eschew establishing shots in favor of plunging the hapless spectator into a battle with too many close-ups and a jiggly camera that assaults one's desire to focus. What are some of the cliches he uses over and over?

a) The strut. In the tradition of The Right Stuff, characters often strut towards or away from the camera when not fighting. Standing around talking does not happen often, unless the scene immediately cuts to the same characters from a window where an outdoor panning shot shows the immensity of the evil cobra lair, or whatever. Sometimes you get an entire group strut which will include someone quipping an ironic self-congratulatory crack like "We look good!"

b) Machine gun fire through glass, a frequently used device. I believe the entire Pompidou Center in Paris gets riddled by the Baroness' bullets.

c) The hologram. Sommers gets hologram-happy early on when about four characters keep appearing and reappearing in this form. I guess this makes the film more high tech and impressive. Also hologram characters can walk through other characters in a ghostly fashion.

d) Blowing up the evil lair compound. This device has become more than trite with extensive repetition, but Sommers does include a sword fight between two ninjas in the midst of the destruction of one evil military base under a polar ice cap, a scene that reminded me of the light saber fight between Luke and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back.

e) Bad guys wear elaborate metallic masks and a lot of scar tissue to convey their twisted nerdy vengeful agendas, such as using warheads to "strike fear into the heart of every man, woman, and child," as the former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston says at one point (he plays the evil arms merchant McCullen). Speaking of actors who sold their souls, I noticed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the Doctor, a guy with something like a metallic oxygen mask over his mouth and a monocle (!) no less. He favors large machines with many needles that menace the faces of innocent Joes. One can find a similar machine in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

5). There are many more cliches, including scenes where a mass of soldiers back at the base shout "Yeah!" and pump their fists in the air to convey football fever triumph after a victory, the obligatory video game-simulated training scene, the cut to the president looking concerned (in this case Jonathan Pryce who clearly looks as if he would prefer to be in another movie), the dog fight either in the air or underwater which requires a last-second lunge to get through a contracting circular exit, and the last-second jet-propelled flight out of a fireball. Let's not even get into the verbal cliches: "There are still a lot of Joes out there in harm's way," "Houston, we have a problem," "What have you done to me?" Now, you die," "You and what army?" etc.

6) Now I understand that much of the material from this movie was taken from a cheaply made Saturday morning cartoon series made in 1985 and entitled G. I. Joe: A Real American Hero. And one can always laugh along at all of the exaggerated conventions, admire the cleavage-revealing leather bodysuits on the female Joes that reminded me of Emma Peel, and somehow take pleasure in visual crudities on display, but I find such irony increasingly difficult to stomach as the summer wears on. How much do we let irony forgive incompetence? Is there a limit to all of this knowing winking at another rehashed orgy of macho tropes? While the women can enjoy Julie & Julia, the guys get this juvenile posturing that attempts to supply the pleasure one might get from repeatedly crashing one's toy trains.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Notable film and media links--August 5, 2009

---The disturbing truth underlying Popeye.

---Jonathan Rosenbaum gets fed up with worrying about spoilers:

"The weird metaphysical implication of spoilers is that moviegoers and readers who fret about them want to regain their innocence, perhaps maybe even their infancy, and experience everything as if it were absolutely fresh. From this standpoint, we shouldn’t even know what films we’re going to see in advance, or who stars in them, or who directed them, or what they’re about, or perhaps even where they’re playing. Just so we can experience the bliss of being taken there by benevolent parents."

---The Architects' Journal's "Top 10 comic book cities" (with thanks to Boing Boing).

---The Film Doctor's instant trailer reactions: The Other Man (Liam Neeson searches for his wife instead of his daughter), The Open Road (looks uncommonly bad. Jeff Bridges (?!?!?)), GoodTimesKid (weirdly compelling), The Killing Room (bleh), Good Hair (intriguing), I Sell the Dead (overkill).

---For Interview, Jack Nicholson interviews January Jones of Mad Men:

"While Don wears the idea of his own character as an allegory for the fallacies and facades of mid-century America as easily (and well) as he does his suits, Betty negotiates it all like she’s being slowly submerged in a bath of scalding hot water, constantly trying to hold back the screams. Even in his worst moments, Don somehow manages to keep up the old movie-star vibe and look stylishly askew. But real life, like Betty, is more often strange and messy. Her alabaster skin, icy blue eyes, and set-and-sprayed blond hair betray a sort of inner conflict that’s quietly escalated into a kindemotional mushroom cloud. She has ideas—about how people should act and how life should be—that are clearly not her own, and yet she’s always judging, judging, judging. But the main difference between Don and Betty is that she really believes in it all—her perfect-looking family, her suburban life, the overarching values of the world in which she lives—and the way she slowly breaks down as she watches everything get pulled apart, degraded, and even destroyed is what hints at the existence of some sort of living, beating heart at the core of the show. And then, in the moments when Betty snaps, like at the end of the first season, when she shoots her neighbor’s homing pigeon or gives themixed-up 9-year-old son of the neighborhood divorcée a lock of her hair, or during thesecond season, when she accuses Don of having an affair and wanders around the house in a cocktail dress for two days, or when she’s told by a man at a riding club to whom she’s attracted that she looks sad and responds, `My people are Nordic.' . . . Well, those are the reasons to watch Mad Men."

---Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard's seventh impressive conversation, this time about Michael Mann.

---Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder will host a Brian De Palma Blog-A-Thon on September 7-16. De Palma's ouevre includes Carlito's Way, Casualties of War, Body Double, and The Untouchables.

---T.S. of Screen Savour takes on the films of Buster Keaton:

"Keaton — born Joseph Francis, he earned the nickname `Buster' performing as a young man with his vaudevillian family, known for being able to `take a buster' in the way he could fall — plays this expectations game in his comedy. In the best of Keaton's films, things rarely turn out the way we expect they will. It is not simply that he will fall, flee, or fly, but it is what awaits him at the end of that momentarily airborne journey. This works because Keaton's is also a comedy of space, of expertly constructing and implementing set-pieces down to the millimeter so that everything goes according to plan. That plan, of course, is for everything not to go according to plan for the character on screen. When Keaton jumps from one building to another, for example, there is a good chance that Keaton-the-character has drastically underestimated the distance and fails in a gloriously funny fashion; Keaton-the-director, who performed all of his stunts, knows exactly the degree to which he will fail and has it worked out perfectly. In an important way this is different from standard slapstick. David Thomson notes that most silent comedies `did little more than film the comedian's act,' which usually included some sort of slapstick or physical humor; but Keaton's films are elaborate works of art built with the camera in mind — in other words, films, not mere performances. Chaplin, who also made films and avoided simply performing an act, often fell as well, but in a way that tried to defy gravity. Keaton fell in a way that worked with gravity; his world is occupied with physical objects that have real weight and often real consequences."

---The importance of buying food.

---Andrew Sullivan celebrates Hypernova, Iranian indie-rock.

---The perils of fame: Trent Reznor explains why he had to get off of Twitter.

---Daniel Getahun considers the blogging aspects of Julie & Julia.

---Lastly, for The New York Times, Michael Pollan meditates on our curious culinary habits in relation to Julie & Julia:

"But here’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Exclusive sneak preview of the rankings for August: Wikio Film Blog Top 30

Recently, the good people of Wikio kindly asked me if I would like to post a sneak preview of the August rankings for film blogs. I was honored and happy to oblige. Amongst the blogs listed this month, Greg Ferrara's Cinema Styles deserves congratulations for its rise to 11th place. Also, Joe Bowman's exemplary Fin de Cinema's ranking jumped from 33rd to 19th place. This list will go live this coming Wednesday at Wikio.com. Much thanks to the Wikio representatives for giving me this exclusive.

1/Film
2Deadline Hollywood Daily
3MTV Movies Blog
4Cinematical
5FirstShowing.net
6Film School Rejects
7Twitch
8Cartoon Brew
9Trek Movie Report
10The House Next Door
11Cinema Styles
12GreenCine Daily
13Some Came Running
14Film for the Soul
15Upcoming Pixar
16Shooting Down Pictures
17Ferdy on Films, etc.
18Edward Copeland on Film
19Fin de Cinema
20CinemaTech
21The Evening Class
22Coffee Coffee and More Coffee
23The Film Doctor
24Out 1
25Mayerson on Animation
26Observations on Film Art
272719 Hyperion
28Movie City Indie
29Nick's Flick Picks
30DaveKehr.com

Ranking by Wikio.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Adam Sandler Agonistes: the trials and hypocrisies of Judd Apatow's Funny People

For years and years, I haven't really understood Adam Sandler's appeal, so the reason for his fame is a source of great and terrible wonder to me. In his 2008 article "Here Comes Everybody Again," A.O. Scott mostly boils it down to Sandler's endearing lack of acting ability that helps him popularize male immaturity:

"Mr. Sandler’s special talent seemed to be that he didn’t really have one. His unabashed lack of wit or polish was the basis of some oddly memorable routines, like the one in which he dressed in a cape and wig and howled in tuneless pseudo-Italian as Opera Man. . . . Nor has Mr. Sandler been alone, over the past 15 years or so, in turning male infantile aggression into the basis of a lucrative and long-running movie career . . . "

Perhaps another reason for Sandler's success can be inferred from the opening scene of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, where (as I put it in my review of the film), "Sandler (Zohan) plays hacky sack, performs some impressive (?) computer-generated stunts, and then arranges to have the sack land in his rear, whereupon a swooning woman in a bikini applauds uproariously."

Sandler's rear end and the unrealistic swooning woman are keys to this particular comedic equation. His lewd jokes get their extra kick from the way he also foregrounds his characters' wild success with the opposite sex, thereby giving the various 14-37 year old guys in the audience the fantasy that they too can be grotesquely immature Don Juans, something that I doubt happens very often in real life, but it makes for great ego-stroking in the darkness of the cineplex. Take a thirtyish guy with arrested-development, some schlemiel who lives in a dream of still getting to be famous somehow as he plays video games all day in his parents' house--Sandler's movies supply the perfect wish-fulfilment world of getting everything for doing nothing. Here the guy can regress to a readymade make-believe womb where he can baby talk with his ilk, throw tantrums, and still somehow win the Darwinian sweepstakes as the studly male seedbearer.

But now that Sandler has entered his 40s, there are signs that perhaps he's regretting this devil's deal of a film career. Like Woody Allen's character Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories, he's starting to look down on his comedic gift(?) and the alienating celebrity that comes with it. Somewhat like Bill Murray (although I hate to make that comparison), Sandler wants to try something else, something that may reflect the quandaries of fame, but his fan base's intractability won't allow it. He's locked in a kind of paradox: he would like to grow up, but the key to his success lies in the refusal to do so. You can see one sign of this maturing impulse in Click when Sandler attempted some Groundhog Day-esque pathos. As I wrote in a review at that time, "He may attempt King Lear, but he will still need enough flatulence to make it saleable."

So now, with the help of Judd Apatow, Sandler stars in the strangest movie of the summer, a film that frequently made my jaw drop as it mirrors Sandler's current celebrity and reflects back over his career. As George Simmons, Sandler has become disenchanted with the groupies, the stupid starring vehicles, and the many possessions (including a personal jet and the palatial waterfront estate where one can get lost), so he unrealistically hires a young nobody comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) as a personal assistant and a writer for his jokes. Apatow attempts to win sympathy for George by emphasizing the alienating effects of fame, the times when George has to stand and let people photograph him, his loneliness, lack of friends, etc., but it's very difficult to feel too bad for him, since he still enjoys rubbing the benefits of his success in Ira's face. Watching Sandler writhe around in his glass bubble, his playpen of success, made me feel both fascinated and queasy. In this time of economic hardship, are we supposed to feel sorry for him and his riches?

Perhaps in part to address this discrepancy, George contracts some mysterious leukemia-like cancer so he can soul-search and wonder what it all means, but the (spoiler alert) cancer disappears as easily as it arrives, becoming a conceit for several carpe diem moments more than anything else. Sandler persistently tries to perform in scenes that call for acting skills above his capability. In one, he tries to connect with long lost former flame Laura (Leslie Mann), but as they weep and carry on, George talks about how her hands always made his penis look small. Not only is his shtick not appropriate, he can't really handle the emotion. In his highly affirmative look at Funny People, Richard Brody writes:

"Sandler is one of the most unusual of today’s younger performers; he’s one of the few (and there are a few others) who has the solidity, the opacity of earlier generations of actors (indeed, of people), who, living in a more formal society, did not show their emotions readily or speak with instantly readable inflections."

Sandler's inflections are not instantly readable because he does not know how to act. Part of his appeal is predicated on the fact that he can't, but I agree with Brody that Apatow and the supporting cast lend Funny People a level of filmmaking craft and an emotional sensitivity unheard of in previous Sandler vehicles. Part of the weirdness of Sandler's work lies in the incongruity between his talentlessness and the many skillful people who help him with his movies. You keep watching these scenes where others act their heads off just to bump up against the flat affect of Sandler's line readings. One especially gets this feeling when Laura's Australian husband Clarke (Eric Bana) enters the picture late in a romantic triangle that seems tacked on. For his few scenes, Bana emotes circles around everyone else in the room, but in terms of the screenplay, his role seems tossed in to create some last second tension to the trumped up climax of the movie. At one point Clarke says of George, "He's really funny. Strange how his movies aren't funny." Just for acknowledging that point, one has to give Funny People some credit. I also liked it when Seth Rogen's character asked James Taylor "Don't you ever get tired of singing those songs over and over?" Taylor snaps back with "Don't you get tired of talking about your dick?"

These are important points of self-realization. Still, even with the film's insights into the psychology of stand-up performers, the a-list supporting players including Jonah Hill, Azziz Ansari, and Jason Schwartzman, Seth Rogen turning in one of his best performances, and Apatow's loving craft shaping every scene, all of this cannot entirely make up for the curious hollow sensation at the center of the movie. All of the mise en scene posters of W. C. Fields, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, John Belushi, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Bill Cosby, and Rodney Dangerfield cannot justify the presence of this pretender to the comedy throne and his agonies over his devil's deal, but it does make for an oddly thought-provoking summer movie.