Monday, July 28, 2008

The decline of the paid critic: crisis or opportunity?

As someone relatively new to blogging, I find the on-running discussion about critics getting laid off from newspapers and magazines of much interest. Chuck Tryon of The Chutry Experiment recently called attention to essays by Craig Lindsey and Jay Rayner discussing what Tryon calls “the ongoing crisis in film criticism.” Are the current trends a crisis or an opportunity? I found other links exploring the same issue, both in relation to film and the other arts:

Even though Roger Moore wrote this for Orlando Sentinel back in 2006, I find his conclusion about the death of the paid film critic bleakly interesting.

A writer for Variety, Anne Thompson weighed in on the matter back in April.

Writing for Film School Rejects, Kevin Carr replied to Thompson, and celebrates some of the benefits of blogging.

Art critic Charlotte Higgins explains why she’s making the switch from print to the greater elasticity of a blog.

Lastly, writing for Film in Focus, Phillip Lopate places recent problems in the context of the history of film criticism.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

File under loss: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

There’s something poignant about The X-Files: I Want to Believe. From its tentative, indecisive title, to its ill-timed release a week after The Dark Knight, I Want to Believe seems cursed from the start. The filmmakers assume enough fans remember the popular Fox television show to go see it, but the people promoting the film don’t appear to be all that sure of themselves. In his brief blog promoting the film, David Duchovny (Mulder) writes in lower case letters: “batman's got everybody scared that we can't do business, and well, it is some kind of a box office juggernaut. but i want to believe. i want to believe that our loyal fans will go see us right away (see some of you at the premiere tomorrow) and they will bring friends who never watched the x files and they will tell a friend and we will become viral and keep growing and hang on for weeks. a boy can dream.” Duchovny writes in other posts about how if the film sells enough tickets, then they can make another sequel. Such a plaintive tone sounds almost passive aggressive in its meekness.

At least Duchovny has his current television show Californication to return to. Gillian Anderson (Scully) made a brief appearance in the film version of Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story (2005) that might have conveyed desperation (the people in the meta-movie called her to join the film, and she immediately accepted). Perhaps I’m wrong, but Anderson’s situation reminds me of Elizabeth Shue’s appearance in the upcoming Hamlet 2 as the has-been Hollywood actress. Now Anderson gets to play the lead in I Want to Believe, but in an awkward interview for Newsweek, she described how difficult it was for her to return to Scully after spending years arranging to play anything but. When asked what she’s been up to recently, she says “I travel a lot and have bought and sold a lot of houses.”

At any rate, I went to see I Want to Believe and found it an oddly human-sized film that relies more on the wistful chemistry between Mulder and Scully than on anything else. In the interest of keeping the plot free of too many references to the TV show, writer and director Chris Carter sticks to a modest detective story about an FBI agent who disappears one winter night and Father Joe, a Catholic priest/pedophile (Billy Connolly with long grey hair) who has visions of what might have happened to her.

Even during the investigation, Scully works as a doctor at Our Lady of Sorrows hospital. She has amongst her patients a stereotypically cute boy named Christian who is dying due to a rare brain disease. The evil hospital authorities want to give up on the boy’s treatment and dump him off in hospice care, but Scully fights to give him a radical new and painful therapy involving stem cells that she learns about one evening by Googling madly on her computer. This subplot keeps Scully engaged throughout much of the film for some reason, perhaps in case the main abduction story gets tiresome?

After an opening sequence that keeps cutting between a daytime FBI search across the ice and the nighttime abduction, Scully arrives at Mulder’s house in the country. Hermit-like, he has grown a beard. In his isolation, he likes to throw pencils at the ceiling and clip newspaper articles. Appealing to his potential ability to save the life of the missing FBI agent, Scully lures him back into the fold. They go visit the defrocked priest who keeps guiding the agents to various body parts frozen under snow. Scully thinks of backing out of the investigation, and then Mulder persuades her to continue. Like a long-divorced couple debating a reunion, they worry over the inescapable cruelty of the world. Should they “look into the darkness”? What of Dr. Scully’s brain-diseased boy? Should they sleep with each other or maybe just discuss the next toxicology report?

Everyone involved in The X-Files: I Want to Believe seems to know that they may be acting out this charade for the last time. This valedictory sense of loss gives the film its doomed, wintry charm.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Superhero strain and the number one film on IMDB

Have superhero films peaked? A. O. Scott makes the case that perhaps they have in his NYT's article "How Many Superheroes Does It Take to Tire a Genre?"

I found myself wondering today whether people voted for The Dark Knight as number one for all time on The Internet Movie Database, better than The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Pulp Fiction (!?!), even WALL-E, in order to justify to themselves the level of hype the film has received all summer, to justify all of the anticipation and focused attention that they have devoted to it. How could it not be number one? What will people do now that the hype is over? And, as Scott suggests, how much does all of this hype ultimately call attention to the limitations of the genre?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mamma Mia!: the horror, the horror

Few can comprehend, none can know the sheer dread, loathing, panic, and horror I experienced while viewing Mamma Mia! The afternoon began calmly enough. We drove to the Cineplex, got out, met up with one of our female friends, and entered the theater. Once inside, I noticed that I was only one of two men in the place, but I remained calm, made a joke or two about the estrogen in the air, took out my notebook, and prepared to take notes. Then the full horror began.

At first all I could hear was squealing. Various younger women jumped and screamed as they met on a sunlit dock. Sophie (Mean Girls’ Amanda Seyfried) excitedly told her two friends of finding her mother’s diary which indicated, mostly through ellipses, of three tempestuous affairs roughly nine months before Sophie was born. Much squealing and one Abba song later, we learn that Sophie invited three possible fathers to her wedding on the fantasy backlit island of Kalokairi, thereby creating a plot. The three fathers could be Pierce Brosnan (Sam) or Colin Firth (Harry) or Stellan Skarsgard (Bill).

One might think that the storyline would continue in its Shakespearean comedic way to concern Sophie’s quest for her dad, but not really. As soon as the three younger women arrive on the island, Meryl Streep takes over as the aforementioned mother, Donna, who runs a small hotel on the island that isn’t doing so well. A handywoman, she wears overalls and fixes broken shutters, happy that her days of romance are over. Her two friends (the film likes threesomes) arrive--Julie Walters (as the cookbook-writing “lone wolf” Rosie) and Christine Baranski (as the occasion for several jokes about plastic surgery).

Naturally, once the men show, Sophie can’t tell who is her dad. That doesn’t matter because Donna’s every mood shift becomes another occasion to sing and dance to “SOS,” “Dancing Queen,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You” or some other Abba song with sunlit waves or an island paradise as backdrop. The unnamed peasant Greek people serve as a chorus. I never minded listening to Abba in small doses in the past, even though Muriel of Muriel’s Wedding (1995) does characterize excessive Abba-listening as a kind of disease for women who refuse to snap out of their dancing-queen-perpetually-17 dream world. But there was something alarming about watching a bunch of middle-aged women frenetically gesturing, writhing, and undulating around on screen to 30 year old Swedish pop music at length. What was this? Some sort of female boomer revenge? Was Streep trying to take back the ingénue role from Sophie, steal the spotlight, and boogie her way into camp stardom?

Part of the pain of watching the film came from the fact that I liked Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. There, she embodied stylish power and intelligence. Her understated acting craft and withering putdowns of everyone in the film seemed long overdue. I also saw Streep play a much more lackadaisical musician type in the A Prairie Home Companion, and her role in Mamma Mia! is much closer to that one.

But when Streep suddenly appears during one of the songs on the prow of a ship, dressed to the nines in a long flowing gown, I wondered . . . Donna as Rose on the Titanic, or is this the Love Boat? When, after dancing around on the dock, Streep and her extras fall into the water, are they recreating the high school pool scene in It’s a Wonderful Life? Aside from reveling in “Super Trouper” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” one last time, Streep shows that, at the age of 59, she can be anything she likes--the mom and the ingénue--and romance a former James Bond in the process, and I guess I shouldn’t begrudge her that, but her methods! She shows that baby boomers will not go quietly into that good night, but I prefer Streep in her devilish dignity dressed to the nines in Prada to all of this post-menopausal Girls Will Have Fun dancing around like deranged older hippies. Too much arch camp and goony middle-aged boogieing smacks of desperation to me, not joy no matter how much “Take a Chance on Me” rises to a crescendo in the background.

Late in the film festivities, water gushes from a crack in the villa, soaking all of the dancers in slow motion. Someone shouts out “the spring of Aphrodite”! But it looked more to me like the film’s real goal—the Fountain of Youth.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Night and the vertical axis: the pros and cons of The Dark Knight

A lone figure in the night. A man with a mask and a cape. An anonymous vigilante guarding the people of Gotham from evildoers. Like a gargoyle, he lurks way up high on skyscrapers, looking down, and plunges suicidally into the polluted air until nifty retractable wings go fwoop so he can hang glide into the penthouse window of some criminal stronghold where he abducts the crime lord by using a skyhook that links them to a passing jet. He’s the man of midnight and clipped conversations in a comically low voice with Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman looking fuddy duddy with a mustache). We know the caped crusader and his snidely rich alter ego Bruce Wayne so well, he doesn’t really seem to appear that often in the 2 and ½ hours that is The Dark Knight. He’s mysterious and angry, he wears a bat suit, and he hops onto speeding SUVs several floors down car park ramps when needed.

As played by Christian Bale, Batman is a gruff stiff, so we should all feel blessed that the Joker (Heath Ledger) arrives like a sweet breeze of nihilistic whimsy. Patterned in part on Johnny Rotten, on a greasy unemployed clown with green hair, and in part on a dog who likes to stick his head out of the window of a speeding police car, this Joker sincerely does not care, does not have a plan but for manic disruption and destruction. He’s a pleasure to see even when he’s just leering on the various video monitors in the backround of the bat compound. As Bruce Wayne’s butler (Michael Caine) so aptly puts it, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Even though the Joker instigates a murderous bank robbery at the beginning of The Dark Knight, later he burns the money, dancing before a great conflagration of bundled cash. He interferes with the local crime families of Gotham, throws the city into chaos, but what he really wants is to kill Batman, so in terrorist style he starts to kill people daily to flush the bat out of his bunker.

For all of its endlessly hyped glory, its ownership of the latter half of the summer, and its box office records, The Dark Knight is still a typical summer PG-13 blockbuster with an overly complicated storyline (with an unnecessary Two Face subplot). It has the usual headache-inducing escalating firepower (the Joker in one scene moves from a machine gun to a bazooka), lots of metallic bangs with large vehicles crashing into each other (in this case a semi ramming vehicles left and right before being flipped over on its back), damsels in distress tied to chairs (Maggie Gyllenhaal subbing for Katie Holmes as Rachel), military convoys moving into position, and fist fights with snarling bad guys.

I was surprised to find Christopher Nolan ramping the intensity with the same kind of extreme threat-of-death emotional scenes that Tom Cruise used at the beginning of Mission Impossible 3. Late in The Dark Knight, someone threatens to shoot a child in front of the mother and dad and daughter. And then he tells the father to lie to the son that it will be alright. The family starts to weep with fear and despair. Isn’t this kind of drama cheap and manipulative?

For all of its pyrotechnics, much of the success of the film hinges on the occasional well-delivered lines of its better actors. When some fellow proposes to Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) that he will get money out of Bruce Wayne or give away his identity, Freeman coolly asks “You will take a vigilante used to beating up criminals with his bare hands and blackmail this person?” When he followed that with “Good luck,” the whole theater erupted into laughter. Similarly, when Bruce Wayne tells Alfred (Michael Caine) that he did warn him, Caine follows that with “I did bloody tell you,” to the same effect. The old pros keep upstaging the younger actors.

Heath Ledger's Joker pleases in part due to his geeky unwashed charm. Sometimes his white face paint gets half-smeared off his forehead. His greasy hair hang low and green. He tends to lick his lips and speak softly of the pleasures of watching people expose their innermost selves under a knife. In his best scene, the Joker infiltrates a hospital by cheerfully donning a nurse uniform and a red wig, reminding me of Kurt Cobain’s tendency to cross dress. He walks away from the hospital, pressing a remote to have the big building behind him explode piecemeal, and his small signs of exasperation steal the picture. In a film with so many stuffed shirts like Lt. Gordon and Batman, the Joker enjoys himself immensely. He says “I like this job” and laughs as he tries to burn the city down. People can understand his position, so he gets more audience sympathy than anyone else.

I find I quickly forgot the plot, the monetary machinations of the gangsters, Aaron Eckhart as Two Face, the cheesy lines like “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” and “Batman stands for something more important.” What sticks in my mind are the images, mostly vertical ones of skyscrapers at night, the explosions shattering glass, and the caped figure pausing before swooping down to the traffic below. At one point, the Joker dangles Rachel out of a window. Batman says “Let her go.” The Joker responds with “Oohh. Very poor choice of words,” and drops her. Batman jumps after her and manages to break her fall on top of a car hundreds of yards below. He says, “Are you alright?” Suddenly intimate, the wind knocked out of her, Rachel looks into his eyes and responds, “Let’s not do that again.”

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl and the drawbacks of pleasing a king

In the 16th century, in England, a cow-like Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson) has just gotten married to some local nobody when handsome King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) visits with his royal entourage. The Boleyn family had planned for the older daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) to become his mistress now that the “queen no longer bleeds,” but their plans go astray when the king falls and knocks himself out while hunting on the Boleyn family estate. He wakes up to find the blank blonde Mary nursing him, and before you know it, he summons her to court (i.e., his bed), never mind her new husband.

So begins The Other Boleyn Girl, a histrionic BBC-esque melodrama adapted from a popular novel by Philippa Gregory that could have been called Who Will Boink the King Next? I can see why Portman and Johansson took the roles of the naughty Anne and the more ploddingly good Mary respectively. They get to take turns seducing a macho king and then act their heads off (so to speak) as things go wrong, England breaks with the Catholic Church, and everyone worries about the king’s inability to find a woman who will provide him with a male heir.

The director, Justin Chadwick, has directed some BBC television shows like Bleak House, but he’s still too busy learning his techniques in this larger production. Never one to hold the camera still, he loves to move the camera behind things so we always seem to be spying on the actors through thick glass, or behind bedposts, or around some peasants outdoors. Filmmaking textbooks recommend this strategy because it invites the audience to participate in watching the movie. Chadwick also likes to have the camera peek behind a door voyeuristically, and then glide back behind the door, and then wipe cut into the next scene.

When things get too static, Chadwick cuts to characters horseback riding, preferably on the beach with a lot of sun backlighting moody clouds. He’ll saturate a jealous character in a green filter, or bleach out a beheading in a white filter when I wish that he had focused more on the performances. He wastes Kristin Scott Thomas, who, as the mother of the two sisters, mostly grouses on the sidelines about her weak husband Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) whoring her daughters out to an “adulterer.” Meanwhile, Johannson gives the kind of bland performance she supplied in Ghost World. In that film, she also had to share the screen with a brunette, and somehow the contrast is not flattering in either case. It’s no fun to play the ethical sister anyway.

As the more feisty Anne, Portman makes the mistake of sneaking off to have a secret marriage that jeopardizes Mary’s prospects with the king once she gets pregnant with his child. In response, the family annuls the marriage and sends Anne off to exile to join the king’s court in France. Two scenes later, the Boleyn father wants her back to distract the randy king from other possible mistresses and “keep his mind on Mary at all time” when Mary is massively pregnant and bedridden. This plan backfires because Anne is jealous of her sister. So Anne seduces the king by constantly getting other noblemen to laugh at her jokes when the king walks by. I liked watching Natalie Portman turn on the aggressive charm, joking about the French king’s “meager authority as a man,” gazing at King Henry impudently, and returning his presents. She drives him into such a tizzy, he becomes “bewitched” by her, and we get some hot and heavy panting scenes. “Will you allow me to hope?” he asks, piteously. “Leave me,” she says, turning away, and pretty soon she’s not only fouling things up for Mary and the child, she’s also maneuvering to take the crown from the queen.

I was disappointed to see King Henry lose his head so easily (figuratively speaking), and the film is confused about its gender politics. In a way, Anne is powerful enough to cause England to break from the Catholic church. In another way, with all of its feminist pretense, the film depicts a world where women were easily exploited for court influence, but the film’s sense of judgment is not all that realistic or convincing. Things get increasingly histrionic as Anne’s skullduggery starts to backfire. As the storyline becomes too compressed, dialogue does little more than further the story, and scenes shorten. Justin Chadwick plunges his characters into shadow as the camera looks down from above, which connotes a sense of doom and fate. Henry the Eighth has several more wives to go.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Link: "Pauline Kael & trash cinema"

Writing for the National Post, Robert Fulford makes interesting connections between Will Smith, trash culture, and Pauline Kael's celebration of Bonnie and Clyde. Could it be that Kael's movie reviews paved the way for Men in Black?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Notes on Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

I had mixed reactions to the DVD version of the 2007 documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. The film begins with some nice footage of Joe singing “White Riot” in the studio without any music. He looks hopped up on speed. We learn too that his father was a diplomat who travelled a great deal, which helps explain the international political focus of Clash songs. And much of the concert footage of the film is excellent. Strummer himself fully deserves all of the accolades he received in the film from the likes of Bono (a true fan), Steve Buscemi, John Cusack, Johnny Depp (who looked like his pirate persona), Matt Dillon, Flea, and Jim Jarmusch.

I mainly had problems with the intrusive way the documentary was arranged. Director Julien Temple (of The Filth and the Fury) seemed nervous about ever boring the viewer, so he adds animation and ironic footage from Animal Farm, 1984, even scenes from If . . . where Malcolm McDowell shoots down schoolmasters from a rooftop. He also tends to cut away from Clash concert footage when I wished he would let it be. Also, he kept cutting to various friends and relations of Strummer chatting outside at night by a fire, I guess to honor Strummer’s love of fireside discussions later in his life. I would have preferred more footage from the Clash’s heyday and less recent summarizing about Strummer and nostalgia, since punk doesn’t lend itself to nostalgia anyway.

Strummer talks of the “do it yourself” ethos of punk rock, and Julien Temple conveys the ironies well of the Clash becoming tremendously successful around the time of Combat Rock. Still, as no doubt Temple knows, one has to be careful with this kind of repackaging of the experience of a band like the Clash. Film techniques can too easily distort or sentimentalize the original message, which is still best conveyed by the songs themselves.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Mannequin Love: Lars and the Real Girl

Lars Linstrom, a reclusive young man in some unnamed northern town, hides in his brother’s garage. He goes dutifully to church and to work at his anonymous Office Space job, but his sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) thinks he spends too much time alone. One evening, she even tackles him in the driveway so he’ll eat dinner with her and her husband, Lars’ brother Gus (played by Paul Schneider). Six weeks later, Lars shows up at Karin’s door and proclaims “I have a visitor and she’s not from here.” Before we know it, we see Lars proudly sitting next to “Bianca,” talking to her, and introducing her as “a missionary” who is “half-Brazilian, half-Danish.” Neither Karin nor Gus know what to say or do, and neither does the audience of the film. How does one react--with alarm, amusement, or scorn? From that point on, the screenwriter, Nancy Oliver defies our guesses as to what will happen next, and the film keeps us off-balance. When you might expect Lars to suffer mockery and further isolation for his rubber paramour, the townspeople, though initially leery and shocked, often prove surprisingly understanding of Lars’ problem.

The film works mostly due to the unexpected creative ways that the town community responds to Bianca. For instance, when it becomes clear that Lars is delusional, Karin contrives a way for Bianca to visit local Dr. Dagmar, who can then surreptitiously give Lars some psychological help. As played with serene intelligence by Patricia Clarkson, the doctor unrealistically recommends to Karin and Gus that they “just go with it” for now, and let Lars’ delusions run their course. When Gus says that everyone will laugh at him, Dr. Dagmar matter-of-factly adds “and you.”

But once the church community catches on, and the minister allows Lars to bring Bianca to the service, the tone of the film changes from cringe-worthy dismay to something like nervous acceptance. On one level, Bianca serves as training wheels for Lars to learn about human interaction. He becomes more confident socially, and yet he remains chaste around Bianca. He insists on placing her in the spare bedroom of his brother’s house, and he courts her instead of crassly sleeping with her. With his talk of her being a “missionary raised by nuns,” one notices that there’s something almost religious in his affection for it, and basically this sick mixture of a fetishized rubber doll combined with devotion gives the film its queasy/sweet flavor.

If Ryan Gosling ever let on for a second that he’s not completely committed in his relationship with Bianca, the fragile mood of the film would have been destroyed, but he treats his role seriously. When he bends over Bianca after breakfast to say, “You look really pretty today,” he’s convincing. Gosling also uses some sly James Dean techniques for stealing his scenes, such as when he gives mouth to mouth resuscitation to a teddy bear, or when he plays with a sculpture found in the doctor’s office. Like Dean, he finds ways to occupy his hands to draw attention to himself, and his playing of the role comes off as endearing when it could have very easily been merely creepy. He reminded me of some holy innocent figure like Peter Sellers’ Chance Gardener in Being There, who fools everyone by remaining serene no matter what happens to him, or Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character in Rain Man, Raymond Babbitt. Like Raymond, Lars does not like to be touched, so his every gesture becomes a tentative attempt to reach beyond his isolation.

Instead of flattering the immature male, Lars and the Real Girl meditates on the nature of human affection, the rites of passage for men, and the way a community can support its own. All of these themes could have been sentimental, but the continual presence of a corpse-like buxom rubber woman with blank staring eyes keeps the film from ever getting too sweet. Perhaps Lars attests to the delusional quality of romance, but he also conveys its tender appeal, however misguided.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Land of the Lovelorn: Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights

Along with Alfonso Cuaron and Sofia Coppola, Wong Kar Wai strikes me as one of the best directors working today. With his bright painterly use of color, slow or fast-motion shots, noir night scenes, and Godardian improvisational writing style, Wong runs a risk of letting his techniques overwhelm the story of each new film. When he made Chungking Express (1994), Wong perhaps found the best mix of crime, lovesickness, and neon-lit Hong Kong claustrophobia. Ever since, films like 2046 seem increasingly mannered and static in their beauty, testing the limits of an American audience’s short attention span.

With My Blueberry Nights (2007), his first film shot in America with English-speaking actors, Wong tries create a looser, lighter work much like Chungking Express. Both movies largely center on a place to eat, and they both combine three stories loosely strung together. Wong specializes in hopeless debasing love fixations, specifically when characters have difficulty letting go.

In My Blueberry Nights, Elizabeth (an understated Norah Jones) can’t get over the fact that her boyfriend just dumped her in New York City, so she leaves his house key at Jeremy’s (Jude Law’s) café for safekeeping. Jeremy presides over a gorgeously lit little restaurant with the camera’s point of view often looking through neon or colored glass signs. I found it refreshing to see Jude Law humble himself to a relatively minor role after his many overblown vehicles such as Sleuth, and All the King’s Men. I still like Law most in The Talented Mister Ripley, where his role as the rich playboy Dickie best suited his hyperactive (and sometimes just busy) acting style.

Jeremy comforts Elisabeth by serving her blueberry pie in the evenings, and they have symbolic conversations about the “doors closing forever” in relationships. One evening, after Elisabeth passes out on the counter, Jeremy gives her a slightly creepy kiss. Just when he’s getting up the gumption to proclaim his love, Elisabeth decides to light out to points west to learn about herself through waitressing.

Working in a Memphis restaurant, Elisabeth serves police officer Arnie (David Strathaim), who grieves because his wife (Rachel Weisz) has left him. When he’s not getting snookered in proper maudlin fashion, he threatens to shoot his wife or plunge a pool cue into her boyfriend’s face. I imagine that Elisabeth learns from them the limits of romantic obsession, but I was bothered by the relentless debasement of these Memphis characters. In this land of the lovelorn, does anyone have his or her act together?

Fortunately, by the time Elisabeth meanders out to Nevada, she runs into poker shark Leslie (a gaudy blonde Natalie Portman). Like the tough blonde-wigged drug smuggler in Chungking Express, Leslie livens things up. She likes to bet it all in Texas Hold’em, exploit Elisabeth for a “stake” when she loses, and cruise around in her Jaguar convertible. She says “Trust anyone, but always cut the cards,” and her mix of bravado and deception contrasts sharply with the histrionics of the scenes in Memphis. The role is so extremely different for Portman, she seems to enjoy her line-readings, and it seems a shame that she too needs to learn life lessons about the limits of her poker smarts.

Wong has made a gorgeous film with Norah Jones’ music playing in the background, but there’s something bizarre about his version of America. Where are the ads, the household clutter, the conversations about contemporary life? Wong’s hyper-aestheticized vision of the US floats on its deep reds and green-lit subways speeding by in slow motion at night. His depiction of Memphis is more an idea than a specific place, and the cultural disconnect sometimes leaves the actors lacking the sense of being grounded.

In the end, My Blueberry Nights works best as an experiment in style--an aesthetic transplant-- but when it comes to its characters I prefer Leslie’s rebellious spark to all of the mythologized heartbreak.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Violence to sleep by: Jason Statham and Jet Li fight in War

In 2007, Lions Gate released War, which pits Jason Statham against the Jet Li in a bloody extravaganza of epic drivel. I should have known not to go see this film because the studio did not allow reviewers to see it early, but I went, suffered, and nearly fell asleep several times, even as the sound of gunfights would occasionally jolt me awake.

Up until now, I usually liked Jason Statham’s work. He has never starred in anything especially good, but in his B movie world of action flicks, he knows how to clench his jaw and evade bursts of machine gun fire with proper nonchalance. I admit to a weakness for the Transporter series, in part because they were written by Luc Besson, an excellent French director, and also because they combine wit, visual flair, and playful violence. With his British accent and his Bruce Willis squint, Statham somehow manages to make male pattern baldness look cool. In his most recent film, Crank, Statham needed to maintain an adrenaline rush to not die from poison, but in its amoral way that movie had giddy moments when he would deliberately crash a motorcycle while dressed in a hospital gown, gobble down speed pills, lick cocaine off the floor, or jolt himself with a defibrillator to keep his heart functioning.

In War, however, Statham plays FBI agent Jack Crawford, who is drearily obsessed with avenging the murder of his partner Tom Lone (Terry Chen). Jack waits three years for the possible killer, a mythical Rogue (a serene-looking Jet Li) to resurface in the San Francisco underworld of Chinese and Japanese mob bosses. At first, the Chinese Triads and the Japanese Yakuzos get along just fine, but then Rogue infiltrates a go-go bar and ties a bomb to the collar of a Doberman guard dog, thereby blowing up some of the Triads. This action earns him the support of the mob boss of the Yakuzos, but then he lures a bunch of them underneath the spaghetti freeway at night with his motorcycle, and then shoots them down.

Basically, the Rogue uses the time-honored technique of Clint Eastwood’s gun slinger in A Fistful of Dollars. By playing to both sides of rival gangs, he can kill with impunity and profit from each mob’s attempts to get him to side with them. When someone claims that the Rogue has betrayed one side, he just says “I have no master.” For those who come to see Jet Li’s martial arts skills, he shows off precious little of them, perhaps to save himself the trouble. As the bodies accumulate, Jack Crawford traces the Rogue’s movements by keeping track of his fancy titanium bullet shells.

I did like one scene where Japanese model Devon Aiko’s character threatens two uppity thugs in her mobster dad’s gang by placing a knife to the throat of one and a gun to the forehead of the other, and then calmly asking for a chef salad without the blue cheese. Otherwise War grimly accumulates on the screen with its badly staged gunfights, car chases, slow motion overhead tracking shots of city streets, and clichéd dialogue. For example, when she finds the gangsters threatening her family, Jack’s wife throws a fit and tells him “I tried to do the right thing. Make a good life. I’m not even mad at you anymore. Most days I just feel sorry for you.” In turn, Statham just acts like an enraged FBI brute, banging men’s heads into urinals, and strangling the chief of police with the bathroom door.

If I were an FBI agent, I would compose an angry letter to Lions Gate. If I were a member of the Chinese Triad, I would definitely write a strongly worded note to the same studio, demanding proper representation in cinema. Even ruthless killer drug lords deserve better.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Heavy Guns of Live Free or Die Hard

Summer blockbusters are like military conquests. When last week’s superhero film grows thin, it’s time to bring in the heavy guns, and firepower chiefly distinguishes Live Free or Die Hard. I just recently watched the original 1988 Die Hard again, and it holds up well. New York cop John McClane is the “fly in the ointment” as a large band of Germans take over a LA skyscraper on a Christmas eve. The film has Alan Rickman as the excellent villain with an oily German accent, stupid FBI officials, and McClane running up and down the building barefoot on glass and evading various fireballs and explosions, yelling “Yippee Ki Yay” as he saves his wife from the kidnappers. Willis earned a record 5 million dollars for that defining role. That film and the next two Die Hard films earned nearly a billion dollars, and Willis says he can’t drive by the LA building today without thinking of all the money it has given him.

So, in 2007, Willis was 52 years old. How to reinvent the brand after a 12 year hiatus? Bruce initially hesitated to take on another bruising installment, and one gets the impression that he wants to maintain a quality product, so he worked out in his portable gym and corrected the script when it didn’t seem to reflect the singularly appealing New Jersey wisecracking anti-authoritarian voice of his character. Twentieth Century Fox wisely chose the young Len Wiseman, creator of the Underworld series, to direct, and they concocted a clever story idea in which a gang of cyber terrorists take over many of the nation’s computers to shut down the government, and thereby take over the US media. It makes sense that with computers behind many aspects of our lives, someone could take over all of them, cause an intentional breach in the FBI security division, and then conquer the airwaves. By manipulating the traffic controls, for instance, the terrorists can turn every light green and cause massive car pile-ups in major cities.

When we first see McClane, he looks his age with a bald head and beard stubble. He pleads with his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to talk to him, but she walks away. Now a detective for the NYPD, he then gets what looks like a routine assignment to pick up a hacker for FBI questioning, but the cyber terrorists have targeted Matt Farrell (Justin Long) to die with a bunch of other techno-wizards who may know too much about their operation. McClane no sooner shows up at Farrell’s apartment than a band of thugs attempts to mow both of them down with machine gun fire. McClane shows his resourceful side by throwing a fire extinguisher down a hallway and then shooting at it so it explodes, thereby knocking a gangster out the window. They manage to escape, but then the traffic jams begin once McClane and Farrell arrive in Washington DC. Never a film to do anything in half-measures, Live Free arranges to have someone in a helicopter shoot at McClane and Farrell from the air in the midst of the crowded city.

Part of the fun of the film lies in its extravagance. Why a helicopter? Why not just a sniper? Later, in the Eastern power hub headquarters, McClane takes on the Asian kung fu master of the cyber terrorists (Maggie Q) by running an SUV through a wall, lifting her up on the hood, and then crashing into an elevator shaft.

Still, in the midst of its excesses, the film sticks very closely to the playbook of the first Die Hard. As in the original, the plotline devolves to a maiden in distress story, this time with McClane’s daughter standing in for his wife. Both films rely heavily on gee whiz computer gadgetry balanced with McClane’s wisecracks to punctuate fast-paced action scenes with self-deprecating jokes. The film’s many scenes involving guys speed-typing on laptops reminded me of the second Mission Impossible, in which pretty much anything could be accomplished with an Apple notebook. Also, Live Free is good at getting the viewer to root for McClane as the everyman hero who merely saves the country because he can. Written down, this all sounds corny, but the action moves so fast, the viewer has little time to dwell much on the unlikelihood of a given scene or the Wild West hokum of its lone beat-up hero.

By the latter third of the film, the initial cyber terrorist plot boils down to lots of grey industrial top secret interiors and McClane trying to evade getting blown up by a Harrier jet hovering over a spaghetti freeway as he drives a gigantic semi. The ending does not quite live up to the promise of the beginning of the film, but by then I didn’t care much. In its wisecracking, car-wrecking fashion, Live Free or Die Hard has already brought in the heavy artillery of one of the best action films of 2007.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Hype, the Bloat, and the Fury: Spider-Man 3

I went to the film with hopes that director Sam Raimi would recreate some of the brilliance of Spider-Man 2, perhaps the best superhero film ever made, but I was disappointed by much of it. Spider-Man 2 worked so well because it managed to combine excellent action scenes with a plausible human story. Highly efficient as a superhero, Peter was mediocre at everything else. He had difficulty just delivering pizza, but somehow his fallibility kept the movie balanced, and Tobey Maguire’s superior acting kept Peter likable and understandable throughout.

Columbia Pictures put pressure on Raimi to finish Spider-Man 3 too quickly, and the stakes were higher in a crowded summer market of trequels, so the film shows more signs of strain and effort. The storyline is overly complex, with two or three villains at work in New York. After battling one, Peter says “Where do all these guys come from?” Well, they all come from the comic book series, but the comics have the luxury of spacing out their appearances. In an effort to ramp up the action, the screenwriters tax the patience of the viewer with so much plot stretched over 2 hours and 20 minutes. Like so many blockbuster wanna-bes, the filmmakers confuse better with more, so the film seems bloated and loaded down with characters.

Compared to the privations of the previous installments, Spider-Man 3 begins on a complacent note, since Peter enjoys the support of New Yorkers for a change, and he has Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst with red hair). As he sits in the front row of a musical where she sings, he can’t stop himself from saying “That’s my girlfriend!” to the men sitting next to him. In the evening, Peter and Mary Jane canoodle on a giant web in Central Park. She says to him “You’re such a nerd.” His Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) gives Peter her old wedding ring, so he decides to pop the question to Mary Jane in a fancy French restaurant.

Of course, an evil strain of black glop falls from outer space and hops on Peter’s scooter. Later, the gunk will reconfigure itself as a black Spiderman suit that will tempt Peter into joining the dark side. Apparently, the stuff makes one more powerful, but also more aggressive, and I found it delightful when Tobey Maguire started wearing his hair emo-style with black bangs over his eyes. For a brief moment, he forgets all of the dreary ethical concerns of being a superhero, and just enjoys wailing on all of the people giving him a hard time. Then Aunt May shows up and says “Spiderman doesn’t kill people,” and he starts to realize what kind of Faustian deal he has fallen into.

The movie has so many plot lines. Suffice it to say that the rich Harry Osborn (a k a the new Goblin, or James Franco) is still mad at Peter for supposedly killing his Green Goblin father way back in the first film. Escaped convict Flint Marko (played by Thomas Haden Church) stumbles into a scientific experiment that reconfigures his body as sand that can disperse itself into a cloud or form a gigantic CGI monster at will. Also, Topher Grace plays Eddie Brock, a smarmy photographer for the Daily Bugle who develops a vengeful rage against Peter. Lastly, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) flirts with Peter in such a way so that Mary Jane remonstrates him for letting Stacy touch him all over with “polished fingernails.” The film keeps finding ways to emphasize keepsakes, I guess to add a sweet human dimension to the proceedings. So Sandman’s daughter gives him a locket with her picture in it, and Peter spends much of his time trying not to lose his Aunt May’s wedding ring in fight scenes.

The movie makes classy references to Vertigo and Some Like It Hot, but when it is all said and done, what makes Spider-Man 3 fun to watch is all of the swooping around in the canyons between skyscrapers. Until we can cut to the action scenes on the extras-laden DVD, audiences will have to watch Peter Parker and his cohorts engage in adolescent drama, drama, drama. What was once the franchise’s greatest strength, its characterization, has now become tiresome, and I got a strong sense that Maguire and Dunst (both good actors) increasingly feel trapped in the web of studio expectations and computer-generated hype.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Stuck in the Cineplex with Hancock

In his 10 rules of screenwriting, Billy Wilder said “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.” Somehow that reminded me of Hancock, because it has several plot shifts that made me feel trapped and aching to leave the theatre. Like throwing a football into the later innings of a baseball game, the screenwriters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan kept shifting into ever more unlikely scenarios as the movie goes along, causing Will Smith’s star power to dissipate quickly.

The initial premise of the film has its charm. A slacker, alcoholic superhero saves people from villains and trains, but he’s too lazy and drunk to do much without causing massive collateral damage to Los Angeles. I liked Hancock when he was asleep on a park bench, sublimely indifferent to the movie he’s in, but a boy rouses him into flying off to nab several goons who are randomly spraying machine gunfire from their white SUV on the highway (shades of O.J. Simpson?). Hancock tries to persuade them to pull over as he deflects bullets, but he gets annoyed when their gunfire breaks his shades. So he picks up the SUV angrily and dangles it over the freeway until he throws it over the peak of a skyscraper.

As a useless punk, Hancock makes for a refreshingly ambivalent role for Will Smith after the heroics of I Am Legend, but as a narrative, “Hancock” sells out many of its premises. Hancock saves the life of a PR man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman, fresh from Juno), who, in turn persuades Hancock to reform his ways, first by going to jail for all of the damage he has caused. There, Hancock waits for the call, like Batman, from the LA police commissioner to save LA from criminals. While in prison, Hancock undergoes group therapy with a bunch of convicts, and still I wondered--after the psychobabble of Get Smart and The Love Guru--does Hollywood have a fixation on therapy? It seems curious that in the midst of action films, everything stops so the hero must look inward to heal—and since Hancock has no real back story due to amnesia, the film loses all momentum as he waits in prison.

Given film’s ramshackle look, awkward handheld shots, and jerky editing, all of the filmmakers seem infected with the same slacker spirit as its hero. I couldn’t believe that Michael Mann co-produced Hancock, since it has none of his signature visual flair, nor does Hancock much resemble The Kingdom, which shares the same director, Peter Berg. Berg did an excellent job playing the dip mercilessly exploited by Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. I’m still waiting for one of his directed films to attain that movie’s high level of craft.

It also took me awhile to realize, with dismay, that Charlize Theron plays Embrey’s wife Mary. When she starts to dominate the storyline for no apparent reason, and the cheap CGI effects of superhero stunts blur the screen to grey murk, I found myself checking my watch at five minute intervals. A bleak feeling of claustrophobia set in. Two guys were bothering me by talking in the nearly empty theater, but by the last half hour (by my watch), I wished they would speak louder to drown out the film.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The terror and the profit: Jamie Foxx and the emotional manipulations of The Kingdom

A new documentary style has evolved in feature films that uses handheld cameras to create an edgy shakiness to a scene. I noticed it in “United 93,” but also especially in A Mighty Heart and The Bourne Ultimatum (directed by the same guy who directed United 93). Using the same techniques, Universal’s The Kingdom could serve as Hollywood’s reply to Muslim terrorism, this time in Saudi Arabia. Directed by Peter Berg and co-produced by Michael Mann, The Kingdom uneasily blends together documentary realism with old-fashioned Hollywood action, playing on our wish for narrative coherence out of the disjointed panorama of terrorist suicide bombings, kidnappings, and explosions in the Middle East. While technically accomplished, the film highlights how difficult it is to reduce extremist militant ideologies to good guy vs. bad guy Hollywood formulas.

For one thing, real terrorist acts deliberately strike up feelings of terror, outrage, and vengeance, so I felt emotionally manipulated when the film begins with several men breaking into a Western housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and strafing a bunch of softball-playing Americans with machine gun fire. Soon after, someone wearing a Saudi police uniform blows himself up, killing more innocent civilians. Then, when the response team shows up, yet another explosive device goes off, leaving a big crater and destruction reminiscent of the Oklahoma City bombings. Back in Washington DC, FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) learns of the incidents while visiting his son’s elementary school, and once again I felt emotionally manipulated due to all of the cute kids cropping up saying things like “Daddy, are there bad people out there?” I guess the filmmakers wanted to emphasize how we are all innocent children before we turn into terrorists and vengeful FBI agents hating each other. Still, there are few things more calculatedly gut-wrenching than visiting the child of a man who has just been murdered, so Fleury does just that.

Anyway, Fleury quickly assembles a small A-team of investigative agents to go visit Riyadh. He encounters lots of (perfectly reasonable) diplomatic opposition, but he finagles a way to get his crew in, which includes explosives expert Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), forensics examiner Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), and intelligence analyst Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). They arrive to find the Saudi police captain in charge of the investigation, Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) reluctant to let them do much. Housed in a makeshift arrangement in a gym, Fleury and his crew chafe under all of the restrictions placed upon them. They cannot touch evidence, or talk to anyone, but they do find the detonator for one of the bombs, and gradually Fleury and Al Ghazi get to know and like one another as if they were in a buddy cop film like 48 Hours. As they slowly win the trust of the police and the local Prince Ahmed bin Khaled, the FBI agents get closer and closer to the terrorist cell. At one point, Fleury says “America is not perfect,” but they can investigate well, and for a time the film takes on the suspense of a detective story.

As the film turns to the usual violence-filled conclusion, I kept thinking of the complexities of A Mighty Heart. In that film based on a true story, a reporter, Danny Pearl, gets kidnapped and eventually beheaded by an extremist group in Pakistan. For much of the film, his wife and the audience have no idea what is going on, and the filmmakers depict the Pakistan milieu as a maze where deciphering who did what becomes enormously complex, so of course the movie tanked in the box office. In The Kingdom, the filmmakers confront a similar situation by having the FBI team show up, figure things out, and blow stuff up. Even with Jamie Foxx’s acting ability and righteous outrage, The Kingdom strains credulity. At one point his character asks the Saudi police captain “Which side do you think Allah is on?” For all of its pretensions of taking on contemporary political issues, Universal Studios proves it is mostly on the side of making money.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

WALL-E and the critical hyping of two robots in love

How could any film live up to such gushing praise? Writing for The New York Times, A. O. Scott proclaims WALL-E “a cinematic poem of . . . wit and beauty.” Kenneth Turan, of the LA Times, writes “Daring and traditional, groundbreaking and familiar, apocalyptic and sentimental, Wall-E gains strength from embracing contradictions that would destroy other films.” Roger Ebert weighs in with WALL•E succeeds at being three things at once: an enthralling animated film, a visual wonderment and a decent science-fiction story.” I fully agree with the praise for the top-notch animation of the Pixar release, but I couldn’t help feeling all the glorification was overblown, in part due to the Disney cutesiness of WALL-E’s lovelorn characterization. Also the film’s “revelatory” vision of the future struck me as dated. Lastly, as family entertainment, WALL-E can’t help but whitewash its darker implications.

By now, most people probably know of the premise of WALL-E, how a cute little mobile trash compactor of the future hopelessly sorts garbage on a planet earth long since humans abandoned it as a big junk heap. Since earth now largely seems bereft of plant life, WALL-E builds tall mountains of compacted trash when he isn’t collecting random human artifacts out of the detritus like a bra, or a rubik’s cube to amuse him back in his lonely truck. Not just any robot, WALL-E (which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class) has developed enough personality to pine after some companionship. So he watches a videotape of “Hello, Dolly” in his truck at night, and practices his dance moves using a hubcap as a hat.

Fortunately for him, a space ship drops off an egg-like robot named EVE (Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) so that WALL-E can have an object for his emotions. Like many women, EVE is cold and given to vaporizing things that she doesn’t understand, but she does find an important rare plant which she places inside of herself for safekeeping. Then she goes into hibernation mode as she waits for the mother ship to come take her away. Curiously, WALL-E gets to express his love for EVE most when she’s in this robotic comatose state. He takes her off to watch polluted sunsets and such, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Lars and the Real Girl, given the strangeness of WALL-E’s infatuation with an inanimate egg. For much of the film, in his Beatles-like way, he just wants to hold hands. Isn’t that sweet?

Then, the space ship returns and takes them both to a mother ship called Axiom, and the plot shifts towards a 2001 struggle-against-the-evil machine narrative. The ship’s captain, WALL-E, and EVE work to rouse the fat, slothful, media-saturated humans into returning to earth. There’s a HAL figure of sorts, a spider-like robot who resists the idea, and in case we decry the theft from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, the filmmakers play music from 2001 to acknowledge the source.

Aside from the schmaltziness of WALL-E’s needy-geek romanticism, the film also has problems with the accuracy of its vision of the future. WALL-E has been in production now for over fifteen years, so some of the film’s environmental concerns seem dated. Humans are no doubt capable of trashing Earth, but to leave it bereft of all plant-life seems unlikely. Alan Weisman's recent nonfiction work World Without Us demonstrates how nature would quickly take over if humans were to suddenly vanish off the face of the planet. Certainly, we are likely to be heading towards a population overshoot and collapse involving a major drop in the number of people, but I doubt that nature would be so easily vanquished.

By the time the movie's plot shifts to the space ship Axiom, I was reminded of multiple science fiction films including Soylent Green, when the captain discovers the joys of nature on his telescreen, Bruce Dern’s Silent Running, wherein the earth becomes a playground that has no need of nature, and of course 2001. But all of these films have much darker visions of the future than WALL-E proposes. 2001 still has relevance because it emphasizes the coldness and indifference of space, our inability to fully imagine the future, and the capacity of technology to turn against humans. In contrast, WALL-E makes space a much more comfortable, family-friendly place, more an arena for balletic dancing between WALL-E and EVE than a vacuum where humans suffocate and freeze to death. Even as various robots on Axiom turn against our heroes, a bunch of defective robots came to their assistance. I guess that we could associate them similar creations in the Star Wars franchise, but they mostly reminded me of the island of the misfit toys.

One could say, of course, WALL-E is a film mostly geared towards children, so it needs to cut corners with its message of hope. And that may be the basic problem—WALL-E undermines its best ideas when it must, in proper Disney style, accommodate a family audience to apocalyptic scenarios.

At any rate, I did like the portrayal of future humanity as lazy, useless couch potatoes too accustomed to machines to do much for themselves except watch entertainment on a portable screen. As in Josie and the Pussy Cats, they allow the powers-that-be to tell them that “Blue is the new red,” so they change the color of their outfits as they slurp from their smoothies. That vision struck me as not science fiction at all—more a telling present-day portrait of media-manipulated Americans amusing themselves to death. Too bad so many of them will now sit and watch WALL-E, not aware of how the film satirically mirrors them.