Friday, November 30, 2007

Redacted (2007)

This is how you know what kind of Brian DePalma fan I am - I made it to the last theatrical screening of his widely hated new movie in Los Angeles on Thursday night, where a well-meaning woman was handing out anti-Bush flyers inside the lobby as if they were 3-D glasses. Or maybe I'm just obsessive-compulsive. Either way.

So, Redacted. The first thing to say is that, like almost all of DePalma's movies, it's better and more interesting than he's given credit for. On the other hand, it's still artistically limited - for years now, DePalma has been more interested in having his movies operate on an intellectual and formal level than in terms of basic narrative storytelling. Gone are the days of Carrie and Blow Out when he could combine both in a satisfying way. Redacted is more interested in being a piece of self-conscious apparatus, a movie that film students can pick apart for layers of subtext and political significance, but not something that anyone is going to want to watch for fun after a long day of work.

The plot is largely similar to DePalma's 1989 Casualties of War: Soldiers stranded far from home in the hell of war react in one of two ways: animalistic aggression and passive acceptance, culminating in the rape of an innocent young girl. Redacted shrugs off the benefits of the traditional narrative and well-drawn characters of Casualties and instead aims at something trickier, more harshly interrogative and Godardian. DePalma fractures his movie into a series of autonomously produced videos - a French documentary, Arab television broadcasts, a Marine's self-made war diary (he wants to get into film school), Jihadist web propaganda, and surveillance cameras. It's a cute idea, but it also illustrates a point: when everyone can make their own videos, everyone can be the star of their own performance piece. There is no objective authenticity to be found except through the mass collective of all these individual pieces of video, and everyone is the 'star' of their own show, with the result that everyone - including the sympathetic characters - wears a facade. In the end, it's not the rapists who are the bad guys of the movie, but the 'good guys' who allowed the rape to take place. In the final scene of the movie, one of the 'innocent' bystanders, back home at an engagement party, cries about the horrors that he witnessed in Iraq - but he's crying for the camera, putting on a show for the benefit of his own self-pity. It's not the thugs who are the bad guys of this movie, it's the people who should know better but stand by and allow atrocities to happen.

All that said: it's a movie that's more interesting than good. For all of DePalma's panopticon trickery and indictment of himself and his audience in the horrors of the world, we still have a movie with stiff and unconvincing acting (another Brechtian ploy?) and a general lack of emotional flow. I appreciate this movie but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who isn't a DePalma completist.

UPDATE: Armond White has reviewed this movie, and he's pissed. His rambling, lengthy comments are revealing, I think, of what must be a bitter sense of betrayal - this is the first DePalma movie that Armond hasn't been able to say something good about, after praising The Fury and Mission to Mars as masterpieces and Wise Guys and Bonfire of the Vanities as underrated.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Republican YouTube Debate

Okay, some random thoughts from watching most of the CNN/YouTube debate tonight:

Rudy Giuliani: Starting to have more problems. He may have hit a ceiling among voters who won't get beyond his pro-choice, socially liberal positions (at least he has the conviction to stick to these instead of pandering to the right wing). But as he goes along and has to face the issues from his personal life, his responses will get more brittle and angry and his support will bleed away.

Mike Huckabee: Very charming and folksy, and I'm not surprised to read that he's rising quickly in the polls. He also seems to be a legitimately decent guy with a talent for relatively straight talk and a good sense of humor. Too bad he doesn't believe in evolution and is generally on the wrong side of every substantive issue, but I'd have a hamburger with him.

Duncan Hunter: Why is he still around? He's just trying to avoid embarrassment at this point and waiting for an excuse to drop out.

John McCain: I kind of feel sorry for the guy. He's had a long and honorable career serving his country, got smeared by Bush and Rove in 2000, and his face is lumpy. If you put a gun to my head and made me vote for a Republican I'd probably choose him because I think he's probably the most authentically principled of the bunch, and I have a lot of respect for his steadfast stand against torture. But his positions are increasingly unpopular with his party and he doesn't have a lot longer to go.

Ron Paul: The zealot. Like Ross Perot or Ralph Nader he's fun to listen to for the sake of outrage and catharsis, but he has no business pretending to be a viable candidate for leader of the free world. He sounded borderline-insane when he was given a question about the New World Order. The kids seem to like him.

Mitt Romney: This man seems to have no core convictions beyond the unshakeable certainty of his own self-importance. He's an empty suit who will apparently say anything to please any audience, as was made clear again from his statement from a decade ago that he looked forward to the day when gays could serve openly in the military, but "that was a different time." His total misunderstanding of John Edwards' "two Americas" theme and his refusal to agree that waterboarding is illegal under the Geneva Convention were frustrating as well.

Tom Tancredo: Didn't get a lot of time, which is no great loss.

Fred Thompson: Lacked energy and looked like he would rather be somewhere else. I expect him to drop out pretty early in January so that he can start collecting residuals from Law & Order reruns again.

For the record, my favorite candidate currently is John Edwards, but I'll vote for any of the four leading Democrats.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Mist (2007)

So close...

I've been a big Stephen King fan for years (a habit I picked up from my Mom) and I've been looking forward to an adaptation of this one for a long time. It's one of King's best short works, suspenseful and rich in nightmare fodder, a great example of the kind of stories he does best: in which madness and terror (here in the form of an extra-dimensional monster-spawning fog) are unleashed into the unsuspecting normal everyday world of suburban Maine.

Frank Darabont would seem like a perfect choice for this material. Even though his first three movies were earnest and old-fashioned (I'm assuming - like most people I never saw The Majestic) his early career was as screenwriter on Nightmare on Elm Street 3 (the good sequel) and the remake of The Blob. So he's a seasoned director with a background in horror and Stephen King, the movie should have been great, right?

The first problem with the movie is a certain self-importance that you probably get after your first couple of Academy Award nominations. The Mist should have been a fast-paced, nasty little monster movie, and to a great degree, it is. But Darabont falls into the Rod Serling trap - not content to just let his audience have fun, he tries to draw the deeper meaning out of his material. Again, not something I want to dissuade filmmakers from doing, but it weighs the film down a touch more than it should. Additionally, Darabont should have taken a page from the Paul Greengrass school and made his crowd scenes a little more chaotic and noisy. The crowd in this supermarket are pretty quiet and well-disciplined for a group who just popped out to get some soup for dinner and find themselves suddenly facing Cthulhu's spawn.

And then there's the ending... (SPOILERS).
Basically, the hero, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) shoots his friends and son in order to spare them the horror of being eaten by monsters, only to have the U.S. Army show up thirty seconds later as the Mist retreats. Darabont has altered King's original open-ended conclusion in order to end on a more significant, emotional note, a sort of Shyamalanesque sucker punch. It sort of works on an intellectual level and it connects to Darabont's other movies - basically, Darabont is telling his audience not to give up or give in to despair because hope could be right around the corner. But since this concept hasn't been firmly established earlier in the film, it doesn't have the impact he wants it to. I don't want to say the ending is a failure, but I don't think it really works, either. When you shoot a cute little kid in the head in a mainstream American movie, you better make damn sure you do it right.

All that said, I still thoroughly enjoyed this one. The monsters are nicely Lovecraftian, Darabont gets good work from his cast, including Marcia Gay Harden as the almost unplayable Red State villainess; and the waking-nightmare quality of King's underlying story comes through. Darabont hit a solid double with this one, I was just hoping for a home run.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Beowulf (2007)

Robert Zemeckis, come back to live-action filmmaking. While we appreciate your pioneering efforts to expand digital technology, you could also leave that work to music videos and commercials, where dead-eyed characters can roam around in CGI landscapes for thirty seconds at a time. Do you really want to be working in product testing for the rest of your career?

So the point is, Zemeckis's Beowulf is a disappointment, in spite of a sprinkling of fun visuals. Mostly the failure stems from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary's lackluster screenplay, which is full of plot holes and has a very dry, perfunctory, just-get-to-the-next-plot-point feel to it, not to mention the thinness of Beowulf himself as a character. Oddly, for an IMAX 3-D film, the world of this movie is distant and uninvolving. It feels like the whole movie only takes place in the same three or four locations and with five or six characters, curious for a type of movie limited only by imagination.

In contrast, not long ago I rewatched Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, a pair of super-low-tech swashbucklers from 1973-74. Neither movie has a dragon or any sea monsters, but they have so much more life in them than Beowulf, which is arid and limp by comparison. In contrast in the other direction, I hated 300 from earlier this year, but it was more successful in at least being thrilling and stylized in an original way, without the pretenses of having a deeper meaning and at a fraction of Beowulf's cost. That said, I don't hate Beowulf so I'd still give it higher marks for not making me angry, as 300 did. But on the level of simply providing cheap thrills, Zemeckis's movie falls short.

This is definitely a case where the technology gets in the way of the storytelling, and where the story has been altered and expanded unnecessarily for the sake of an additional action set piece or two. Too bad but at least it's better than The Polar Express.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Yeah, it's sweet and well-made and all, but I'm gonna be something of a skeptic on this one. For one thing, I think there's something basically dishonest about a movie that has as its premise 'a man falls in love with a sex doll' and then goes to great lengths to make sure that its audience knows that there's no actual sex happening, thank you very much. The movie wants to titillate you but not creep you out, and as far as that goes it manages to walk that line but there's still a persistent denial at the movie's center that I find annoying. Basically, I wish that David Cronenberg had directed this.

My other real problem with the movie is that, as brilliant as Ryan Gosling's performance is, it's very heavily interiorized, which means that there's very little external conflict. The drama of the film is basically watching Gosling's Lars and waiting for him to come around and get with the program, and there isn't really much in the way of external drama to affect him or shake him up properly, which I would call a dramatic failure. We observe Lars without ever really feeling what's going on in his head (so I guess he's got something in common with Frank Lucas, for me).

Finally, there's a common trope in movies about romantic loners where there's always an unrecognized romantic possibility just around the corner. It's kind of a lame cliche.

(PS: I saw this movie a month ago but I'm writing about it now because I haven't had enough time yet to fully process No Country for Old Men and have anything interesting to say about it except that it's nice to see the Coens back again and the ending is odd. More later.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Celebrity Sighting of the Day

Weird Al Yankovic, waiting to cross at the intersection of Franklin and Hillhurst in my neighborhood. In L.A. you mostly see celebrities in fancy public places like movie theaters or bars so to just see Mr. Dare to be Stupid tooling around on foot was especially odd.

Who else wishes he would bring back the moustache, by the way?

Lions for Lambs (2007)

Even though the trailers made it look annoyingly preachy and didactic (you could say, Haggis-esque), I'd have to call this one a must-see. In its own way, Robert Redford's new film seeks to transcend the polarizing national debate over the War on Terror and find new, common, American purpose. Apologies if my review ends up sounding Armond White-esque but I think he's right about this one in his own review.

In an anonymous California University, an old-school liberal professor (Robert Redford) interrogates a well-off but lazy student about the nature of his cynicism. In Washington, a promising young Republican Senator (Tom Cruise) gives an exclusive interview to an established reporter (Meryl Streep) about a new strategy to defeat the Taliban. And in Afghanistan this strategy is implemented using two Marines (Derek Luke and Michael Pena), both former students of Redford's. It's a talky movie, but it's never a boring one because of the constant stimulation of strong dialogue, acting, and ideas, and because the stakes are simply too high to be boring. Redford lays it all out on the table: Western Civilization, as led by the U.S. government, is in a war against angry medieval idiots. What are you going to do about it? In the movie's most potent moment, Cruise literally asks Streep and by extension, the audience, "Do you want to win the war on terror?" a question which hangs in the air, never resolved. The big surprise of the movie isn't that it takes strongly liberal positions, but that it challenges liberals to move beyond the miserable failure of the Bush administration and look forward to envision success on the global stage with whatever President takes over on Jan. 20, 2009 - success that I don't think that selfish isolationists like Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul have the vision to conceive of.

For a while now, I've been wondering how it's possible for a movie to truly be progressive and actually have an impact at the same time, when so many well-intentioned movies simply play to their own choirs or are ignored by the public. Even though it looks like Lions for Lambs is going to be the latest one to be shrugged off, it deserves a lot better, especially in its central question: what are you, the American viewer, comfortable at home, going to do? Anything? This is classic Hollywood liberalism at its best, urging the complacent viewer out of his or her torpor and into their best possible self, the kind of thoughtful, principled progressive liberalism seen in movies from High Noon to A Man for All Seasons to Good Night and Good Luck (even though I'm sure Armond would probably disagree with all three of those). Redford is telling us that we need to get beyond the sloth that cynicism breeds and get off our butts, simple enough.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dan in Real Life (2007)

This was a pleasant surprise. It was rather cheaply advertised as something much more zany and Robin Williams-esque than it turned out to be, when it's actually very low-key and charming in an almost effortless way, thanks primarily to breezy lead performances from Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche, plus the three very good actresses who play Carell's daughters. (My favorite single moment: Carell's middle daughter screaming at him, "You are a murderer of love!") And Dane Cook isn't horribly obnoxious, so that helps too.

A curious omission from the movie, though, comes from the movie's premise, where 'Dan in Real Life' is supposed to be the advice column written by Carell's character. Curiously, the fact that his character is alleged to be an advice expert is almost forgotten by the movie, except for a couple of moments in the opening credits where we see Dan working and dispensing obvious, sub-Dr. Phil-level advice like "Hide your couch potato's remote control!" No wonder Dan has so many personal problems of his own.

The basic premise of the movie is affirmatory, one of those movies that seeks to affirm to the audience that they should relax, take a little me time, drink some tea. Usually I don't care for these kinds of movies because they tend to verge towards blandness and introversion, but when it works, it works. Also, Carell builds his library of awful white-guy-dance scenes.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Writers Strike

My friend Rachel Axler writes for The Daily Show and, in her free time from marching around in front of Rockefeller Center next to a giant inflatable rat (?) she wrote a piece for the New York Times. It's not an in-depth argument for the necessity of profit-sharing from New Media income streams, but it is free Daily Show humor until the strike ends. Enjoy!

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982/2007)

First of all, a quick apology to anyone who cares for my lack of posts lately. Being unemployed has ironically resulted in less free time for blogging, as I've been catching up on other tasks and looking for new work. (No, I'm not on strike. My former employers ran out of money and let me go.) Anyone need an editor or assistant editor?

Anyway, the new version of Blade Runner. This is one of those movies that I've never seen eye-to-eye with the rest of sci-fi movie geekdom. When I first rented Blade Runner sometime in the early '90s I was bored stiff. Yes, the movie is and was a triumph of visual imagination, thanks to the work of Ridley Scott, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, and production designer Lawrence G. Paull, but Roger Ebert had it right back in his original 1982 review when he called it "thin in its human story" (In his new review, Ebert capitulates and suggests several improbable, over-reaching theories about the movie). And he was right: Harrison Ford's Deckard is barely engaged in the movie's plot and doesn't have much substance beyond being an archetypal film noir detective. Of the supporting characters, only Roy Batty (the amazing Rutger Hauer) and J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) have any real life to them. It's as if the oppressiveness of the futuristic urban dystopia that the movie takes place in has sucked all the life out of the actors - and not in a good 'the movie is about a future where life is meaningless' way but in a bad 'I'm bored watching Joanna Cassidy get killed because I don't know anything about who she is and why I should care about her' kind of way.

The new version also adds in (SPOILERS) new evidence to support the idea that Ford's Deckard is himself a Replicant, which I honestly find more confusing than revelatory. Why would the police hire a Replicant to track down and kill other Replicants? Why is Deckard so much weaker than Roy or Leon if he's one of them? On a thematic level it's more interesting for a human Deckard to be contrasted with a Replicant Roy, falling in love with the Replicant Rachael (Sean Young) and breaking the human-cyborg taboo line. So the faint orange glow Ridley Scott has added to Harrison Ford's eyes in a shot or two seems like a bad addition, a confirmation that takes away from the mystery of the text.

All this griping aside, I enjoyed watching the movie on the big screen for the first time, and I've developed more respect for the movie over time. Not enough to call it a classic or a masterpiece, but enough that I don't hate it anymore.

I also think it's interesting that Ridley Scott basically invented Wong Kar-Wai's style years before As Tears Go By.

Monday, November 05, 2007

American Gangster (2007)

A lot of stuff happens in this movie, from drug busts to bribery to courtroom eruptions to Chinchilla coats being tossed on fires, but not very much of it really seems to be thematically related to some larger point that the movie is trying to make. It's a movie with a lot of sound and fury, but ultimately, signifying not much of anything.

The great American crime movies, The Godfather I and II, Scarface, and so on burn with the passions of their lead characters, take their power from their ambitions and uncertainties. I couldn't really tell you what makes Frank Lucas, Denzel Washington's character, tick. He gets a couple of minor subplots - buying a house for his mother, coping with the established Italian mobs - but sorry to say, it's a pretty shallow depiction of an interesting person. Russell Crowe's Richie Roberts has a little more to do, but again, very little of his screentime seems pointed towards building some larger conception of what crime and crime-fighting in America are about. So anyway, I was moderately entertained by all the flash and ridiculous outfits, and Washington has at least one terrific outburst involving a blood-stained carpet, but I was left generally unsatisfied.

The supporting cast is pretty strong, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ruby Dee, and Josh Brolin. On the other hand, Lymari Nadal as Lucas's Puerto Rican wife is pretty bad and I could barely make out anything said by her, Armand Assante, or the RZA.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Horror Movie Roundup 3

One more and then it's time to see serious Fall movies again:

Watching The Descent a second time, I was slightly less enamoured of it. The action and scares are still good, but the problems I had with it before didn't go away - the drama and characterization are still weak, and the movie has a crappy ending which the director apparently prefers to the truncated American-release version. While it's hard for me to begrudge any director their preferred cut, I have to say to Neil Marshall that he should have gotten over himself. Not every movie needs to be a hard-hitting expose of the human soul, and if you can't pull it off, cut your losses and keep it short. I'm not saying The Descent's human arc is an utter failure, but it's not nearly as interesting or as fresh as Marshall thinks it is (he admits on the DVD that the ending is ripped off from Brazil). Still, excellent tension and thrills and the only recent movie set in a cave that is at all well-shot in terms of lighting and geography, so good job.

The Reaping is utter garbage. It's as bad as a studio-produced horror movie can be, which means that there's enough eye candy in terms of visual effects and famous actors to keep you from noticing how rancid the story and subtext are. Hilary Swank, who apparently is cashing in while she can, plays a former minister-turned-miracle-debunker who travels the world to tell people that when they see Jesus in a tortilla, it's actually toxic hallucinogens from the local chemical factory. All well and good, but she needs to learn the error of her ways, so somewhere in Lousisiana a bunch of crap happens that mirrors the Plagues of Egypt. In the end (spoilers!) it turns out that the town are all evil Satan-worshippers and the pretty little girl (surprise!) isn't evil after all, but Hilary should have an abortion to get rid of Satan inside her pregnant belly, both sides of the political spectrum are happy: the Right gets to see Jesus win, and the Left gets to see a town of intolerant hicks get wiped off the face of the Earth. I don't want to discuss this movie any further except to say that it made me wish I was watching Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man (NOT THE BEES!), so there you go.

Finally, I rewatched the original Universal Frankenstein (very good and ground-breaking) and Bride of Frankenstein (one of the absolute best horror movies ever) in the first half of the month, so I caught up on the third in the series, Son of Frankenstein, this week after not having seen it in several years. It's a movie that's hard to take seriously if you've ever seen Young Frankenstein, from which it steals a lot of elements, mainly the false-armed police inspector played by Lionel Atwill in the original and Kenneth Mars in the parody - I mean, Atwill almost does all of the same absurd, jerky-armed things as Mars, lighting cigarettes and playing darts and everything. Son of Frankenstein constantly verges on self-parody in the inspector scenes, and the rest of the time it's tedious, spending more time with Basil Rathbone's over-enunciating Frankenstein spawn than on Boris Karloff's final appearance as the monster. Also the kid playing Rathbone's little boy is intensely obnoxious and awful in a way that we don't see in movies anymore, thankfully. But it still hits all the notes of angry villagers and evil henchmen and so on that I can forgive it, even if it is the Frankenstein movie that finally displays Sequelitis.

I've been thinking of applying ratings to these reviews, so I'd give The Descent 7/10, The Reaping 3/10, and Son of Frankenstein 6/10.