Author Archive

My Interview With Tilda Swinton

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

Yesterday I had the immense pleasure of speaking with the lovely and talented Tilda Swinton.  I recently caught up with her performance in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love and was rather moved by it.  By any standard, Swinton is award-worthy for the tamed intensity she brings to the part.  It’s a melodramatic film, but one that definitely has a bolder artistic vision than the average melodrama.

Speaking with Ms. Swinton by phone yesterday, she had a lot to say about how the film was made and such, but what I was most struck by was how warm she was.  Often, she is cast as a cold figure, so I was surprised by the tenderness of her voice.  I would ordinarily upload this as a podcast, but the quality of my taping wasn’t easy to listen to, so I’ve transcribed it for you.

Tilda: Hi Noah.

Noah: Hi Tilda.  I just wanted to say, first of all, I’m an enormous fan.  I’ve been a big fan of yours since I saw The War Zone when I was 17.

Tilda: Thank you very much.

Noah: I Am Love, I just saw it yesterday and I was really impressed by it.  And I was just so curious how you became involved in the film and what attracted you to this particular story and this particular character?

Tilda: Well, Noah, as you may or may not know, this film is something that came out of my relationship with Luca Guadagnino.  It’s something we devised together.  We started talking about a film like this about 11 years ago and we started building up the narrative about 7 or 8 years ago.  It was a film that we talked for a long time before we had any idea about what the milieu of the story might be, about the kind of film in which melodrama would slip into tragedy somewhere along the line.  And a film that I would call “sensational,” that wouldn’t be particularly dialogue-based, a film that worked on all sorts of “language of cinema” levels.

We had made an essay-film together about 7 or 8 years ago called The Love Factory, which is an interview between Luca and I, in which he talks to me and it’s just a close-up on me.  And during the course of this conversation, we talked about love.  And afterwards, when we were editing the film, we decided to take this idea, the germ of this concept of a revolutionary love in the life of a woman who I would play and we would place that at the heart of the narrative.  So that was the first we had, this woman who I would play who would come across some kind of revolution in her life based on love.  Thereafter, we started to think that she would be some kind of alien in some kind of milieu that she hadn’t been born into.  It was a time when we didn’t know it would necessarily be set in Italy, but fairly soon we decided to set it in Italy.

It took longer to work out where she was going to come from, but at a certain point she became Russian.  Not only because we were reading a lot of Tolstoy at the time [Laughs] but also because we worked out that because we wanted to set the film in this very kind of haute bourgeois milieu in Milan, we wanted to set it at the highest point of milieu, which is about ten years ago at the start of the century.  And so if you go backwards from that, that makes her a Soviet Russian and we wanted her to come from a world that she could never return to.  So all of these things, it kind of became a detective story, working out how things had to be in order for the feeling to be right.  So it took a while.

Noah:  In a sense, you’re kind of an alien to this material as well because you’re playing a Russian who is playing an Italian…

Tilda:  Yeah.

Noah:…so I think that’s very interesting.  It did remind me a bit of Anna Karenina in a lot of ways…

Tilda:  Yeah…yeah.

Noah:…but it actually reminded me a lot of the Kubrick film, Barry Lyndon, which is one of my favorite films.

Tilda: Not only because Marisa Berenson is in it [Laughs].

Noah: [Laughs] Right, I was going to say, Marisa Berenson being in it really brought that home.  But just because every shot is so deliberately composed.  And I was wondering, as an actor, do you feel it gives you more or less freedom when the frame is so, uh, composed.  I mean, when it’s so fixed?  Because it seems like every shot is so well-staged that I was wondering if you like to be able to roam around or is it good to know the constraints of the frame?

Tilda: I mean, to be honest with you: you always know what the constraints of the frame are whether the camera is hand-held or not.  It’s always important to work very closely with the camera because the camera’s all you got really, frame is everything.  So if the frame is fixed, as you say, and very iconic, that tells you absolutely how you’re going to operate within it.  But by the same token, if you’re being followed by a hand-held camera, that’s also a constraint if you like.  That’s also a dance.  One of the things that we really wanted to do from the very beginning was to approach a film about rich people in a kind of humanistic way.  Very often – and I know this from working on a film called Orlando with Sally Potter, which was also about rich people in a humanistic way – there’s a sort of mesmerism that seems to happen when you make a film about rich people, like the camera gets sent into a sort of sleep.  Very often, people find themselves grinding to a halt, filming in a very theatrical, static way.  And we wanted to play with this, so that we would have the possibility of being back in a very cinematic way, having long wide-shots so you actually get the full milieu.  But then at the same time we wanted the camera to be quite free so that it would also be able to come in very closely and be round the back of someone’s ear or under someone’s armpit or actually very, very close to their features so that you could see them as humans and not just as some theatrical animals on a set.  And this is one of the reasons that we worked with Yorick Le Saux, who is this great cinematographer who I worked with on Julia and who I introduced Luca to, who had that capacity to be on the one hand very formal, but also very intimate and very fluid.  So we wanted to shake it up, but at the same time we wanted to have – I will tell Luca what you said about Barry Lyndon, because that’s an enormous compliment to him and to us because Kubrick is one of our favorite filmmakers and Barry Lyndon is the pre-eminent modernist look at that kind of formal setting.  And I think that’s a great compliment.

Noah:  It’s also a film about this perpetual outsider, which Emma [Swinton’s character] certainly is.  She’s trapped in this gilded cage.  Speaking about the way the film was shot and edited, I think that makes the ending even more satisfying because it’s just this kind of burst of energy which hits you on such a visceral level.

Tilda:  The very strange thing about the ending is that the ending is in many ways the first thing we had.  When I say we worked on the film for 11 years, what I mean is that those early years, before we even knew what the narrative was going to be, we were thinking about a kind of emotion that we wanted to hit.  And the most excited we could be was a film that ended in a certain way – even outside of any details of what the narrative would be, we knew that we wanted a film that the denouement of which would be silence.  Just have no dialogue.  And would have a relationship with music and a relationship with movement that was more choreographic, that was more like a ballet or more like an opera than traditional cinema.

So I would say that from the moment of the “pool scene” (for readers who don’t know what we we’re talking about), from that moment on there’s really nothing spoken.  And we had that fixed in our mind – not the details of what would actually happen – but we had the emotion, the color, this incredibly high, operatic feeling and we had this in our mind.  I always say it was like we had an apple and we put in on the top of a pedestal and we knew that in working out the narrative for the rest of the film, it was like building a staircase up to that apple.  Because we knew where we were going to end, but we just didn’t know how it was going to start [Laughs] or what the middle was going to be, for the longest time.

So that was really the challenge, to find a way up to the apple; and it was touch and go and I’m sure there are people who don’t think we got there, but it was a very particular challenge to work out the end of a film before the beginning or the middle.

Noah: I think that’s a fascinating way to work.  The only other time I think I’ve heard about a filmmaker doing something like that is I believe that Paul Thomas Anderson, when he did Magnolia, he knew the last image he wanted on the screen…

Tilda:  Interesting.

Noah: …so the whole film was kind of like a way to get to that image.

Tilda:  Yeah, how interesting.

Noah:  You’ve worked with some of my favorite filmmakers – everyone from Bela Tarr to Jim Jarmusch to David Fincher to the Coen Brothers.  Do you think it’s more important to work with a great artist behind the camera or is it more important to find a great piece of material?

Tilda:  Well, I’m never one for finding material.  I mean, I always find the people first.  That’s just the way I’ve worked.  Luckily, I’ve had the very good fortune of starting by making films with people and making the material with them, so they always came first just in terms of the chronology.  And I’ve had the really blessed experience recently with people like the ones you mentioned coming to me with pieces of material.  But it’s always the people that I’ve gone into a dance with – in my view whatever material Jim Jarmusch comes up with or Bela Tarr or the Coen Brothers – I’m always going to want to go and dance with them because I really love them, for a start, and I really think that the dialogue and whatever they’re going to do is going to be interesting.  I’m trying to think if I’ve ever had a piece of material come my way – I’ve always made my deal with the person.  It’s an arrangement that I’m very happy with.  It’s what I’m interesting in really – the conversation with the filmmakers.  And friendship, to be perfectly honest, because I’ve been really blessed and some extraordinary people ring me up.

Noah:  Do you ever have any interest in directing yourself?  Or dancing with yourself, so to speak?

Tilda:  No, I’m really trying not to direct.  Really, really hard.  [Laughs]

Noah:  It’s a constant effort to not direct?

Tilda:  There are some friends – Luca is one of them – that are constantly teasing me, but I’m not going to give in.  I like to be in communication, in a sort of dialogue with someone else.  Collaboration is my forte, so not at this moment, it’s not what I’m interested in, no.

Noah:  Do you have any people on your wish list of people you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?

Tilda:  Of course.  [Laughs]  But I’ve had the happy experience of meeting them around the corner.  It’s a very strange thing that people do tend to meet themselves in this meal pond that we work in.  And certainly in the milieu that I work in, which tends to be coming from a kind of – if not underground, then certainly independent world where people really understand collaboration and the need for fellowship.  In that world, there’s a lot of comradeship around and people do tend to bump into each other and introduce each other to other people and it’s very easy to make relationships.  And I’m happy to say that I’m constantly finding new relationships.

For example, at the moment, I’m starting to develop a piece of work with Apichatpong Weerasethakul [Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives].  He’s someone that I’ve been in communication with for a while and we’re now beginning to get down to talking about the film we’re going to make together.  And that’s just wonderful.

Noah:  I read that you have a movie coming out with Lynne Ramsay, who is fantastic and works so rarely, so what a great opportunity.

Tilda:  Yeah, yeah, well we all, including she, wishes she wouldn’t work so rarely.  So let’s hope that she doesn’t work so rarely from now on.  But this is something we’ve been developing for a few years together and at last we’re cutting it now and we’re very excited about it.

Noah:  Ah, well I can’t wait for that.  And news just broke either today or yesterday that you may or may not be attached to Wes Anderson’s new film [Moonrise Kingdom].

Tilda: I may.  He’s the most recent lovely person who has sent me an e-mail [Laughs].

Noah:  I know you’re busy, so I’ll let you go, but I have one more question and it’s something I ask everyone I interview.  What is your favorite movie?

Tilda:  So unfair, that question.  If you asked me what my 100 most favorite movies would be, that would be easier.  Oh lord.  I was asked recently online what my 5 favorite movies are, and I randomly picked 5 out of my head and within a few minutes, I wanted to pick another 5.  But one is really cruel.  Let me just quickly think.

[Long pause]

Well I always say Au Hasard Balthazar and I always say I Know Where I’m Going.  And I very often say To Be or Not to Be by Ernst Lubitsch.

But tonight, because I just finished watching it with my children, I’m going to say What About Bob?

Noah: Oh what a great movie, I love that one!

Tilda: [Laughs] So tonight my favorite movie is What About Bob?

Noah: Well that is one of the greatest answers I’ve gotten to that question.  Well, thank you very much for your time, I really appreciate it.

Tilda: Thanks Noah, have a good night, bye!

Frenzy on the Wall: The Unstoppable Mr. Washington

Monday, November 8th, 2010

I’m going to check out Unstoppable this weekend because it looks like dumb fun and I actually find Tony Scott to be a much more entertaining filmmaker than his brother, but sadly, seeing the latest Denzel Washington film isn’t exactly a draw for me any longer.

I used to believe Washington was like a modern day Gary Cooper: handsome, charismatic and able to excel in a variety of genres. Watch him in Devil in a Blue Dress and see how effortlessly cool he was, how smooth the performance is; better yet, watch him in He Got Game, playing a difficult character who has a desire for redemption and freedom. Actors play characters like that all the time, but many of them are unwilling to mine the depths that Washington did, to go to the dark places he went to in that film.

But lately, Washington has settled into a bit of an “easy” rhythm and seems uncomfortable playing outside a certain type. He plays both villains and heroes, but he plays them in the same way; there is no longer any shading to his portrayals, no subtlety. Washington has been reduced to an actor who merely yells instead of acting or genuinely emoting, and while it’s true that he often speaks louder rather than expressing his characters’ emotions in a more nuanced way, I think the problem runs deeper than that.

My bigger issue with Washington is that for the last several years, he seems to be rehashing characters he’s played before. With Unstoppable, he’s once again playing the grizzled old veteran who’s “too old for this shit” and trying to help fix a problem related to a train (see: last year’s Taking of Pelham 1 2 3).

His character in Inside Man was another law enforcement character in the mold of what I’ve seen him do in everything from Ricochet to The Siege to Out of Time (or Virtuosity or The Bone Collector or Déjà Vu or Fallen … wow, this guy has played a lot of cops and FBI Agents!

On the other hand, in The Great Debaters Washington played a mentor and motivator who reminded me a lot of what he brought to the table in Antwone Fisher and even Remember the Titans. I’d like to see Washington take on more of those kind of roles.

The thing about Washington that compels me is that he’s still fascinating to watch; even when he’s playing retreads of roles he’s already done, he’s still got this innate charisma. It might be what frustrates me the most about Washington’s career choices: the dude is a natural born movie star, and I wish he would follow George Clooney’s model a bit more and try to make movies that have ideas rather than explosions, with characters who have complexities rather than long monologues. And when Clooney does a big blockbuster film, it’s usually something a bit more clever than the average Hollywood movie.

I was maybe seven or eight years old and I was home from school, sick, when I first saw Denzel Washington in a movie. I flipped through the two or three movie channels we had (and that was the premium package!), as I often did and Glory was on. I saw that Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes were in it and at that time in my life, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Princess Bride were probably my favorite movies, so I decided to watch what I thought would be a boring movie about the Civil War.

I happened to like the movie a lot – still do – but what really amazed me was this guy Denzel Washington, who stole the movie. Clearly a lot of folks agreed with me and he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the performance. But watching that movie now, what astounds me the most about Washington is how full of vitality he was, how passionate he seemed, compared to how he is in most of his more recent roles. It’s like watching game film of Michael Jordan in his 1990 and comparing it to his stint with the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s.

It makes me wonder if some movie stars just lose a step as they get older, if sometimes they feel jaded by the process and don’t feel like they need to work as hard to get inside their characters. It seems actors like Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr. and Denzel Washington, who were so exciting as young actors, have now settled into a certain style and rhythm that they feel comfortable with. To keep going with the basketball analogy, it’s like they know all the veteran tricks and try to get by with their savvy rather than their raw skills. But is it because these skills fade or is it because they just don’t try as hard?

Clooney seems to be getting better and better, ditto for Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz, and a whole host of others. So what is it that leads some actors to age like a fine wine and others to turn to vinegar? I suppose it’s impossible to really know.

What I’d really like Denzel Washington to do is to work with Spike Lee again. Inside Man was perhaps not their finest collaboration, but I think Washington gives two of his best performances in Lee films: He Got Game and Malcolm X. I also thought he was excellent in Philadelphia (he’s actually much better than Tom Hanks, who won the Oscar opposite Washington), The Hurricane and Mississippi Masala.

The connecting thread with all of the great Denzel Washington performances seems to be that he’s good when he’s working with directors who coax great performances of their actors. Jonathan Demme, Norman Jewison, Mira Nair, Spike Lee — all of them are wonderful actors’ directors. Lately, Washington has been working with the Scott brothers, himself, and the Hughes Brothers. All of them fine filmmakers – Washington makes solid old-school feel-good films – but none of them would I consider “actors’ directors.”

I wasn’t the biggest fan of his Training Day performance. I thought he went too far over-the-top, especially in the last reel, and that it was a classic example of Washington yelling rather than acting. However, I enjoyed that he was willing to take a risk and I like the chemistry he had with Ethan Hawke, one of the most underrated actors out there (one day I’ll write my love letter column about him). And I think Washington certainly does well when he’s matched up with strong co-stars.

Unfortunately, the last few strong co-stars he’s had haven’t spent a lot of screen-time with him (think Travolta in Pelham or Russell Crowe in American Gangster or Clive Owen in Inside Man). In fact, the last performance of Washington’s I really enjoyed was in Man on Fire and I think it’s because he was fantastic and warm in the scenes with Dakota Fanning. And it was a role that required him to be quiet rather than loud.

I happen to like Chris Pine a lot and I find him to be charming, so I have hopes that their chemistry will help Unstoppable be more than just another shrug-inducing film in Washington’s filmography. But, really, my hope is that Washington finds a project that he’s truly passionate about again, that makes him want to be as hungry as he was during those early years when every performance was a knockout. Denzel Washington seems to be unstoppable … I just want him to bring his considerable talent to the right projects.

Mel Gibson and Compartmentalization

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

I was perusing this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly and I came across Mark Harris’ latest piece entitled, “Thanks, Mel.  Seriously.”  For the most part I really enjoy Harris’ writing and I find him to have some pretty sharp insights into the goings-on in Hollywood.  However, as I was reading his latest essay, I found myself befuddled by a position he takes.

I don’t know Mel Gibson personally, so I find it odd to write the following: he seems like a fairly despicable person.  Between the racism, the antisemitism, and the rage-fueled taped phone calls that I couldn’t avoid, he doesn’t exactly seem like a person I would want to hang out with for any length of time.  But I do believe that the man is a talent, both behind and in front of the camera.  When this whole brouhaha about The Hangover 2 came out – Mel was supposed to have a cameo, but then because of his transgressions, was let go – I was excited to see him play the role.  I enjoy seeing the man on screen.  Even after his whole drunken antisemitic rant in Malibu a few years ago, I still saw him in Edge of Darkness and liked it well enough.  I have the ability to separate the character he plays from who he might be in real life.  I mean, I think Spike Lee is one of the greatest filmmakers we have, but I disagree vehemently with some of his political views.  To take it a step further, I think Woody Allen is one of the best filmmakers of all-time, but I find his actions with his (now-wife) adopted stepdaughter abhorrent.  The actions and opinions of these two men don’t make me enjoy or despise their output any more or less.  When Tom Cruise jumped on a couch and spouted his ridiculous political opinions, I didn’t give a shit because what he does outside the realm of a movie screen doesn’t concern me.

So I found it odd to see Mark Harris write that the maxim of “It should be all about the work” strikes him as “peculiar.”  And I found it especially strange when he writes that, “[T]he ability to take a great deal of proof that someone is a loathsome creep and tuck it away in a corner of your brain that even you can’t find just so you can enjoy some dopey comedy doesn’t feel to me to be evidence of a healthy perspective but rather of a weirdly over-developed ability to compartmentalize.”  Wow, that’s a lot of judgment about people who go to the movies.  Because, you see, anybody that has ever enjoyed a film has “a weirdly over-developed ability to compartmentalize.”

Compartmentalization is what we do when we go to the movies, except we call it “suspension of disbelief.”  Unless you feel like Robert Downey, Jr. actually is Iron Man, then guess what?  You’ve compartmentalized.  It means you have the ability to believe that what is actually happening on the screen doesn’t necessarily correspond to what is happening in real life, that you can believe that an actor is the character he is playing rather than the actor himself.  Just because one particular actor might have done some despicable and disgusting things in their private life doesn’t mean that the character they are playing is influenced by those actions.  And if you are influenced by those actions, then that doesn’t make you a more caring, sensitive person, it means that you are unable to suspend disbelief with one such person.  But I find that to be strange because if you can’t believe that Mel Gibson is anything other than the racist pig that he (probably) is, then how can you believe that Brad Pitt is anything other than the (fill in the Brangelina reference here) or that George Clooney is anything other than the (insert womanizing liberal reference here), etc. etc.

I have my opinions about Mel Gibson as a person, but I also have my opinions about his talents as an actor and they do not inform one another.  I’m not saying I have the correct view, but I do think that Mark Harris is wrong in saying that my ability to compartmentalize is “weirdly over-developed.”  Like I said, we all do it every time we go to the movies.

Frenzy on the Wall: Where’s the Geek Love for Monsters?

Monday, November 1st, 2010

The way the film geek crowd ate up District 9 last year, you might expect Monsters, another indie entry in the “aliens among us” genre, to be garnering similar geek buzzing this year, but it’s not. Monsters is not a perfect film, but I was kind of blown away by it, and I think it’s a better film than District 9. So where’s the love for Monsters?

If you, like me, haven’t heard much about Monsters yet, you may be wondering what exactly it’s about, because the title is a bit misleading. So allow me to sell you on why you should check this movie out, and why it deserves more accolades than it’s getting.

First, the creatures in the film are not monsters, per se, but extraterrestrials that look a bit like enormous octopi (and by enormous, we’re talking Godzilla-big). Second, the title is misleading because it’s not really about the creatures at all; they are merely the catalyst and the danger in the background of what is really a two-character love story.

The film is set six years from now and the world has adapted to the fact that a large chunk of northern Mexico has become overrun by the aforementioned aliens, prompting many travel restrictions in the area and the building of a huge wall on the Mexico-USA border (insert political POV here). But the crux of the story follows photojournalist Andrew Calder (played by Scoot McNairy), who is given the job of finding and ensuring safe passage home for the daughter of his boss.

The woman is, of course, a beautiful blonde named Samantha Wynden (played by Whitney Able). The film follows the two of them as they are forced, through a series of interesting circumstances, to travel through the “infected” zone in order to get home.

Well, I gotta say, I was absolutely riveted from start to finish and there are very few “action” scenes. This isn’t your typical monster movie; instead, it plays a bit like Before Sunrise meets Cloverfield, but better than the latter and not as good as the former. Even that is an unfair comparison because, despite some beats that feel eerily familiar, Monsters is a uniquely original picture. It doesn’t go the way you think it will either in terms of storyline or tone. Moments that you’re sure will be amped up are played down and scenes that feel innocuous are actually loaded with either meaning or intensity.

Monsters does what almost every modern genre film forgets to do: it gives us characters that we give a shit about. Characterization is done in such a formulaic way in most genre films these days; each actor is given simply one trait that they have to play up, so there’s the “crazy” guy or the “jock” or the “rebel” or the “prom queen” (maybe I’m just doing The Breakfast Club now). But the fact that Monsters has two characters who actually seem like real people and speak to one another in a way that doesn’t feel forced not only makes the film more captivating, but it feels like a revelation.

The man who wrote and directed the film, Gareth Edwards, deserves a great deal of kudos. I didn’t find out until after seeing the movie that it cost about $15,000 to make. Let me tell you something: if I had to guess, after seeing the film, how much it cost to make it, I would have said something like $30 million. This looks like a studio picture in terms of aesthetics. The creature special effects alone make this film look more expensive than it was and I don’t know how he was able to create such realistic looking special effects without it costing him many millions of dollars.

Whoever has a superhero movie should give this guy a call because not only can he make a film cheaply, but he can imbue it with heart and soul. Seriously, if this is what he can do for $15,000, then I can’t imagine what he’ll do when someone gives him millions (and you can bet that someone will).

Now, some people will think of District 9 when they see Monsters. Hell, I did, but it was only because I kept thinking, “Wow, this is so much better than District 9.” I know there are a lot of fans of District 9 (I wasn’t), but Monsters takes a similar concept and makes it less politically heavy-handed and more grounded in character development.

The effects in District 9 are extraordinary, but the storyline didn’t hook me as much as Monsters because I didn’t think the characters were particularly interesting or realistic.

District 9 has that documentary-like approach to the proceedings and yet it doesn’t feel quite authentic whereas Monsters, to me, felt like what would actually happen in these circumstances. I believed in the world of Monsters more and I believed in the characters, that they had lives and desires that didn’t start and stop with the aliens. It felt more akin to how the real world operates; despite the fact that strange things are going on, our instincts are still calibrated to find love or sex partners. If aliens did come to this planet, people would still want to find love regardless and not just focus on aliens non-stop, which is how most other films treat alien invasions.

The two lead actors are not always perfect in their roles, but I found both of them to be charming enough that I was won over by them. They have great chemistry to the point where you actually root for them to wind up together in the end. By the end of the film, I felt like both actors had found their groove — or maybe it was just that I fell into a groove with them — but earlier in the picture some of their dialogue fell a little flat, especially from McNairy.

The male lead is a more difficult role, perhaps, because he’s supposed to be this laconic journeyman type, and I wonder if McNairy was just playing that role accurately or if he was just a little unsure of himself in the earlier scenes. Able was impressive throughout the film and I liked that she didn’t overplay scenes and wasn’t reduced to being a shrinking violet; she’s a tough chick and I liked that Edwards didn’t write the character as someone who complains or whines. She doesn’t fall into the kind of stereotypes that many female characters in these films fall into.

The question for me is, why isn’t this movie getting the hype that District 9 got? This one flew under the radar until I saw it pop up on my cable provider’s On-Demand station, then I read a little bit about it and decided to check it out. This is the kind of film that I would expect the geek sites to be crowing about for months on end, creating some sort of buzz that would seep out and reach the masses, but alas it seems to be just eking its way through theatrical until it ultimately hits DVD where it will eventually be hailed as a cult classic.

Look, this is not the greatest movie ever made, but it’s rare to find a indie genre film this compelling. It’s beautifully shot, it’s intelligent, it moves swiftly, it’s got characters that we care about, wonderful special effects, etc. It’s got its share of problems too, including being somewhat on-the-nose with its political messages at times and a needless scene where Calder beds a girl before they embark on their journey. But the bottom line is that this is the kind of film that needs all the support it can get and will reward its viewers.

This is not the kind of film that builds towards some big blow-out action scene like it’s some videogame. Rather what it builds to is startling in what it both does and what it doesn’t do. What Edwards realized — which so many other filmmakers don’t — is that ending with an act of passion or love is so much more powerful than ending with an act of aggression or action. What Calder and Sam witness at the end of the film is achingly beautiful and really touching – not words that you can often use to describe the ending of a monster movie.

Note: Pay special attention to the opening scene, which is intercut with the credits. I had to re-watch it after the end of the film. It’s a killer.

Halloween Festivities

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

New York City is kind of a nightmare on Halloween.  It’s impossible to get a cab, the subways are filled to the brim and the sidewalks seem like they are overflowing.  Everybody comes to Manhattan on Halloween to get completely wasted, vomit in the street, and maybe hook up.  It’s amateur hour and it’s one of my five least favorite days to go out in NYC (St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s being high up there).  Alas, I’m always compelled to go out and get involved in the festivities, drink too much and then stumble home to see what classic horror films are on TCM.

But book-ending that night of terror, I like to have a few other nights of terror by watching horror movies exclusively, having a marathon in my apartment.  Sometimes friends will stop by and catch a movie or two, but I like to get into the Halloween spirit regardless, and I usually pick out a few old standbys and a few new ones.  I’m still putting together my list for this year, but I usually always watch Brad Anderson’s Session 9, Kubrick’s The Shining, and often Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  This year, I think I’m going to throw in Frank Darabont’s The Mist, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, Troll 2 (I always like a funny one to throw in there) and then I’m still debating which horror films I haven’t seen to add to the program.  At this point, it’s getting harder to weave in new horror films that I actually like.  It’s becoming increasingly harder for me to get truly scared by horror films, so I’m happy just to find something that gives me the chills or at least tells an entertaining story.  So I’ve been looking through Netflix and trying to find horror films I haven’t seen available to watch instantly.  I’m thinking about the recent Carriers, Romero’s Survival of the Dead, and maybe the older Girly.  I also will make time to watch the premiere episode of Darabont’s adaptation of the Walking Dead on AMC.  What else should I add to this list?

But, in the spirit of giving, I wanted to help my NYC peeps find some cool horror festivities during the week and weekend, where they could congregate with fellow horror lovers.  And with that in mind, I think the best idea is to check out the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s horror slate called “Scary Movies” that runs from today (Oct. 27th) through the weekend.  The program they have sounds pretty excellent, including The Creeping Flesh (a Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee flick), the original Hellraiser, Carrie, and the new Australian horror picture The Loved Ones, which is getting excellent buzz.  The Film Society at Lincoln Center has been killing it lately with excellent programs (they recently had a Rohmer retrospective, which was heavenly) and this one is sure to be a lot of fun.  Check out the website for more info:

Elsewhere: The IFC Center is showing midnight screenings of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street through the weekend, Film Forum has Psycho playing all day throughout the weekend as well.  But if you’re looking for something a little bit more underground, my good buddy and filmmaker Shal Ngo has put together a horror movie montage called Brain Bludgeon at the reRun theater in DUMBO.  Shal is a pretty talented up and coming filmmaker and he spent an inordinate amount of time watching and then sewing together clips from literally hundreds of forgotten horror movies.  Check out the trailer.

If you know about anything else going on in NYC for Halloween, let me know and I’ll try to update this post with anything that sounds too good to miss.

Frenzy on the Wall: I’m Not Scared of Slamming Doors

Monday, October 25th, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2 has no artistic purpose for existing.

Look, Tod Williams is a talented filmmaker and there are lots of folks involved in the making of this film that are good at what they do. But ultimately, let’s face it, the impetus behind making a sequel to Paranormal Activity was not based on artistic merit but rather on the notion that it would be advantageous financially to make another cheap horror film that could be released around Halloween. Based on the box office receipts, it has definitely won the box office war, but I was seriously underwhelmed by the product put on the screen.

The idea that some spirit is slamming doors just isn’t that scary to me. It was probably put to use best in Robert Wise’s The Haunting and it has proven to be effective in different films since then, but often with diminishing results.

The first Paranormal Activity wasn’t my favorite recent horror film, but I admired the fact that it dared to be different and put an original spin on the old “haunted house” scare tactics that have become clichés. Strange sounds, slammed doors, Ouija boards…these are all tropes that are tried and true and when employed in the service of something different, they can be fear-inducing. But, when you feel like what you’re watching isn’t an organic expression of the material, but rather a cheap attempt at getting someone to jump in their seat, then it doesn’t become interesting any longer.

The truth of the matter is that I wasn’t scared once during my viewing of Paranormal Activity 2 and that is a big problem when watching a horror film. The best horror movies will keep the viewer up at night, staring at the shadows on the wall and conjuring up memories of what they have just viewed. Not all horror films can live up to that kind of standard, but at the very least a horror film has to prod the viewer into feeling a sense of terror, however slight. During the film, if I don’t jump out of my seat, then I need to at least feel like at any second I might jump. In fact, the really good horror films don’t have any “shock” scares but rather a general sense of foreboding and dread.

Besides the fact that I wasn’t scared during Paranormal Activity 2, I also didn’t particularly believe in the characters. That’s not to say that I didn’t care one way or another (if you put a baby on screen, chances are the viewers are going to worry about its well-being), but that I didn’t think they seemed like real people. This is a risk you take when you make a film that is supposed to be based on “found” or “real” material; it causes the viewer to look a bit more closely at the reality of the situation portrayed. And I didn’t think any of the people in the film behaved like real human beings.

For instance, the daughter in the film is constantly filming things with her camera. This is completely plausible; sometimes young people get hold of a camera and they point it at things they find interesting. However, I don’t think that anybody would find the installation of a home video system at all interesting. There are so many things filmed with the “home camera” that simply wouldn’t be filmed because nobody would think to press “record” during these moments. Most people record things that they find intriguing on some level and I just found that there were too many moments being recorded by the video camera that nobody would think to press “record” on.

But the truth of the matter is that the film’s issues are more systemic than that. The problem is that the well has run dry after one film. There isn’t anything interesting to me any more about seeing invisible creatures doing things. And more and more, when I watch these types of films, I can’t understand why anyone would stay in these situations. I mean, why wouldn’t you move out of this house? I understand there are real-world difficulties to maneuver, like mortgages and such, but if there is an entity in my house that is threatening my family, I think I’ll just put the house on the market and move to a hotel for a few months.

It just doesn’t make any sense that people would continue to live in a house when they have photographic evidence that there is a ghost living there with them. Also, if you were living in this house and you had that footage, wouldn’t you be selling it to every major news outlet in the world. I mean, this would give the world proof that ghosts exist; seriously, in this day and age, nobody in that house would think to try and profit off of this terrible experience?

But the cliché factor is the part that really bugs me. Not only are there rip-offs of everything from Poltergeist to The Blair Witch Project, but it relies on really offensive stereotypes like the ethnic nanny who somehow knows about spirits and ghosts. Or the trite notion that dogs can see these invisible specters and bark at them. Dogs can’t even see colors and I’m supposed to believe that they can see spirits that human beings are unable to?

I mean, I’m not asking the filmmakers to try and reinvent the wheel because sometimes there are themes and occurrences that are just damned effective and you might want to use them in your films. However, you have to bring some kind of new twist to the material or else you’re just rehashing something that has already been done. The first film had the clever idea to set-up cameras in a couple’s bedroom that was being haunted; what does this sequel offer us? It’s a sort of side-quel to the first film, but I don’t think anyone was clamoring to find out what Katie and Micah were doing when they left the house in the first one or wondering what their family members were up to.

Know what else is annoying about this film? One of my biggest pet peeves in the world is when movies that are not documentaries end with crawls stating what happened to the characters. This is a work of fiction; if you cannot show me within the piece what happens to the characters that you have created, then you’re not doing your job correctly. Unless you’re making a joke, like the end of Animal House, there is no excuse for not capably showing the audience the relevant information about the characters and their lives.

I understand this is Halloween week (and I’ll be devoting a whole blog post to what you should be doing film-wise to celebrate), but are audiences this desperate for something “scary” that we’ll watch poor quality footage of bad actors being dragged around by malevolent invisible forces? Have we not evolved past this stage of horror filmmaking? Of course, your other theatrical option is to wait a week and check out the latest Saw disaster that stopped being interesting halfway through the first installment and yet has cranked out another edition every October. I just sincerely hope that Paranormal Activity doesn’t try to compete.

But based on how successful the sequel is, I’m betting I’ll be writing a similar column 12 months from now.

The Other Facebook Movie

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Catfish was enjoyable to watch, but it unfolded in pretty much the way I would have expected it to.  Of course, I couldn’t have predicted exactly what these three young men would find, but from that first instant, it’s clear that it’s not going to end well.

For those who are unaware, Catfish is a documentary in which two young filmmakers (Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost) follow around Schulman’s photographer brother Nev after he befriends a family of artists that live in Michigan.  It starts when eight year old prodigy Abby sends Nev a painting she did based on a photograph he took.  Impressed by the work of such a young girl, Nev becomes her pen pal, then later chats with her mother and her older sister and brother and becomes friends with them all on Facebook.  After a while, Nev becomes rather fond of Abby’s older sister Megan and they start a long-distance relationship of sorts (long phone conversations, constant text contact) despite never having met each other.

One of my issues with the film really has nothing to do with the film itself; it’s about the marketing.  So much emphasis on the marketing has been on the “don’t spoil the secret twist for anyone” aspect of the film that it winds up detracting from what is otherwise a rather intriguing story.  It’s clear to any sentient human being that this story is not going to work out the way Nev so desperately wants it to and as the evidence of lies begin to mount, I wish I hadn’t been told by the marketing folks to expect some massive twist because it was kind of gently unfolding in a logical way.  I think it caused some disappointment on my part, expecting something truly mind-blowing when the reality of the situation was fairly obvious.  I’m going to delve into some spoiler-ish territory here, so don’t read onward if you don’t want to know about the “twist” which isn’t really a twist.

I think the film really finds its footing in terms of character and emotion when we reach the second half and discover that Nev has actually been fooled by one sad woman.  I think the most heartbreaking aspect of this whole episode is not her almost unbelievably depressing life, but Nev’s reaction to this.  I mean, throughout the film I was kind of shaking my head at Nev’s naivete, wondering how he could be so foolish as to be duped by this woman, despite the complexity of her hoax.  But when it sinks in for him that this woman that he developed feelings for was really a mother with a husband and two handicapped stepchildren, he does the most remarkable thing: he shows compassion.  He doesn’t get angry with Angela or scold her (maybe gently he does), but instead tries to understand her motivations for doing this.  One could say that Nev had cameras on him, so perhaps he was merely playing the hero for the sake of the film, but I felt he was genuinely sorry for this woman despite the fact that her actions had clearly hurt him.  That, to me, was the heart of the film.

Other than that, the three dudes (including the two directors) are enjoyable enough to be around; there’s a particularly endearing moment when Nev reads some of the risque texts that “Megan” had sent to him after realizing that she’s probably not real.

I suppose my biggest issue with the film was that the filmmakers were kind of narcissistic enough to believe that in the end, their story was the most interesting.  In fact, Angela’s story is the most compelling.  I think more experienced filmmakers might have gotten to that house and realized, “wow, let’s start here and follow Angela around for a year and learn about her life.”  Instead, they exploit her as this kind of tragic villain who swoops in at the end of the film when I think she’s got more of a story to tell.  But I think the truth of the matter is that these filmmakers didn’t have the means to follow her around for a year and they seemed too scared around the family to be comfortable enough doing so.  Regardless, I felt there was a missed opportunity there.

It’s funny to me when people refer to this as the “other Facebook movie” because I don’t think Catfish or The Social Network are about Facebook.  I think they are thematically about social media, but only tangentially.  The Social Network is about alienation and the founding of a company while Catfish is really about striving for connection by any means necessary.  Facebook, as an entity, is really just a MacGuffin for both of these movies and both films deserve better than to be labeled as merely “Facebook movies.”

Frenzy on the Wall: Everything Old is Old Again

Monday, October 18th, 2010

I had no interest in seeing The Expendables this summer. I loved ’80s action movies as much as the next person; hell, I grew up watching movies like Commando over and over again. Even now, if I catch an old Schwarzenegger or Stallone flick on cable, I find I still have a sentimental attachment to those “classics.” Of course now I understand that they aren’t actually “good” movies, but I can overlook those flaws and enjoy them as a reminder of how much I enjoyed them when I was younger.

But I’m not crazy about the idea of seeing a throwback to a time when Hollywood movies were ruled by stars that could barely act – although I do think Schwarzenegger and Stallone have done good work – in outlandish films that barely made sense. Films have evolved past those kinds of action movies for a reason.

The Expendables was supposed to be a punch in the gut to these newfangled action films like the Bourne series or Batman Begins; you know, movies that have good actors in smart scripts made by intelligent filmmakers. Jeez, who wants that, right? We want washed-up, aging movie stars starring in dumb films with lots of gore and violence!

Actually, apparently that is what “we” want, since The Expendables did big business and now RED is doing similarly well at the box office. And after seeing RED this weekend, I find myself once again at odds with the movie-going public and certain film critics who have given the film a pass. I decided to see RED because it’s got an excellent cast and the idea seemed fun enough; besides, I felt with all of those excellent actors, there’s no way they could all be doing it for the paycheck. But I guess Helen Mirren needed a summer home and I don’t blame her or most of the other actors.

But, can someone wake up Bruce Willis? Other than the few scenes where he’s shooting a gun or punching somebody in the face, Willis seems utterly unfazed by everything in the movie. I don’t even know if it’s a bad performance, maybe he’s researched retired CIA agents thoroughly and found that this is truly how they act, but it’s not just a lack of emotion in every line or action, it’s a lack of energy. Everyone else in the film is chewing scenery like crazy, mugging constantly, meanwhile Willis is just shrugging. Karl Urban has the most straight-laced, buttoned-up role in the film and yet he still somehow is able to do everything with conviction.

I’m worried about Bruce Willis. If you look at the last five years, there isn’t a single performance where you’d say, “yes, that’s the Bruce Willis I love.” The strange thing is that he keeps picking films that should be right in his wheelhouse; it’s just that most of them are terrible films where he doesn’t seem particularly motivated. When Willis is great (see: 12 Monkeys, Sin City, Unbreakable, Pulp Fiction, Death Becomes Her), he is one of the most interesting and charismatic actors out there, but when he’s bad he’s just boring. The last time I saw Willis in a film where he really hit it out of the park is in his one scene in Fast Food Nation. Since then it’s been a string of mostly disappointments. And between RED and Cop Out, this has been one of the sorriest years in Willis’ career.

The real problem with RED, though, is not Willis’ performance. The issues with RED run much deeper than his casting. While the script is your standard fare about conspiracies and CIA agents, a throwaway plot that mostly has to get our heroes from one set piece to the next, it’s adequate enough. But director Robert Schwentke has made a film that lacks momentum and progression and it starts with the first scene. This is an action film and we spend the first five minutes of the film on various conversations that Willis has, over the phone, with Mary Louise Parker.

It’s not that it’s boring, it’s just shrug-inducing. Of course the problem starts with the script, but the editor should have been figuring out a way to juggle things around and cut out non-essential business. In fact, you could easily cut those scenes in the beginning right out of the movie and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference in terms of character-building or plot progression.

And there are a lot of issues like that throughout the film. This is a film that begs to be 80 minutes long and move like a freight train. Instead it’s 110 minutes and moves like … well, a slower train. And the look of the film isn’t very interesting, either, and that rests on Schwentke’s shoulders more than the DP; it just doesn’t seem like he figured out what the look of the film should be. I actually wonder what Michael Bay would have done with this material (but of course he’d probably make everyone thirty years younger and played by models).

There’s always an element of fun in the “let’s build the team” but it takes too long for the team to get assembled and by the time they do, they don’t stay together very long. The joy in the idea of this film is to watch these cool actors interact with one another for as long as possible, but there are very few scenes in which the whole glorious cast gets to play together. And there are too many tangents so that another cameo can be shoe-horned in. It’s fun to see Ernest Borgnine for a scene, but did we really need more than one appearance from the man? There’s too much re-hashing.

There is a way to make a film fun while also being silly. For example, look at a previous Willis film, The Fifth Element. That’s a film that has a kind of deranged logic to it as it careens through outer-space at warp speed with quick cuts and vivid colors. But the reason it works is that it gets committed performances from its cast members, who take their ridiculous lines seriously – thereby making them even funnier – and because of those aforementioned quick cuts, which leads to a frenetic pace. In making films of this nature, nothing is more important than pacing and commitment, two things RED sorely lacks. It doesn’t make it a film any more original or intelligent, but it makes an audience give a crap.

Look, the bottom line is that people are going to see this movie and say, “well, as long as you turn your brain off, it’ll be a good time!” This is one of my least favorite phrases. Perhaps I’m not as highly evolved, but I don’t know how to turn my brain off. Mine always seems to stay on and tell me when something is stupid. It’s not that the film is completely devoid of pleasure, it’s not flat-out awful, it’s just uninspired.

Yeah, I enjoyed Malkovich playing unhinged for a few scenes, but it’s a joke that wears thin really quickly. And that’s what’s true of everything in this film. The action scenes are not exciting and the jokes are mostly lame. Everything about the film feels recycled and repackaged. It’s the same movie you’ve seen countless times except…everyone’s retirement age! I’m just sick of filmmakers trotting out the same old crap and putting some silly twist on that crap and calling it original. And it’s even more disappointing when critics can’t even sniff out a crappy film just because it’s gussied up with award-winning older actors.

Ultimately, RED is not a film that should inspire great hatred or great affection because it’s really just disposable. And that’s when the defenders of the film will say, “yes, but it’s meant to be disposable!” Listen, if you can enjoy a film that proudly wears its uselessness on its sleeve, then more power to you. Call me crazy, but I think we should hold our art to a slightly higher standard than that.

Jackass 3-D (Dir. Jeff Tremaine)

Friday, October 15th, 2010

As much as I pride myself on my film snobbery, I’m an unabashed fan of the Jackass series and films.  I used to say to anyone who would question me, “well, it’s stupid fun, but I like it for some reason.”  Well, I no longer think of it as just “stupid fun.”  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the films are shining examples of witticism.  However, they are certainly more witty than people give them credit for.  The stunts that they pull are so absurd as to be almost brilliant, but what really gets me are the ad-libbed reactions that Johnny Knoxville or Chris Pontius will throw out there after a stunt, like, “oh man, that hurt to do that to you” after Pontius puts a fish hook in Steve-O’s cheek.

The key to any great comedy is to give us likable characters and put them in precarious situations where we care about the outcome.  Jackass has perfected this formula.  All of the guys in the films are inherently likable because they are 1) self-deprecating and 2) self-harming; we, as human beings, tend to have a soft spot for people who are self-deprecating and for those that will harm themselves for our benefit.  And we always care about the outcome of each of these insane stunts and it’s usually either 1) I hope he doesn’t die and/or get maimed or 2) I hope he doesn’t vomit.  What the films do that is somewhat revolutionary is take out the whole business about a plot and story.  But, the interesting thing is that over the course of the series and the films, we have certainly seen character growth and bonds.  And male bonding is really what the series has always been about; just getting together with your best buddies and doing dumb stunts in the hopes of making your pals laugh.

But enough trying to analyze the complexities of Jackass 3-D.  I went to the midnight showing with two of my best friends and we – like most people in the theater – had quite a few drinks beforehand (and during).  The crowd was wild, which was what I was hoping for when I decided to see the midnight showing.  This is truly one of those must-see theater experiences because it’s not the same watching the film at home, without hearing the crowd collectively go, “ohhhhhhhhh.”  I don’t necessarily know that the 3-D part of the film was warranted or that they truly take advantage of it outside of a few scenes at the beginning and end, but I will say that if you’re going to see this movie, then you are going to get exactly what you paid for and signed up for.

I will say that I don’t think the film is as strong as the first two installments.  Perhaps it’s a result of getting older (both myself and the crew) or perhaps it’s because there’s only so many new ways to put yourself at risk of death and disease, but the film didn’t make me laugh or cringe as much as the first two.  However, it’s still ridiculously funny and one of the best times I’ve had in a theater this year.  I don’t want to spoil the stunts for you, but I will say that I enjoyed the scene with Super Mighty Glue, the scene with the gorilla in April and Phil Margera’s hotel room, Bam’s “Rocky” re-enactments, the “Helicockter,” the scene where Wee-Man walks into a bar with his little person lady friend, the scene with Knoxville and the bull, Steve-O and Pontius playing “tee ball,” and a whole handful of others.  There were a few parts that fell flat, but the film moves so fast that we don’t have time to notice and nothing really made me gag, which is both a plus and a minus.  The sweat-suit cocktail, though, was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen and I mean that as the highest compliment.

Anyway, I’m surprised I was able to write 700 words about a film that is really all about the visceral.  And my visceral reaction to the movie was: very, very funny.

Gay Dilemma

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

Since everyone else is weighing in on this topic, I figured I’d throw my two cents out there.

In case you haven’t heard, Ron Howard’s new movie The Dilemma has a trailer in which star Vince Vaughn calls a car “gay.”  This seems like a fairly regular occurrence these days; someone will use the word “gay” in a pejorative way.  In fact, even in liberal New York City, I hear that term thrown around by tens of people a day – gay and straight – to refer to something that is not homosexual.  In my opinion, using the word “gay” in that manner is inappropriate and wrong and I try my best not to use it in such a way.  But, I’m not about to say that characters in films can’t use it.

There has been such an outrage over Vince Vaughn’s stupid line in a trailer for a (probably) stupid movie that they have removed the word from the trailer.  Yay for equality?  The issue here, for me, is that just because a character in a work of fiction is racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. it does not mean that the creator of that character is.  If you disagree with the character’s use of the word, then it’s your right to not like that character.  We hear things we don’t want to hear all the time and if we want to, we can be offended by everything we encounter.  But once you start censoring what characters in films and literature can or cannot say, then what is the next step?  Are we going to go back and remove the name “Nigger Jim” from every copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?  Are we going to edit out the whole “do you know how I know you’re gay?” section from The 40 Year Old Virgin?

What I’m trying to say here is that art shouldn’t have to adhere to the standards of society; that’s why it’s art, it should stand outside of it.  Now, one could make the argument that The Dilemma is hardly art, but who gets to be the arbiter of that?  Art is subjective.  If people want to get up in arms over the use of a possible slur in a film that will probably have no influence on their life?  That’s their prerogative, but it seems like an awful waste of time.

Frenzy on the Wall: A Sad State of Affairs

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Let me start by saying that I didn’t see Life as We Know It because I’ve already seen it. Chances are you’ve seen it too. Based on the premise and the trailer, I’m fairly confident that I could predict every beat in that film. Not only do I know everything that will happen in it, I’m pretty sure I can predict how the actors will say their lines, when the music will reach a crescendo, when a montage will occur, and how it will be shot and edited. This is the nature of romantic comedies today; no innovation, just re-purposing old tricks that have worked well in the past. It is the one genre where it seems like nobody has any interest in creating art.

Look at Katherine Heigl’s filmography over the past four or five years and you’ll see that it is littered with nothing but romantic comedies. And, other than Knocked Up, there isn’t a single decent one. It’s not just that she’s in films that are unoriginal and uninspiring, but that the characters she generally plays is the same: uptight, hard-working, no sense of humor, shrill, etc.

Frankly, she’s playing a very specific female stereotype and it’s difficult for me to see her movies as particularly empowering to women when all of them involve her not finding happiness until she finds love with a man who is usually irresponsible or loutish or a murderer (as in Killers). So, the message of these movies – like The Ugly Truth, 27 Dresses and yes, even Knocked Up – is that if you’re a hard-working and mature woman in your late 20s or early 30s, then just loosen the fuck up and lower your standards already!

How many films have we seen that follow this pattern in the last few years? Hollywood continues to churn out romantic comedies with the same theme. I just find it fascinating that in all of these films it’s the woman who has to be the one to lower her standards in some way. Look at She’s Out of My League; hell, it’s in the title! She’s a wonderful, beautiful woman and she falls for an unattractive, fumbling man because he makes her laugh with his awkwardness? Yeah, sorry, I don’t think that relationship’s going to last a long time.

There’s a strange kind of propaganda with these films about marriage. Every film like this ends with a proposal, a wedding, a flash-forward to a point where they are already married, etc. It’s bizarre to think that there can’t be a romantic comedy that doesn’t end with the leads either getting married or having children. It’s even more bizarre to think that in this day and age we can’t have a romantic comedy that ends with our leads single. Sometimes in life, avoiding a relationship is the smartest move one can make, so why can’t we have a film that shows us that?

Know what would have been a perfect film to show us that? Sex and the City 1 or 2. I will always be disappointed in the way that show unfolded to the point where four self-reliant single women all became dependent on rich men for their happiness. When the show ended with each woman involved in committed relationships, I was aghast that an HBO show didn’t have the balls to follow through on its initial premise and have at least one of the women remaining single and fabulous.

They compounded that mistake in the first film by having Carrie actually get married, then realized that they had to find a way to extricate Samantha from her relationship so that future films wouldn’t be about four married women. Still, in the sequel, we have four happy women and so the filmmakers have to create things for the characters to do that we might find interesting; they painted themselves into a corner. So instead of giving us a narrative we find compelling, instead we get two and a half hours of Sarah Jessica Parker wearing different outfits! I understand fashion is a big part of the show and the films, but I’m willing to bet most people aren’t going to the movies to see women in their 40s try on different outfits.

But women love shopping, right? That’s what Hollywood has taught us, which is why we get a scene of women going to boutiques and trying on clothes in every other romantic comedy. I can think of one time when it worked well: Pretty Woman. It was an empowering moment for Julia Roberts in that film because she had been denied the opportunity by those snobby women earlier in the movie. In most “shopping” scenes since then, it just feels contrived.

The reason people went nuts for 500 Days of Summer last year was the fact that for once there were real people doing semi-realistic things that couples actually do. But even that film couldn’t help itself and had the happy ending and the scene where he quits his job with a big speech in front of a board room full of co-workers. Still, at least that film was attempting something different. Same goes for Adventureland. But these are films about a younger generation, so there is no marriage on the horizon and we can assume that they are young enough that these relationships might not last a lifetime.

Know what my favorite romantic comedy of the last year or so has been? Drew Barrymore’s Whip It. I’m not quite sure that I would call it a romantic comedy, although there are definitely scenes of romance and it is definitely a comedy. I don’t think that film got enough credit for what it accomplished: it gave us an empowered young female who realizes she might be getting played by her boyfriend and instead of forgiving him or believing his (possibly legitimate) excuse, she just kisses him and walks away. She’s a strong, independent woman who has bigger dreams (and nightmares) in her life than some dude who may or may not be in love with her. I was surprised because it went in a direction I did not expect, which is so rare for movies in general these days and especially for movies like that one.

Films like The Proposal, He’s Just Not That into You, It’s Complicated, Bride Wars, etc. I just don’t understand why anyone is seeing them. I keep hearing over and over that it’s because they are “fantasies.” But fantasies are supposed to be empowering or exciting; they are supposed to show us that we can lead lives that are different from our own. A true “fantasy” is something that most mere mortals cannot attain, so I don’t understand how getting engaged or married or having a child is a fantasy when it’s completely within the realm of possibility for most people.

I could see how Eat, Pray, Love could be considered a fantasy since most people don’t have the means or courage to do what Julia Roberts’ character does in that film. Although, again, her journey is not complete until she finds a man of course!

Look, I’ve written a lot about romantic comedies in this column and it’s because it’s one of my favorite genres. I complain only because I love. I mean, the films of Eric Rohmer are mostly romantic comedies, but they have almost no resemblance to what America has produced in the last twenty years. There is no risk-taking with romantic comedies these days. Look at Annie Hall, a film that is hailed as one of the greatest films in the genre; spoiler alert, Alvy Singer doesn’t get the girl in the end. How about Billy Wilder’s The Apartment? That film deals with suicide and adultery. Doubtful we’d find those two topics in romantic comedies made fifty years later.

One of my favorite romantic comedies of all-time (and indeed one of my personal favorite films of all-time), something I watched with my mother when I was growing up countless times, is a film called Seems Like Old Times. Neil Simon wrote it and it stars Goldie Hawn. She’s a lawyer who represents small-time crooks who are mostly illegal aliens. She’s married to the District Attorney (played by Charles Grodin) and her ex-husband (Chevy Chase) is a writer who is on the run for as crime he didn’t commit. It’s a complicated film that deals with complex emotional issues, but does so in a hilarious screwball way. Hawn also gets to play a woman who is never shrill, always accommodating and yet she’s tough, but sweet. She’s, you know, an actual person.

The craziest part is that Goldie Hawn is actually stuck trying to choose between two men she loves very deeply. As an audience, our allegiance shifts constantly and we don’t know how it will end or who she will end up with. Then, in a stroke of brilliance, the film ends on a moment of ambiguity. Can you imagine? Ambiguity at the end of a romantic comedy? I just need to say something I almost never say: when it comes to romantic comedies, they really don’t make them like they used to.

Let Me In (Dir. Matt Reeves) – SPOILERS

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In was one of my favorite films of 2008.  It was atmospheric, moody, complex, metaphorical, and romantic in the strangest possible way.  I loved that it raised some interesting questions about what it would mean to fall in love with a vampire who will always be 12, how that love would change as one partner aged noticeably.  I enjoyed thinking about what it would mean that the vampire looked like a twelve year old, but was in fact much older than that; if that’s the case and this is a vampire that lures 12 year old boys into being her protector and (presumably) lover, then doesn’t that make this vampire a pedophile?

The point is that it was a film that dealt with complexities we would never find in an American film, right?

The remake, entitled Let Me In, surprised me in how faithful it remained to the Swedish original.  I would say that it remained true to the mood and atmosphere of the first film while adding some interesting wrinkles here and there as well as making some improvements.  One noticeable improvement is that writer/director Matt Reeves excised the subplot with the nosy neighbor who is transformed into a vampire.  He manages to keep the iconic image of the woman bursting into flames in her hospital room, but we don’t have to deal with her whole boring back-story.

I also think that Reeves chose two skilled actors in Chloe Moretz (as Abby) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (as Owen), actors who I think help the audience sympathize with them more.  The basic outline of their “love” story is intact, but my perception of it changed slightly.  I was much more aware of the romantic nature of the film in this version and the ways in which Owen cares for Abby and vice versa.  Owen, especially, is almost comic in his empathy.  When Abby vomits after trying a Now & Later, Owen’s first reaction is to hug her tightly.  It’s a heartwarming moment.  Abby, of course, cares very much for Owen, perfectly expressed in the climactic pool scene (more on that later).  The way in which she cares for Owen reminded me a bit of the way Adam Sandler’s character expresses his love for Emily Watson in Punch-Drunk Love.  When there is an boiling rage inside of you, but you want to express your love, sometimes your love is not expressed in the things you say or do, but in the way you protect someone with your rage.  I think that’s the point of Abby and Owen’s love affair, they express their affection in different ways, but they can both recognize that it’s affection regardless.

Another reason that I responded strongly to this film is something my viewing companion brought up.  She said there was something about hearing the dialogue in our own language that made the film more effective.  I thought it was an interesting point.  I love foreign films, love reading subtitles, but there indeed is a difference between hearing words actually spoken than reading them as they are being spoken in a foreign tongue.  Not only that, I was better able to appreciate the sense of foreboding and terror because I didn’t have to worry about missing a line of dialogue.

I really have nothing but positive things to say about the film since it’s almost exactly like the original (emphasis on ORIGINAL)…except for the pool scene.  I think there are a number of things wrong with the scene as presently constituted, including the fact that it seems to all happen much too quickly.  But there is one big difference that really kills it aesthetically and that’s that the bullies decide to turn the light off inexplicably.  Turning the lights off makes it hard to see what’s happening and we should be seeing absolutely everything.  The power of that scene in the original is that we see what the boy doesn’t as he is drowning.  But now, we can’t see much.  We see enough to know what’s going on – including a severed head – but it doesn’t have the same impact or the same beauty as the original version of that scene did.  It let me down a bit.

I’m also of two minds when it comes to a shot that Reeves inserts of Owen seeing a photo of Abby and the Richard Jenkins/protector character as a young man.  It’s implied in the original that the Owen character would now be taking on the “protector” role, but here it’s completely spelled out for us.

Ultimately, I’m not unhappy that the film was made, but I’m not sure it was necessary either.  I think the first version is a superior product, despite whatever flaws it might have, but in the end I guess I can’t argue with remaking the film the way it was remade.  If nothing else, people who won’t go to films with subtitles will now have a chance to see this story told and told in a similar fashion.

But I think if you’ve seen the original, there’s not really a pressing need for you to see the remake.

Frenzy on the Wall: Is The Social Network Fincher’s Best Film?

Monday, October 4th, 2010

I’ve made no secret of my love for David Fincher. Simply put, I think he’s one of the top five living filmmakers, the second best living American filmmaker and I anticipate the openings of each of his films the way someone might await seeing their favorite band at a concert. But is his latest film, The Social Network, his best film?

Even before I saw the most brilliantly constructed trailer of the last few years, I had The Social Network on the top of my list of films I needed to see in 2010. The problem that comes with that kind of anticipation is that it can lead to massive disappointment (see: Panic Room) and so as I sat down Friday afternoon and The Social Network began to unspool, I felt anxious.

Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. The Social Network is easily the best film I’ve seen so far this year and it’s not even close.

I think the most fascinating thing about Fincher’s career has been his ability to adapt to the material he chooses. Very rarely do we find scenes in Fincher’s films that seem over-directed or showy. When the camera does all those twists and turns in Fight Club or there is a super close-up, we never feel like we are taken out of the film. This goes hand in hand with why I think Fincher is so great: his ability to create a tone and mood, finding tension and milking it with every weapon in his arsenal including photography and editing. So while Fight Club had a lot of quick cuts, which kept us on our toes, Zodiac used well-timed cuts to create a sense of foreboding.

The Social Network is almost classic in its tone and mood. We have two separate lawsuits – although they never actually go to court – which makes the film feel a bit like a legal drama, but there’s also the rise to power of a genius which makes it feel perhaps like a Citizen Kane-esque operatic drama.

If I had to find a theme that runs through most of Fincher’s work, it would be alienation. He tends to be drawn to characters that don’t fit in: Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset in Se7en; Robert Downey, Jr.‘s Paul Avery in Zodiac; Brad Pitt as both Tyler Durden in Fight Club and Benjamin Button .

In The Social Network, we are presented with a very peculiar outcast in Mark Zuckerberg. What makes Zuckerberg so odd – and so compelling – is that he has a quick wit, lots of intelligence, and a good deal of bravado. Most people would use these gifts – not to mention his genius ability to work with computers – to gather as many friends as possible. I mean, the tools are there for him to be an extroverted and popular kid despite the fact that he’s no Brad Pitt.

But instead, Zuckerberg (as presented in the movie, at least) uses his abilities to cut people down and make them feel bad about themselves so that he could feel better about his life. Yet, the amazing thing is that he’s portrayed as longing to have friends, to have a girlfriend, to have a connection. And I think it’s an interesting perspective on the man who created the largest social networking site of all-time.

I have to say, though, that I didn’t find Zuckerberg to be a villain. Maybe it says a lot about me, but I found myself on his side for most of the film. Sure, he can be resentful and spiteful, but considering he’s a kid who doesn’t know how to deal with people, I can’t really blame him for a lot of what he does. In fact, I can defend every decision he makes throughout the film. I can even defend what he does to his best friend and business partner Eduardo Saverin. (Spoilers ahead)

When Zuckerberg, the brains behind the operation, decides to head out to Silicon Valley to grow the company (which turned out to be the right decision), Eduardo stays in New York instead of moving out to California with Mark. To me, that says that Eduardo didn’t believe in the company the way that Mark did. In any fledgling company, the CFO needs to, you know, oversee the business and make sure it’s running smoothly, that the funds are being used correctly. Eduardo clearly doesn’t think the site will take off the way it ultimately did.

Sure, you could say that Mark shouldn’t have betrayed his best friend in that way, but business is business. And the truth of the matter is, as depicted in the movie, Eduardo’s biggest contribution to the creation of the site was as the money-man. He supplied 19,000 bucks – money that Mark could have gotten from a number of other sources, including the Winklevoss twins. Of course, most of the audience I was with was rooting for Eduardo; when the crawl at the end of the film pops up on screen and informs us that Eduardo got a large settlement, the audience applauded. (End Spoilers)

I think the fact that I wasn’t rooting against Zuckerberg speaks to the film’s power. A lot of people have justly given credit to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, but mostly folks have pointed out his fine ear for dialogue. The dialogue is indeed strong, but the most important aspect of Sorkin’s script is the way he has structured the film in a complicated yet coherent way. The first part of the film is set at Harvard as Mark is creating Facebook and the second part of the film starts when Mark meets Sean Parker – the creator of Napster – and becomes enamored with how Parker operates so smoothly.

Meanwhile, there are two settlement hearings that take place after the events in the regular narrative, and those hearings are inter-spliced at key points throughout the film, giving us both a hint of what is to come for the characters and some perspective. It also helps to give Eduardo Saverin and the Winklevoss twins a voice that is equally as loud as Zuckerberg’s in the narrative. It was really a genius move on Sorkin’s part and I’d give him the Oscar for Best Screenplay based on that alone.

I haven’t mentioned the acting at all, so let me dedicated an entire paragraph to the masterful performance of Jesse Eisenberg. The whole cast is uniformly excellent – seriously, not a bad turn in the batch – but Eisenberg deserves special recognition for being the most effortlessly compelling protagonist of the year (and maybe the last few years). I say “effortlessly” but I’m sure there was a lot of work involved, it’s just that Eisenberg makes it seem easy. It’s not just the way he delivers Sorkin’s dialogue so naturally, it’s the way his eyes narrow when he’s thinking or the way his lips turn up into a smile when he’s creating FaceMash; more than anything, it’s the way he perks up with confidence when he knows he’s right.

He doesn’t just seem believable, he is believable and real. This is the kind of performance that is so difficult and that doesn’t get any credit because it’s not flashy. I’m sure the Academy will ignore what is, so far, the performance of the year, but I guarantee we’ll all be talking about it for years.

Now, onto the rest of the cast! Justin Timberlake is going to be a movie star, without a doubt. He exudes confidence in most of his scenes as Sean Parker and he would be so easy to detest if he wasn’t so charming; he makes us understand why Zuckerberg falls under his spell. I especially loved his scenes at the end, when he’s finally feeling vulnerable. Andrew Garfield is going to be a movie star too; in fact, he’s going to be Spider-Man. Garfield is certainly the heart of the film, the naïve soul who is destined to get his heartbroken.

We sympathize with him, we want him to be okay and we cheer when he breaks apart Zuckerberg’s laptop. Garfield arguably has the easiest task because the script sets him up as the puppy dog who squeals with delight about having groupies, but Garfield takes it to an interesting place. There is a vulnerability in the way Garfield speaks his lines that is affecting in a different way. And Arnie Hammer (with help from Josh Pence) astounded me as Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss. The Winklevi could very easily be portrayed as villains, but the script and Hammer doesn’t allow that to happen; they actually seem like reasonable and bright gentlemen with an emphasis on the word “gentlemen,” as they believe very much in tradition and manners and codes of ethics. Hammer gets the best line in the film – a reference to Karate Kid that made me chuckle – but it’s in the way he delivers his lines as the Winklevoss twins, the way he imbues every line with conviction.

The other actors, from Rooney Mara as the girl who calls Zuckerberg an asshole in the beginning of the film to Rashida Jones who brings things full-circle at the end, are all excellent. John Getz, Brenda Strong, Joseph Mazzello, Max Minghella … everyone does their parts perfectly. There isn’t a single false note and it takes a lot of strong supporting work to be able to allow the leads to shine and everyone should be proud of their work here.

I have to give special mention to the music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross because I don’t usually pay that much attention to the scores of films unless they really strike me, but this is one that I want to buy immediately. I’ve been a big Reznor fan since I was a kid listening to Nine Inch Nails in my room and I always thought, based on his instrumental work, that he’d be a great film composer. Well, I was right, because this score kicked my ass right from the beginning when we see Zuckerberg creating FaceMash cross-cut with a Final Club party. Just masterful.

Jeff Cronenweth’s photography is as great as it usually is. He’s worked with Fincher since Se7en and I think he’s one of the more underrated cinematographers out there. Cronenweth has this one shot in Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo where Robin Williams is running down a circular parking garage and it just blew my mind. Cronenweth is also smart to work with visually talented filmmakers and Fincher knows how to frame a shot that can be hung on a wall and called art.

The Social Network is the best film of the year so far and we’ve got three more months to go, but I feel it’s safe to say that it’ll be somewhere near the top of my ten best list in December. However, where does it rank with other Fincher films? That’s what I’ve been debating ever since I walked out of the movie and I’ve been wrestling with it all weekend.

I don’t think I can put it up there with Zodiac or Se7en yet because I feel like those two films have themes and stories that are timeless and I do worry that The Social Network could be dated in a few years. The theme might be timeless, but facts could emerge that could change our perception of what occurred. There’s still so much we don’t know and that could change.

On the other hand, I think Fight Club is one of the most important films ever made and it’s certainly one of the most important films for me, personally, as a cinema freak; I certainly can’t put The Social Network up there yet. I loved The Curious Case of Benjamin Button more than most people I know, but I suppose I could confidently say that The Social Network is better than that one. So, does that make it the fourth best film Fincher has done? I’m not entirely sure yet, I need to let it marinate a bit more. But if that’s so? Holy shit, that’s amazing. I mean, that’s not a knock on the film at all; if The Social Network, a brilliant film that I might even call a masterpiece, is only the fourth best film Fincher has made, then I don’t think I need to make any more arguments about why he’s the second best living American filmmaker.

Paul Thomas Anderson is still number one…for now.

(Side-note: It’s strange when I hear people call it “the Facebook movie” or folks complaining about the subject matter. Perhaps it’s just me, but the subject matter of a film is usually the least important aspect of a movie. A film could be about sex, which is arguably the most “exciting” and “risqué” topic there is, but that doesn’t automatically make the film riveting. And a film could be about people talking in rooms and it could be absolutely enthralling.

The truth of the matter is that The Social Network is really about people talking in rooms; they could be discussing creating any kind of business and I don’t really understand why people would be put off by the idea of that specific business being a website that most folks check several times a day.)

Enter the Void (Dir. Gaspar Noe)

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

I had really high hopes for the latest twisting narrative from Gaspar Noe.  I’d been following the film since it’s been in production because the idea behind it was brilliant: it’s told from the perspective of the main character from beginning to end…except the main character dies half an hour into the film, so we follow his spirit as it soars around the city (and backwards and forwards in time).  We’ve seen the first-person perspective used in spurts in films like Strange Days, but it seems like Noe has not only employed it for the length of his film, but he’s also perfected it.  We truly feel as though we’re seeing the world through the main character’s eyes, rather than a man holding a video camera and running around.  In other words, I think the cinematography and look of this strange film is award-worthy, brilliant, some of the best I’ve ever seen.  Noe deserves special credit for envisioning and executing a film that is so visually complicated.

However, I don’t even want to describe the plot of the film for you because it’s really not worth it.  It’s got drugs, abortion, sex, prostitution, blood…and it’s all, true to Noe’s form, extremely graphic.  But sometimes Noe confuses the controversial and gratuitous with interesting.  The truth of the matter is that Oscar, the main character, didn’t need to be a drug dealer and his sister didn’t need to be a stripper/prostitute and the film didn’t need to be set in the flashing lights of Tokyo for it to hold our attention.  The sheer genius of the cinematography would have kept us focusing on anything, it’s just a shame that Noe couldn’t find a story that was worth telling.

Having said all that, I do think there are some profound points made here about the nature of life and death.  Clearly Noe has a view of death that is similar to a kind of Buddhist philosophy and there is even a (rather forced) mention of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  But I don’t think the film is nearly as deep as Noe seems to think it is.  As I mentioned earlier, there is an abortion scene and it’s shown in graphic detail and I don’t know what the point is.  Is it trying to say something about the tenuous nature of life, how we are all on the precipice of death before we are even born?  It’s possible, but I don’t know if I could support that subtext by using the text of the film.

The film is divided into four parts: first we have Oscar alive, doing drugs in his apartment and walking through the streets of Tokyo as a semi-sentient human being until he is shot in a bathroom stall; the second part is Oscar’s life flashing before his eyes and this is not seen directly through Oscar’s eyes, but from behind his head so we see the back of his head in every scene as we learn the history of Oscar’s life and his strange relationship with his sister Linda that borders on the sexual; the third part is Oscar’s spirit floating around Tokyo, mostly following his sister as she has sex with guys; then the fourth part is, well, a surprise I suppose, but I will refer to it here as the “Love Hotel” sequence.  To hint at what takes place, I’ll just say: as I’ve spoken about, there is a deeply Buddhist philosophy running throughout the film.

Visually speaking, the film is an absolute masterpiece.  I don’t like to throw that word around, but there it is.  If you ignore almost every other element of mise-en-scene, then Noe has pulled off one of the finest achievements of the year.  But unfortunately, there are a lot of areas where the film falls flat.  I’ve already spoken about the plot’s limitations (and lack of aspirations), but the acting is a problem as well.  We don’t see much of Nathaniel Brown as Oscar because we see the film through his eyes, but we see a lot of Paz de la Huerta as Linda and she is…well, she’s awful.  I’ve admired her work on Boardwalk Empire, but here she is just not a human being.  She is almost comically monotone throughout the film and then explodes into histrionics every once in a while, which is almost equally laughable.  There is a certain bravery in the way in which she allows Noe to sexualize, fetishize, and downright exploit her naked body, but it doesn’t say a whole lot about her “talent” an actress.

I think this is a film that is worth seeing and it’s one that I will surely watch again, just to bathe in the images of Noe and cinematographer Benoit Debie, who should be nominated for an Academy Award but probably won’t be.  I think Noe ultimately misses the mark with what he’s trying to accomplish, but what he gets right is SO right that it almost makes up for the deficiencies.

The Best and the Brightest (Dir. Josh Shelov)

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

I’m a sucker for silly adult comedies, perhaps because they simply don’t make that many of them these days.  I adore films like A Fish Called Wanda or Ruthless People that rely on broad humor, bordering on slapstick, but are aimed to appeal to more discerning audiences, but I’m having difficult remembering the last film that even attempted to mine such territory.  The slapstick comedies we get instead are mostly parodies that seem like they were shot over the weekend with a B-list cast of characters that are just hamming it up at every possible turn.  I’m sorry, but I don’t think seeing someone getting kicked in the nuts is that funny anymore.

The Best and the Brightest is like a breath of fresh, silly air.  It doesn’t take itself seriously at all and instead of trying to fire out a joke every two seconds, co-writer/director Josh Shelov allows the humor to comedy from the well-drawn characters and set-pieces.  This film has an awareness that most modern farces don’t have, which is: create a misunderstanding that may be beneficial to one set of characters, then put those characters in a situation where the misunderstanding that had worked out to their advantage suddenly seems to teeter on the precipice of disaster.  The Best and the Brightest is at its zenith when it milks those situations for all they are worth.

The film stars Neil Patrick Harris and Bonnie Somerville as a young couple who have just moved to New York City from Delaware with their five year old daughter.  Their first order of business seems fairly easy: enroll their daughter in a private school.  However, the parents soon find out that NYC private schools start their recruitment process fairly early (like the womb) and the odds of getting their daughter into kindergarten by the fall seem pretty low, especially since they are not exactly Rockefellers and don’t have any country club friends.  So they enlist the help of a consultant (Amy Sedaris) who specializes in helping parents get their kids into private elementary schools.  Chaos – and chuckles – ensue.

I’m hesitant to give any more information about the plot because many of the film’s biggest laughs are tied to it, which is one of the film’s biggest strengths.  So often it seems like we’re given scenes in comedies that occur solely for laughs, but here the comedy is coming from such a genuine and organic place.  It’s almost like a long Seinfeld episode, where describing one scene becomes difficult because it’s so intricately interwoven into the fabric of the script, making it near impossible to tell about one scene without describing the twenty that got you there.  But I will say that a major plot point hinges on the fact that Sedaris’ character has told a white lie about how Harris’ character is actually a poet with a collection coming out.  Due to a mix-up, his friend Clark (Peter Serafinowicz, stealing every scene he’s in) accidentally slips Harris dirty text messages and instant messages that he’s printed out, which the stuffy members of the school board take to be poetry…and they find it brilliant.  As a result, the scenes of characters reading Harris’ poetry are easily the funniest parts of the film.

That’s another thing that surprised me about the film: the willingness to go to darker places.  One would think that a film that hinges on a little girl getting into elementary school would be a “family comedy” with a lot of emphasis on the little girl and how adorable she is.  But, that’s not the case with this film.  There are no cutesy scenes where the little girl is all precocious.  The adults are the focus here and they talk with “adult” language, even though they act like the biggest babies imaginable.

Bonnie Somerville is given the difficult task of playing a character that could easily border on shrill, but she makes us care deeply; she’s likable and plucky and we want her to succeed in her desire to do something different with her life.  Neil Patrick Harris is great – almost nobody can do deadpan the way he does – but I almost wish he was given a little bit more to do.  Christopher McDonald and Kate Mulgrew are good as a power couple on the board of trustees at the school that the parents decide on.  John Hodgeman (of The Daily Show) is hilarious in his few scenes, doing his usual shtick.  Amy Sedaris is given a role that is right in her wheelhouse, fast-talking and endearingly mean, which she predictably hits out of the park.  But for me the real surprise was Peter Serafinowicz, who you might remember as Sctanley in Couples Retreat, because his character is such a buffoon and those are almost always the roles that wind up being too broad and ridiculous.  But Serafinowicz finds the sweet spot and makes Clark into a character that is unapologetic, without an ounce of selflessness in him, and because of the matter-of-fact way that Serafinowicz portrays him, it almost makes him oddly likable.

I would recommend that you see this film in theaters except for one small problem: there’s no release date.  This is what happens when you make a film for very little money these days: it’s easier to just slap Neil Patrick Harris’ face on a DVD cover instead of making prints and marketing the film.  But I feel like this would be such a missed opportunity since this is a film that truly relies on an audience to help to sell the jokes (like most comedies).  Of course, if the film had cost a ton more money because the filmmakers weren’t budget-conscious, then of course studios would release it in 2000 theaters.  It’s funny the way it works; if you’re irresponsible with someone else’s money, then you get rewarded with a huge roll-out.  Anyway, I implore distribution company to at least show this film in a few theaters, because I really believe word-of-mouth will be strong.

Full disclosure: I know director Josh Shelov, been friendly with him for a few years.  I told him before I saw The Best and the Brightest that if I didn’t like it, I wasn’t going to write about it.  It was a huge relief that I liked it.  It’s not the greatest comedy ever made and I suspect it won’t be for all audiences, but it’s definitely more enjoyable that most of the muck that passes for comedy these days.  Whenever it winds up coming out, whether it’s on DVD or in theaters, check it out.  It would be hard for someone to have a bad time watching this movie.  You might not love it, but you’ll have a few chuckles at least.

The Best and the Brightest is premiering at the Philadelphia Film Festival in late October.

Frenzy on the Wall: James Franco is … Okay

Monday, September 27th, 2010

I’m mystified by the accolades that have been heaped upon James Franco over the last few years.  That’s not to say that I don’t think he’s a solid and talented actor because he surely is, but I’m not seeing the “genius” of his performances that others are seeing.  It’s especially odd that he’s held in such esteem at this point in his career because I don’t remember very many critics talking about his chops when he was starring in Tristan and Isolde or Annapolis.  I actually quite liked him in Nicolas Cage’s 2002 Sonny, but not many other folks were doing back flips over him back then.

I’m Still Here (Dir. Casey Affleck)

Friday, September 24th, 2010

I don’t really know where to start with this one.  I’ve professed my admiration for Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix many times on this site.  I think both of them are two of the finest actors that are currently working today and I root for them to succeed in all of their endeavors.  When they announced that they were working on this project, that Phoenix was going to become a rapper and Affleck was going to document his journey, I was just kind of bummed that these two brilliant actors would be spending their time on this one project rather than giving us more wonderful performances.  I worried that it was going to be a waste of their time.

I was right.

Not only that, it was a waste of my time to watch this movie.  The most exciting thing that happens in the film (the Letterman appearance) has already been seen and dissected by most folks that are aware of pop culture.  That moment is the climax of the film.  But really, that speaks more to the deficiencies in the rest of the film rather than that moment itself.

Reviewing a documentary is different from reviewing a feature and when the creators of this project recently stated that this was, in fact, a feature and that Phoenix had been perpetuating something akin to a hoax, I certainly watched the film differently.  But I can’t review it as a feature either because there are people involved in the film who weren’t aware of the shenanigans.  So, it becomes a kind of hybrid film, something resembling a Sacha Baron Cohen film.  And it makes us long for the brilliance that Cohen brings to those films, the way he actually creates credible characters that are let loose upon the world.  More than that, he plays extroverted characters that go out into the world and interact with people.  Phoenix has created a mumbling, quiet version of himself that mostly stays at home and does nothing.  So the film really just seems like a couple of kids who decided to invite some friends to make a movie in their backyard.

Much is made of Phoenix trying to arrange several meetings with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, in the hopes that Combs will listen to and love Phoenix’s terrible music.  It all goes predictably wrong and Phoenix gets upset about it.  If nothing else, Combs deserves consideration for Best Supporting Actors for his stellar performances here and in Get Him to the Greek.

There are scenes of vomiting, drug abuse, fighting, sex, but even if all of these things weren’t staged, they would still be…well, really fucking boring. I was astounded by the fact that I kept looking at the time, waiting for the film to be over.  The reason is that there is nothing compelling us forward as viewers, nothing for us to hold onto or hope for.  What is the point that Affleck is trying to make here?  It can’t really be about the media’s effect on celebrity because the world created here is so insular that we barely see outside of Phoenix’s homes.  Is it about the ways in which celebrities delude themselves?  Because that’s not really an interesting topic for 99.9% of humanity.

Ultimately, it’s a plodding film that kind of just goes onward with no particular direction.  Struggling to find a way to mercifully end the film, Affleck gives us a strange sequence where Phoenix goes to Panama and swims.  It’s supposed to be deep, perhaps some kind of metaphor (Water as rebirth?  Really?), but it comes off as pretentious and – once again – boring.

I’m really pretty upset at the amount of talent and time that was wasted on this (anti-)vanity project.  I don’t know that Phoenix’s portrayal is even a good one because I honestly don’t know how far removed it is from his own personality.  Even if it is, Phoenix is not a sympathetic or interesting “character” in this film.  He doesn’t invite us in, we don’t know him at all, and he seems like an egomaniac.  Antony Langdon plays Phoenix’s friend and assistant and aside from showing off his impressive penis a few times, doesn’t really leave much of an impression.  I wish he would get back in the studio with Spacehog and make some good music.

As for Affleck’s direction?  Well, let’s say that he doesn’t have his brother Ben’s flair for drama, nor does he have a good sense of pacing or tone.  Perhaps with a more conventional narrative, Affleck would be able to prove that he’s a decent filmmaker, but his instincts don’t seem very good from this small sample size.

Honestly, I can’t recommend that you see this film because it won’t offer you any insight nor will it entertain you.  Now let’s hope these talented fellas get back to work quickly.

Frenzy on the Wall: Surprise! Oliver Stone is Chasing Controversy

Monday, September 20th, 2010

When I was a young film fan, Oliver Stone was one of my favorite filmmakers. I watched films like Platoon, JFK, Wall Street, and Natural Born Killers during my days in junior high. Later on, films like Salvador, Born on the Fourth of July, Talk Radio, and The Doors were often in my rotation of films to re-watch.

The Chocolate War (Dir. Keith Gordon)

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

This is something I’ll be doing fairly regularly on the blog, reviewing some older films.  Netflix Instant has been a savior for me, enabling me to fill in some of the gaps that all of us film lovers have.  And as I make my way through my very long queue, I will share with you my thoughts on the films I’m watching.  Some of them will be classics, some of them will be disasters, but most of them will fall somewhere in the middle.  And I’ll try to do my best to give you a sense of whether or not a particular film is worth your time.

Keith Gordon’s The Chocolate War is definitely worth your time.

I happen to be a big Keith Gordon fan.  If you don’t know that name, then you must seek out his brilliant WWII film A Midnight Clear, which is one of the most underrated and devastating war films ever made that nobody ever talks about.  Gordon was a teen actor in the 80s (you might remember him as Rodney Dangerfield’s son in the classic Back to School), but has become a much more accomplished filmmaker than he was an actor.  His first film, The Chocolate War, had been unseen by me for no good reason but boy am I glad I watched it today.

We’re immediately aware that the film was made in 1988 when Yaz’s “In My Room” plays over the credits and while the log-line might make the film seem like a typical prep-school hazing film at a corrupt institution, the look of the film is instantly different from the usual fare.  Shot mostly in dark rooms or against perpetually gray skies, the camera is fluid in a way that borders on clumsy.  Except, there is an artfulness to the clumsiness – something that Gordon utilizes well in A Midnight Clear and later in Mother Night.

I’m hesitant to give away too much of the plot because 1) it’s more complex than I can do justice to and 2) it’s so simple that writing about it could give it away.  If that seems contradictory, then good, because that’s what the character of Archie (Wallace Langham), the film’s villain, is.  He creates plans that are so complex just for the purpose of humiliating someone else and to gain power for him and his secret society, The Vigils.  When Brother Leon (a superb John Glover) asks for Archie’s help in selling boxes of chocolate so that the school can make money – and so that Brother Leon can become headmaster – Archie sees a wonderful opportunity for The Vigils to get away with whatever they want.

The fly in the ointment is young Jerry Renault (Ilan Mitchell-Smith, from Weird Science).  When The Vigils tells him to say, “no” to the option of selling chocolate (something that no other student would dare to do), Jerry goes them one further: he continues to say no even after The Vigils tells him to give it up.  Jerry dreams of being more of a rebel than he is – gazing languidly at some of the leather-jacket wearing oddballs at the bus stop – and winds up becoming something of a symbol for the kids at the school.  The school itself is set up to be something of a fascistic machine that Brother Leon and Archie are a part of and Jerry tries to defy.  This winds up angering the guys in charge, as they are scared that young Jerry will disrupt the whole system.

There are a lot of ways to look at the film metaphorically.  One could even point out allusions to Nazi Germany.  But the truth of the matter is that you can bring whatever you want to do it.  The film is deceptively complicated, though, in terms of the politics involved.  And every time you think you might have a handle on where the film might go, it goes somewhere else.  Jerry himself is something of a Gandhi-like figure for the majority of the film, using passive-resistant to incite his classmates to think about something as seemingly innocuous as selling chocolate.

The film I was most reminded of while watching The Chocolate War was Lindsay Anderson’s If.. except with a bit less of a reliance on surrealism.  Although, it must be said, Gordon does go to some surreal places and dream sequences from time to time (coffins in the football field).

The ending is fascinating and surprisingly dark.  In the end, it seems, we are all part of the system no matter how hard we try to rebel.  I urge you all the give this film a watch and then move on to A Midnight Clear.  If you do that, you’ll have a great day of movie-viewing, courtesy of the unheralded Keith Gordon.

Frenzy on the Wall: Robert Rodriguez – Exactly What We Thought He Was

Monday, September 13th, 2010

It seems that with every new Robert Rodriguez film folks talk about how he wasted all the promise that was evident in El Mariachi.  To which I say, “huh?”  The film shows a lot of ingenuity – in the sense that he made it for so little money – but not a whole lot of originality.  The fact that he basically re-made that film two times says a lot about the kind of filmmaker that he is, too.

It’s not like we were expecting Rodriguez to become the next Orson Welles, so I’m not shocked that he’s become a filmmaker more interested in churning out familiar product than shepherding something groundbreaking.  His filmography is littered with re-makes, sequels and re-imaginings of grindhouse films (not just Grindhouse).  He goes back to the same well and his films follow a rhythm that both he and his audience are comfortable with.  This doesn’t make him a bad filmmaker (or bad person) it just makes him profoundly uninteresting.  It’s great that he really likes actions films that he saw in a cheap movie theater when he was twelve, but I’d rather see him express that affection in an essay or a book rather than merely re-purposing it.  But hey, it’s not like I find his films boring or trying to sit through.

Robert Rodriguez has always been the filmmaker that he is now.  If someone were to have asked me years ago where I thought Rodriguez would be at this stage of his career, I’d probably have guessed that he’d be exactly where he is, making exactly the kinds of films he’s making.  I might not have guessed that he’d make Machete, but I would have guessed something in that same vein (and, basically, it is another remake of El Mariachi) and that Danny Trejo would still be involved.

The reason folks tend to think that Rodriguez is some kind of innovator is based on two films: From Dusk Til Dawn and Sin City.  The former was blessed by an interesting narrative formulated by Quentin Tarantino, while the latter brought to life the world of Frank Miller.  The success of those two films has a lot more to do with the writing than anything Rodriguez brought to the table.  Hell, From Dusk Til Dawn is not even a well-directed film, it gets by on the charm of its cast, kooky dialogue, and the narrative split that occurs halfway through.  And, considering the second half of the film is supposed to be a horror film, it’s not only not scary but it often goes campy (a Rodriguez specialty).  Can you imagine Tarantino behind the reins of that flick?  Look what he did in the barroom scene in Inglourious Basterds, how he milked every last bit of tension out of it and then picture what he could have done with a strip club in Mexico full of vampires. 

As for Sin City, Rodriguez “co-directed” the film with Frank Miller so I don’t know how much Miller or Rodriguez actually did in terms of bringing the books to life.  If I give Rodriguez the benefit of the doubt and say that he probably did most of the direction of the film, then yes, he certainly deserves credit because it’s a doozy of a film.  It’s fun and strange and wild and it looks gorgeous.  How Rodriguez was able to bring a comic book to life was unlike anything we had ever seen in film before.  But considering Miller used the same exact style when he directed (solo) The Spirit…I don’t know.  Either way, Sin City is the lone film on Rodigruez’ resume as director  that I would dare to call “very good” to “great.” 

And it appears to have been a blip.  I’m especially angered by this idea of making films that are supposed to be bad, which is where Rodriguez has been buttering his bread for the last half-decade.  Films like Grindhouse and Machete are intentionally kitschy and kitsch isn’t all that exciting if it’s intentional.  There is no sincerity or subtlety in a Rodriguez film – it’s all cynical recycling of very obvious references with easy jokes that are laid on super thick.  There is no way he’s going to pace anything deliberately. And  I’m stunned that they seem to be impervious to criticism.  If you say that Planet Terror is a “bad” film, I imagine the filmmaker would chuckle and think, “that’s what it’s supposed to be, so I’ve done my job!”  That is extremely aggravating.  I don’t want filmmakers to go out of their way to make a film that is unoriginal and uninspired, with frames missing or with characters and situations that are more than ridiculous.  There are enough bad film out there without people actively trying to make them. 

All of this is a prelude to the real point of this column: I saw Machete and I’m not going to review it in any depth.  What’s the point?  You’ve seen this movie before.  Whatever idea of Machete that you have in your head, that’s what it is. Congratulations.  There is no element of surprise, no moment of awe or wonder, not even a chuckle at the ridiculousness of the vision.  Even the over-the-top moments are so pre-ordained by the constraints of the genre that Rodriguez likes to work in.

And don’t even talk to me about the supposed “political” message of this film – there is no message because the messenger is not credible.  I don’t understand how anyone could watch this movie and be moved in any particular way.  That isn’t to say there weren’t moments that I found enjoyable – it wasn’t a slog to sit through – but, as with most of Rodriguez’s films, I have zero desire to re-watch it and I forgot almost every element of it by the time I got home. 

Look, Robert Rodriguez is not the worst filmmaker out there right now, but I do know that he is an unsurprising one.  His name doesn’t inspire confidence that I’ll be seeing something worthwhile.  His forays into kids’ movies – whether it’s the Spy Kids films or the awful Shorts – don’t appeal to me now and I can’t imagine they would have been when I was the target age either.  And  the “adult” films that Rodriguez makes are made with the same effusive energy …  and lack of wit or originality. 

When anyone asks me whether I’m disappointed in the filmmaker Rodriguez has become, I shrug and say no.  I never had high hopes for him to begin with.