There's been a lot of talk about the state of current horror films being largely built around meaningless scenes of bodies being torn about. When that talk turns to WHY modern horror has gone in this direction you get a lot of the typical old saws (if you'll pardon the pun) about the decline of society and civility, the loss of morals, the lack of imagination.
None of these arguments ever held much weight for me. Firstly, as much as all these flicks get their jollies off of gore and dismemberment, I don't know that ONE of them has topped some of the prime 70s gore flicks. Secondly, people have been making those same arguments about various incarnations of horror for years, but I think there is something particularly different about this current era of horror film that seperates it from what's come before. I'd never been able to put my finger on it, but now that I've seen The Horsemen, I think I've got a theory:
We're not afraid of anything anymore.
I can hear some of you scoffing from here. "We live in a time of fear!" you're yelling at me through your monitor. "Fear has been the primary emotion of the past decade!" "Two words: 'Fox News'" "I'm afraid RIGHT NOW!"
Yeah yeah yeah, sure, but listen: What are you REALLY afraid of? Honestly? We talk about being afraid of global warming or terrorism or school violence or economic collapse, but are we really afraid of these things? How much do we really think about them? How much do they guide our actions? How much do we take precaution against them? How much do we sacrifice for them? How much do we actively engage with them? OK, OK, I don't mean to jump on you, dear readers, but in the broad cultural sense, I just don't know that there's as much actual FEAR out there as we've been led to believe.
I think there are two things necessary for fear: An element of the unknown and a lack of control. I think nowadays people think we know everything and that we've got stuff pretty much under control. When people talk about things getting "out of control" now, what they really mean is that things aren't going their way, and if people just did what they wanted, everything would be fine. That's not "out of control," that's "out of MY control until I can wrestle that control back."
My good friend Polly Frost is fascinated by disappearance cases. There's more than you'd think, she tells me, mostly young people, mostly women, who are last seen getting into cars with strangers, or walking off drunk into the night by themselves or going down to Mexico and evaporating into the haze of crazy parties. They put up information on public websites detailing where they are, where they'll be, when they're leaving and if they're alone. "These people don't think anything could POSSIBLY happen to them!" she explains to me. They're not afraid. Who is?
This is deadly for horror movies. I don't believe you can make a scary movie unless you yourself are, in some way, scared. Horror movies examine what scares us, and if nothing scares us then all our horror movies can be are remixes of other scare flicks.
And it seems to me, in the same way the prat fall or the fart joke is the baseline for comedy, intense physical bodily harm is the baseline for horror. If you aren't afraid of unknown forces, mental illness, repressed animalistic tendencies, God, predestination, moral failings, karmic retributions, sexual failings, judgment, apocalypse or any of the genre's other many cornerstones upon which the horrors build, really the only thing that's left to you is getting torn apart. In a society that's possibly become narcissistic and onanistic, where nothing of consequence exists outside of the self, the only thing to fear is something explicitly harming the self. Which I suppose may be a lack of imagination, or at least abstract thinking. The only thing these guys can possibly imagine as being horrifying is the fairly unlikely event of getting kidnapped by a deranged killer who enjoys setting up Rube Goldberg death machines for amusement and instruction.
What got me thinking about this regarding the 2009 Jonas Akerlund film "The Horsemen" is the title itself. The titular horsemen are the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse. Within the film a group of murders are accompanied with the phrase "Come and see" written around the corpses, pointing the intrepid detective Dennis Quaid to the verse in Revelations detailing the End Times arrival of Death, Famine, Disease and War. What could the killer possibly be thinking, quoting this verse? What kind of connection are they trying to draw to themselves and these scriptural harbingers of doom?
Not much of one. The ending, which I'm going to spoil for you here, as the greatest "spoiling" of all would be to actually watch the garbage, involves Dennis Quaid's son revealing to Quaid that he was part of a collection of kids whose families didn't treat them right, so they've decided to go about viciously murdering them, bringing about the END TIMES of mommies and daddies not doling out enough hugs (or too many, in the case of Ziyi Zhang and her adopted father, a criminally wasted Peter Stormare). There is so much spectacularly wrong with this that I'm not going to go into it in detail, but instead provide a Top Ten list of biggest idiocies:
1) To complain that his dad didn't pay enough attention to him and got all withdrawn after is wife DIED OF CANCER, the son attempts suicide in a fantastically grotesque fashion while having his father watch, which will certainly teach him a lesson and is totally morally equivalent.
2) Also, in doing so he's leaving his younger brother without his support...
3) ...And with a dad who not only lost a wife to cancer, but watched his son hang himself by meathooks and drown in his own blood.
4) Did I mention the kid hangs himself with meathooks? By himself? Which is so impressive, it's impossible.
5) The kid attempts to drown himself through puncturing his lungs, which happens earlier in the film but is executed by someone with medical training. Not some jerky kid. And then he wonders why it isn't working.
6) Also, when did he puncture his lungs? Before or after he hung himself up on meathooks?
7) The kids committing these murders are broadcasting them out to a whole online community of kids who think their parents are jerks and who have all managed to keep this whole thing entirely under their hats and off any FBI watchlist this whole time.
8) Some of the kids kill one of the abusers, some of them kill themselves while making the person who mistreated them watch. For kids who sat together and planned out a bunch of extremely complex and involved murders, it's weird they didn't try to talk their friends out of killing themselves. OR maybe talk the other friend INTO killing theirself. That seems like a weirdly crucial point of the plan to have a disagreement about.
9) The movie actually seems to AGREE with the kid. If we painted him as super-crazy and deranged, that'd be one thing, but the movie seems to be tsk tsking at Quaid's poor parental skills right along with him. Also, the kid's a teenager and at one point complains that Quaid would have realized his plan if he'd ever actually GONE INTO HIS ROOM like a good helicopter parent should, which may be the first time I've ever seen a teenager complain that his parent has given him TOO MUCH privacy.
10) The kid is quoting scripture while doing this, and we see him in church and sort of get a hint that his beloved mother was very religious, which makes this whole course of action seem a little...problematic as far as his belief structure goes.
It's this last point I really want to address. The title of the movie references a Bible verse. We have scenes of the family in church and a few scenes involving Bibles around the house. The main psychopath quotes scripture. But never for one minute do I think anyone in this movie or anyone involved in this movie has any actual Biblical belief, or even any actual interest other than that some verses in Revalations sound real spooky and crap.
I don't think you have to be religious to make religious horror, but I certainly think it helps. And even if you're not, you have to at least take it seriuosly within the world in which it's existing or with the characters who take it seriously enough to act on it. Being religious myself, my love of religious horror is probably what kept me watching this piece of drivel well longer than I should have. I kept hoping, waiting for some moment where they might actually take their own words seriously, where any of this might pay off. Nada.
And then I got to thinking, what horror movies in the last twenty years or so used religion and ACTUALLY took it seriously? The only movie that came to mind was the Exorcism of Emily Rose, which I love. AH, and Red State, which I also kinda loved. But that's about it. I can name you a bunch of movies that use demons, exorcisms, priests and devils, but not a one of them is actually invested in them or what they represent. They aren't even using the religious trappings to SAY anything, or even make it a metaphor for something else. They're just using it as window dressing. They're as scared of or by it as they would be of a rubber spider.
It's not just that they don't find religion scary, I don't think they find teenage alienation or the numbing effects of grief or any of the other possible themes you could pull from the film scary, either. They just think some of the images look cool and that hanging people up from meathooks and self-evisceration is INTENSE and everyone kinda wants to play martyr in front of their parents at some point. Essentially this is the horror movie version of that scene in A Christmas Carol where Ralphie imagines going blind from soap poisoning. And just about as scary.
Why make a horror movie of something you don't find scary? That's like making a comedy full of jokes you don't find funny, or a thriller with set pieces free of intensity or rising action, but I feel like that's pretty much every damn horror movie I see. If I could make one plea to any horror filmmakers out there, I suppose it would be this: Before you try and scare me you should at least be able to scare yourself.
Cloud Atlas: Everything is connected! Probably to something ridiculous!
I remember, even when I was a kid, thinking it strange in movies, usually from the 80s, when young, upstart kids yelled at their dreamless, dead-inside parents that they'll never be like them, they'll never be losers who, gasp, WORK IN A FACTORY. Was it really so terrible to work in a factory? I mean, come on, it was the 80s. It's not like this was Dickensian London and children were working in clothing mills for 20 hours a day and making pennies. These people were adults, probably union, they had eight or nine hour shifts they pulled, got paid more for overtime and holidays, and they did their jobs and then came home and lived their lives. What was so terrible about that? What was the alternative that these children dreamed of? A future where everyone was either a businessman/entrepreneur or an artist? I guess that's nice and all, but in that future, who'd make all the stuff?
China, apparently. Whoops.
Even from an early age I always wondered why some things were so generally poo-pooed. Another thing I never understood is why fun, entertaining art that's made largely to be enjoyable is less worthwhile than something that takes itself entirely seriously. It's hard to make truly memorable and remarkable flights of fantasy and whimsy, to do so is a great achievement, surely as great as making something that makes the viewer consider their own mortality in quiet terror. I'd even possibly argue moreso.
Which leads us to the Wachowskis. From day one they've always been better showmen than thinkers, but they seem to constantly yearn to shake off their magician's cape and don an academic's robe. I'm in the minority on the Wachowskis as I wasn't even a fan of the first "Matrix" film and I think their best movie by far is the much-reviled "Speed Racer," but even so most agree the last two "Matrix" films were abysmal, largely due to their self-serious tone, meaningless philosophizing, hackneyed allegories and the overly effects-laden action sequences that caused the supposedly dramatic confrontations to feel weightless and flimsy (I'd argue that the first one had nearly all of these problems, but perhaps that's for another time).
And so now "Cloud Atlas," a thoughtful film that dares to ask the tough philosophical questions like "Is racism bad?" "Should women be viewed as equal to men?" "Should homosexuals be persecuted and reviled?" "Should we lock up old people who annoy us in prison-like nursing homes?" and "Is it OK for a government to enslave an entire caste of people and turn them into food?" I'm no Wachowskian mystical native shaman seer, but I'll bet I can probably guess your, and nearly every other person's, response to those questions.
Of course, that's not all the movie is about. It also explores how everyone is connected and we are all part of the great cosmic fabric of humanity. Unless, of course, we work for an energy company. Or are an 18th century businessman. Or a bigot or racist in an era where bigotry and racism were the norm. Or wear crazy face paint. Or are an art critic. For a movie that seems to celebrate the one-ness and communal nature of humanity, it sure does take a lot of glee in murdering a number of people. I haven't seen such an exuberant extinguishing of a critic since The Lady in the Water.
The Wachowskis so desperately want to be philosophical filmmakers, but one of the central elements of philosophy is a continuously-questioning mindset, and the Wachowskis are so overly eager to tell you the answers that there are barely even any questions at all.
Let me provide an example. In the story that takes place the farthest in the future Tom Hanks plays a tribesman who hides in fear while a group of savages attack and murder his brother-in-law and nephew. It's a terrible event, but it is played to make the Hanks character out to be a coward. I suppose, but he was also grossly outnumbered and only had a knife while the numerous marauders were armed with crossbows and swords. Is it cowardice to not openly walk into certain death in a vain attempt to save a loved one? That's actually a philosophical question, but that's not really what the piece is asking.
No, instead there's some other gobbledygook about sending out a signal to get space people to come down and help them, and THEN we get to the big conclusion. While Hanks is out activating the space signal his village is attacked by the savages. Hanks returns too late, all are dead except his young niece, who hid (was SHE a coward?). Hanks then finds a sleeping savage. Throughout this piece Hanks has a bad angel who appears and tells him to do the savage, cowardly thing. Occasionally he hears a good angelic voice speak out to him. In this moment the good voice tells him not to kill the savage. He kills the savage anyways.
Now I'm interested. A group of savages come back and notice their missing brother. Hanks again can't kill them all, so he runs. They give chase. Hanks makes it back to the spot where his brother-in-law was killed. I wondered, are the filmmakers actually going to kill him as punishment for his cowardice? Will he somehow overcome the savages by becoming as savage as they are? Will these savages spare him, throwing doubt and uncertainty on the roles he had assigned both them and himself?
Nope. Halle Berry shows up with a laser gun and kills them all. Then he, Berry and the niece go off to meet the nice space people because they are the winners and the good guys and the nasty, face-painted people were evil and gross and deserved death. They'd have worn black hats if they wore hats. Oh, wait, the evil angel that taunts Hanks and has a painted face similar to the savages actually DOES wear a black hat. Well, I guess that's wrapped up all tidy then. PHILOSOPHY!
The one solid section of the piece is, quite tellingly, also the funniest. "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" has Jim Broadbent playing the titular Timothy, a sad-sack failed literary agent who comes into serious dough when a client of his, a street tough-turned writer, throws a critic off a high balcony to his death, sending sales skyrocketing. The tough goes to jail, Cavendish makes some serious cash and all is well until the tough's relatives come looking for what they see as their share. When Cavendish discovers he has nowhere near the money these ruffians want, he runs away to his more successful brother, who sends him to what he thinks is a hotel, but is actually a sanitarium.
As opposed to the Hanks character, Cavendish is an out-and-out coward, hiding a secret yet trivial affair with his brother's wife, running from the thugs and, most importantly, abandoning the love of his life at a young age when her parents offered resistance. He is also a scheister who is making hefty profits off of a man's horrific demise.
He is, in essence, an interesting and flawed character. Consequently, when he does do something heroic later in the movie, it means something. It's a real turning point for the character. It works.
There are parts of the Cavendish segment that don't work, or collapse under the weight of too much (which is to say, practically any) thought, but it's easy to forgive because it's a fun, silly segment and they're not asking us to consider these things. Not so in the other sections, where this kind of thoughtlessness can be deadly. Let's do a compare and contrast involving the police, or lack thereof.
In the Cavendish segment, when the ruffians come to harass Broadbent, they tell him not to go to the police because it would be useless since the police couldn't do anything to save the critic their bro murdered. Well, sure, but that falls apart pretty quickly when you think for two seconds about the extraordinarily different scenarios of a man deciding in an impromptu moment to throw another man off a balcony versus a group of known thugs whose associate recently murdered a man with little provocation making explicit threats and extortions on a 24 hour timetable. I don't know precisely how much the police could do, but I'd say it'd be worth giving them a call. They could certainly do more than they did for the critic, simply given the nature of time (something this movie has invested heavily in).
But no matter. The piece is fun and not calling the cops moves Cavendish to the sanitarium quicker and la di da. Now let's look at the section entitled "Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery."
In this story Halle Berry plays a sassy female reporter in the 70s, which means you get a lot of real heavy-handed references to pot, 70s rock, nuclear energy, the Feminist movement, the Sexual Revolution and anything else that is Seventies with a capital S. She's investigating an energy scandal that puts her in the sites of a professional hitman. This leads to what must certainly rank as one of the worst plans in all of cinema history.
Keith David, who works for the energy concern that's put the hit out on Halle Berry but who isn't one of the bad guys, probably because he's ethnic (more on that later), comes to save Halle Berry from this hitman who has managed to successfully eliminate a number of people through some pretty explicit and brutal means. No quiet poisons or fake accidents for this guy. We're talking bullets to the head, bombs on planes kind of stuff. So Keith David's plan is to...let Halle Berry walk down the street where they know the hit is going to happen and Keith David's going to...ram into the guy's car. That's it. A professional killer, an expert marksman and one would have to think probably a pretty skilled evasive driver, and your plan is to put Halle Berry in the middle of broad daylight and hope that you sideswipe the guy well enough to...kill him? Make him reconsider his ways? David's maneuver goes off in a way where we're supposed to think something went awry and the tension is supposed to ramp up, but honestly, what results were they hoping for? It seems to me this was absolutely the best result they could have reasonably expected.
Outside of, you know, going to the police with a metric crap ton of evidence. There is always that option. When a character like Cavendish makes this kind of error in the kind of story he tells, it's all part of the whimsy and the fun. He's a magoo! Of course he'd do something like that. But when you're telling a story about the serious corrupting dangers of corporate power turning men against men, it's...well, it's a bit silly, is what it is.
Even their visual motifs work better in comedy. Take, for instance, the gimmick where different heroes in each timeline have this comet birthmark. It's treated as a big revelation each time, but, honestly, what does it mean? At best it's an inane and simplistic visual representation of the whole "we are all connected" cheesy philosophy. At worst it points to a somewhat fatalistic determinism, a sort of reverse mark of Cain. The good are marked from birth to be the harbingers of the best of humanity, others are doomed, markless, to be painted cannibals, slave traders or, worst of all, businessmen.
You know where a similar premise worked to greater effect, both for entertainment AND philosophical examination? The Coen's film "Raising Arizona." In the climactic fight of the film, Nicholas Cage's H.I. McDunnough is grappling with Randall Cobb's Leonard Smalls. Throughout the movie the Coens have been toying with the idea of what makes up an outlaw, and nowhere is there examination clearer than in Cage's skinny, hapless, loving and lovable H.I., a criminal, being beaten and abused by the grotesque, hate-filled "warthog from Hell" Leonard, a man ostensibly on the right side of justice and the law. At the fight's madcap apex, H.I. and Leonard make the startling discovery that they both share the same Woody Woodpecker tattoo. The possibilities of this connection are myriad and intriguing, and it's also a pretty funny gag.
If your point is to show how we are all connected, I think showing some of the strangeness and the absurdity of those connections would be part of that truth, but sadly this whole birthmark business is treated very seriously in "Cloud Atlas." So much so that one reveal of the birthmark is treated like an astounding moment, which I suppose it is as the person with the birthmark is someone who wasn't, technically, born, which brings up a number of questions, none of which really matter.
What's important, though, is that identity is fluid and that we're all connected, right? I mean, that's why they did all that crazy race and gender casting, right? Because it doesn't really matter what your skin type is or what bits you have, we all have the potential to be absolutely anything!
Except a bad guy, of course. If you're a bad guy, you MUST be a white male.
One of the many things that's irritated me about the Wachowskis is their predilection towards the noble savage/magical negro trope. It plays throughout much of their work, but nowhere moreso than in "Cloud Atlas." In a movie that hits so hard on identity politics it really doubles down on the heroic, selfless, wise minority versus the cruel, oppressive, idiotic White Devil that even when the bad guys in the film must, by necessity, NOT be white men, as with the villainous Nurse Ratched character in the Cavendish section or the emotionless Korean government stooges in the Neo Seoul section, they're still ALWAYS played by white male actors. And with so much race and gender switching going on, they even had the opportunity to dress up one of their Asian, black or female actors to play one of the many villains. Nope. Always white. Always male.
This shows a sincere lack of conviction in their thesis, and exposes the film to be not a philosophical or intellectual examination on the essence of humanity, but a shallow, pandering feint towards multi-cultural "hipness" crossed with a healthy dosing of white liberal guilt.
Which is a shame, because here and there the Wachowskis (and Tom Tykwer, who I've pretty much treated as a tourist here but should probably assign some amount of responsibility to as well) create some fun, diverting scenes, characters and images.
It's also a shame that apparently their next film will have them returning to the Matrix universe again, the last time the world bought into their intellectual shell game, and not doing something more along the lines of Speed Racer, where their kinetic flare and imagination found its most comfortable home yet.
But that's just my opinion, and alas, I am a privileged white male with nary a comet birthmark in sight, so I'm probably horribly, horribly wrong.
The sad yet simple truth is this, my friends: by and large, villains are more interesting. They're mysterious, we want to know more about them. Of course we know why the hero wants to pull babies out of a burning orphanage, but why, WHY did that cackling madman set it on fire to begin with?? This issue hangs over Killshot like a cloud. The movie is filled with actors I enjoy, such as Tom Jane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Hal Holbrook. It also has Diane Lane in it, who I can generally take or leave. But all these people may as well just be window dressing, as Mickey Rourke towers over the proceedings as the cool-as-a-cucumber bad guy Armand "The Blackbird" Degas.
Even without the villain rule, the movie is bound to be ruled by Mickey Rourke, an actor I've loved for years. He's an undeniable presence, and a role like this suits him perfectly. Watching Blackbird amble through small Canadian towns quietly, coldly wreaking havoc isn't a terrible way to spend a couple hours. The problem is, the movie doesn't want us to just spend time with Blackbird. Blackbird's the bad guy, you see. That means we have to have good guys. So in come Tom Jane and Diane Lane, a couple going through a trial separation who have a run-in with Blackbird and escape alive, something Blackbird doesn't like to let happen. Whenever the movie focuses on the Jane/Lane couple, things grind to a halt. Which is a shame, as Tom Jane is an actor I continue to root for, although true stardom keeps juuuust eluding him.
The lack of coherence or interest in the relationship plot is interesting, as the director of this movie, John Madden (no, not THAT John Madden. If ONLY...) has previously done mostly relationship movies, like Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Proof and Shakespeare in Love. So it's weird that the relationship here felt so odd. A good deal of it is certainly the writing. Jane's character is a bland, good-natured rube and Lane's character obviously still loves him, but wants a separation, but gives us no actual reason for wanting to be separated. Tom Jane is a big, handsome man who comes over and fixes up her house even after she's kicked him out, only wants to be with her and is even trying to get new work so he can be the man he wants her to be. What, exactly, is her problem?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt fares much better as a wild youngun' who The Blackbird takes under his wing (har har) because he reminds The Blackbird of his younger brother, who The Blackbird accidently killed a job gone wrong. Gordon-Levitt is easily one of the most entertaining and gifted actors of his generation. He's obviously having fun here, and whenever he's onscreen things get instantly better. He's also well-matched with Rourke, as Rourke's stoicism and Gordon-Levitt's manicness play well off each other. Plus, he tears a moose head off a wall, which is undeniably delightful.
The issue here, which spans the movie entire, is that it's a great set-up with no payoff. The way Gordon-Levitt and Rourke's relationship ends should be a great moment, but instead just kind of sits there onscreen because nothing really builds up to it. There's no reason for what happens to happen at that moment rather than any other moment because both characters are acting as they always act, in a situation just like situations they'd been in before. A similar moment happens in another Elmore Leonard adaptation, Jackie Brown, but it's handled much more deftly, and the moment really sings in that movie. There's a bit where Jane's character goes to get a new job like his wife wants him to, and he figures why not try and get a job at his wife's real estate company? It's a charmingly dunderheaded move with some good comic potential, but only results in Lane flatly laying it out, "You came looking for a job at MY company?" There's also a bit later in the movie where the couple are hiding out in the Witness Protection Program and while out with new friends Jane accidently calls Lane by her old name. He covers by saying her mother called her that name, Carmen, because she was such a good singer. This sets up a great deal of potential that is dispatched with quickly by Lane saying she won't sing and then that's the end of it. It's not that the movie is bad, it just doesn't even attempt any steps towards being great.
What it does do well, though, is quiet menace. The scenes where Rourke returns home to the Indian Reservation of his youth are pretty great. Everyone holds him at a distance, and its not certain whether they know what he does for a living, or whether they all remember something from his past that led him there. He shows up, and everyone is on edge. Rourke also has great moments with Gordon-Levitt's girlfriend, played by Rosario Dawson. Again, his motives and their relationship are unclear, and it keeps a taut, quiet tension throughout every scene.
The long and short of it is that it's a well-made, workmanlike thriller. There's no real surprises in the plotting, nor any exceptionally bravura moments, but the cast is roundly good, Rourke is great as always and Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to shine. It's better than your average DTV (or I suppose DTD now, as nothing really goes directly to video anymore, does it?), but I can also see why it didn't get a theatrical release.
Martin Scorsese once said that he had only two interests in life, religion and the movies. There's a reason I frequently call the man my favorite director of all time - we have much in common. I find hardly anything in this great big world more interesting than movies or religion. So when a movie wrestles with religion, really and truly grapples with it, I sit up and take notice.
On a very surface level it seems ridiculous to say that Bad Lieutenant is a religious movie. It's rated NC-17. The movie is most famous for Harvey Keitel showing his junk. There's rape, drug use, violence, all manner of nastiness. However, below the surface the movie runs on pure religious dogma, and its question to us is this: what does it truly mean to forgive, both others and ourselves? How does God forgive?
Keitel plays The Lieutenant, one who is bad in pretty much every sense of the word. He's a drug addict, a gambler, he buys women, mistreats his family, uses his job to extort young women. Abel Ferrara, the movie's director, tips the scales nearly to the point of absurdity to make sure we see Keitel's lieutenant for the scum that he is. He doesn't want us to feel that the lieutenant is merely a rake who doesn't play by the book and goes outside the lines sometimes. He wants us to see that this man is a very, very bad lieutenant, indeed. Things begin to change when a nun is raped by a couple of teens. Slowly remorse begins to creep into the lieutenant's life, and as he begins to re-evaluate his life, it begins unraveling at the seems.
For all that Ferrara hits the button-pushing pretty hard, he also knows just how to throw in an image or a connection that cleverly undermines the shock of what you're seeing by forcing you to re-evaluate how you see it. What is important is the follow-through.Take, for instance, the rape scene. Intercut with the violence is a scene of the crucifixion. This could easily be written of as simple shock value, but knowing where the movie goes, Ferrrara seems to be showing us that this is what the nun was thinking of during this violating act. Later in the film the nun forgives her assailants, as that's what Jesus would have done. Keitel finds this unimaginable, but this woman believes that the pain she felt was nothing compared to the pain Christ felt, and if Christ could forgive those who killed him, she can forgive those who raped her. It's an extraordinarily difficult thing to grapple with, and Ferrara hits it head on. When Keitel goes to the hospital to check in on the nun, he walks in on her being examined. The nun is revealed to be an incredibly beautiful woman, and as Keitel leers at her unseen from behind the door Ferrara is putting him in a similar position to the rapists. Later we sense that Keitel has felt that connection as well. His rage against the nun for not turning in her assailants becomes rage towards himself for being like them, not only in his sinful ways, but in that he too has gone unpunished.
Keitel's performance is, at the very least, fearless. His actual acting abilities have, at times, been a subject of much heated debate, but he certainly never phones it in. His role here is stunning. There is, of course, the infamous nude scene, which gets much more attention for Keitel's schlong than it does for its religious implications - a naked man in a state of "ecstacy" with his arms in the position of the cross. He's also not just naked physically, but emotionally. He staggers around, mewling and crying like a child. He knows there's something wrong, that he has something to answer for, but he cannot find those answers. He is lost, naked and bestial, yet even in that state, as he cries out to heaven, a part of him echoes the image of a dying Christ. It is, in its way, extraordinarily powerful stuff. Near the end of the movie, when the lieutenant is doing what he now thinks is right, something which goes against every instinct in his body, Keitel plays the character with an actual, audible wincing moan between lines, as though he is physically wracked with pain at what he's doing. It's an extreme, daring choice, unglamorous, uncool and grating, but to my mind fascinating and well within the aesthetic of the film.
It's also intriguing to watch Ferrara defy expectations throughout the movie. When you hear the plot description for Bad Lieutenant you think of the gritty 70s exploitation flicks or, at the heighth of the artistic ladder, Scorsese's brilliant early work like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. However, Ferrara denies us the sexy anti-hero, titillation and violent catharsis we've come to associate with those movies. Keitel's lieutenant isn't really daring, dangerous or misunderstood. He's just... bad. Bad at his job, bad with his family, a bad person in total. The "sex" scenes provide none of the naughty vouyerism of some other "gritty" movies. The rape is nasty and punctuated by images of Jesus on the cross. When Keitel pulls over two girls driving without a license and uses his power as a police officer to sexually exploit them Ferrara doesn't ramp up the raunch, but instead makes it long, drawn out and painful. It doesn't feel "sleazy dirty," it feels horribly, uncomfortably real. As in the nun rape scene, Ferrara uses a distancing technique which also implicates the viewer - Keitel doesn't actually have sex with the girls, but forces one girl to show him her bottom and has the other mime oral sex while he masturbates. He's not physically doing anything to them, he's watching them - just like the audience is.
Also, not to get into heavy spoilerage, but I like the way the end of the film sets up a big, Taxi Driver-esque confrontation, and then completely pulls the rug out from under it. It's a move that is both ballsy and deflating, which kind of sums up the whole movie. As we were discussing the movie afterwords Emily said, and I agreed, that it's a much more enjoyable movie to discuss than to watch. In between the bravura moments are long stretches filled with slow drug scenes, shots of Keitel walking around places and also listening to baseball games on the radio. While there are certainly a few wonderful elements to be found in those scenes (I love that Keitel unceasingly bets against his home team. Talk about self-loathing!), and you have to respect Ferrara's DIY, on-the-cheap approach, they don't liven up the already dour proceedings. It's definitely a fascinating flick, but I highly recommend watching it with someone you can chat with about it later. You'll want to.
Well, I'm going to make some enemies here, so let's be done with it.
First, and most ashamedly, I'm not huge on Prince. I like a few of his songs, but overall I find him and a lot of his work a headache-inducing combination of a pretentious artist provocateur and that girl from high school who was waaaaay too into musical theater. And frankly, that dualism has never been more apparent than in Under the Cherry Moon, a movie I honestly cannot imagine anyone taking seriously, even as a joke.
In the movie Prince plays a gigolo in the French Riviera. Prince's Christopher Tracy and his brother/friend/partner/lover/unsure Tricky (Jerome Benton, one of Prince's musicians) hop from woman to woman wooing, seducing, grifting and then leaving. However, Christopher finds that something changes when he goes after a young heiress Mary Sharon, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Has love finally come to hustler Christopher Tracy?
Yes, but not from Kristin Scott Thomas. One of the film's many problems is that the love triangle between Christopher, Tricky and Mary seems irrelevant because Mary cannot seem to illicit half the passion from Christopher or Tricky that they lather on each other. Some people seem to believe that this was Prince wanting to play up the questions about his sexuality, but even if that is so it's done at great expense to the film. I don't know if I've ever seen a gayer couple in cinema, and I've seen Brokeback Mountain, Shortbus AND Top Gun.
The attraction to Mary seems perfunctory, which is astounding because Kristin Scott Thomas looks GORGEOUS and acts with the energy and tenaciousness of an extraordinary talent being given her first chance to shine, which is exactly what was happening. How could you NOT be attracted to her? And yet I don't believe for a second that either Christopher or Tricky would give up what they claim they would to be with her. It also doesn't help that Christopher and Mary never meet as equals, never actually get to know each other in any meaningful way. They fall in love the way 12-year-olds do. She's the smoking hot prettiest girl in the room, he's the loudmouth bad boy who upsets daddy, they drive around in a cool car that has a license plate that says "LOVE" and listen to music and sometimes they totally call each other on the phone and don't even talk they just lay in bed and listen to each other can you believe it that's so romantic OMG it's just like a moooooviiieeeee!!!!!! Perhaps one of the greatest annoyances here is that I find it extraordinarily difficult to believe that Prince would be infatuated with anyone nearly as much as he's infatuated with Prince.
Nothing here feels real or earnest, which is problematic when you're making a love story. Nothing is based off of actual, observed human behavior, everything is gutted from other movies and bought wholesale, then cobbled together. A movie can be as fantastical as it wants, but it has to be based around real characters interacting in a somewhat believable way. There must be an internal reality. The only internal reality within the film is that Prince is FABULOUS!!! To the movie's credit, it does somewhat sustain that reality, and I suppose your level of enjoyment comes with how far you feel that reality can take you. It would have been a fine music video, but for an hour and a half, it's overplayed, overstayed and underwhelming.
I'll give the film credit where it's due. The movie looks fantastic. Michael Ballhaus did the cinematography, and his long list of credits, including a number of Scorsese films and Francis Ford Coppola's (one of my favorite visual movies) speak to a talent hefty enough to make a movie look better than it has any right to. Kristin Scott Thomas is brilliant to watch. She's funny, flirty and dead sexy. She's since poo-pooed the movie, proclaiming it pretty much garbage, which furthers my belief that she's a sensible, intelligent woman. And I will say that the music is enjoyable, especially Prince's possible high water mark, "Kiss."
I will also concede that I found the movie hypnotically watchable. Emily will disagree vehemently, as she got so bored she stopped watching about halfway through, but I found the whole thing oddly mind-boggling. Who greenlit this movie? What do the people who love it see in it? How does Prince exude such a heightened air of sexuality while still also seeming entirely and completely sexless? What would the movie have looked like if Prince hadn't fired the original director and took over directing duties himself? What could it possibly be like to act opposite Prince, especially for Kristin Scott Thomas? It's definitely not much like anything else you've ever seen, for good and for ill.
So I call out to you, Prince fanatics! Why, WHY is this movie cinematic gold? Do I simply lack the Prince gene? I have, inconceivably enough, never seen Purple Rain, is it possible I'd like it more? Weigh in!
(Spoiler From the Future: Saw Purple Rain at a friends house. Better than Under the Cherry Moon, but not by much. Sorry, Prince.)
NetFlix Review #24: Mr. Brooks
I'd been intrigued to see this for a while, as I'd heard from many reputable sources that it was bugnuts insane. Was I disappointed? Well, let's list a few things that appear in this film: Kevin Costner as a fuddy duddy daddy who is also a serial killer with a distancing psychotic break in the form of William Hurt. Costner has a daughter who may have inherited his "serial killer" gene. Dane Cook is a photographer who snaps Costner in the midst of a murder and blackmails him not for money, but to follow him around on a kill, basically like a ride-a-long with a sheriff, but with a serial murderer. Demi Moore is a tough-as-nails cop who is also set to inherit millions of dollars. She's also going through a divorce. AND chasing ANOTHER serial killer. So the movie does indeed have a lot going for it. But is it good?
Well, it kind of depends on your definition of good. While all of that insanity previously listed does occur in the film, it also never flies off the rails into total crazytown. Which is... good? Everything I want to praise the movie for, I also hold against it. Costner actually gives an interesting, underplayed performance, really trying to find a way to bring together the daffy affability of a man-of-the-year, doting father and good husband with a man who has committed compulsory murder for decades. William Hurt definitely chews scenery as usual, but given his character and the story around him, really not as much as he could have. Dane Cook gets his super-sleeze down pretty well. Demi Moore plays her icy detective in her very 90s thriller style, which I kind of dig, I'm not going to lie. Basically, everyone's acting very professional, and I kept praying for someone to go bonzo.
The movie's main problem, outside of no one going insane to please my personal whims, is that it's packing in way, way, WAY too much stuff. Any one of the five or six major threads of the movie could have carried its own feature. Particularly ill-served is the plotline that posed the most interesting questions, the daughter who seems to have possibly inherited daddy's penchant for killing people. When Costner finds out about daddy's little criminal liability he becomes conflicted about whether to let her go to jail, to try and help her, does he confront her about it or hope that this isn't what it looks like? There's room here to explore how behavior is passed from generation to generation, the trauma of parents letting go of their children, the boundaries of familial love and responsibility, on and on. However, the few of these issues that actually get addressed in the film get paid lip service, and the whole setup is used largely as just another link the chain of events. Costner's character is given a lot of fun, interesting touches (I particularly like how he attends AA meetings when the urge to kill comes back to him because, well, there's unfortunately no Serial Killer's Anonymous) but nothing seems to go much of anywhere. They've set up some interesting dilemmas that could turn into fascinating character examinations, but instead fall back into the old thriller playground of "how's he going to get out of this mess?!?"
Not that some of that isn't entertaining. I enjoyed Costner's cat-and-mouse-esque game with Dane Cook, and the payoff, although fairly predictable, is a fun bit. It would have been nice if Cook hadn't simply been a base-level cretin, though. If Costner's serial-killer can have some dimensions, why not the serial-killer-wannabe? What if Costner's dilemma wasn't simply how to get out of this quandary, but how to deal with someone he may see parts of himself in? I suppose that's why we ALSO have the daughter character, but what if we just collapsed some of these things together? Maybe? Movie? What's that? You're still going to be five movies at the same time? Fair enough.
The team behind the writing and directing of the movie is also the team behind such fair as Jungle 2 Jungle, Cutthroat Island, Stand By Me and Starman. I watched the eight minute feature on the DVD about the writing of the movie (how could I not?) and things began to make a bit more sense when the duo began talking about how they were a bit tired of writing family fare and decided they wanted to make an "adult" movie, and what's more adult than serial murder? The movie does have a feel of coming from people who had been playing in the kiddie pool for a while trying out the adult toys. For instance, in the murder where Dane Cook's character spots Costner's, Costner comes in on two people having sex and shoots them both in the head. At a couple of points throughout the movie they flash back to this scene, but most particularly the moment in the scene where you see the woman, large breasts a-wobbling, screaming and then the splatter of gore as the bullet enters her head. It's gratuitious the first time you see it, but we are making a movie about a serial killer, so all right. But then the third or fourth time you see it you really have to start wondering. However, knowing what I know now about the production team I can see them thinking, "Oh man, this is WILD! This is so NASTY! We've NEVER done anything like this before! Show it again! Show it again! People won't BELIEVE it!" They're like a kid finding a condom in their parents' bedroom and showing it ecstatically to everyone at school. "Do you know what THIS IS????" This might also explain the cramming of every idea they appeared to have had into the movie, and why everything, outside of frequent cutaways to a naked woman being shot, is so restrained. "We're making an ADULT movie, so let's rain it in, people. We don't want things to get too wacky, wacky is for kids, and this may be the only chance we get to really go dark, so let's do it right."
This is all speculation, of course, but I cannot help it, as one of the main conundrums of this really odd movie is, frankly, why isn't it weirder? Has anyone else seen this? I earnestly would love to hear some thoughts on this one. Also, anyone beside me think this movie should have ended about 45 seconds earlier? Those of you who have seen it will know what I'm talking about. Weigh in!
NetFlix Review #23: Madhouse (a.k.a. There was a Little Girl)
Aaah, the glories of the giallo movies. For those not in the know, "giallo" as a film term refers to a very specific kind of thriller/horror film made in Italy that really came into its own in the 60s and 70s. They are characterized by nonsense plotting, beautiful scenery, even more beautiful women, heaps of gore, extreme stylization, unusual rock-infused soundtracks and a completely bizarre understanding of "psychology." They, along with some super-sexy 60s and 70s erotic films like Radley Metzger used to make, seem to me like the pinnacle of trashy class. Madhouse was recommended to me by the trashy, classy Paul Busetti as a giallo set in Savannah, GA. Having lived in Georgia for a while and being a huge fan of Southern Gothic, I thought this sounded like a potentially sweet little number.
The film is more of a mixed bag. It certainly has a lot of beautiful photography, and the lead actress, in apparently the only movie she ever made, ain't too bad to look at. The plot is pretty typical giallo. A woman, Julia, has an evil twin sister named Mary who is locked away in an insane asylum. Their birthday is approaching, and the girls' uncle, a priest named Father James, wants to reconcile the two girls. This doesn't look likely, however, as the insane sister has also recently suffered a horribly disfiguring accident that has ruined her face, which, as you can imagine, doesn't help her psyche all that much. Mary escapes and Julia's friends and associates start turning up dead. Isn't. That. STRANGE?
The director of this film, Ovidio G. Assonitis, is a well-known and, in an odd way, respected hack. He did a famous rip-off of The Exorcist that was one of the highest-grossing horror films ever in Italy, as well as rip-offs of Jaws and other big horror films of the time. In a way Madhouse feels like a giallo rip-off, even though the guy has serious Italian film-industry cred. It gets a lot of the beats down, but lacks the gothic excesses of Bava or the completely off the wall visual playfulness of my personal favorite, Dario Argento. Most disappointing to me, it doesn't make much use of its southern setting. Savannah has a great atmosphere to it, and should have greatly underlined the mood of the piece. I'm a fan of both The Gift and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which were both filmed in and around Savannah and used the city to great effect. Madhouse sets most of its action in Julia's house, which, although it is certainly a very Savannah-style home, may not be taking full advantage of the tools at your disposal.
The movie also has a reputation for being one of the "video nasties," films that were banned in Britain for being vulgar, violent and obscene. It's funny watching it today, where the film could practically get a PG rating if you took out a couple moments of violence. My how the times have changed. As for those moments of violence, the bread and butter of any good giallo flick, the film is pretty tame until the very end, where you get a moment involving a dog which is both abhorrently grotesque and kind of hilarious, and the final birthday party, which I do have to give the film some credit for. One of the issues with giallos is that sometimes they're simply too art-directed, too pretty, to actually be scary. Of course, that's really only a problem if you want to be scared. The party is very well-designed. Austere and creepy, owing a little bit to the dinner scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it looks a lot better. There's also a well-constructed moment where there is a rise in the tension and madness of the scene, and then someone is murdered and both the insane frivolity and the murdered party fall dead into Julia's lap. It's a solid bit, and one that someone should steal and put into a better film.
There are all sorts of "spoilers" I could go into to further discuss the movie, but there's not that much point. You'll probably guess most of them from the very get-go, or more to the point most of you will probably never even consider watching this in the first place, but why not keep them hidden? It's a moderately successful giallo, so if you're a fan of the genre you could certainly give it a go.
There is one thing the film made me want to ask all of you out there in readerland: Has there ever been an instance in all of cinema where a villian singing a song, especially as a sign of them being craaaazy, that has actually been scary? The baddie in this movie does it, and it's a trope I always find much more annoying than horrifying. Especially if it's sung by a little child. It always feels like something is trying far far too hard to be scary instead of actually scaring me. I think one of the only times I've ever found this effective is the "1, 2, Freddy's Coming for You" song from Nightmare on Elm Street, and I think it works because it's set up within the world of the movie. Like "Ring Around the Rosie" it's a rhyme based off actual horrific events that becomes diluted into a children's song. There's something that feels much more organic about that. Oh, and Dan Aykroyd's rendition of "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain" in Grosse Pointe Blank, because that actually seems very in character as something he'd do to unnerve someone, and it's pretty insane. Any others? Or perhaps, what are your WORST examples of people using this trope terribly? This movie's pretty bad, especially as it goes on for SO LONG, but one of my favorite examples of this going tits up is in Enduring Love, when Rhys Ifans sings "God Only Knows What I'd Be Without You" to Daniel Craig as a signifier that he be craaaazy, y'all! It made me embarrassed for everyone involved.
Be careful who you steal from. If this isn't one of the primary rules of scriptwriting, it should be. All screenwriters steal, to one degree or another, because they've all been inspired by other films. This is inevitable. However, how you steal, and from whom you steal, is extremely important. For instance, if you're, say, making an action film starring a charmingly wooden professional wrestler as its lead, you may certainly want to look at movies like Die Hard and Speed to get some ideas about what you're going to do. You do not, however, want to lift things directly from those movies, as those movies are classics in the genre that people like me have seen far, far too many times. If your movie is all dressed up like Die Hard, but doesn't have John McClane battling against Hans Gruber, all your going to do is make me annoyed that I'm not actually watching Die Hard.
I know there's only so many ways you can blow things up or make a chase scene or have a villain toy with a hero, but this is honestly bordering on plagiarism. It's Die Hard, Die Hard 3 and Speed in a blender. I can quote all three of those films, they are archetypes, they are the gold standard. You crib from them, I'm going to notice.
Which is all a shame, because I find John Cena, although certainly a wrestler more than an actor, a charming screen presence. Aidan Gillen continues the streak of alums from The Wire finding nothing worth their talents after the show. Even Renny Harlin has done much better work. It feels like The Marine made some decent money, so they threw something together. Everything seems lackadasical and shrugginly assembled. The action scenes don't pop, the threatsdon't feel terribly urgent and the hero doesn't seem to ever be too overwhelmed or outgunned. It's paint-by-numbers action filmmaking.
There's really not much to say because the movie brings nothing to the table. The major point of enjoyment is hearing John Cena's voice crack as he tries to portray "distress" by yelling a lot while driving a fire truck.
I remember being curious to see The Marine, as I do like John Cena, but also it has Robert Patrick as the bad guy, and perhaps one of the things that might have really boosted this film would have been a decent threat. The only moment Gillen actually gets a personality is a hilariously tacked on bit where he butts into a chess game to show that he is nefarious AND clever! Stratgery! Patrick has always been great at chewing scenery and throwing some fun into anything he shows up in. Anyone seen both movies? Anyone attest to a variance in quality? I'm mildly curious!
Regardless, here's my wacky movie reviewer quip to polish us off: 12 Rounds? One was enough for me, thanks!
I'm a genius.
In the last review for Role Models "charm" and "humor" became a central point of conversation. It's going to come up again here, because this is a movie that uses a foundation of charm and humor to build an actual story and show us something interesting, something we've never quite seen before.
I've been curious to see this movie for a long time for one very odd reason: rumor has it this is one of Stanley Kubrick's favorite films. I'm not a zealous Kubrick devotee like some people I know (Charlie Wilson), but I think the man frequently touched genius. He's certainly a fascinating dude in many ways, but the concept that this was one of his favorites kind of blows my mind. What did he see in it?
Now having seen the movie, I think I've got a possible explanation. Kubrick was notorious for having his films be cold, distant and controlling. He was a renowned micro-manager and a complete obsessive. His movies are filled with stunning detail, gorgeous production and tightly controlled technical tours des forces. He also seemed to be someone fascinated in the worlds beyond him, and what must have felt more beyond him as a filmmaker than the kind of loose, improvisational style. Also, as an exceptional formalist he must have been intrigued by the film's unusual construction. I could see him finding it an amusing puzzle of a movie, as that it certainly is.
It is noteworthy how unusual the film's structure is. First of all, it's a con movie that obeys none of the rules of the con movies - the big con happens in the middle of the movie, the possible betrayal turns out to be a real betrayal, and doesn't lead to former partners becoming enemies, but to a very anti-climactic forgive and forget. The whole film is structured along similar lines, with every moment that should be a grand denouement - the competition, the Jeopardy game, the match against the old pros - is dramatically undercut. The form is the message, though, as writer/director Ron Shelton understands that in the dodge, just like in sports in general, there is no one big score or one big game that becomes a defining moment. After every championship starts another season, and after every con is another hustle. For people who take on something so challenging, so completely engrossing, it only ends when the body gives out, when they simply and absolutely cannot win any longer.
Shelton understands sports, and the compulsions of the people who work hard enough at them to play professionally. He is, after all, the man behind Bull Durham, regarded by many to be one of the greatest sports movies of all time. He also did Blue Chips, Tin Cup and the, in my opinion, unfairly maligned and pretty fantastic Cobb. Shelton's grasp on sports comes from having lived it, he played five seasons of baseball on a triple-a farm team, and he uses that understanding to put across on screen a truth that few sports movies ever touch on - for these men, saying baseball or basketball or golf is a "way of life" is indeed true, and that truth has some rather serious ramifications.
Just look at the way Woody Harrelson's character is constantly chiding Wesley Snipes that he would rather look good and lose than look bad and win. Snipes' character is definitely a showboat, but it's Snipes who cons Harrelson by playing poorly and looking bad only to have actually won by fixing the game, meanwhile it's Harrelson who loses money on trying to prove the movie's title false, a vain attempt to make himself look better than he is. The question the movie inherently brings up is how does one define "winning," not just in sports but in life? Everyone in the movie is, to some degree, a winner. Snipes and Harrelson are a fairly unstoppable team on the court, so much so that Shelton wisely never puts much dramatic stock in whether or not they'll actually win. Rosie Perez's character sweeps Jeopardy, but of course she would. The question is how will they handle their winnings? It's also to Shelton's credit that he doesn't make anyone a simple dichotemy - great on the court, terrible at home. Snipes is trying to build a legitimate business aside from his hustling so he can move his family out of their bad neighborhood apartment into a house. Harrelson and Perez are seen as having a very warm and loving relationship. Their scenes together have an easy comfort to them that makes it feel like a very real relationship, not a gimmicky movie one. Snipes marriage, although we see less of it, is similarly healthy and nurtured. These are men with a lot of skill and charisma who have found great partners and are fighting to make their way. So why do they still feel like, and occasionally act like, losers?
Having mentioned the women, I'd like to draw particular attention to them again here, as here is another place where Shelton raises this movie far above standard fare. Usually in sports movies you get two kinds of women, the loyal wife of a respectable gamesman, or the practically faceless arm candy of the womanizing player. Both roles are largely insubstantial and only serve as props for the male characters. Here both women are their own people. In fact, one of the best scenes in the film is the kitchen confrontation between Perez and Snipes' wife, played by Tyra Ferrell. Both women have their own wants and desires, and they neither placate their men with saintly patience, nor are they shrews. You can see why both men, competitive and demanding, would choose these women - by all appearances they are probably the best to be found.
Outside of all of this, the movie is also ridiculously entertaining. Snipes and Harrelson are a joy to watch. They layer their characters with an almost effortless ease. Snipes' transitions between loudmouth street hustler, gentle family man and professional businessman are so fluid you don't even see it happen. Harrelson exudes such charisma, such sheer joy and goofy amiability that it becomes disheartening to reflect on how he missed becoming an a-list star.
It's interesting writing this review after Role Models, as this is a movie that could have easily been a paint-by-numbers sports comedy, but Shelton took the time to craft a film that defies expectations and surprises the audience with its intelligent yet playful ruminations on the games men play. Even the movie's only slight misstep, a subplot about criminals Harrelson and Perez owe money to, pays off with a solid undercutting of expectations. It's a film that wins, while also looking exceptionally good. I get it now, Kubrick. Well played.
Many many moons ago there was a sketch comedy team called The State. They were a mystery to me. I never saw the show, but my friends quoted me every sketch verbatim. I bought their book, State by State with The State, and considered it a comedy treasure. In college I saw Wet Hot American Summer and adored it. But then... something happened. Some of them did Reno: 911, which I've never found funny. Then there was Stella, which I also didn't find funny. I sat through The Ten and watched a ton of people I usually find hilarious fall completely flat. There was Wainy Days, The Baxter, Taxi, The Pacifier, Herby: Fully Loaded, Balls of Fury, Diggers, Run Fatboy Run, Night at the Museum and every single time Michael Ian Black showed up on any I Love the ____ show - None of them all that funny. What the hell happened? The State has just been released on DVD after a long struggle to get it out, and although I'm curious to see this show I heard so much about throughout my formative years, part of me can't help but wonder - was it just a "you had to be there" kind of cultural event?
The point of all this being that I never saw Role Models in the theaters, despite many people telling me how funny it was, as I found it so difficult to remember the last time any of these guys had made me really laugh. The final verdict: I was wrong. And yet...
The movie follows two men who push energy drinks, played by Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott. Through highjinks and shenanigans the two are faced with jail time or volunteering at a mentorship program, helping out two kids so dysfunctional they can't keep a mentor for long. Think you know where this is going? You're probably right.
You can't talk about this movie without talking about charm. Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott are, to me, goofy charm machines. I'm sure they're not everyone's cup of tea, but I'm always excited to see them on-screen. And, in a way, this is kind of my issue with the movie.
It's hard to be funny, really and truly funny. If you doubt this, simply watch any sitcom on ABC, or anything on Comedy Central that isn't The Daily Show, The Colbert Report or South Park. If you are a funny person, people seem to believe, especially in Hollywood, that the humor you produce isn't through hard work, diligence, the scrutiny of the world around you and the study of how to build and execute a joke, but instead it is secreted out of your pores like some sort of hormone, a natural byproduct of your wacky genetic make-up. Consequently they believe that they can simply insert you into whatever bare-bones, bottom-level project they've got lying around on the cheap and you'll be able to make it funny because, you know, you're a funny dude. This is how movies like Semi-Pro or Night at the Museum get made. And, in a sense, this is how a movie like Role Models gets made.
I feel like I'm being a bit of a grumpy gus here, because I did really enjoy myself during the movie, but as I think back over it I do feel like I have to mention that most of the stuff I liked about it seem to be no fault of the movie itself, but just watching Rudd and Scott riff off each other. Whenever I think back on the jokes that are actually constructed into the film there are only a couple that have any real zing to them. For instance, the character of Martin Gary, the overly-earnest serial volunteer at the organization Scott and Rudd are sentenced to. Outside of his "Wings" joke, nothing he does is particularly funny, nor does he set up any great jokes. He's a funny idea, but that's about as far as they got. The same can be said for Jane Lynch's character. I feel like I can hear the entire conversation that led up to her character in my head: "How are we going to make the head of this Big Brothers-type foundation funny?" "How about if she runs this charity, but she used to be a total coke whore, and she brings that up all the time?" "Awesome. Ok, next character." And that's it. They're smart enough to hire someone like Jane Lynch, a pro at drawing the funny out of the smallest of appearances, but even then there's not that much to it. And poor Elizabeth Banks is particularly wasted. As I keep reading article after article about how Judd Apatow is a terrible, woman-hating, vagina-loathing, estrogen-fearing monster, it's interesting no one has mentioned any of these The State people. Look at the crappy, under-written roles they keep doling out to actresses, like Elizabeth Banks in both this movie and The Baxter, or Carla Gugino in Night at the Museum, or Thandie Newton in Run Fatboy, or any of the ridiculous female roles in Diggers. But I digress.
The point of all this being that it's kind of hard for me to say this is a "good movie," as it's largely some fun performances tacked onto a kind of crappy, really transparent story. WILL the two rogues end up liking their assigned kids? WILL they go to jail? WILL the climax to the movie have anything to do with the LARPing they show throughout the movie? WILL Banks and Rudd get together in the end? WILL Rudd and Scott become true friends? It's not that I need to necessarily be surprised by any of this, but it's all just kind of lazy. If you're hanging your story on such a lazy plot, you've got to come up with some pretty exceptional jokes or set-pieces to offset the predictability of the story. The Marx Brothers basically made the same movie over and over and over again, but they were constantly challenging themselves to come up with something bigger, wackier, zanier than what they'd done before. That sense of really pushing to find something new is what I feel is missing from many of these movies. It just seems like they're running down a checklist of things that are funny. Little black kid who cusses? Check. Uptight white woman who talks about crazy drugs? Check. LARPing? Check. People dressing like Kiss? Check. It's that laziness of "you guys are funny, so just, you know, be wacky!" that irritates me.
But like I said, I feel like this is very curmudgeonly, as I did laugh and laugh often during the movie. It's a fun flick, but really isn't offering you much more than the chance to see Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott say ridiculous things to each other for an hour and a half. However, there are certainly worse ways to spend an hour and a half.
Again, Night at the Museum, I'm glaring directly at you with vengeful, hate-filled eyes.
Yeah! Here we go! French New Wave is for losers, all the cool kids love German Expressionism!
M is one of those classics that I'm amazed people don't watch or talk about more. It's still creepy, funny, affecting and strange. It's arguably the first real psychological thriller/serial killer movie. It's a parable, an exploration of compulsion, a political screed and a darn fun time.
The movie centers around Peter Lorre's character Hans Beckert, a child murderer plaguing a German city. As children continue to turn up dead the city goes into a panic. The police begin pressing hard against the underworld, the underworld begins to get rueful and angry that they're being equated with a child killer, and the press keeps stirring them both up. As things begin to boil over, everyone begins an all-out manhunt for Beckert.
It's hard to even know where to begin when discussing how great this film is. Let's start with Lorre and the character of Beckert. Long before Spielberg showed his brilliance by keeping the shark hidden, Lang keeps Beckert's true character always out of sight. We see Beckert stalking his victims, hiding from his pursuers , writing a tortured note to the press and, in one particularly affecting scene, making horrible faces in a mirror while the voice-over of another character speculates about his mental state. When his character first appears we're not shown his face, but his shadow cast against a posted announcement of his crimes as he approaches his next victim. Even his crimes are marked by his absence. At the death of poor Elsie, all we see is her abandoned ball rolling away and the balloon Beckert gives her tangled in power lines. Lang is building a monster out of Beckert that lives in shadows, creeps in corners and keeps a low profile. It becomes obvious what needs to be done - the monster must be eliminated, the only question that remains is how.
It is the how that becomes the crux of the picture. It's thrilling to watch the cat-and-mouse games of a whole city hunting down one man, but then, once caught, the "trial" scene tears the rug out from under the viewer. Lorre's performance here at the end is astounding. Everything that they've been hinting at throughout the movie, his psychoses, his anxiety, his fright, it all comes exploding out. But as much as the character is losing control, Lorre is masterful at crafting the rise and fall of each tic, each neuroses. It's a great study of compulsion, of the man who hates himself, but cannot help himself. Lorre brings such pathos and wounded weirdness to what could be a hammy, totally over-the-top cheese-fest, especially given the already heightened, more theatrical acting style of the time, that it truly is a wonder to watch. It's an interesting and telling trivia note that supposedly Lorre actually studied under Sigmund Freud at one point.
In addition to the great monster creation and character study that the central Lorre role brings, the movie also has an extraordinarily weighty political message. The movie was made in Germany during the rise of Nazi party. Lorre was Jewish and Fritz Lang was half-Jewish, so both of them were beginning to feel the heavy hand of persecution and oppression coming down on them. This time was also seeing the rise of the SS, and it's not too hard to see the parallels Lang was drawing between the gang of hoodlums who decide to take justice into their own hands, and Germany's secret police who decided to "uphold" the law by working outside of it. The film manages to have its cake and eat it to by being both overtly about the workings of the police, press and underworld, and then covertly being about the shifting cultural mood and the rise of dangerous fears, scapegoating, mob action and oppression.
In my Pierrot Le Fou review I talked about words that could only come from certain cultures, and I sort of dumped on poor old Germany, land of my heritage!, by calling out schadenfreude as being particularly German. Here's a somewhat nicer word: zeitgeist, literally "the spirit of the times." M is full of the zeitgeist for 1931 Germany. The movie was made while Germany was still in the midst of it's 1930 Great Depression, The Nazis were on the rise and everyone was getting antsy and tensions were rising, but the relevance isn't just in the topical subject matter, it's in the form as well. Lang's use of black and white is beautiful and affecting, making the streets and rooms seem filled with dark pockets where any sort of horror you could imagine might lurk. This was also Lang's first film with sound, and it has the feel of a master crafstmen tinkering with new toys. From Lorre's character whistling Peer Gynte (trivia note: the whistling was actually Lang, as Lorre couldn't whistle!) to the chase through the empty building that is full of echoing footsteps, jackhammers, rustling keys and alarms, there's a fun sense of exploration and play with the sound that is affecting and endearing. The editing is also brilliant, the way Lang cuts back and forth between all levels of society, the businessmen, the police, the underworld and the derelicts, drawing parallels and divergences between them all. It's also a deft move to have Lorre's capture be largely at the hand of the homeless derelicts, because "nobody sees them," as one character notes. There's also the famous way the camera treats Lorre's character in his first and last scenes. Lang puts us in his place. When we see his shadow appear on the posted warning the shadow is coming from the camera/viewer/us. We are the thing causing that shadow. And then, in the final trial scene there are large portions where we see the crowd of criminals from Lorre's character's perspective. Lang puts us on trial facing a hostile and blood-thirsty mob.
That's what I love about this movie and what drives me nuts about Godard - every shot has a beauty to it, and a purpose. Look at the incredible perspective Lang gets out of the shot where the abandoned criminal who has broken through the floor in the building Lorre is hiding in is pulled up to the next level by the police. The shot isn't just stunning to look at, it's a visual representation of one of Lang's central themes, the need for a good, just society to pull the lost and the criminal up out of their holes. It's through this "rescued" criminal that the police eventually find where the underworld gangs have taken Lorre and go to capture him and bring him to actual justice. This is thoughtful filmwork of the highest caliber.
Lang isn't just a technical master, he knows how to play with expectations and audience desire as well. The beginning of the film taunts and horrifies by putting children in mortal danger, then Lang shifts the focus of the film away from the children and towards the monster, where eventually we don't even think about the children anymore, we're so wrapped up in the killer and the manhunt. Then, in the film's haunting coda, we see one of the mothers of a murdered child weep directly into the camera and mourn that justice still will not bring back her child, and that it would behoove us all to take better care of the children. It's an admonition to the audience that has gotten just as wrapped up in "justice" as the mob at the film's end, and also an admonition to Germany at large for taking their eyes off of thoughtful reconstruction and focusing on hateful blaming and destruction. It's a powerful end to an extraordinary and artful film.
I'm an avowed Werner Herzog fan. To me, the man makes cinematic magic. His narratives aren't incredibly strong or typically arched, frequently his main characters don't grow or change that much, his shots are long and ponderous, sometimes to a fault, but holy moley. Look at those movies!!! He doesn't really make movies, he makes CINEMA. Although I'm a huge fan, I haven't seen nearly as much of him as I'd like. Fitzcarraldo is one of his big hits, so it's about time I check it out.
It's everything you want from a Herzog movie. His frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski plays the titular character, a man in the wilds of the jungle who, while everyone else is making a fortune running rubber up the river, is trying to build a railroad through the bush and make ice to sell using chemicals. Those near-impossible feats are just his day jobs. His real passion is to build a first-class opera house in the jungle and bring over all the great stars of Europe. He brings his record player with him wherever he goes and plays opera for whoever will listen, and even some who won't. He's indulged in his fancies by Molly, the madame of a local brothel. Though Fitzcarraldo has no money and his efforts are all failures, Molly still gives him large sums of money to follow his passions, because Molly has money to burn. Molly, like the rubber barons, is in the business of exploiting the locals, and business is very, very good.
The main thrust of the movie is Fitcarraldo's newest scheme. He's going to buy an unclaimed rubber plantation and beat the unbeatable river that has kept so many away by the boat across a small strip of land where the unavigable river and a much gentler river almost meet. Sound insane? How about this: Herzog actually did it. He gathered a lot of natives, built some pulleys, blew up some hills, and drug a boat over hilly land and settled it into water on the other side. It's not quite what you see in the movie, as Herzog had a bulldozer to help him shape the land and push the boat, but what you're watching borders on documentary. Herzog seems to understand the madness of compulsion to such a degree that he cannot portray it, he almost must become it. The stories about the making of a Herzog movie are almost as well known and discussed as the movies themselves, and Fitzcarraldo is one of the most stunning examples of this.
Herzog, if nothing else, knows the power of images. He can not only make them powerful and beautiful, he can make them resonate. Not to keep beating up on poor old Transformers, but it's striking how much money goes into each frame of that movie, and to give Bay credit, a lot of his movies do actually look good, it's just... hollow. The images are pretty, but what do they mean? They aren't even really that awe inspiring. Contrast some robot ripping the top off one of the great pyramids in Transformers 2 to the slow, beautiful, striking image of a boat slowly creeping up that hill. It may sound a little film snobby, and it may even be a little film snobby, but why not? It's not just the extraordinary feat of the boat going uphill, the movie is filled with stunning images. The rubber baron feeding the money roll to the fish is brilliant and shocking. The way Herzog films Fitzcarraldo treating his record player as though it is some holy relic, fighting against the barons who profane against it and using it to conquer the savage natives, is wonderful. Even the very opening, with Fitzcarraldo frantically rowing Molly in a little rowboat up to the opera house miles and miles upriver from their settlement because their boat has broken down, is brilliant. It does what any truly great opening shot does - encapsulates the entire movie in one image. Fitzcarraldo fighting frantically against nature to reach his vision of The Opera, civilization made manifest, while Molly sits along for the ride, offering encouragement and gentle barbs. And that triumphant ending! Fantastic!
And what can you say about Klaus Kinski? The man was a treasure, a mad flury of intensity and brilliance. It's easy to get lost in the mythos of Kinski the Madman and lose sight of the fact that Kinski was an incredible actor. He was fearless, certainly, and his complete, nearly pathological dedication shone through every roll he took, but its incredible to look at the range of characters he played within just Herzog films alone. Nosferatu, Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde - it would be easy to lump them together as "madmen" or "men overtaken by passion," but that's doing a huge disservice to Kinski and to Herzog. Look at the restraint and sadness of Nosferatu, the lawless, almost nihilistic anarchy of Cobra Verde, the supreme zealotry of Aguirre and the vulnerability of Fitzcarraldo. Certainly the man was a scene-chewing ham, but he was a scene-chewing ham that could finesse a nuanced understanding of what made men of all ilks go to extremes when he could just have easily "played crazy" every time, and for that alone it's hard to underestimate the genius of Kinski. I think this is one of his greatest performances, as the vulnerability on display here isn't something we usually get to see with Kinski. Watch the way he listens to opera, as though the beauty of it could possibly destroy him, but he cannot help himself. The way he leans on Molly for comfort and support, how he deals with his crew and the natives in a way that is both stern and pleading. It's an exemplory performance from an already extraordinary performer.
Also fascinating to watch in the film is the way Herzog deals with the native population in the movie is brilliantly subtle and interesting. Herzog had a (purportedly) good relationship with both the locals and the government, and both wanted him to return after the success of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Why I feel they would welcome him back is his believable, very telling portrayal of the native population. He allows the politics of the films to work their way in the same way politics works its way into real life. Herzog neither deifies the sanctity of a holy naive peoples, nor does he overly dramatize their persecution. He manages to be extraordinarily political by leaving politics out of it and simply filming the proceedings as they would have occured.
If you've never seen a Herzog movie, I cannot recommend him enough. He's worth seeing, if anything, just to get an opinion on him. You'll certainly see a movie unlike anything you've seen before. It's odd, although Fitzcarraldo is one of his most famous, I'd actually wouldn't recommend it to begin your Herzog viewing. Cobra Verde has much more action and wackiness, Invincible and Rescue Dawn have much more conventional narratives and his brillliant documentary Grizzly Man is a fantastic piece of film work. If you like those, and heavens I hope you do, check out Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: the Wrath of God, Nosferatu. If you like those, get into his REALLY crazy stuff, like the "documentary" Lessons in Darkness. What I love about Herzog is that, to me, he personifies what I want from film. He shows me a world I've never seen, some place strange and unusual, but also shows me something about myself, the world around me, how we all live. His films are dreams where the subconscious speaks hidden truths to us through bizarre, vivid imagery and outlandish characterization. He is visual poetry in the absolute best sense of the term. If you're curious about film not just as a storytelling medium, but as art, Herzog demands to be seen.
I am at war with Jean-Luc Godard. I want to like him and his films, as he's one of cinema's grand darlings and a huge inspiration for some of my favorite filmmakers, but I think he's abysmal. I understand what he's doing, but I still think it's stupid and obnoxious.
If you were to describe the "plot" of Pierrot Le Fou, it would seem like there could definitely be some entertainment held within. A man leaves his wife for an earlier girlfriend, who has killed a man, potentially for political reasons. They go on the run, lamming it across France in an attempt to find the woman's brother and make their getaway. Not too shabby. There are also musical numbers. Interesting! And they throw in a lot of references to wacky pop culture, like Abbot and Costello and comic books. Cool! The whole film is designed with a crazy pop fashion and wild, vibrant colors. Neato!
Well, then, why does the whole thing feel like such a damn bore? Because, first of all, it's not a movie. Godard once said that the best way to critique film is to make one, and, true to his beliefs, his films always feel more like essays on film than an actual film themselves. One of the bigger problems, though, is for a guy who is in essence professing to make films about films, he doesn't seem to have an exceptionally good grasp on what makes films work. Throughout Pierrot Le Fou he makes homages to various kinds of classic film genres, but doesn't get any of them right. He references film noir and thrillers without making anything exciting or darkly enticing, he references slapstick comedy without making anything funny, he references musicals without making anything magical or even hum-worthy. He skims across the surfaces of film without ever seeming to penetrate what's underneath, but he fills in the "deep" part with a lot of bullcrap "philosophizing" and lazy, bloated social commentary and he equates goofing on film construction with thoughtful analysis, which I'm not entirely sold on.
What are we supposed to learn from, say, the bit where Anna Karina helps Pierrot steal gas by beating up the gas attendants like an old silent film comedy? It's not funny - Karina has, as far as I can tell, absolutely no comic timing - and it's neither shot nor edited in a way that brings out any comedic zing. The only thing about it that might be considered entertaining is the fact that it's done at all, but isn't that awfully smarmy, ego-centric and self-congratulatory? Isn't it, in a sense, almost as lazy and pandering as all of those Epic Movie/Disaster Movie/Date Movie films, where the main sense of enjoyment comes from saying "Oh! I recognize that!"? Sure, it's on a much more artsy fartsy scale as far as the references go, but that doesn't necessarily add depth now, does it?
Or the musical numbers? There are two, "Jamais Je Ne T'Ai Dit Que Je T'Aimerai Toujours" and "Ma Ligne de Chance," and they're both dull as dirt. In the first Anna Karina ambles around her apartment, singing to Jean-Paul Belmondo while a dead body lays around, unexplained and unacknowledged. The song's a pretty forgettable ditty, it holds no relevance to much of anything, the performance is lackluster, it's just kind of there. But Godard has seen the old MGM musicals, you understand! He knows that sometimes in movie history people who would normally be talking start singing! He's a perceptive and daring master of film commentary, he is. Then there's Ma Ligne de Chance, which is where Emily officially made me stop watching the movie and finish later when she wasn't around. In the song Karina sings about her fate line and Belmondo sings about her thigh line. It's a bold dissection of the battle of the sexes, where Godard shows us that women like to think in big, emotional terms, and men like to think in pragmatic realities... with their penises. It's as though women and men were species from two entirely different planets, like, I don't know, Mars and Venus? It reminded me a lot of this other brilliant, artsy examination of gender relations that just came out in theaters. It's called The Ugly Truth, with Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler. It's way artsy, intelligent, thought-provoking stuff like Pierrot Le Fou, but maybe you've heard of it?
There are moments where things almost come together. I enjoyed the party at the beginning of the movie where a bunch of people who work in advertising actually speak to each other in "advertising" speak. That's a funny concept, but not much more so than, say, a particularly clever SNL skit, and then Godard really gets heavy-handed when he shoots all the ad people in monochrome, but shoots the one "real" person, director Samuel Fuller, in full, clear color. Get this: Ad people... ARE PHONY! And artists are... AWESOME! I like the breaking of the fourth wall, but it's so slipshod and amounts to not much more than a clever wink, whereas when, say, Woody Allen does it in Annie Hall, it says something about the theme, the characters, and even a bit about the nature of cinema itself.
And then there's the "Vietnam" moment, where Anna Karina puts on yellowface and does a pretty offensive caricature of a Vietnamese woman, while Belmondo pretends to be American, which is, in its entirety, him saying words like "Oh yeah! Sure! No charge! Hollywood! Communist!" while drinking and pointing a gun at things. Pretty subtle, perceptive stuff. They perform their mocking show for a group of Americans, including a soldier, who think their act is great. I can't help but think this is, in some way, largely representative of all the Godard I've ever seen. The whole thing is uncomfortable and embarrassing, but not in the way Godard wants it to be. It's mawkishly bad.
As is most of the dialog. Perhaps I take this all a little too personally, as I cannot, cannot, cannot allow Jean-Luc Godard to be called a genius, because if he is, then so were the most insufferable kids in every playwriting course I've ever taken. I've tried to find some of Belmondo's monologues or some of the more inane ramblings online, but no one's coming forward. I couldn't even find something on YouTube. They're all conversations and monologues that any script teacher would instantly say "UNGH, cut that, it's indulgent, it goes nowhere, there's nothing to it, just get rid of it." But then the kid would whine and complain that no one understands him and those monologues really ARE what the script is about, and if we were all smarter we'd get it and realize he's a genius. And if Godard is a genius, that kid might be too, and that thought makes my soul hurt.
After watching the movie I went online to try and find someone or something that might show me what I missed, might illuminate the brilliance for me. Nearly everything made the same claim: in order to truly appreciate Godard you have to... watch more Godard. Watch more, these people say, and eventually you start to see his little quirks and obsessions and you get his lingo, his film language, and it all becomes so much clearer. It's become apparent to me, the more I think about Godard and the more I read up on him and what I've seen of him, that this is all probably true. The one thing the guy does well, outside of some nice design, is show you what it's like to think like Godard. The films I've seen all seem like one long essay about what JLG thinks about movies. I don't think those thoughts always run as terribly deep as Godard wants us to think, but that is, indeed, what you see. It's also not what he claims his movies are about. He says they're about cinema, but as I said before, if so, then poorly. He claims his movies, especially Pierrot Le Fou, are about pure emotions, and yet the whole thing feels dead, the lead characters in no way resemble real people with real emotions, and I felt nothing for them at all. But I did very much feel like I was having a conversation with Godard. I just find him a crappy conversationalist.
I can see why some people like it. There are some charming moments, the ad party is fun, the guy singing near the end is a good bit, and the explosive finale is effin great, although again I'm not sure if I enjoyed it in the exact way Godard intended for it to be read. It's funny, all of Godard's "wacky" deconstruction makes me realize why the French love Jerry Lewis. He does the exact same thing Godard does, but makes it funny and enjoyable. I've actually always had a soft spot in my heart for Jerry Lewis, and watching this movie I couldn't help but think of great scenes like in Cinderfella, where he sticks a large bowl and a knife out the kitchen window into an orange tree, then wiggles his arms around and pulls the bowl back in to find it full of perfectly halved oranges. It makes me laugh every time, but is also very much making a joke on the idea of cinema editing, of the "magic" of the movies. Or what about The Patsy, which came out a year before Pierrot Le Fou and features the awesome 4th wall break at the end where Lewis' character falls off a building and as his laaaaaaady is weeping for him, he walks back out on the ledge and tells her it's just a movie. And that was a year before Pierrot! Laugh all you want, I think Jerry was darn funny back in the day, and possibly a better film connoisseur than Godard. I'm just saying.
Also, you know what else I found interesting? There are some words that can only come from certain cultures. For instance, only the Germans could come up with schadenfreude. There's a reason we say "schadenfreude" and not some other word, because (a) no one had another word for that in another language, and (b) the concept itself seems so essentially German, why use anything else? Watching this made me realize that it really only the French could come up with the word "ennui." It also happens to be the closest thing to an emotion I felt watching Pierrot Le Fou.
When I reviewed Zodiac I got into a couple of discussions about the genre of the police procedural. It's a fascinating little sub-genre that sets up many intriguing challenges as it takes something that should be pretty dull and tries to bring out the fascinating drama underneath. It's not easy to do, but when it is pulled off well, it's kind of a glorious, blazing miracle. Witness the rise of The Wire as one of the most acclaimed and admired television shows of our time. It's not big or flashy, it's just about people doing their jobs, but the brilliant David Simon knows how to mine intense drama even out of the most routine of cop work.
What's interesting is that whenever someone talks about a "procedural," they're almost always talking about a police procedural. Are there other kinds of procedurals out there that I'm not thinking of? I suppose you could have law procedurals, like The Verdict or A Few Good Men, although those always seem to be mighty close to police work themselves, especially how they're constructed storywise on film. I never got to see it, but could last year's highly acclaimed French film The Class be considered a teaching procedural?
Which is all to say that The Battle of Algiers basically plays like a war procedural, and is extraordinarily fascinating because of it. It strips away the grand heroics and heightened dramatics of typical war movies and uses a documentary-style approach to give it verisimilitude, so much so that some people thought the riot scenes and street scenes were actual documentary footage. The movie was banned for years in France due to its harsh depictions of the French police and soldiers, and the depictions of torture, considered quite graphic at the time, were cut out of many of the prints, including the ones shown in America.
For those unaware of the history, the French took Algeria as a colony around 1830 and kept it until a violent street revolution retook the country in 1962. The story of the film is the story of the fighting that happened in Algiers around late 1956 and early 1957 between French forces and the National Liberation Front (FLN). The filmmakers, as well as the book the film is based off of, are obviously aligned with the FLN, but given their alliance they present a pretty balanced and fascinating look at both sides of the struggle. The police captain is shown as both sympathetically lost in an unwinnable conflict in which his hands are tied, and monstrous, as when he lashes out from his feelings of powerlessness by sneaking into the Algerian slums and setting off a bomb in the same style as the FLN. When the French soldiers arrive they are led by Col. Mathieu, an imposing man in reflective sunglasses that give him soulless round spheres where his eyes should be. However, as villianous as he appears and occasionally acts, he is also oddly straightforward. Whereas the police chief was getting conflicting messages from his superiors and in turn passes down a muddled string of orders to his men, Mathieu strikes with near-jaw dropping bluntness. "Should we remain in Algeria?" he asks a group of hostile journalists. "If you answer 'yes,' then you must accept all the necessary consequences." He does not mince words. The movie allows him to be a soldier, and gives him his credit. He points out how many of the men in his unit fought for the French resistence in WWII, and some were even in Dachau and Buchenwald. He believes in the Algerian war as much as he believed in the resistence, and is willing to go to the same lengths for it. The FLN are also shown as vicious, violent and uncompromising. Not only do they attack the French, but they are more than willing to kill their own people if they find them morally corrupt or within their rather fluid definition of "traitorous."
The film becomes a game of strategy, the FLN versus the French, and their two primary weapons, terrorism and torture. They are both led by smart, thoughtful men who wish to accomplish their goals as quickly and effectively as possible. Mathieu knows the violence is coming from a small minority and lets his troops know that policing will be much more effective than military action. One of the leaders of the FLN, Ben M'Hidi, counters one of the members calls for violence by saying, "Acts of violence don't win wars. Neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful as a start, but then the people themselves must act."
M'Hidi is talking about a proposed strike that is the centerpiece of the film. The UN are debating "The Algeria Question," and as a sign of their strength and to garner world support, the FLN asks local merchants to go on strike. It's a bold move, as the strike is scene as an act of allegiance with the terrorists by the French and anyone taking part in it is considered an enemy. It raises the stakes, and forces the French to take action. It's a strategy that will eventually lead to the capture and/or execution of practically all of the FLN's leadership, but then only five years later the Algerians had banded together, partially if not largely over the fate of the FLN, to officially claim their independance.
In the end the movie is not about one side or the other, but about the possible impossibility of colonization. The situation itself was unmanageable, and the change that inevitably must come must also, unfortunately, usually come under the weight of heavy violence. Both sides are shown doing cruel, horrific acts, but they are both also portrayed as believing they are doing only what they must to survive how they see fit. There are scenes within the movie which are harrowing. The torture scenes are indeed awful. The section of the film in which three women in the FLN are each given a bomb to place is one of the most tense and riveting scenes I've seen. The women go through checkpoints, drop their children off with friends, engage with strangers, some of them very nice, whose deaths they will soon be responsible for if they drop off their bombs. The movie is basically about the conflicts of pragmatism and morality. How to best accomplish honorable goals that must be done through terrible means. The whole film is astounding, but it is worth it for the press conference alone, which pits the formidable Col. Mathieu against the captured FLN leader, the charming Ben M'Hidi. Watching these two men spar with wit, elegance, and an underlying yet ever-present ruthlessness is a wonder.
If a lot of these themes - occupation, clash of civilizations, war, terrorism, torture - seem pretty relevant to you, you would not be alone. In 2003 there was a showing of the film at The Pentagon. The flier advertising the screening read: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film." It showed only months after the infamous "Mission: Accomplished" banner made headlines. Makes you wonder who was in attendance?
WEEEEEEEELL, this one might get people a little worked up.
I really wasn't looking forward to watching this movie. I've never been a proponent of Intelligent Design, but my parents recommended it to me, saying it brought up some interesting points and they'd like to hear my thoughts on. Well, now I've watched it, and you know what? It did bring up a few interesting points, and here are my thoughts on them.
The film, for those not in the know, is Ben Stein's take on why Intelligent Design is being shut out of Academia. Now, if you're like me you assumed that Intelligent Design was being shut out of Academia for an extraordinarily good reason: It's not science. I'd seen the kooks they brought out on all the news shows that gabbered on and on about how God made everything and if scientists didn't recognize God then we'd all face the consequences and we must protect the children and etc. etc. etc. I've seen the online video of Kirk Cameron discussing how awesome bananas are and that they are a sure sign that God created everything. These people are loonies, and they are the public face of Intelligent Design.
What Expelled does is attempt to show us some of the people who don't get any screen time, the actual... you know... scientists. And yes there appear to be some scientists who give Intelligent Design some credence. Their main points seem to be these:
(1) Intelligent Design is NOT Creationism. There is no "God made the world in 7 Days," no "Man sprung fully formed to rule the Earth." They regard that stuff to be just as insane as the rest of us do.
(2) Intelligent Design does not refute some claims of evolution. There appears to be room for Intelligent Design and Natural Selection to co-exist.
(3) Intelligent Design does not seek to boil down or simplify science into the easy answer of "God did it!" In contrast, they revel in the complexities of science and see that complexity and interconnectedness as a sign of some higher intelligence.
(4) Their main dispute with Darwinian evolutionary theory is that it doesn't provide a satisfactory explanation for the beginning of life. At some point in every evolutionary origin of life story there is a moment where something "just occurred" not for any other reason than... well... it had to, you know, for life to start and stuff.
The main focus of the documentary appears to be about reframing the conversation in various ways. One way in which the conversation gets reframed is to try and refute the polarization of the "You either believe in God or you believe in Science" debate. This I was glad to see, because for years I've thought people on both sides of this debate have been complete assholes, if you'll pardon my language. This is a false dichotomy. Many of history's greatest scientists were religious, faith is not inherently antithetical to science. This makes both sides blindingly obnoxious when they say that either we should simply take what's said in the Bible and be content with that or that anyone who believes in some form of religious thought is a blithering dunderhead who couldn't tell an atom from an Adam. Both sides are using extraordinarily shallow reasoning, and it's nice to see someone point that out.
Ostensibly the film's goal is to say that whether or not you believe in Intelligent Design, it should be allowed to be thoughtfully debated. And I have to say, on that ground the movie did somewhat succeed with me, as by the end I thought "Eh, I'd hear what they have to say." It was interesting to watch this movie so closely to Mr. Death, in that I felt like the frame of mind Mr. Death left me with affected the way I viewed this film. That film was all about a man who certainly wasn't correct and was pushing damaging information, but needed to be heard out and was unfairly demonized instead of being properly engaged with and debated. I like to believe that everyone should have their day in court, and perhaps we haven't let the actual, scientific Intelligent Design community plead their case. Unfortunately the movie fails to offer much of what the actual Intelligent Designers would have to say. It gets so caught up on the perceived stonewalling of Intelligent Design by the academic community and the unexplored "darker" sides of evolutionary theory that it never really lets the Intelligent Designers do that much speaking for themselves. What little they did have to say seemed intriguing, but I would certainly need to hear a whole lot more.
And I should also say, and probably have said much earlier, that the film is most certainly a hatchet job. I am well aware of this. I am aware that some of Stein's rhetorical devices are astoundingly both shameless and shameful (as befits a former Nixon speechwriter, ZING!), his misquoting of Darwin is disgusting, his Holocaust connections are both overwrought and non-demonstrative and when the other shoe drops at the end and you see him tie the fight for Intelligent Design into conservative positions on abortion and euthanasia it all becomes deadeningly pat. Which is all a shame, because he really needs none of that to make his point. What intrigued me the most was when he just let the Intelligent Design people talk about what Intelligent Design meant to them. Let that guy talk about how beautifully constructed a cell is! Let the astrophysicist go on about "The Privileged Planet"! In the end, all I could think is why not moderate a thoughtful debate between an Evolutionist and an Intelligent Design proponent?
The real reason, of course, is that reasonable discussions don't sell. They don't drum up interest or get you invited on ridiculous talk shows. And so instead we get the Intelligent Design crowd made to look like martyrs and the Evolutionists to look like uber-close-minded raving weirdos. It was fascinating to see the tables turned in that fashion, as normally it's the well-kempt, thoughtful Evolutionist versus the howling yokel from the Creation Museum, but that doesn't speak well of the actual content of this film. Or, of course, the reason could be that in the end the Intelligent Design crowd doesn't really have anything to say, but after what little I got from them in the movie, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.
The long and short of it is that this is a propaganda movie, plane and simple, which is a shame because it easily could have been about something fascinating. It accomplishes one part of what it sets out to do in that it makes me curious and I now feel like the Intelligent Design people may not be getting an entirely fair shake, but the best way to combat that isn't to swing so far in the other direction that you're now pulling shenanigans on the other side.
It's telling that a lot of the reviews of the movie claim that it is "anti-science." Well, not really, as the "heroes" it lauds are people who have all dedicated their lives to science. And they aren't just the typical high school teacher out in Two-Sticks, West Virginia who doesn't want to teach that we-come-from-monkeys crap, they are university professors and scientists who specialize in things like astrophysics and neurosurgery. Pretty smart dudes. And what a lot of this basically boils down to is do you think, in those initial moments of creation, the world came together through random encounters or guided organization? In scientific analysis it is demanded that people find repeatable, verifiable data. Would it be possible to say that Intelligent Design is a way of enforcing that code, saying nature has obviously organized itself around extraordinarily complex, repeatable data shows a form of organization, so could there not be an organizer? Do the Intelligent Designers dig their own grave when they say that it is basically a way of reframing the organizational principles around which nature is based if we can then simply say, "Well, why not leave that frame out of it and just examine the data?" How exactly does approaching science through the structure of Intelligent Design aid the science? Does it aid the science AT ALL? What a fascinating debate! I haven't been following any of the Intelligent Design debates terribly closely, so perhaps they have already duked it out in this vein, but if not, wouldn't you love to see two brilliant people from either side of that debate really go head to head and talk about the possible justifications and ramifications of either viewpoint? I sure would. If you know of anywhere I can see something like that, let me know, because I didn't see it here.
I try to be a good cinephile and engage in a wide breadth of movie-watching, but one area in which I fall painfully short is the documentary. I see very few of them, and am terribly illiterate on the subject. However, one person I've always been intrigued by is Errol Morris. In the few documentaries I've seen by him he has an incredible knack for finding stories that are difficult, unusual and engaging. For instance, recently statesman Robert McNamara passed away, and if you have not seen Errol Morris' portrait of the man in "The Fog of War," you truly owe it to yourself to do so. As Emily and I were setting up our Netflix account we decided we'd throw some documentaries on the list, and I spoke out for some Errol Morris. And thus we watched Mr. Death.
Morris tells us the story of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr, an engineer who stumbled into the rather singular business of "humanitizing" state execution machines. His father was a prison warden, he'd been around them all his life, and he had been disgusted not by the essence of capital punishment, but by its sloppiness. He tells of electrocutions gone horribly wrong, where the skin melts, the eyes explode and the bowels let loose cause not only undue indignity on the executed, but a potential danger to the executees, as a growing puddle of urine and a powerful electrical current are not safe bedfellows. In essence, Leuchter is a man who can think in stark, practical terms about extremely horrific, emotional occurences that most people would rather not think on at all. This works out surprisingly well for him business-wise. That is, of course, until the neo-nazis show up.
Leuchter's life takes a turn for the even more bizarre and horrific when Ernst Zundel, a neo-nazi on trial in Canada for Holocaust Denial, contacts Leuchter with a proposition: go to Auschwitz, see if he can find proof of the massive cyanide gassing that is alleged to have taken place there. And away Leuchter goes. He claims to find no evidence of cyanide poisoning, supports a neo-nazi in court, and his marriage falls apart, his work completely dries up and now no one comes within ten feet of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. unless they're making a documentary about him.
Lest you think I've given away the whole shebang, let me implore you to please, please check out this film. If anything, you'll be talking about it with the people you view it with long after the movie is finished. Morris has an amazing ability to recognize the heart of a story and find its most complex and dramatic tensions. It would be easy to paint Leuchter as an idiot, and many in the film do. It would be easy to paint Leuchter as a monster, and many in the film do. Morris steps back and lets all these people have their way with Leuchter, as well as letting Leuchter defend himself, and in holding all of these different approaches in stark contrast with each other, he lets the viewer make their own way through the story. In this way his documentaries are my favorite kind of art. It's going to mean something entirely different to everyone who watches it.
I love Roger Ebert, and frequently read his reviews after almost any movie I see. I read him after as I like to go into a movie as fresh as possible and enjoy picking something apart after I've seen it. Ebert, I find, does a fine job by and large with not only detailing what he did and did not enjoy about a film, but he also examines and conveys what a movie means to him as a viewer. I was fascinated by his take on Mr. Death, as he focuses largely on paralleling the state sponsored death machines Leuchter made with the state sponsored death machines of the Holocaust, and how we have created the ultimate villian out of Hitler, the man who ran the world's biggest state sponsored killing agenda, but had no problem electing as president a man who oversaw the state of Texas during the most productive years of state execution in America. In case you haven't guessed, Ebes is pretty vehemently anti-death penalty, and hence his watching of the film flows through that lens.
I myself was struck by how simple it seems it would have been to correct Mr. Leuchter, but instead everyone seemed to find it easier and better to make him a villian. Leuchter makes a point of saying, and I feel inclined to believe him as he certainly doesn't seem too interested in protecting his self-image elsewhere, that he is certainly not a neo-nazi and believes that the nazis did many, many awful things, he just doesn't believe there were gassings at Auschwitz. Leucher based this belief on analysis of pieces of the walls of Auschwitz he attained illegally, his examination of the area after years and years and damage and his understanding of how gas diffusion works. All of these are flawed, and easily deconstructed by professionals. When Leuchter sent in his samples to a lab for analysis he did not tell them where they came from or what he was looking for (trace elements of cyanide), as he wanted to have a blind, bias-free analysis. Which seems reasonable, except that if they'd known what he was looking for they would have informed him that any trace elements of cyanide would have been extraordinarily miniscule and would have been destroyed when they broke apart the samples for testing. However, it appears no one sat Leuchter down and told him about any of this. No one offered to re-run the experiments the correct way. No one offered any understanding. Except, of course, for the neo-nazis and white supremicist.
And so you have a man who speaks at historical revisionist societies not because he's a racist, but because he sincerely yet mistakenly believes that the historical record is incorrect, and these are the only people who won't call him a racist or a monster, but accept him. However, in a last, nasty little bit of irony, even they don't truly accept him 100%. Ernst Zundel, the man whose trial created all of these problems for Leuchter, speaks of Leuchter as being a great benefit and boon to his cause, but also as being childlike and, in many ways, slightly imbecillic. He appreciates that the man has helped his cause, but since Leuchter isn't a "true believer" in the sum total of Zundel's racist philosophy, he's dismissed as soon as his usefulness is over.
What you are left with is a portrait of a sad, lonely little monster who wanted to be important. A man with an odd, limited, self-selected set of skills whose reach far exceeded his grasp. He's also one of the most fascinating characters you're likely to see, and it's well worth a couple of hours to get to know him.
NetFlix Review #13: The Terminator Series
So I don't know if you've heard, but a new Terminator movie came out. I haven't seen it, and I doubt I'm going to. I enjoyed the original three, and I actually will support both Christian Bale and McG as people whose work I've largely enjoyed in the past. However, the new one just seems a dud, and everything I've heard about it confirms this. I'll use just about any excuse to get a group of people together and do a movie marathon, so when I found out that my friend Sean Ryan had never seen the first Terminator and only parts of Terminator 2, and that my fiancee had never seen a Terminator movie PERIOD, I figured it was time to throw a little viewing party. So I got the first and third movie off of NetFlix, I own the second, and a couple Sundays back we got together and had ourselves a time. So here we go, the first three Terminator movies, in order.
The Terminator, 1984
While I enjoy the first Terminator movie, the best thing about The Terminator is that it allowed Terminator 2 to be made. James Cameron's follow-up to "Pirranha Part Two: The Spawning," "The Terminator" is a decent little sci-fi action flick that came out at a time when sci-fi action flicks were permeating the culture the way comic book movies are nowadays. It centers around two beloved sci-fi tropes, time travel and cyborgs. It stars a hunky muscleman and a spunky chick with very 80s hair. In effect, it's a good, solid B movie. So why does this movie have the legs it has had? Three names: James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stan Winston.
Let's start with Cameron. I was talking with some friends a while back about directors who you THINK have a huge back catalog and have done a ton of work, but have actually only done a small number of films. Cameron is one of those directors. He's had such a huge influence over film and become such a big name, but until Avatar comes out later this year, the man will only have completed seven films. SEVEN! And that INCLUDES "Pirranha Part Two: The Spawning." The first thing about Cameron is that the guy was a production designer, so he's got a good eye towards building a world, but his vision never really gets in the way of what you're watching. He's a good production designer because he knows that you should never be paying attention to the production design. It's all about building a world, and he does so quite well. Another important element of Cameron's success is that, outside of a couple exceptions, he really knows how to keep a movie running. It's odd to think about all the stuff they don't get into in this movie. Time Travel, for instance. You don't really hear that much about the future war or how it happened. You only get little glimpses and a couple lines of dialogue from Reese. You also don't get much information on the Terminators either. There's a war in the future, it sucks, they've sent back a cybernetic organism to kill the leader of the revolution. Bing bang boom, it's all over except the screaming.
Now let's go back to talking about special effects, and mention Stan Winston. I've always been a huge Stan Winston fan. I'm amazed at people who reach the top of their field in a way someone like he has. Think about it, when someone gets a great horror script they've got a whole bevy of possible directors to go to, but when it came time to make the monster, you really only had three main guys, Rick Baker, Dick Smith or Stan Winston. Everyone else was playing catch-up. Although there are moments now that are ridiculous-looking, largely whenever Schwarzennegger's head is replaced by an obvious dummy, the effects still look pretty damn great. The scenes of The Terminator repairing himself are awesome, right up there with the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London or the head spin in The Exorcist as a turning point in modern film special effects.
And then there is, perhaps, the greatest special effect of all: Arnold Schwarzenegger. I may be going out on a weird limb here and risk a fair amount of credibility, but I think it's easy to underestimate how awesome Arnold Schwarzenegger is. He's not a good actor in the sense that Alec Guinness was a good actor or Jimmy Stewart was a good actor, but he is a phenomenal presence on film. It's not just the muscles, either. There are plenty of bulky dudes wandering around trying to break into action movies. Schwarzenegger truly understands film performance, especially the kind he's called upon to give. He does so much with small facial tics and slight body movements. He conveys menace and bad-assery without trying too hard. He knows exactly when and how to go for caricature and mugging the camera. He has an inherent talent for film that while not generally admitted is fairly undeniable. Consider this, one of the original casting choices to play the Terminator was O.J. Simpson, a man who had actually made a living knocking the holy crap out of people and may have, at some point later in life, actually been responsible for killing someone. And yet the producers didn't think the audience would buy him as a killer. I'm inclined to agree (not that he couldn't actually BE a killer, mind you, just that he couldn't project that on-screen). Think about the movie with O.J. Simpson as the Terminator, it just lacks that surreal, mechanical, futuristic menace that Schwarzenegger brougth to the role. Then think about every Schwarzenegger role and try and replace him with someone else. It's just not the same, and, frankly, more often than not it wouldn't be nearly as good. He's got definite cinematic skill, and this was the first movie where that skill was unleashed upon the general population.
Looking back over what I've written, I now feel like I've underplayed the movie a bit too much. While I do earnestly feel like it isn't a singularly truly exceptional piece of filmmaking, it is exceptionally solid, which there's something to be said for. Look at the bloated, unwieldy, nonsensical and unengaging sci-fi action flicks we've been getting lately. What a great boon it would be to get a flick like The Terminator in the theaters right now.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991
Now here's the good stuff. Linda Hamilton in iconic, ass-whooping mode. Schwarzenegger as not only a good guy, but a good guy who promises not to kill anyone. Robert Patrick blowing everybody's minds open. Special effects that are unsurpassed. Here's the gold standard.
The greatest glory of Terminator 2 is that it obeys that seminal rule of the sequel: Everything good about the first movie, except bigger and better. This is why I say the greatest thing about The Terminator is Terminator 2. Part of the success here is that The Terminator is a good flick, but it's small enough and just good enough that you can really, truly top it with a balls-to-the-wall sequel, which is just what Cameron did. It's not just that the bangs and pows got bigger and better, either, although they certainly did. This is a case of someone going back and really studying what came before, what works and what didn't, and deepening and strengthening the themes. Cameron is at the top of his game here, basically giving himself a lifetime pass for awesomeness. He is a man completely in control of his talents here, knowing exactly what he wants and how to get it.
For my money, what makes Terminator 2 so great is that Cameron took note of one of the things that really made the first one click - the claustrophobia and paranoia. While the first movie used the technology of the future as a jumping off point to terror (ROBOTS FROM THE FUTURE GET SMART AND THEN THEY SHOOT US!) the second movie begins looking at how the roots of that technology are growing all around us. Technology had come a long way since 1984, and not just movie technology. Computers were common in people's houses, those wacky nuts over at CERN were starting to talk about this crazy world wide web thing, Silicon Valley was in the early stages of really heating up, and the Gulf War was giving us "Smart Bombs" and bandying around soldierless warfare. Suddenly all that stuff that seemed like science fiction was starting to look a lot more like science fact. That paranoia of "where is this all leading to?" can be felt throughout Terminator 2. It gives it a drive and propulsion that the first one doesn't have, as well as a mature weariness. You can see how Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor feels like the weight of the world is resting on her taut, muscular shoulders.
It's a shame Hamilton's career never really went much of anywhere after this. Her performance here is kind of stellar. She balances the out-of-her-damn-mind paranoia one would expect from a person who had a robot sent from the future to kill her with fierce mothering instincts and a definite vulnerability. One of the other elements that really deepens this film is that John Connor is not just a hypothetical anymore, he's real, and his mother has to protect him. The movie works as a wild hyperbolization of mother's relationships with teenage sons. They know the sons are going to get into trouble, and that they'll have to face a harsh world, but they want to make it as safe for them as possible for as long as they can. Sarah's struggle early in the film to work her way out of the insane asylum to see her son, and her admonition upon her rescue that John should have given her up for his safety, is thrilling, exciting, tense stuff to watch, but also, if you allow it to be, is pretty heartbreaking. It's a class act and an acting class, all in one. If it were a just world, she would have gotten a nomination for it. Just because I can, I looked up who was nominated that year. Jodie Foster won for Silence of the Lambs, and the rest of the noms were rounded out by Bette Midler for "For the Boys," Laura Dern for "Rambling Rose," and Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon both for "Thelma & Louise." Foster was pretty undeniable in SotL, but, as much as I enjoy those other ladies, come on. Let's throw some love at Linda Hamilton. She sinks her teeth into that role with a wild abandon, really goes for broke, and delivers.
We should also take a moment to talk about Robert Patrick, because I kind of adore him. He's a fantastic presence every time he shows up, but you've got to give the man some serious props for his creation of the T-1000. It's a brilliant performance, taking something from Schwarzenegger's work on the previous film and managing to create something entirely new and different from it that still feels completely grounded within the same world. Of course, there's also the special effects work that made the T-1000 such a world-shattering thing to see on-screen, but those special effects would not have been nearly as staggering if they hadn't been in service of a performance that was already fascinating and chillingly terrifying.
Those effects, though. BOY are they good. While I was watching these movies I talked with my friend Sean about how I feel like this movie and Jurassic Park, and perhaps Forrest Gump, were the last huge leaps in film Special Effects. I can't think of anything, with the possible exception of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings films, that has quite blown me away and really changed the paradigm of film like those movies did. Any thoughts from the peanut gallery? Am I underplaying the awesome technical innovations of The Matrix just because I don't like it? Regardless, when I think of movie SFX where I thought "Holy crap, movies aren't going to be the same after that," my mind returns to the early 90s. Perhaps that's just me. Whatever you may think about what has happened since, check out those T2 effects! Holy moly! They are still thrilling to watch today. I will never be able to watch the T-1000 get frozen, break himself into pieces still trying to destroy Sarah Connor, shatter, melt and then reform, without completely geeking out. Stan Winston was a king.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Boy did people hate this movie, and boy were they wrong. I think, first of all, we all need to gather around, huddle up, and quietly admit to ourselves that no Terminator movie is going to be as awesome and bad-ass as Terminator 2. The question then becomes do you just kill the franchise, or do you allow it to keep growing in new and different ways? There's are many dangers inherent in letting franchises go on too long, but one that people seem particularly dead-set against is having the movies become too self-referential. The first movie is about being its own thing, the second movie takes the things that made the first one great and builds on and deepens them, then the third one comes along and... well... frequently just sort of works off the first two. You can be offended by that, or you can enjoy it. I seem to be much more flexible with this sin than others. I wasn't mortified by the new Indiana Jones movie, which commits this sin all over the place. In fact, I found it really fun. I also loved the hell out of Spider-Man 3. And I get a huge kick out of Terminator 3.
The movie is a rollercoaster ride, with all sorts of wacky set pieces and humor, which you can be offended by, but I will cough quietly and remind you that there was some pretty doofy humor in T2 as well. And what's wrong with a little tongue in cheek? I'd much rather have a bizarre, fun explode-a-thon like T3 than a ponderous, dull action dirge like T4 seems to be. And maybe it's just me, but I find a lot of the bits in T3 really funny. That movie makes me laugh. Maybe that's what turned people off? Maybe people don't want to laugh during a Terminator movie? Well, they certainly got their wish with Terminator: Salvation. It reminds me of all those horror movies that fail nowadays because they combine horror and humor. Why do people turn out in droves to see humorless gorefests like the Saw movies and yet stay away like the plague from movies like Slither and Drag Me To Hell because they're funny? Something has happened where we now equate humor with stupidity. Many times I've sat in a movie, especially a horror movie, and when the film earns an awesome laugh I'll hear someone behind me giggle, and then say "That's so stupid." NO. No, it isn't. It's funny. They worked hard to make that funny, and trust me, funny is hard. Wit and humor used to be a sign of intelligence. It's so much harder to make people laugh, show them something earnestly funny, especially in the middle of a horror film, than to go for cheap drama or pathos. Oh well, it's their loss.
They're also missing a film that, in its own way, is pretty ballsy. I said it's a rollercoaster of a movie, and as everyone knows, the best and most important part of a rollercoaster is the final drop, and boy does this one have a doozy. I love the end of this movie. In its own way, it's darker than T2. It's a brilliant, dark and beautiful. The movie also begins well, too. I love the idea of John Connor thinking he and his mother have averted the apocolypse, but then going into a wandering depression because he was once going to be a savior, but is now just a kid with nothing going. It's a solid place to work from, and I think everyone involved does a good job. I've really enjoyed a lot of the work Nick Stahl has done, and I think he's great here as a lost, depressed John Connor. He's still got the spunk and silliness of the young T2 John Connor that can come out at moments, but that John has definitely grown older. I also like Claire Danes here, she's fun, adorable and fiesty. She's a treat to watch.
You know who else is a treat to watch? Kristinna Loken. She got a lot of garbage thrown her way as people just dismissed her as being a cheap ploy to get more teenage boys in the seats by giving them a hot lady terminator. Sure, that was probably the intention in putting that character in, but let's allow the woman to do her thing, and she does it so, so well. Just like Robert Patrick she works within the world, but does something entirely her own. And it isn't just "act like a sexy robot." The way she moves her arms and legs, the way she twists her body and cocks her head, it is all a great study in physical performance. Much like Robert Patrick, her special effects would not work so well if she wasn't laying the groundwork. One of her money scenes, when Schwarzenegger has her in a hold from behind and then all of her limbs and head reverse themselves so suddenly she's got Schwarzenegger in the hold, is fun, exciting to watch, but also is completely in keeping with the way Loken has been moving throughout the movie. Every movement is calculated. She does such a great job of isolating each movement, and just like Schwarzenegger she knows exactly how to manipulate the screen. Her performance is certainly hot, but she's also elegant, thoughtful and at times really, really funny.
I find the movie a hell of a good time, and it makes me sad that its box office failure has led us to Terminator: Salvation. But perhaps we should follow through on one of the central premises of each Terminator film, and hold out some hope for the future.
So when I mentioned I'd be writing this review I went so far as to say that this movie may be the most 80s action flick ever. Ray Sawhill expressed interest, Kyle and I might be doing a podcast based off of it, so, with a bit of pressure, here we go.
WHY "TANGO & CASH IS MY NOMINEE FOR MOST 1980s ACTION MOVIE
First of all, let's define our terms here. When I say "most" definitive film in regards to a decade/era, I'm not talking about quality, or "best," nor am I talking about most indicative of the zeitgeist. What I'm thinking of is how movies were made and why they were made. I want a movie that WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN MADE in another decade. For instance, if we were talking about just regular old movies and I asked what movie would be "most 80s" a frequent contender is The Breakfast Club. Now, The Breakfast Club is definitely a very 80s movie, however, if it had never been made and someone pitched that movie at a studio (updating a few cultural references, of course), people would make that movie. However, Adventures in Babysitting is another story. There's nothing you could do to update the trends or cultural references that would make that movie any less 80s, it is 80s in its bones, and they wouldn't have made it the 70s or the 90s or any other era. Only in the 80s.
This means that most of these movies aren't "brilliant." A lot of them are, or at least feel like they are, written by committee. And as we all know, when people do something by committee it usually aims to the lowest common denominator, plays it safe, thinks in terms of marketing as opposed to art and they frequently attempt to be "hip" while actually being as edgy as a guidance counselor. However, fortunately for us, and fortunately for Tango & Cash, sometimes committees also go absolutely INSANE.
How did they go insane in this particular instance? Let's break it down, 80s style.
(1) COCAINE. Tons and tons of cocaine. I'm frankly amazed "Cocaine" does not receive a writing credit on this movie. This is a staple of the 80s. Everything feels rushed and excited and AWESOME and extreme, because everyone had cocaine pouring out of their eyeballs. This also causes movies to feel a little erratic. Or, in the case of Tango & Cash, all the hell over the place.
HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE COCAINE THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: Have you watched it? You can practically hear the coked up pitch while you do. "There's a tanker truck, and a sports car and a helicopter! And then Sly... SHOOTS THE TANKER! And there's COCAAAAAAAINE!!!! And then Kurt Russel punches people!! Probably some Asian dude. And then they get sent to prison and they ESCAPE after KICKING ASS. When they escape, there'll be HUGE FANS WITH ROTATING BLADES and WIRES THEY SLIDE DOWN. And then there's a HOT BABE DANCING IN A CLUB, MAN, YEAH!!! AND THEN A HUGE TRUCK AND GUNS AND A WAREHOUSE AND EXPLOSIONS AND OH MY GOD I CAN'T FEEL MY LEGS!!!!"
(2) WEAPONS ANXIETY. The "Second" Cold War. Russia. Iran-Contra. Rising urban violence. Punk and anarchy. Rising class tensions through economic disparity. In the 80s, people were scared, they were anxious and they were thinking about weapons ALL THE TIME. Who had them? Should THEY get some? Action movies reflected this by loading up their heroes to the hilt. Gone were Clint Eastwood and his Magnum. In were Rambo, Schwarzenegger, the big guns. (Trivia note: in Terminator 2 the gun used in the Cyberdyne scene was so heavy only Arnold Schwarzenegger could carry it!) It was also there in movies like the Beverly Hills Cop series, where Judge Reinhold's character has his gun fixation, and in Stripes, with the awesome Urban Assault Vehicle.
HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE WEAPONS THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: Tango & Cash again steps up the game into parodic levels. So. Many. Guns. Guns in cars, guns in boots, exploding fake dog heads. Weapons weapons weapons weapons weapons. They shove a grenade down a man's pants, then push him down the stairs to his crotch-exploding death. You could argue that Rambo 2 and 3 outweapon Tango & Cash, but we have to look at context. Rambo is in 'Nam, man. You've GOT to weapon up in the 'Nam! Tango and Cash are in L.A., and while weaponing up there isn't a BAD idea, they definitely take it to the extreme. I'd say they definitely take it over Judge Reinhold levels, and if you're topping The Judge, you know you're meaning business.
(3) THE MONEY: The 80s were the era of Wall Street. "Greed is good!" Everything was about the money. In action movies the villains started changing from the punks, the violent bullies and harsh killers and became The Money Men. The bad guy was the guy behind the guy behind the guy. The puppetmasters. In this movie the bad guy is the awesome Jack Palance, vamping it up something fierce, playing the awesomely named Yves Perret.
HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE MONEY THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: Palance isn't a businessman, he's a business, man, and you'd better stay out of his business, DAMN! What exaclty is Palance's business? Ummmm... being nefarious? He's a crime lord with a huge office, a giant facility full of employees and illegal dealings, and he's so good at being so money that, by all accounts, he doesn't even really need a front. The man pays his taxes just so he can put "Evildoer" as his occupation and watch no one be able to do a darn thing about it. He's networking with other money men, one of whom is the great James Hong. He's got the super-chic modern art deco office. So. Much Money. But what puts this one over the top? The hero's playing Wall Street as well! Sly's Tango makes a ton of bank playing stocks. Why is he a cop, then? I'm glad you, and the movie, asked that question. Adventure, my friend. Adventure.
(4) CORNY JOKES: A staple of every 80s action movie, the throwing out of one-liners and lame zingers was actually legally required by 1982. Just look at the Schwarzenegger ouevre, which reached it's zinger-flinging apex with 1987's The Running Man.
HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE CORNEY JOKES THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: First of all, it has the added bonus of being a buddy cop movie where the two main characters start out as antagonists then end up working together, so you've got two good characters who throw zingers at each other, then combine their zinging powers at the bad guys. Secondly, the zingers in this movie... they're... they're really something else. Just look at the way Stallone responds to his captain telling him if he wanted to stare death in the eye, he should have gotten married. "Is that a proposal?" Is it? The joke doesn't make any sense, really, but Stallone sells it SO hard. Possibly too hard. Is he being ironic, parodying the stereotypical movie hard cop quip? Did he think the line was stupid and oversold it to underline how ridiculous it was? Or was he earnestly selling it? This is not the only time this happens in the movie, a line so silly, sold so hard that you have to question the intent. And for that, this movie reigns supreme.
(5) OBTUSE ART VERSUS CONSUMERISM: Just watch any random music video from the 80s and you'll see this. Baroque lighting, overly symbolic imagery, a striving to be serious, thoughtful and "arty" without actually having anything to say. Look at Robert Palmer videos. I'm sure that director felt he was saying something about beauty and Hollywood and conformity and whatever, but really he's just got a bunch of ladies in strange make-up and outfits dancing out of synch while poorly pretending to play instruments to a song about a woman being so fine a man forgot where he placed his money and also being addicted to love.
HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE OBTUSE ART VERSUS CONSUMERISM THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: Actually one of the things that first struck me was how good the movie looks. The film was directed (mostly) by Andrei Konchalovsky, a Russian filmmaker who, back in the motherland, had directed a number of critically acclaimed films, including adaptations of Chekhov and Turgenev, as well as a 4 hour epic, Siberiade, about two families in a small Siberian town. Then he came to America and directed the insane and entertaining Runaway Train, starring Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, and then Tango & Cash. So the guy's got cred. And like I say, the movie looks good. The prison torture scene, the escape, Palance's lair, the club Terri Hatcher works at. It's all SUPER 80s designed, and interestingly enough Konchalsky left the movie near the end of filming over "creative differences" with the film's ending and Albert "Purple Rain" Magnoli was brought in to finish it up. No offense to Comrade Konchalsky, but... creative differences? The ending wasn't fitting his "artistic vision" for Tango & Cash? That's WAAAAY 80s.
(6) BIZARRE SUPPORTING CAST: 80s action movies loved filling out their casts with oddball characters, the zanier the better.
HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE BIZARRE SUPPORTING CAST THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: Check the list - James Hong, Clint Howard, Brion James, Michael J. Pollard, Robert Z'Dar, Jack Palance, Terri Hatcher, Michael Jeter, Geoffrey Lewis, Lewis Arquette and even a brief appearance by Billy Blanks.
(7) THE PEACEFUL WARRIOR, EXCEPT...: What would now be called "The Seagal Effect," as The Ponytailed One has built his entire career on it, The Peaceful Warrior, Except... effect is when you have the man who is peaceful and never kills anyone, except, you know, when it's awesome. Then he kills EVERYONE.
HOW THIS MOVIE IS MORE THE PEACEFUL WARRIOR, EXCEPT... THAN OTHER 80s ACTION MOVIES: This is hard because, honestly, I don't think anyone will ever do The Peaceful Warrior, Except... better or more extreme than Rambo does in First Blood: Part 2. However, as I said earlier with Rambo, he's a bit of an exception. He's a former P.O.W. with PTSD. These dudes are just cops who are doing their job, they even make a point of it once about how they haven't ever killed anybody, but then, at the end of the movie, everybody's dying. EVERYBODY. They're shooting anything that moves, they're shoving grenades down pants, and they're making wacky quips while they're doing it. This kind of goes along with Obtuse Art Versus Consumerism, as this is a case of people wanting to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to show how much they appreciate the peaceful, thoughtful officer of the law who may have to rough some dudes up on occasion, but then also they want these guys to be the biggest, baddest mothereffers who will kill anyone who looks at them funny.
So there you have it. Those are my arguments. By all means refute them, take issue, naysay. You know me, I love the feedback. In final summation, outside of 80s representational arguments, it's a ridiculously silly and enjoyable movie. It's main strength is Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell, two guys I have a HUGE soft spot for. They are oddly charming dudes, especially Russell. If you're looking for goofy, mindless fun, you certainly won't go wrong.
I largely dislike it when people call a filmmaker brave, because largely what they're rewarding are people who make message movies that are actually fairly safe. "Ooooh, our movie has a main character who is GAY. HOW BRAVE WE ARE." "Our movie shows SUBURBAN HYPOCRISY, can you believe it?" "We gathered up all the courage we could, and made a movie about WOMEN WHO SUFFER! It was basically like war, but with art!" "Speaking of war, I made a movie about how sometimes WAR makes people do BAD THINGS. I'm fairly positive I should get a medal." These films, by and large, are not brave. To me, bravery comes with taking a position that addresses a difficult topic and handling it with a subtlety and nuance that could be misunderstood by people not willing to really sit down and grapple with what you're saying. Cronenberg, I find, is a very brave filmmaker, and a film like Crash is a brave film.
A couple of years ago I went on a Cronenberg run and came to realize that he truly is one of my all-time favorite directors. I find him fascinating, a complete film genius with an unrelenting personal style and a willingness to go places in his films few others would ever dream of, and, perhaps most impressive of all, I don't think he's doing it to be a provocateur. His films are all solidly and thoroughly thought through. They are smart, observant and carefully crafted to explore themes as deep as the human condition can go, and the great thing is he does this largely while still holding true to the conventions of genres such as horror and gangster films, which means the films aren't just smart, they're FUN, a lesson a few auteurs I can name should learn.
Crash, based off the J.G. Ballard novel, centers around a small collection of people who find sexual fulfillment, and possibly more, within the realm of car crashes. There is an irony, of course, regarding the linking of sex and car crashes. It's too easy to get hung up on the literal here. The crash is metaphorical, that compulsion towards self-destruction. This isn't a movie that's actually about people with car crash fetishes, but the very essence of fetishes themselves. Note the character of Vaughn, played by Elias Koteas. He is the car crash fetish philosopher, the de Sade of auto-erotic auto destruction. "The car crash is a fertilizing, rather than a destructive event," he opines. Sure it's a wreck, he seems to be saying, but it's a wreck that teaches us something, that opens doors. Vaughn finds meaning here, in sex, in death, in the combination of the two around the mechanized automation of engineering. He also, as many a good fetishist does, links it all to celebrity. It's not just true, it's something that the rich, the famous, the great and meaningful have experienced. James Dean, Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield. Even the Kennedy assassination could be seen as a car crash, notes Vaughn. It's meaningful because it's happened to such meaningful people.
All these characters are reaching for something, a spark of life within a cold, postmodern detachment. As Emily was watching it she said to me, "It's like one of those late night cable movies, only really weird." She's correct, but it got me thinking about that connection. Cronenberg keeps the movie cold very specifically. In an early scene where James Spader's Ballard and his wife, played with devastatingly sexy coldness by Deborah Kara Unger, exchange the stories of their latest infidelities, they do so completely dispassionately. They're only way to find arousal is through a calculated dissection. Sex isn't about warmth and understanding, it's about finding something out. It goes back to Adam and Eve. They want that forbidden education. There's a reason it's called carnal KNOWLEDGE, why the Bible uses the word "know" to mean having sexual relations with a person. There is a long-standing tradition of people believing that there is a way to attain higher consciousness, reach some sort of uncharted territory, through sex. Think back on all the classic femme fatales. They're cold, they're distant, and they seem like they KNOW something. That's what makes them alluring. There's a mystery that you want to figure out, and the only way to figure it out is to get as close as possible. To dissect it.
Hence the late-night cable movie feel. Those movies understand the trappings of the dark, cold and mysterious allure, but Cronenberg is aiming for its soul. This is a film about the things we love that are bad for us, and Cronenberg attacks it head on. Many hated it when it came out because it was a film about something so damaging that was also filmed through that sexy, late-night cinema feel that made it seem titillating, but it SHOULD be titillating, in fact it MUST be titillating because, again not to repeat myself, but the movie isn't about car crashes, it's about titillaiton. It is one of my primary annoyances when people get distracted by the dressings of a movie, the architecture of it, and miss its purpose. I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a film student back at NYU that almost drove me out of my mind, where he was arguing that Fight Club, a movie I frequent site as my favorite of all-time, was lying and hypocritical because its message was being down and dirty and rough and tumble, but Fincher filmed it with such sheen and artifice that all these things that should have looked gruff and dirty looked sleek and sexy. The movie, this student argued, should have been shot on a home video camera. Leaving aside the impossibility of actually marketing a major film shot on home video, the movie, especially a movie like Fight Club or Crash, is SUBJECTIVE. The filmmakers are not trying to capture reality, they are trying to capture what these characters FEEL. In Fight Club these men are feeling sexy, strong and empowered for the first time in their lives, so it makes sense to show them as they see themselves. Plus, a major theme of the movie is artifice, constructed reality. The same can be said for Crash. To show these characters the way they would actually be in real life is a lie, because what this movie is about is how they see themselves, about how they feel.
And so what does it all mean? What knowledge do they find, and how do they feel at the end? Cronenberg leaves it pretty open. I find the ending strangely haunting, The Ballards havings sex in the remains of a "failed" wreck off the side of a highway. They're together and they seem happy, the standard ending of a "romance," and yet you can't really feel good about those two, can you? It's an ending that itches my brain for long after I've watched it. What do I want from these characters? Do I want them to "get better"? Do I want them to be punished for their deviancy, for their selfish, destructive thrill-seeking that endangers the lives of others? Am I glad that, after a movie of looking for answers in physical connections with others, this couple comes together at the end, in their own strange way? Maybe a little bit of all of these. Like most truly great films, it offers itself up much better to discussion than it does to analysis. It raises questions and the undercuts those questions with more questions. It is a film that stretches the mind, uncomforts the soul and provides no easy answers. And that's brave.