Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Now, as many of you may know and those who don't should, I write a weekly column for my old pal Dan Hudak's site Hudak On Hollywood. Hudak likes me to be the wild, ranty me you all know and love, as opposed to the less foul-mouthed Tor.com me (and soon-to-be Next Projection me, as of a couple days from now; this is in addition to, not in replacement of, my other rapidly-growing list of credits.)
What I'd like to do, besides plugging all the sites I write for, is direct your attention to this very funny bit of hate mail, in response to my piece about The Help this past summer. If nothing else, my mom should find the bit about washing my mouth out with soap hilarious. No . . . fucking hilarious. There we go.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
So I've been spending this Sunday morning reading provocative writing whose primary intent is pissing a given group of people off, a broad category of writing; along with porn, pictures of kittens, and viruses, it's one of the four pillars of the Internet. The anger and the coffee work symbiotically to get me awake to watch football, a literalized metaphor for Internet discourse. Most of the time, when I don't have anything of value to contribute on the subject under discussion, I keep my mouth shut (not always, though; I'm not holding myself up as a paragon of restraint by any means). When Frank Miller shot his mouth off about Occupy Wall Street, I rolled my eyes—though may have privately, and entirely justifiably, muttered something about Frank Miller being a retard, which is as much a revelation as the sun rising in the east every morning—and went about my business. This morning, though, I got around to Rick Moody's response to Miller's thing, and got pissed off.
It actually pisses me off that I got pissed off, because I'd far prefer that something in the Guardian, by a high-profile American writer, putting its rhetorical foot in the ass of a deeply stupid person writing offensive and misleading things about a political movement I support, be intelligent and not stray from the point, overreach, and ultimately undo weaken the point it tries to make. But that's what Moody does in his piece. He starts with a solid premise—Frank Miller being a shithead—and tries to spin it into the entire Hollywood film industry being sympathetic to Frank Miller's brain-dead politics. And there, he fails.
The thing that sinks Moody's entire argument is the logical fallacy—one he shares with many of his and my ostensibly mutual political opponents—that his conclusions are facts. Because he doesn't like action movies, and because a cherry-picked selection of action movie stars are politically conservative (which, by the way, left off John Wayne, who would have helped make his point) he concludes that action movies themselves are inherently right-wing. Then, comic books (and Moody's contempt for them) are dragged into the argument, and equated with Stallonenegger (another assumed direct parallel presented as if inarguable) 80s explosionfests as if they're the same thing. We end up with a whole lot of lumping together, broad generalizations, and smugly self-satisfied wheel-spinning, that eventually returns to its initial, almost forgotten purpose, which is the very simple and well-established dipshittery of the venerable Mr. Miller.
One's enemies are not, by sole virtue of being one's enemies, engaged in a conspiracy. The simple nature of action movie narratives are not proof of their being propaganda. The assumption of top-down decision making (in this case, that because leading men in action movies are politically conservative and make movies that reflect, in varying degrees, their political beliefs, that Hollywood as an institution makes these movies to further a right-wing agenda) is a failure of the human mind to accept randomness and coincidence. To use an example of right-wingers doing the same thing, just so the wrong people don't read this and think I'm a toady, take the whole Communist scare: right-wingers thought the only reason leftists would say leftist stuff was because they were paid agents of Moscow; this led more than one leftist over the years to go “If only. . .” Simply because an action serves the agenda of another is not proof of direct proactive efforts by that other. And simply because an action movie may star a center-right actor and be about fucking shit up more than it is social justice, is not proof that Hollywood conspires to advance a political agenda.
Finally, Moody makes the mistake of assigning Frank Miller far too much importance within the Hollywood system. Until Robert Rodriguez and Zack Snyder, fans of Miller's work first, second, and forty-ninth as opposed to political bedfellows, made movies of his work (and the latter made a commercially successful one), Miller had been on the far periphery of Hollywood, and even now is rapidly receding back to that outsider status. His stature in the comics industry is a separate question, but he has no more relevance in Hollywood than anyone else who had one of his books adapted into a successful movie five years ago. He is (full disclosure: I am too) just some guy with a blog, on the Occupy Wall Street question.
Much like one's enemies not, by virtue of being one's enemies, all working together, the enemies of those enemies are not necessarily one's friends. Thus, while Rick Moody and I both agree that Frank Miller is a shithead, Rick Moody and I are not, alas, on the same side. Drawing a direct line between Frank Miller and a perceived collective agreement on the part of the American film industry to consciously perpetuate a right-wing political agenda would be the same as me drawing a direct line between Rick Moody's novel Purple America and a similar agreement within the publishing industry to make people who read books want to kill themselves. Both are based on nothing but the arguer's personal biases (Purple America made me want to kill myself, but lots of other people liked it); while Hollywood and the publishing industry both end up occasionally doing those things, neither Moody or I have any solid evidence that it's so.
But that's insane. Evidence? How would people write derpy “LOL ur retarded” blog posts on the Internet if they actually had to back shit up? If you take away our ability to rant about things we don't fully understand on the Internet, what the fuck is next? Taking away our pictures of kittens? I need to abandon this line of thinking and go watch some football before I fuck everything up.
Friday, November 25, 2011
It's Black Friday, and you know what that means: I'm watching Black Widow. (Ed. Note: it meaning that is contingent on the author noticing that it's Black Friday, which is not an annual occurrence.) It's long been a favorite of mine for reasons not entirely related to its being a good movie. There are, after all, as I've indirectly alluded to in the past and will hereby define for posterity, four categories of movies:
1—Good movies that are fun to watch: Wherein you find pictures like (and as diverse as) The Maltese Falcon, The Godfather, David Lean epics, early Godard, German Expressionist silents, Sholay, etc etc etc. Self-explanatory.
2—Good movies that aren't so much fun to watch: The kind of thing that set off that “cultural vegetables” shitstorm. The thing that rubbed me wrong about that piece wasn't so much that it dared to insult master filmmakers who like their imagery oblique and their pace deliberate (like Tarkovsky, notably), but that calling difficult art “cultural vegetables” ignores how fucking rad spinach and broccoli and so forth are when you cook them right, and it's a little insulting to vegans (“what the fuck are we, chopped soy liver?”; I just had a good time kickin' it with my vegan cousin at Thanksgiving the other day, I don't want some nekulturny fuckball indirectly insulting her) but whatever, it was a cute phrase that succeeded in pissing a lot of people off. Not the point. What is, is that not every good movie is all that easy to watch. Some movies are challenging. Tarkovsky made a bunch like that, Lars von Trier made one or two, a lot of experimental and/or politically-motivated filmmakers do, some (like Lars) deliberately make their pictures upsetting to the audience to make a point. I throw a lot of tearjerkers into this category as well, because crying sucks under the wrong circumstances.
3—Bad movies that aren't fun to watch: What I like to call “movies that could have been good if they didn't suck,” which sounds like me being a retard, but is really just a colloquialism for a picture that was sunk by poor execution, factor into this category in a big way. Also, utterly venal pieces of shit like every movie Adam Sandler has made since about 2002, assembly-line rom-coms built around the premise that lying is the stuff of madcap comedy, and movies that mistake a “message” for an excuse to not make a good movie. However, not all bad movies fit under this category, as there plenty of . . .
4—Bad movies that are fun to watch: Now we're cookin' with gas. Low-budget genre pictures, spectacular failures by horribly misguided directors, and the ol' “let's make a mountain of cocaine the size of Kilimanjaro and then rail it all over the course of principal photography” romp, all of these and more fall under this category, which some—not me, though, I'm still partial to 1—regard as the most fun of all four. I do think that more movies fall under this category than any other, if only because I love movies to an extent that I enjoy a lot of things even if they're not “good” by most generally accepted metrics, and will often let the things I like about a movie outweigh the things I don't. Such is the case with Black Widow.
Black Widow isn't a bad movie, exactly, but it isn't what a lot of people would immediately think of as being good, either. For one thing, it's a preposterous scenario, with (essentially) unmotivated villainy, and a resolution with enough moving parts that if you stop to think about it for a second, you're like “wait a minute, get the fuck outta here . . .” And yet, Black Widow is awesome.
There's a whooooole lotta talent involved in Black Widow. It was about the third “comeback” picture for director Bob Rafelson, among whose credits as a director and producer in the late 60s and early 70s are a number of all-time classics, though he'd later meet with some bad luck, which was not entirely not his fault. The great Conrad Hall was the DP (and the picture, as one might expect, looks gorgeous). It was written by Ronald Bass, who would go on to become an Oscar winner. The supporting cast, in relatively small roles, has people like Dennis Hopper, Lois Smith, Diane Ladd, Terry O'Quinn, Nicol Williamson, James Hong, and Sami Frey. And its leads are the magnificent Debra Winger and Theresa Russell.
|Theresa Russell (left), sexual tension (center), Debra Winger (right)|
Its story (spoiler warning) is good trashy pulp fun: Theresa Russell (second spoiler warning) plays a woman who marries rich men, gets them to change their will so they leave her everything, whereupon she kills them. Debra Winger is a Justice Department investigator who becomes consumed with connecting the dots in the absence of any concrete evidence (Theresa Russell covers things up perfectly), and proving that Theresa Russell is a killer. Once Theresa Russell figures out what Debra Winger's up to, she starts scheming an elaborate frame-up to get Debra Winger off her (very shapely) ass, only to see Debra Winger's (third and final spoiler warning) even more elaborate scheme bring about her downfall.
The story is not what makes Black Widow so much fun: it's the players and the execution. Rafelson does a good job keeping things relatively light and not trying to sell the audience on the reality of what's going on (which would be disastrous). It's a movie about how everyone wants to have sex with Theresa Russell (which in 1987 was about as universal as truths came), up to and including Debra Winger, and because that one centrally important truth was so compelling, the rest of the movie falls into place.
Also, it helped having, as a counterpoint to Theresa Russell's perfectly executed, seductive, wildly implausible villainy, Debra Winger be a completely convincing, unglamorous, awkward, regular person. This is something Hollywood constantly fucks up at, resulting in “put glasses on the supermodel and now she's ugly”syndrome, but in Black Widow, it's not just that Debra Winger is dressed in baggy sweaters, long skirts, and flats, her physicality is (deliberately) awkward, her interactions with other people even more so, she doesn't wear makeup, and you actually buy her not having had a date in forever even though her right-hand man (D.W. Moffet) and boss (Terry O'Quinn) are both clearly crushing on her. This is not because Rafelson, Hall, and the costume and makeup designers succeeded in “uglifying” her. For one, that's not physically possible—this is, after all, Debra Winger we're talking about here; for my money she was even hotter than Theresa Russell at the time, but I'm weird—but for another, the one thing the movie does a pretty good and quite sympathetic job of doing is presenting her as a closet case.
Back in the bad old days, gay characters had to be closeted, or punished, or any number of stupid conventions, but Debra Winger's character in Black Widow is one case where it actually works for the movie's benefit. They're not exactly subtle about it: her name is Alex, an androgynous shortening of Alexandra, she evinces nervous befuddlement at her male co-workers' advances and an all-consuming obsession with a gorgeous woman, and even though this has nothing to do with the movie itself, every 80s lesbian was all about the Debra Winger, so there's a bit of pop-cultural osmosis, and for all we know casting her in the first place might have been a subtle signifier of the character's repressed sexuality. And having her be unconsciously attracted to her target adds an intriguing wrinkle, the sort of thing one didn't always see in crime movies, 80s movies, or really any movies for that matter.
It also adds another wrinkle to the part when, once Theresa Russell has realized that Debra Winger might be a cop, and she concocts her elaborate scheme to frame Debra Winger for boyfriend-and-later-fiance Sami Frey's murder, a key element of which is setting Debra Winger up to shtup Sami Frey. Sami Frey being a French guy made that element of the equation easy. French guys' default mode is “I make love to zee beautiful woo-man,” so when Theresa Russell is all like “I'm jetting back to the mainland [they're in Hawaii for the whole last hour of the movie, which accounts for some gorgeous and unusual scenery]” Sami Frey is like “But . . . I make love to zee beautiful woo-man” and his French guy programming starts going “syntax error” and he gets confused, which means Theresa Russell has to point him at Debra Winger (a beautful woman), at which point Sami Frey is like, “Ah, phew, all is right with the world . . . I make love to zee beautiful woo-man!” And so they shtup, even though Debra Winger would clearly rather be nailing Theresa Russell. But Sami Frey was in Bande à Part, and even aside from that deal-clincher, he's got that passionate French guy thing going on, and Debra Winger clearly enjoys the sex. Nailing Sami Frey doesn't make her straight, it just means she knows what's up. And anyway, when he tells her that he's decided to get married to Theresa Russell—and in such a dope French guy way, too: “[Theresa Russell] and I . . . have decided to marry.” Seriously, French people fucking rule—Debra Winger is less upset that the guy she shtupped is getting married to another woman than she is “this guy is going to get murdered unless I do something.” And she already went through the experience of meeting Nicol Williamson at the end of the movie's elongated first act, and was upset when Theresa Russell killed him, this was just one horny, exotic French bridge too far.
Being worried that Theresa Russell was going to kill him was a natural reaction, too, because she kills the shit out of everyone in this. That sense of inevitability was created by one really, really good bit of editing early on, where Dennis Hopper (dead husband #2) is looking for a non-empty bottle of booze, and Theresa Russell tells him there's one—that we've just seen her shooting bad stuff into with a syringe—and he goes “ah there it is” and then BAM we cut to his funeral. It's like, if you're a rich guy, Theresa Russell is going to kill you. When she moves on to Nicol Williamson, she's shown preparing to be his perfect woman in an incredibly calculating fashion, reading up on all the kind of obscure, esoteric shit that he likes. He takes one look at her and immediately realizes that she's full of shit, being smart enough to connect the dots like “something's wrong, no one would be this perfect, not only looking like Theresa Russell but also interested in the exact same stuff I am in the exact way I always wanted someone to be interested in it” and he openly calls her on it. That's when she's like, “well, time for plan B” and gets naked, and once he gets a look at Theresa Russell naked, Dickol Williamson goes, “Nuh uh, boss, there is nothing whatsoever to be worried about here, let me handle this one” and thus was the beginning of the end.
|I mean, seriously, I've seen the movie like eight times and I'd still get in that pool....|
As smart as Theresa Russell was, she does make a couple really dumb-ass mistakes, though these are well within the realm of possibility for someone crazy enough to pull that kind of serial husband-murdering/inheritance aggregating scheme. One, that she doesn't rectify until too late, was not staying in frequent enough contact with the in-laws she'd seduced along with her ex-husbands, because as Debra Winger points out to Lois Smith, “she just vanished,” and Lois Smith is like, “Damn it, she's right, something's up.” The other mistake, that only really manifests after Theresa Russell thinks her frame-up of Debra Winger in the third act worked, is over-confidence. When she goes to see Debra Winger in jail, thinking that her plan has succeeded and she's framed Debra Winger, she can't resist the temptation to gloat, at which point Debra Winger turns the tables and has the cops bring Lois Smith and the very much not dead Sami Frey into the room. The Hawaiian cops go “damn, that sure was easy for such a convoluted plan,” and Debra Winger takes her new tan and fancy tropical dress and fucks off right out of the police station and into the closing credits, leaving Theresa Russell to ponder just where she went wrong and the audience to be like, “Wait a minute . . . how the hell did Debra Winger get the money to stay in Hawaii for all those months? And isn't she going to be facing a review board or something when she gets back to DC? Will Terry O'Quinn pull strings for her because wants to nail her, or will he not bother because he's never going to because she's gay?”
That's all part of why Black Widow is in that fourth category at the beginning of the post. It doesn't close all its circles, and does have a couple pretty serious narrative problems, one being that Theresa Russell is given no other motivation than “she's just evil” which is unfortunate, because all the empathy that went toward portraying Debra Winger's character as a normal person meant that the writers could have taken a second to give Theresa Russell a more realistic motivation for needing all that money (“you're never quite rich enough” being a little weak). The other is that the premise takes so long to set up that the first act is forty five minutes long and the whole rest of the movie is less than an hour, giving short shrift to the whole “Sami Frey walking around going 'I make love to zee beautiful woo-man' in Hawaii” part of the story, which means that James Hong only gets to be in a couple scenes as the sleaziest PI in the history of cinema (Ed. Note: all movies need more James Hong, even if he's not in them) and we miss out on the opportunity to develop the character of the Hawaiian cop a little more, because he's awesome but he only gets to be awesome for like thirty seconds, which is a shame. Then again, if you elongate the Hawaiian section, you lose out on one fantastic twenty minute Nicol Williamson performance, because holy shit. Even when he's playing a doomed husband in a trashy 80s thriller, that motherfucker puts on a master class. The way he futzes with his cuff when trying to figure out why Theresa Russell is coming on so strong manages to convey nervousness, uncontrollable sexual desire, and existential terror in one gesture. Is that talent? Yeah, that's talent.
So, even though its good qualities make Black Widow a little more than just a standard trashy 80s thriller, its bad qualities make it little more than a standard trashy 80s thriller. (Ed. Note: not a typo, read it again). And that, sadly, means it's not a “good” movie. But holy fuck is it fun. The sexual tension between Theresa Russell and Debra Winger alone could power Honolulu for a month. Sami Frey does the “I make love to zee beautiful woo-man” routine with panache. Nicol fucking Williamson. A Dennis Hopper cameo that's short enough that he doesn't wear out his welcome. Fuck yeah, Black Widow. Fuck yeah.
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Via Gizmodo, a reminder that this exists . . . to call this a commentary track is just a touch prosaic. Those who've followed Arnold's career over the years know that whenever you let him talk for more than a couple seconds without a script, some seriously, seriously goofy shit is going to come out of his mouth. Divinely goofy shit.
Though, far be it from me to criticize the fine folks at Gizmodo, but they totally buried the fuckin' lede here: Arnold and Paul Verhoeven did a fucking commentary track for fucking Total Recall. Together. This is a massively important piece of information. Each, crazier than the other. Each's accent goofier. For an hour and forty-five minutes. Kurt Russell and John Carpenter (to say nothing of Method Man and Redman) can rest easy, but still. Arnold and Paul Verhoeven. Eursocrazy . . .
Thursday, November 17, 2011
I recently had the opportunity to see two movies awaiting release, both by acclaimed, veteran filmmakers, both based on plays: Carnage, adapted (from Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage) and directed by Roman Polanski, and A Dangerous Method, adapted by Christopher Hampton from his play The Talking Cure and directed by David Cronenberg. Aside from being based on plays, these movies have little in common, but having watched them within a few days of each other I started thinking a bit about theater, film, the fundamental differences between them as media, and the challenges presented by adapting a work from one to the other.
This is something that's gotten harder over the years. For a period of several decades defined roughly as between the advent of sound and Technicolor (somewhere within which, or overspilling by a few years or so, is Hollywood's first Golden Age) the predominant style of filmmaking in Hollywood—and in the many world cinemas that take their cues from it—was such that adapting a play for the big screen entailed, to modern eyes, not much more than adding a couple establishing shots and closeups of movie stars. There was, clearly, more to it than that, but until about the beginning of the 1960s, adaptations of plays made up a large enough percentage of total movies that they stood out no more than adaptations of novels or any other pre-existing source material.
As cinema began to evolve into an increasingly distinct medium, with shorter takes, more fragmentation through editing, and the resultant effects of both on narrative style, it became harder to adapt plays for the screen without heavy alterations (a process often referred to in the reductive but not entirely inaccurate phrase “opening it up”). Also, theater has changed both in form and cultural cachet in the ensuing decades as well, reaching the point, today, where mainstream theater and mainstream film are thoroughly different beasts. Most theater pieces with sufficient brand recognition to catch Hollywood's attention are musicals, and every couple years or so, a studio will make one, though of this limited number an even more exclusive group truly work as cinema (though the way he edited the musical numbers drove a lot of people batshit, and he's no Bob Fosse, I still like Rob Marshall's Chicago; on the other hand, Rob Marshall's Nine was godawful, so maybe it's the old “broken clock is right twice a day” thing. . . .)
Despite movie musicals being far rarer than movies about people sitting in rooms talking, adapting plays about people sitting in rooms talking is far harder than it is a musical, in terms of making the end result “feel like a movie.” Something like David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross feels like a play that someone filmed rather than a movie, consisting as it does of a series of long dialogue scenes taking place in a limited number of locations. It's an extremely rare adaptation of a play that escapes this dynamic, though it does happen. The movie of Six Degrees of Separation, also adapted by its playwright, John Guare, is a fairly decent example. (Though now that I think about it, both those pictures are almost 20 years old . . .)
Sometimes, a filmmaker will embrace the staginess and theatricality when adapting a play, as Roman Polanski does with Carnage. The play, God of Carnage, is a piece for four actors, on one set, and “opening it up” would turn it into, essentially, an original screenplay about the same themes. Being confined to the apartment is fundamentally important to the piece being what it is. Roman Polanski, whatever else can be said about him, is not dumb, and his adaptation is not only set entirely in one apartment, but a not terribly large one.
After a dispute between two kids that results in one (the son of Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) knocking a couple of the other (the son of Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly)'s teeth out, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz go over to Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly's place to try and sort things out. The next hour and twenty minutes consists of them failing miserably.
Carnage is soooooo close to being really good. The four actors are all very much brand names—Reilly is the only one yet to win an Oscar, though he's been nominated and also is John C. Reilly, which is Gaelic for “dude can fucking act”—and the writing is sharp, and intelligent, with the two couples' shifting allegiances and the gradual revelation of each character's core self providing some interest. The only problem is, Carnage gets so much right that the things it doesn't stand out more. All four actors practically sweat blood (particularly Jodie Foster in a role that she's ever so slightly not right for for reasons that are a little beyond my ability to explain), acting up a storm, but this more serves to obfuscate how thin each character is on paper. They come across as four thumbnail sketches of different upper-middle-class archetypes than people, and try (and, credit where credit's due, mostly succeed) as the actors do, there are isolated tiny moments throughout where both the thinness and mundanity of the characters shine through.
Though, in spite of the fact that it kind of sounds like I'm saying it sucks, and in spite of the fact that it just ends without anything really being resolved (which may be, and probably is, the point), Carnage is still well worth a look for the sheer talent on display both behind and in front of the camera. Its concerns are personal rather than global, and thus within a very small frame of reference, but hey. So are a lot of things in life. And Christoph Waltz is great in it.
Much different—and I have to say, much more to my liking—was David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, which tells the story of how, in the years prior to World War I, Sabina Spielrein is brought to Carl Jung, who uses Sigmund Freud's “talking cure” to treat her “hysteria,” after which she becomes a major part of his life and work, and Freud's as well. She'd go on to become one of the first women psychoanalysts, treating such luminaries as Jean Piaget, but the movie leaves off well before then, focusing on her years with Jung and Freud.
The picture is being marketed as if it's a big steamy love triangle, and it has its steamy and kinky moments, though what it really is is the story of three incredibly smart academics who are in various degrees of denial about how fucked up they are. And, as such, it's a lot more compelling than some dumb quotidian sex story, and actually makes the sexy bits that much sexier.
After Jung (Michael Fassbender) determines that part of what's making Spielrein (Keira Knightley) freaked out and twitchy is that she's into BDSM (at a time when being a young woman who's into BDSM means your dad sends you to Switzerland if he's progressive), he decides—for reasons that have a lot more to do with his boner than science—to help her explore.
This is where it helps that this impeccably designed and gorgeously shot movie is directed by David Cronenberg, because once Spielrein and Jung get going, A Dangerous Method delivers on some good kink, boy, believe you me. It's just tame enough to not scare the squares, while still being vivid enough to be like “Damn . . .” It's rare that a (relatively) mainstream movie shows a woman having an orgasm, and Spielrein has a massive one, at the hands (literally) of Jung, who responds half afraid at the forbidden nature of what he and his (kind of sort of former) patient are up to and half thinking to himself “I made some good life choices.”
Most of A Dangerous Method is given over to the collaboration and eventual split between Jung and Freud (Viggo Mortenson), and the role Jung's young patient has in that split. The movie looks gorgeous, and avoids the “let's play dress up” tone that pervades many period pieces; it feels quite contemporary, which is largely due to the lack of affect (for the most part) to the writing and performances, both of which are abetted by Cronenberg's terrific direction.
Just about the only thing in the whole picture that keeps it from being completely seamless is Keira Knightley's performance as Spielrein. Fassbender and Mortenson are jaw-dropping good as Jung and Freud, particularly Viggo, he's fucking astonishing in this, and almost completely unrecognizable. Vincent Cassel shows up for a couple minutes as the mischievous fifth business character who convinces Fassbender's suffocatingly buttoned-up Jung to undo a couple buttons (specifically on his trousers), and he's great, even if he's mostly playing “Vincent Cassel” (it should be noted that there is nothing at fucking all wrong with Vincent Cassel playing “Vincent Cassel”). And Sarah Gadon—of whom I'd never heard before this, but for whom my eyes shall ever be peeled henceforth—is heartbreaking as Jung's wife, bound by society and tradition in ways Spielrein is decidedly not, trapped being a mother and having to turn a blind eye to her husband's infidelity and always coming second to his work.
All of the major cast, in other words, give tightly managed, sharp performances that hit all the necessary beats (and not mechanically at all, with considerable flair) except Keira Knightley. For a very large part of the first act, she's twitching insanely all over the place, until Jung's therapy chills her out, and after that, whenever she gets agitated, a lot of the twitching and odd vocal rhythms come back. In just about every scene, you see her trying to fit in and get on the other actors' rhythm but never consistently staying there. A lot of this has to do with the character of Sabina Spielrein going through the exact same thing—she's convinced that she's nuts, and she's not entirely off-base—and, at certain points in the movie, Keira Knightley absolutely nails that balance, but there are other points where she juuuuuuust misses with it. A lot of those misses, being just a hair flat or sharp on a given note, are due to her lacking the formal acting training that a lot of her co-stars have, but the thing is, the raw power of the moments when she's on-key are too. Most crucially, though, Spielrein's intelligence is something we're shown rather than told about. This is something that's true of Fassbender, Viggo, and Vincent Cassel too, lest one think I'm being condescending and going “Awww, lookit the girl, she's so smart, ain't that cute.” It's more that all the other smart people in the movie are more even-keeled and organized, so you never stop to think “Are they smart?” and she's so over-the-top crazy at first that it takes a while to sink in that she actually is really smart, not really hitting home until about the third act when she's talking about her thesis with Freud. That scene clinched it for me: she may not always hit it exactly, but Keira Knightley is quite good in the movie, and her being a little nuts and distracting at times fits with her character's role in the story. Also, the fact that she's awkward and not conventionally va-va-voom sexy (which is not to say that there aren't a couple heart-stopping shots of her, because there are) adds to the sense of Spielrein as a troubled nerd, which, considering that this is a world very much of nerds (their early 20th century variety, at any rate), fits. Finally, it's fitting in terms of form and content that a character who is so much the dramatic focus of the narrative be the focus of so much of a review of that movie.
A Dangerous Method is particularly timely, being set at much the same part of the 20th century as we are, today, in the 21st. Old ways of thinking are giving way to new, and much like Fassbender's Carl Jung, we're experiencing the dual feeling of fear and excitement at the unknown and unknowable future ahead. The movie balances a feeling of the old and the contemporary that speaks a lot more directly to the modern age than Carnage, set in the present, does.
But the two are different enough movies that comparisons aren't exactly fair, and with A Dangerous Method being released in the US on the 23rd and Carnage not until December 16th, enough time will have passed for viewers of both that any juxtapositions not for the purpose of looking at two different ways to adapt a play for the screen can be avoided. Both are well worth seeing, and will certainly be in the year-end discussion for acting (and in A Dangerous Method's case, design) awards, though Fassbender's performance in A Dangerous Method will almost surely be swept aside in his penis' quest to win an Oscar for Shame. Such are the vagaries of award season.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
|The plot of The Seventh Curse, summarized in one still.|
It's titties and B movies time again! My dear friend Bastard Keith, in his tireless quest to share disreputable cinema with the world, has taken his act to Under St. Marks. This past Thursday marked the second installment of Bastardpiece Theater (the first, where we suffered through Herschell Gordon Lewis' The Gore Gore Girls, passed without comment on these pages just because godfuckingdammit that movie was terrible), with go-go dancing by the lovely and talented Madame Rosebud (not to mention the vegan brownies she baked), and commentary by BK, Rosebud, and burlesque luminary Miss Astrid to the Hong Kong horror picture The Seventh Curse.
Now, some movies don't necessarily lend themselves to this format—which also includes drinking games—but The Seventh Curse is enhanced greatly by it. An earlyish effort by prolific Hong Kong writer-producer Wong Jing (whose 1992 Naked Killer I wrote about a few months ago, screened at another one of BK's debauches), The Seventh Curse is in his typically out-of-its-fucking-mind style of exploitation, featuring a cameo as a dorky dude in a badly-fitting suit surrounded by attractive women (I'm told by the Bastard, a far greater Wong Jing authority than I, that just about every Wong Jing cameo features him as a dorky dude in a badly-fitting suit surrounded by attractive women). The cast features Chow Yun-Fat and Maggie Cheung, but note that said “features” rather than stars, as Chow Yun-Fat is a supporting character and Maggie Cheung apparently was in this before she went to acting school (though to be fair, her character would be annoying no matter what).
The lead is Chin Siu-ho, who played the limpdick who takes over the martial arts school in Fist of Legend after the Japanese kill Master Huo, and who is no more tumescent in The Seventh Curse. He's either a doctor or a cop or a cop/doctor (the movie doesn't seem to give a fuck, why should we?) and doesn't do much except run around being less charismatic than Chow Yun-Fat, who pops up every twenty minutes or so smoking a pipe and being awesome and, more often than not, explaining the bizarre shit that happened since his previous appearance. One wonders why he couldn't have just been the lead, until one realizes that Chow Yun-Fat would never have been a big enough yutz to end up getting the “blood curse” in the first place, thus rendering the whole movie about how he's going to cure it moot.
Things kick off with the author of the book the movie's based on sitting around a well-appointed drawing room with Chow Yun-Fat and Chin Siu-Ho, asking them to tell him a story over some (presumably excellent) brandy. And what a fuckin story they tell. It starts with a random, 80s Hong Kong cop movie sequence involving a hostage situation, that for some reason Chin Siu-Ho is in the middle of. Maggie Cheung shows up shrieking about being a reporter except no one gives a fuck, so she (possibly) murks a cop with a brick; I mean goddamn, she crunches the lady cop/nurse (cop nurse?) pretty goddamn hard. But never mind that shit, there's business to attend to. Random kung fu (which is pretty well staged and edited) and explosions (which are hilarious and nearly always completely unmotivated) ensue, and Maggie Cheung almost gets everybody killed, and machine guns a guy. (Talk about taking the Hunter S. Thompson “place yourself in the middle of the story” school of journalism too far . . .)
After everything stops blowing up, Chin Siu-Ho goes home, and there's a wicked-hot mid-80s vintage permed white (Jewish, according to Bastard Keith, an authority on that subject as well) chick there who wants the sex. Chin Siu-Ho thinks this is a good idea but first he has to do some more kung fu with some dude. I think this is where the Black Dragon (who is fucking AWESOME) shows up and tells him never to fuck because the “blood curse” will kick in if he ever fucks. But he's unable to resist his lady friend's sexhortations (she was hot, and calculated risk is the life of kings) and, mid-shtup, some nasty thing on his leg explodes.
Chin Siu-Ho does the logical thing and goes to Chow Yun-Fat at this point, telling him what happened. Chow Yun-Fat—who swaggers through this whole picture like he's just getting blown constantly—rattles off some suavely incoherent talk about blood curses, which leads to a flashback to how Chin Siu-Ho came down with the blood curse. He goes to Thailand to research a cure for AIDS (“Going to Thailand to find a cure for AIDS?” --an incredulous Bastard Keith) with some guy who looks like a cross between late-period Amitabh Bachchan and shuffling-around-his-vineyards-period Francis Coppola, and ends up wandering off into the jungle and meeting a native girl named Betsy (who's Chinese too, just because why not fully embrace the implausibility) who because of a shitty subtitling job at one point, we all ended up calling “Besty” for the whole picture, which was especially apt because she was infinitely preferable to Maggie “I swear to fuck in like 15 years I'm going to be one of the greatest movie stars who ever lived, I just haven't gotten there yet” Cheung. She also, after Chin Siu-Ho comes down with the blood curse by doing something really fucking stupid, takes off her clothes to reveal a specfuckingtacular pair of tits that the audience is only allowed to bask in for like a second before she hacks open her left tit and feeds Chin Siu-Ho a golf-ball sized tumor. (Dude, seriously, don't ask.) Also, they can't fuck because she's the Black Dragon's girlfriend.
In the middle of all this, there's this cult living in the jungle that worship worms and practice human sacrifice and have skeletons who can do kung fu, whose fabulously dressed and made-up leader (Elvis Tsui) makes Freddie Mercury look like John Wayne. It turns out the only way Chin Siu-Ho can cure his blood curse is by stealing the eyes of the tribe's Buddha statue and eating them. Why exactly he goes back to Hong Kong and tries to ignore the fact that the blood curse is going to kill him is unclear, but Chow Yun-Fat swiftly rectifies this the second the unbelievably long flashback in which Chin Siu-Ho relates this story is over, and they head back to Thailand.
Maggie Cheung comes along because she's still in the movie for some reason, and sneaks into Chin Siu-Ho's hotel room and leaves a gigantic fucking pile of AK-47s there. Torn between the knee-jerk “wow, that is fucking rad” reaction at seeing so many guns sitting there on the piano and the more rational “why the fuck can't Maggie Cheung hurry up and meet Wong Kar Wai” response, Chin Siu-Ho engages Maggie Cheung in conversation and she starts monologuing in this really unhinged fashion that leaves some doubt as to whether she's even really a journalist, and in order to shut her up he agrees to bring her into the jungle with him and the Black Dragon (I know I mentioned him a couple times without explaining who he is, but that's because the movie doesn't really explain who he is, he just shows up and is awesome, even though we only get an extremely faint idea of who he is).
Turns out something nasty as shit happened to Besty's face (which I missed because I was tweeting some non sequitur about Steve Reeves as Hercules; it was that kind of night), which is one of a few thousand good reasons why the Black Dragon, Chow Yun-Fat, and several other competent people have to go along with Chin Siu-Ho and Maggie Cheung and make sure they don't accidentally use grenades as suppositories. Maggie Cheung falls down a trap door in the jungle and for some stupid reason—the whole panel was telling them “Fuck it. LEAVE HER.”—Chin Siu-Ho insists on going back to save her, which means more kung-fu skeletons and flying fetus demons, except now the flying fetus demon is the good guy (this was the part of the movie I was just gaping openmouthed at the screen in utter confusion, also known as about 90% of the movie), and the kung fu skeleton goes all H.R. Giger (h/t to Rosebud for that analogy) on a motherfucker and something happens and the derpiest bunch of monks to ever worship Buddha show up and there's another fun kung fu battle, after which Chin Siu-Ho eats the Buddha's eyes and doesn't leave any for Besty, who remains deformed and is the subject of an epically twatty condescending monologue by Maggie Cheung (who I bet breaks people's kneecaps if they ever mention this movie in her presence). And it all wraps up back in the novelist's brandy and leather armchairs party, with Chin Siu-Ho and Chow Yun-Fat having a good manly chortle and setting up a potential sequel.
The Seventh Curse, while an engagingly insane good time on its own merits, was nonetheless enhanced by the Bastard's brutally hilarious lisping imitation of the cult leader, Rosebud's incisive, effervescent enthusiasm, and Miss Astrid's strategic atomic bon mots. The commentary greatly enhanced the experience, which I must admit, if I were watching the movie by myself, would have consisted almost entirely of me going “what the fuck . . .?” and “When is Chow Yun-Fat going to come back?” A little repetitive, but hey. I leave certain things to the experts.
I'm hardly an unbiased observer, but Bastardpiece Theater is not just fun because these are my friends and Rosebud's vegan brownies are so ridonkulously fucking good. It's fun because the movies are terrible in an entertaining way, there's plenty of beer, and genuinely funny people are cracking jokes out of love, and in a shared sense of “Yeah, we're all watching The Seventh Curse voluntarily, no one here is superior.” Also, next month they're showing a Filipino midgetsploitation movie starring the legendary Weng Weng as Agent 00 entitled For Y'ur Height Only. The whole trailer is Weng Weng fucking tall people's shit up and jumping off tall buildings and using umbrellas as parachutes. It looks amazing.
Friday, November 11, 2011
Friend of the blog Samantha Mason (follow her, she rules) sent me this, and goddamn if it isn't great. I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was actually Leo's inner monologue these days. It's funny cuz it's true, after all.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
|Image (c) Tor.com|
Hey y'all! My rewatch of all of Stanley Kubrick's SF (and related) movies is done and all week, the reviews will be posted. So mosey on over to that fine place and check 'em out!
Of all the places one expects to find avant-garde filmmaking, Deadspin? That itself is as strange as this video, which is just wonderfully odd. Everything about it hums with eccentricity, from the music to the camera angles to the text (not to mention the political subtext of him being a Cuban defector) to the graphics. According to the stats they provide, the guy's OPS is about 1.000 (which, for the uninitiated, would roughly be Jason Statham's OPS if action movies were baseball), so apparently he hits the crap out of the ball. But if he makes the majors, will he hit in slo-mo, like in this clip? I sure hope so.
Monday, November 7, 2011
Well, well, well. Brett Ratner, you think rehearsing is for fags, do you? Say, Brett, you know what
1) casually and caddishly tossing off references to actresses you've banged,
2) parlaying a gift for schmoozing powerful people into a directing career,
3) using that directing career to repeat the same minor successes so often they become stale and retroactively damage the memory of the couple half decent pictures you were fortunate enough to make,
4) and then publicly declaring your completely lack of interest in the creative process with a homophobic cherry on top
Get your head out of your ass and never forget that being born on third does not mean you hit a triple. And fucking grow up. You're forty-two fucking years old. Be an adult and start giving a shit about your work and how your words are perceived, instead of shooting your mouth off and then giving a ball-less apology.