Thursday, December 26, 2013
(Note: since this begins with the last scene of the picture, please be advised that plot details and possible spoilers are discussed in the following.)
The last scene of Martin Scorsese's masterful new picture The Wolf of Wall Street does something few other filmmakers would even think of doing, let alone be able to pull off. Jordan Belfort, as embodied by Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom we've just spent the past three hours on quite the sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-fucking-roll journey, is introduced by some doof at a salesmanship seminar in New Zealand, with a bunch of eager locals admiring the handsome, long-limbed Belfort as he walks seductively toward them, assuring them that he can teach them the secret to being rich beyond their wildest dreams. He opens with a simple demonstration: “Sell me this pen,” he says, handing a pen to a dude in the front row. The dude stammers something about the pen being a good pen and him liking it. Belfort hands the pen to the guy next to the first guy. Same thing. And he hands it to a third person. Same thing. They're not getting it. Scorsese's camera starts to drift, losing interest with Belfort's failure to get his point across, itself making the point, to quote another Scorsese classic, “Normal people don't act like this!” (with “this” in this case being, like Belfort and his sociopath buddies). Quiet fade to a title card announcing the name of the picture. It's the first subdued note in the entire film, and one that rather coldly, if politely, says: that's quite enough of this, thank you very much. If you've ever had someone you respect say “I'm disappointed in you” instead of getting pissed off and throwing things at you, you know that's worse. This ending is Martin Scorsese rendering that exact and most cruel judgment against the subject of the picture.
It's important to remember that horrible behavior looks exciting and fascinating in Martin Scorsese movies because he's a great filmmaker, not because it actually is. Over the course of The Wolf of Wall Street's three hours, we see Jordan Belfort behave with utter disregard for anything other than himself, having this way of life affirmed and raised to the level of sacrament by a hilariously matter-of-fact mentor played by Matthew McConaughey. Belfort is under the naïve impression that the idea of being a stockbroker is to make money for the client. McConaugheyoda dismisses this absurdity and, before getting to the important stuff like how many times to jerk off per day and how cocaine is the single greatest thing on the planet, instructs Belfort on the Prime Directive: make as much money for yourself as you possibly can without regard for any law, earthly or heavenly.
This is the very meme that, since the removal of safeguards under Reagan, has repeatedly crashed the American economy and will continue to do so periodically until some semblance of adulthood is restored to the financial industry. Scorsese makes this point tacitly but with brutal clarity in The Wolf of Wall Street, which practically starts with the '87 crash. Rather than take that as a hint, Jordan Belfort decides that the real lesson is that ethical behavior is, as Henry Hill dismissed civilians in Goodfellas, for “suckers, [with] no balls.” Forward, fraud!
While Belfort and his asshole buddies are off robbing everybody blind, they spend ample time in a bestial, testosterone-induced perpetually heightened state, taking ninety different kinds of drugs a day and fucking anything in sight. These episodes provide most of the movie's comedy—and, no bullshit, it's funny as shit—and indelibly memorable moments. The funniest thing in the movie (maybe ever; I almost passed out I was laughing so hard) is this sequence where Belfort and right-hand man Donnie (Jonah Hill) get their hands on a special, long-since-discontinued bottle of Quaaludes, and make the time-honored drug mistake of taking about six times the recommended dose because “this isn't kicking in yet.” Fast-forward an hour and a half, and they've lost control over their central nervous systems, with Belfort taking his infant daughter's crawling as inspiration. The sequence just keeps going: Belfort drives his car home in this state (set up for a payoff after we think it's all over), gets into the goofiest slow-motion fight with Donnie, and finally, intercut with footage on the TV of Popeye eating spinach, snorts a whole vial of cocaine to regain the use of his legs and stand up properly.
It's important to remember why this is funny, though. It's because these two rich assholes are, contrary to the falsehood that simply being a rich asshole is a good thing in and of itself, acting like literal overgrown infants. Everything in the movie, from Jonah Hill's absurd prosthetic teeth (and, for that matter, dick, in the scene where he gets so fucked up on 'ludes that he wanders up to his friend's future wife openly whacking off) to the weird green-screened “idyllic” Swiss landscape when they go to Switzerland to hide their money, to the chimp Belfort carries around the office at one point who's more civil than anyone else working there, is with varying degrees of subtlety pointing out that there is something off in some way, something not right, with all this.
Scorsese knows exactly what he's doing here. He knows it's far more effective to show a bunch of dickheads in suits acting like chimps on crack for three hours than it is to sternly wag his finger as a title card reading “The excesses of capitalism run contrary to moral and ethical behavior, you guys” appears. He knows that if he stages a scene where a woman drags her husband out of a limo where he's been cavorting with his mistress and, on the spot, demands a divorce in front of Trump Tower, someone's going to put two and two together and go “Heh. Nice.” There's no need to overplay his hand just because some actual Wall Street shitheads who don't know how to watch movies are only going to see the drugs and naked strippers and Belfort's defiance of the Feds, and think they're being venerated. He knows you make the movie first and worry about how dummies are going to misread it second, if at all.
Another thing Martin Scorsese knows is how to get performances out of actors. Holy shit. Leonardo DiCaprio turns in easily the best performance in a career full of very good ones as Belfort, where he uses his star power as a tool rather than something to run from in the interests of proving himself a “real” actor. You believe his Jordan Belfort is someone who could inspire this kind of fervent loyalty in his colleagues and subordinates, who could sell anything to anyone, who could seduce anyone. There's even a split second in the scene where he has the FBI agent who wants to bust him (Kyle Chandler) out to his yacht, and it looks like he might bullshit him into accepting “investment advice” in exchange for not busting him for fraud. It doesn't work, though—moral rectitude, thy name circa 2013 or so is Kyle Chandler—and much like an unsuccessful seduction, Belfort pulls a pissy “I never wanted to fuck you anyway” routine as the Feds leave. DiCaprio plays that entire scene beautifully, to say nothing of the physical comedy of all the drug bits, and carries the movie with no visible effort whatsoever; if he has a fault as an actor, it's a tendency to appear to want credit for how hard he's working (however unfair that assessment might be), but that is absent in his portrayal of Belfort.
Jonah Hill leads the supporting cast in an exquisitely horrifying turn as the guy who fucks everything up, and his chemistry with DiCaprio is seamless. Then of course there's Margot Robbie, whose career as a movie star hits the ground running as the second Mrs. Belfort; you know it's a good sign when you're watching someone act and you think “Damn, I'm glad I get to watch her for the next twenty or thirty years.” Everybody's great. Everyone looks like they're having an absolute blast making asses out of the people they're sending up. Kyle Chandler's the only one who doesn't get to join in on that, as the lonely Fed who, by his own admission, could have joined in the bacchanal and become a stockbroker himself but decided to do good and ride the subway, one of Henry Hill's suckers with no balls . . . except in this case he's the one who actually has them.
The principal difference between The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas (well, the second one beyond them not being the same movie) is that where Goodfellas unabashedly made the fun parts of being a gangster look fun—the money, the power, the card games, the part where they wave you to the front of the line at the Copa—The Wolf of Wall Street, drugged-up hijinks aside, strikes a slightly different note. The gangsters in Goodfellas (like, to a slightly lesser extent, Charlie in Mean Streets) do what they do because it's their only ticket to social mobility. The brokers in The Wolf of Wall Street are already in a business where they can get rich and be venerated by a society with an unfortunate ends-justify-the-means attitude toward wealth. Their choice to cheat and steal to become even more rich is a lot less romantic, as a result. Poor people getting rich is cool. Rich people getting richer isn't inherently not cool, but it certainly is less so.
The fact that The Wolf of Wall Street is as hypnotically compelling as it is with such a loathsome cast of characters, and while being about the unrepentant villains who are destroying America, and who will unless they're stopped, is kind of a miracle. Or, put another way, is a Martin Scorsese picture. Not that there should be any doubt about this at this late date, but he is one of the very best to ever take up a motion picture camera, every bit the light for future generations that the likes of John Ford and Michael Powell were to him.
Friday, November 29, 2013
All right, I got my Blue Is The Warmest Color running time joke out of my system. That having mercifully passed: new reviews on Letterboxd, of it and 12 Years A Slave (which is much better).
Monday, November 18, 2013
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
I'm slowly but surely catching up with 2012's notable releases—without being anything resembling comprehensively up-to-date on 2013's—which led to watching Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly, his adaptation of George V. Higgins' novel Cogan's Trade. And, due to the movie's SUBTLE INCLUSION OF POLITICAL ALLUSIONS, the primary elections in NYC are as good an occasion as any to talk about this picture.
First, for all the shit I'm about to talk about the movie (which will include some spoilers, n.b.), I should say that Dominik's observations that organized crime is unfettered capitalism is organized crime, and that for all its flowery language and noble mission statements America is founded on hypocrisy, are both true. The only problem is, these are things I realized when I was about twelve. Granted, he's not from here, so he might not have noticed until later, and as a New Zealand-born Australian Dominik might not have been making this movie exclusively for American audiences. So that's okay.
BUT. Killing Them Softly is an incredibly frustrating movie, with fairly exquisite camera blocking and framing jostling with fucking horrendous writing, with the actors in the middle occasionally benefiting from the former and often being sabotaged by the latter. For the most part the cast fares pretty well, with gods like Richard Jenkins and the (tragically) late James Gandolfini prevailing and being their usual immaculate selves as players in the larger organized crime picture, and Ray Liotta doing fairly well in a tiny part as a patsy. Brad Pitt, who would be the lead if the story had any sense of focus whatsoever, basically had to be a badass and was.
The two problematic elements in the cast are Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn as these two fuckheads who rip off a card game at the behest of a small time mobster aptly named Squirrel (Vincent Cucatola, who's quite good). The characters are stupid to the point of toxicity, which, hey, it's America. There's certainly no shithead shortage here or elsewhere. But Mendelsohn basically just lolls around smacked out of his scrotum for the whole movie and then disappears, having served no purpose in the grand scheme. And McNairy apparently watched The Departed one too many times and thought “Those guys' shitty Boston accents are nothin', I can do the shittiest Boston accent OF ALL TIME,” and was absolutely right. If I hadn't seen Argo, in which he was pretty good, I would be decidedly anti-McNairy based on Monsters, in which he was fucking dreadful, and now this. In both performances he has this weird, disengaged affect and a nails-on-the-chalkboard voice, playing exasperating shitheads both times (though at least he gets killed in Killing Them Softly; Brad finally blowing his head off and adding four “just for good luck” shots was a huge relief). But, having seen him be good once, it's pretty clear that he is not as bad as his worst work. But holy fucking shit is he terrible in this movie. He's astonishingly bad.
His being as bad as he is threatens to overwhelm some of the better qualities of the movie, which are primarily in the areas of visual composition and design. Andrew Dominik blocks action very well, which is especially notable in this filmmaking era, where the plague of fake verite leads to “directors” setting up ninety cameras and turning the actors loose to act “real” and splicing together coverage to make a scene that way, which ends up almost invariably looking like shit. That Dominik blocks action at all, that he even bothers to compose the way actors appear in the frame at all, is notable, and he's pretty good at it. The design is fairly familiar tough-guy muscle cars and hoopties (cars being very important in Higgins' books) gangland leather jacket cocktail dive bar stuff, but done well.
The idea of actually doing something with the gangster genre and not being satisfied with a simple exercise in style and posturing is a good one, too. Dominik linking gambling with the 2008 economic crisis is spot on. That's exactly what led to the crash. If he'd integrated this idea into the movie with any degree of subtlety it'd have been one thing; as above, it's not a particularly original idea, but it is an idea, which does count for something. But Dominik chooses to incorporate the big-picture political context by having the camera pan past huge televisions with immaculate HD signals on which either George Bush or Barack Obama are giving loud speeches that lay the intended message out exactly, on the nose. Which is fine, random stylistic flourishes can work just fine, when they work. In this case, it's both distracting and redundant, not to mention the last scene of the picture where Brad Pitt gives Richard Jenkins this whole, wildly out-of-character cynical “smart, slightly left-leaning high school junior who's a little more impressed with himself for having this insight than he will be when he grows up” speech. That's the problem with the political stuff in Killing Them Softly: it's not wrong, it's just not that profound. It's like, yeah, we get it: out-of-control capitalism can have shitty consequences, and America isn't always lollipops and teddy bears. So?
At least now I understand why Killing Them Softly was so divisive. It's not great. It doesn't suck. It's not mediocre. It's a failure, but it's one worth having seen, but it's not really much fun to watch. It's serious but silly. Eh. Suppose it says something that it's been out for a year and still inspiring this much thought. What that says, I don't know.
Thursday, August 15, 2013
Enough has already been written about The Canyons that it would be tempting to leave it with the following: it's bad, not particularly interesting or illuminating, and Lindsay Lohan is miscast. The ways in which all those things are so, however, requires a bit of explanation, so I shall.
The movie's badness is about 15% “not enough money” and 85% “Bret Easton Ellis.” When Ellis published Less Than Zero at 21, the book was a novelty because there hadn't been a million books about rich kids snorting and fucking their way through their meaningless existences yet. It is no longer a novelty. His subsequent career consists of one book whose sole merit was serving as the first draft for a good Mary Harron movie (American Psycho) and a whole lot of other bullshit. He's mainly notable historically for the remarkable length of time he managed to stay closeted, and for maintaining what might be—and this actually is pretty impressive—the most pointlessly bitchy account on all of Twitter. He is less a person than a sapient banana republic ruled by an iron-fisted ego junta.
This being the case, his grand cinematic statement about the moral and intellectual emptiness of Hollywood, just like his grand literary statements about the moral and intellectual emptiness of Wall Street, Bennington, the fashion industry, et cetera, is more testament to the moral and intellectual emptiness of Bret Easton Ellis than it is to the putative subject. The idea that The Canyons' surface vacuity might be serving as a Trojan horse for some deeper statement about the movie business is being entirely too generous. There is nothing of textual substance here that better writers whose dicks spend at least thirty minutes a day outside their own mouths have not written already.
In other areas, The Canyons is not without merit. Paul Schrader's direction, in itself, is compelling enough to keep watching, even if it's still hate-watching. The pace is crisp but unhurried, ideal for the kind of material The Canyons would be, if written by a mammal. The shots are carefully and meticulously composed, and would be great at illustrating the text and hinting at the subtext if there were any of either. The actors do their best not having anything to play, and having to trudge through Ellis' endlessly fatuous dialogue.
James Deen, the impressively-penised male lead/antihero manqué, is the main victim of the text. He demonstrates flashes, as he has at times in his porn career when it didn't even matter, of being a capable actor. He lacks the training to prevail against an inadequate text, though, and the monotony of his vocal delivery works against him in roles where he can't just whip his dick out. Speaking of, there is a dick shot of sufficient (shot) length as to allow proper appraisal of it, and it's certainly bigger than the other two dudes' dicks we see, which brings up another positive point, which is that fans of dudity have a couple nice scenes to fast-forward to.
The picture's other star is its biggest non-script debit. Lindsay Lohan's troubles need not be recounted here, for they are many, and tacky, and kind of sad. I do still believe, if her capacity for self-immolation is halted, that she has a future as an actor, because even though she's wrecked her voice with cigarettes and her body with booze and drugs, she's still talented; as poor a showcase as The Canyons is, as with Deen there are glimpses. BUT, and I swear I'm not pulling a John Simon trip, her looks are something of an obstacle with the role. As written, the character of Tara is supposed to be, essentially, a fantasy sex object to other fantasy sex objects, the rest of whom all look the part. Lohan is a stark visual contrast to everyone else in the movie, but the movie and everyone in it pretends not to notice. The most-discussed scene in the movie, a four-way with Deen, Lohan, and a random pretty male-female couple, features the other three naked marching attractively upstairs to LiLo's bed, whereupon they find her stretched out fully dressed in something that looks like a cross between a back brace and gauze covering third degree burns. And, again, I can't stress this enough, this scene is not a critique of sex or the way it's portrayed. It's denial.
(To be completely clear about the above: the only reason it matters what Lindsay Lohan looks like in this movie is because Ellis prattles on and on in the script about how beautiful her character's supposed to be. It's a script whose sole concern is with people other people masturbate to, because its author barely even acknowledges the existence of other people except to masturbate to them. This is the only reason why it matters that she looks like she's spent the last decade smoking five packs a day and subsisting solely on vodka and cocaine for nourishment. It's the contrast between that appearance and the role of the character in the grand scheme of the movie that's the problem.)
The Canyons is kind of like The Room with an actual director, and all the less entertaining for it. From the “huh?” every time one of the other characters talks about how beautiful the female lead is—again, I feel like an asshole harping on this point, because it's usually made by sexist shitheads, these are literally the only two movies I've ever seen where I've cared about this—to the weird white dude in the hoodie and baseball cap who randomly pops up, to the awe-inspiring shittiness of some of the dialogue, The Canyons is on the cusp of being legitimately good-bad. Its moments of great unintentional hilarity are undercut by Paul Schrader's dogged insistence on making an actual movie, thus putting The Canyons in the very rare position of being a movie ultimately fucked up by not being bad enough. All for the best, though, otherwise we'd have to watch a Bret Easton Ellis movie more than once.
Monday, July 15, 2013
|Bernadette Lafont in Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me|
I will always, when thinking about love of cinema (particularly my own), settle almost instantly on Francois Truffaut. When I was first exploring international cinema as a teenager, Truffaut was not the first step (John Woo beat him by a couple years; it was the early 90s, that's just how it was), nor was he the first filmmaker who made me want to make them myself (again, it was the 90s, Tarantino lit that fuse). But Truffaut was the first filmmaker who really made me understand, on a deep and personal level, why some people need to make movies. Damn near every frame his entire career has this sense of being filmed not on location or a set, but in the emotional core of his heart.
Because movies were Truffaut as much as he was the movies, you can sort of get a sense of where he was in life from watching the film he made at that point. This is more a hindsight thing than something one could glean only from the work itself, and it would be a waste of time to go through his whole career ba-boom-ba-boomp-ba-boomp trying to psychoanalyze him, but it's a way of leading up to a point about his 1972 adaptation of Henry Farrell's novel Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me. Which is that Truffaut seems to be having the time of his motherfucking life directing this picture.
The fun coexists with, and even derives from, some very dark stuff, with sexual obsession and murder topping the list. The basic story—academic (Andre Dussolier) working on a sociological study interviews an imprisoned (alleged) murderer (the delightful Bernadette Lafont; that's actually on her SAG card, “the delightful Bernadette Lafont”), who proceeds to wrap him around her little finger—has been played straight many times, but Truffaut spends the whole movie giggling about what a fucking doof the academic is while reveling in how awesome Bernadette Lafont's character is, just running around doing whatever the hell she wants and, a couple hiccups (like getting chucked in the clink) aside, getting away with it.
Just as the script isn't played straight, Truffaut blatantly fucks around with the mise en scene, throwing in all manner of non-naturalistic touches into Bernadette Lafont's “reminiscences,” making it hilariously obvious how much bullshit she's laying on the academic. Either she's a little girl being tormented by a drunk father in a fat suit over his clothes hollering about “All broads are fuckin' whores except my Ma . . . maybe” (it's the funniest goddamn line ever in French) or she's pursuing a lounge singer who puts on an LP of race car engine sounds to fuck to, or people sitting in chairs reading newspapers suddenly flinging them against the wall as they stand up. Long story short, it's in the details. There are huge stretches of Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me that are like a Chaplin picture with tits and cursing, and a girl who looks vaguely like Stoya as the Tramp.
All double entendres about the word “tramp” aside, one of the most refreshing aspects of Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me is that despite the fact that she fucks and/or kills nearly every guy in the picture, Truffaut neither slut-shames his heroine (hell, he doesn't even murder-shame her) nor puts her on a pedestal as some kind of unimpeachable goddess. She's kind of an asshole and she lies constantly about everything, but . . . she's just so goddamn adorable. The only people in the movie who think otherwise are the lady at the prison in the beginning who tries everything she can to keep the academic from interviewing that one (no, man, talk to the lady who cuts dudes up with chainsaws, you don't want Bernadette Lafont, she's trouble) and the academic's secretary who has a crush on him that he's too much of a dork to realize. The secretary practically tears her hair out over the academic's obliviousness over how epically he's about to trip on his dick, but he's just derpy-derp-de-doo all rigorously uptight French rectitude and shit and how silly, the idea of listening to a woman. When if he listened to one word Bernadette Lafont ranted into his tape recorder instead of thinking about what she looked like naked, he'd have avoided getting taken to the cleaners by her.
It's a damn shame Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me isn't available on DVD/Blu in the US (stupid legal bullshit is, as always, to blame). I saw it a million years ago either on TV or bootleg VHS, and was only able to revisit it now because TCM showed it at quarter after 2 on a Friday night; at around 1am I was like “All right, y'all, time for some coffee.” It held up, and then some. Holy fuck this movie's fun. If ever it becomes more readily available in the States, remember these words and go watch the shit out of it because it's awesome. Seriously, you can see Truffaut laughing his ass off with joy about how wonderful movies are in every frame.
So good. So good.
Thursday, June 20, 2013
Occasionally, I run the risk of painting myself into a corner, critically, because I have a tendency to watch movies with my whole body, as it were. Put another way, sometimes I overvalue a visceral experience because it's physically exciting, gets the heart pumping, the adrenaline racing, all that jazz, even if when approached on strictly intellectual terms the work in question might not be all that. Great example: I have a tendency to call Space Jail one of the greatest works of the modern cinema. I cannot defend this assertion in any responsible manner. Such is life. But despite this occasional blind spot, I still maintain that it is eminently possible and totally valid for great filmmaking to counterbalance humdrum (or even shitty) substance. Indeed, if style has substantial merit, it is itself substantial. Thus, Stoker.
Now, the above should not be read as a fancy way of saying Wentworth Miller's script for Stoker sucks. It doesn't suck. It's just a bit basic, and operates as more of a template in terms of Stoker as a complete entity rather than a complete thing to be realized. Miller's script pays unmistakable homage to the one Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville wrote for the 1943 classic Shadow of a Doubt; there's a sinister Uncle Charlie who kills people, and a few other finer details. To a far greater degree than Shadow of a Doubt, which owed a great deal but by no means everything to having been directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Stoker is what it is—a deliriously engaging, exquisitely photographed fucked-the-fuck-up psychosexual horror thriller—almost entirely due to the mastery of Mr. Park Chan-wook.
The mark of good direction is whether the approach taken is the one that serves the given work. Sidney Lumet's best work usually seemed as though it was simply happening (which, of course, took a lot of directing skill), which was, at his best, to the movie's benefit. Jean-Luc Godard's makes it feel like you're being trolled into nirvana by a French-Swiss Marxist Iago-except-a-good-guy (there are no words for how much I love that motherfucker). In the case of Stoker, the movie only works if it's kinda sexy and spooky and if the characters, in spite of being as nucking futs as a fut ever nucked, are still weirdly (definitely not the way civilians define the term) likable. It needs to take itself just seriously enough to have an impact but also be really, really darkly funny when necessary. Most importantly, it needs a director with sufficient artistic chops that it isn't “just” a quasi-campy “good-bad” thriller melodrama. But, it also has to have that great, dark, middle-of-the-night “hooooooly shit” vibe that campy good-bad melodrama has that's so exquisite. Sound like a daunting task? Park Chan-wook's in the corner smirking going “Is that all? Fuck it, I got this.”
Does he ever. Holy fuck Stoker's fun. I mean, yeah, it's over the top, and if every movie was similarly so it'd be numbing and blah blah blah but the great thing about cinema is you can do it all kinds of ways, and the way Park Chan-wook directs Stoker fucking rules. The key is that it's not excess for the sake of excess, there's a steady, assured directorial hand perceptible for every frame of this picture. Park's mastery of tone is complete, never letting the more lurid aspects sink the ship or the slower bits dissipate any of the holy-shit intensity. Richard Pryor had a bit on one of his albums in the 70s where he was talking about a girl who was “so fine, I'd suck her daddy's dick.” Well, that's how I feel about Stoker.
To walk back the auteurist agape a bit, it's not like the actors are chopped liver in Stoker. Mia Wasikowska is terrific in the lead as 18-year-old India Stoker, an introverted girl who, after a series of events set in motion by her father's untimely death involving her mother (Nicole Kidman, who goes to pieces with such intensity everyone has to duck to avoid being hit by shrapnel) and Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode, who is), of whom she's never even heard until he shows up at the funeral, starts to let loose a bit. Pardon the 76 word sentence; Stoker's just that kinda movie, what can I say. But, I was saying. Mia Wasikowska. Most of the picture consists of her walking around with little to no outward emotional affect (a nice contrast to the wild filmmaking, it must be said), and it can be hard to register that actual work is being done under those circumstances. But watch her eyes. Park certainly is. That's where her performance is, and it's a good 'un, for real. Matthew Goode's another one with the eyes, as Uncle Charlie; when he's bullshitting everyone into thinking he's sane, they sparkle with charm, but when he lets the facade down with India, man, he got some big blue crazy eyes. (Also, Matthew Goode's caught a lot of shit for being miscast in Watchmen, which wasn't his fault, nor was he that bad in it, weird accent aside. Go watch The Lookout. Dude can thesp.)
So yeah, Stoker's a fucking lovely nasty piece of work. Park Chan-wook is the truth. Mia Wasikowska may not ever beat the shit out of a hallway full of dudes with a hammer with a knife sticking out her back but she's got a couple bits of business that are every bit as cool (and as apeshit insane, in their own way). The whole thing's over in an hour forty, which is goddamn providence in this cinematic day and age, and it ends on such a divine go-fuck-yourself note that I found myself wanting to swirl it around in my mouth like a fine wine afterwards. Clearly, your mileage may vary (some people fucking hate this movie), but if you're in the mood to see two middle fingers flipped up at the notion of restraint, pull up a copy of Stoker sometime around midnight. If the above failed to properly make the point, I rather enjoyed it.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
(Note: even though none of the information divulged spoils anything about the movie, hypersensitive spoiler decorum decrees that a spoiler alert is necessary.)
This is not, I assure you, going to turn into one of those “lone film writer standing bravely against the current, exhorting you all to see the light” bits of fuckery where I tell you you're wrong for liking Star Trek Into Darkness. You're not wrong. We just disagree. Hell, I'll even grant that it's no worse than a standard modern blockbuster, with a number of real bright spots:
—The design is spectacular, in particular the splendidly plausible way they add three centuries to London.
—The cast is just right, and all totally believe in it; there's no “look at me slumming and being better than this” that one occasionally finds.
—Above all else, it's still Star Trek, and you can fuck Star Trek up any number of ways and it'll still be fine on at least one level simply by being Star Trek. Even if it only is in the most superficial sense.
Added to all of these is JJ Abrams' steady-as-she-goes competence as a director. He's never going to make anything transcendently great, and he's never going to make anything truly worthy of being called awful, because he's got a firm grasp of that middle lane, and—barring a statistically improbable sudden decision to get whacked out of his dick on cocaine—is pragmatic enough to keep on as he has been, making big expensive pop movies (and TV series) and marketing the bejesus out of them, guarding their every mundane secret like the Kremlin.
But that right there is a huge thing that bugs me about his stuff. Abrams is now synonymous with years-long marketing campaigns where everything is shrouded in secrecy with the implication being that even the slightest, most seemingly insignificant tidbit would blow the whole fucking thing wide open and ruin a life-altering moviegoing experience. Which, no. We've been around the block enough times with him now to state definitively that this is all a pile of bullshit.
Cloverfield—which he produced—was so secret he didn't even want us to know the title until it “accidentally” leaked and was “grudgingly” confirmed. Super 8—which he directed as well as produced—was another one; the title was only divulged under great (apparent) duress, and details withheld assiduously. The former was a pretty solid monster movie told in then reasonably novel fashion of pretending to be found footage of a catastrophic attack on NYC by a big nasty-ass monster that came out of New York Harbor looking to rip shit up. The secrecy meant we didn't get a look at the monster until after we'd seen the movie, so those kinda beside the point but still lingering questions like “how the fuck did something that big just emerge from New York Harbor undetected?” went unasked, to the movie's advantage. Because all monster movies require a bit of suspension of disbelief right from the start, and Cloverfield was good, good enough that even if people had been like “derp, where'd that monster come from, New Jersey?” beforehand, it probably wouldn't have been affected much. (One love to Matt Reeves.)
Super 8, on the other hand, might have found itself in slightly dicier ground, being an unabashedly sentimental homage to the most unabashedly sentimental period of Steven Spielberg's career, the E.T./Goonies 80s. I fell for it like a ton of bricks on first viewing, I freely admit (and have been abjectly terrified to revisit it ever since, lest I cringe at the praise I lavished on it), but the question lingers whether the year of Internet hype leading up to it led me (and others) to confer event-movie status on something that might not have earned it on its own merits. Super 8 was competently put together, to be sure, but whether there was anything there beyond the craft is hard to say.
This is a huge problem with Star Trek Into Darkness, which is a completely standard-issue blockbuster (essentially a not-very-good remake of The Wrath of Khan) with no surprises warranting all that secrecy, unless Abrams et al were ashamed that all it is is a not-very-good remake of Wrath of Khan. His first Star Trek is the best thing Abrams has ever done, with a brilliant textual excuse—time travel leading to an alternate timeline; don't ask how, science fiction, that's the fuck “how”—to depart from existing canon, perfectly cast (holy shit Zachary Quinto as Spock), and it successfully elided all the things that didn't quite hold up under scrutiny, none of which really mattered anyway. The sequel considers all the character development done in the first as being sufficient, and doesn't do any. Which is fine, everyone saw the first one; it made shitloads of money in theaters and Trek fans subsequently watched it zillions of times on DVD/Blu/their phones/whatever. But aside from those initial points I mentioned up top, some familiar character names and a few non-narrative moments of “Hey! Remember this thing from the show or one of the movies? You like this, right? Well here you go!” before it gets back to being a nearly completely generic modern blockbuster, it's a completely generic modern blockbuster, and some of the ways it goes about being that thing betray a shocking tone-deafness to what Star Trek actually is.
Let us once again, as in the introduction, make clear that I am not doing the thing that William Shatner famously twitted Trek fans for doing in that “Get a life!” bit, obsessing over minutiae like a redshirt getting hit in a non-vital organ with the wrong color phaser or Sulu steering the Enterprise from the console on the wrong side of the bridge, or Uhura speaking Klingon with a Romulan accent or any of that fuckin shit (let us also make clear that I pulled all three of those things out of my ass). No, this is not nitpicking. There are fundamental things way the fuck wrong with this movie, in terms of being Star Trek:
—In spite of noting, at length, in the first few minutes, that morality is an essential aspect of decision-making, the good guys cavalierly let a whole bunch of people die, including a “Sorry I'm not sorry/Hey, here's a disingenuous apology-cum-wisecrack!” moment where Scotty shoots a “bad guy” (who could very well be a normal Starfleet dude just like Scotty, following orders) out an airlock into space. The movie also lets us think, for no apparent reason other than to elicit a “Daaaaaaaamn” from audiences, that Spock murdered 72 unarmed, inert, defenseless people in cold blood before turning around and being like “Sike!” Great save, guys.
—You've already seen Alice Eve's two most significant character beats in the trailer: the first is in a scene with no other purpose whatsoever than to show her in her underwear. Congratulations if you're twelve and that made your year. The second is that lifeless “Okay, Alice, you're the pretty blonde girl so this is the scene where you scream” scream. That one was in response to watching her father's head get crushed by Khan, making the rote, emotionless quality of it entirely the movie's fault (no, if Alice Eve is a shitty actress—which I have no way of knowing, having only seen her in things where she plays a blonde object—then it's Abrams/Lindelof/etc's fault for casting her in the first place, not hers). She also immediately gets injured and has to be carried around by dudes the second action starts happening, because LOL girls can't take a punch, amirite?
—Uhura does not fare much better, playing Spock's nagging girlfriend for the whole movie with the exception of the one scene where she talks Klingon to the Klingons (who show up for one sequence and then vanish, speaking of annoying misuse of Star Trek text) and then has to be saved because LOL girls can't fight, right fellas?
—I mentioned Khan in passing, so let's talk about Khan for a second. Benedict Cumberbatch. You know him. Every straight woman between the ages of about 25 and 40 that you have ever met has at least a fan Tumblr devoted to him. And don't let her tell you she doesn't. And if it's you who think you don't, trust me, you're Tyler Durden-editing a Cumberbatch fan Tumblr when you think you're asleep. (Or you're a closeted lesbian; look, I don't make the rules.) Dude's a cult icon. Hell, I even wrote a huge long, glowing thing anointing him the greatest screen Holmes (even though I'm Team Martin Freeman, because I'm not a straight woman). Benedict Cumberbatch fucking rules. And he does plenty of rad shit in this movie. But here's the thing. There's a very complicated thing with Khan Noonien Singh. (Trigger warning: shit's about to get nerdy, get your helmet.) When he was introduced, in the fan-favorite TOS episode “Space Seed,” played by Ricardo Montalban—hold that thought—Khan was emblematic of the kind of shit society had transcended by the time Starfleet commenced its five-year mission to study space. He was a genetically-engineered soldier who, along with others of his kind, overthrew their original masters and became genocidal warlords in the Eugenics Wars before disappearing and floating around with a bunch of his buddies in suspended animation before the Enterprise found them. He then proves to be a gigantic handful, and Kirk just barely gets rid of him, talking him into starting a new kingdom on this little dipshit out-of-the-way planet where he hopefully won't do any lasting damage. Problem is, Khan gets pissed when his wife dies and he blames Kirk, leading to the elaborate revenge plot that makes up Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Wrath of Khan fucking owns, largely due to the Montalban realness, from which Khan's iconic, Hall of Fame villain status derives.
NOW. Important point. Khan Noonien Singh is, textually, South Asian, even though Ricardo Montalban was not. But a character described as being genetically perfect being an actor of color was secretly kind of a big deal at a time, as “Space Seed” was, three years removed from the Civil Rights Act (i.e. “Fisher Price My First Bulwark Against White Supremacy”). This supercedes the “fuck me, not another POC villain” thing, I would argue, because the entire conception of Khan, as scripted, is that he requires you to conceive of a person of color being the physical and intellectual apex of human genetics. This is important (important enough for John Cho to make a pointed comment about it on the Press Blitz Into Darkness), because this is what Star Trek was about: hopping around from planet to planet learning lessons about life on Earth through interactions with various funky-looking aliens. After Kirk had sex with them.
So. Maybe Montalban, as a non-Asian, playing Khan in the first place upfucked the entire point about race. And maybe my casting idea—backing up the money truck to Aamir Khan's house and pouring cash out til he says when—isn't feasible. And maybe Cumberbatch is the white guy, the capo di tutti capi (which is manifestly possible; he sure has a lotta fangirls). But he's still a white guy, which makes it kinda dumb that he's playing “Khan.”
And thus. Is this a big deal? Not really, in itself, because as much as I might think the good outweighs the bad in Khan's fundamental POC-ness, I'm still saying that as a white person, which means if a POC takes the “a POC villain? Again? Fuck” side, they win, I lose. And as the prophet who transcribed Chris Tucker's gospel “Behind every crime, there's a rich white man waiting for his cut” into the Evil White Guys In Suits Theory, I really should be like, “Send Cumberbatch to Savile Row before he even thinks of setting a foot on this set.” Life is complicated, what can I say.
The Khan thing is thorny, but it itself is not the problem, merely a symptom. Star Trek Into Darkness is, in every regard, a movie that could have been written by a computer program that left the proper nouns blank for Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof to go in and fill in “Kirk,” “Spock,” “Klingon,” “Khan,” etc. And, onto the generic-as-shit sci-fi action template, toss a whole bunch of references to shit they know fans will get, making the whole thing kind of feel like a rewrite of Wrath of Khan by someone who didn't actually watch it. One can picture them sending their assistants to take notes only the assistants were busy networking with each other trying to get better jobs in the industry and so their notes were a little vague, so Orci/Kurtzman/Lindelof were like, “Oh, well, no one's going to care that we never fucking watched Wrath of Khan because Abrams doesn't even like Star Trek and as long as we write a Tribble into the plot the fans will be like 'yay Tribbles' and we'll all make millions.”
I know a lot of Star Trek fans, some of them massive Star Trek fans, who like the movie. I don't want any of them thinking that any of the above is telling them they're wrong to like Into Darkness. Matter of fact, up til an undefined point somewhere in the middle when everything started getting loud and JJ's shitty framing started annoying me and one too many apocalyptically derpy things happened, I was digging it myself. But there just came a point when Star Trek Into Darkness being a normal run-of-the-mill blockbuster just wasn't enough. I think it's when people started just getting killed like whatevs, no bigs, just a bunch of extras eating it.
You can argue poetic license and adaptation all you want, but that's not Star Trek. I'm not talking about the thing I was fucking with comic book geeks about in my Iron Man post, either, because I really liked Abrams' first Star Trek picture. It was fine. Abrams not giving a particular fuck about Star Trek didn't get in the way there, because his indifference to canon led him to focus on the characters as human beings, and their relationships. Ironically, the thing that makes the sequel go tits up (for me, anyway) is the ineptitude of the fan service; it's like Abrams and the writers read the Star Trek page on Wikipedia and were like, “Oh, okay, here's Carol Marcus, which means, yeah, the bad guy'll be Khan, everyone likes Khan, oh, and sure, let's give them a Tribble. Everyone likes Tribbles, yeah?” but all these gestures seem rote and hollow.
In a way, though, I'm kind of glad Star Trek Into Darkness turned into a transcript of its own pitch meeting halfway through, because at least that's honest about the way studios view pictures like this:
“Oh, yeah, Star Trek, the nerds'll flock to it. The last one made a mint—hey, get it, JJ? that's a Super 8 joke for ya, buddy—so we're good with this one. Dig up something from the show or something. Hey, what's that part where Bill Shatner goes 'KHAAAAANNNNN!!!'?”
“Oh, yeah, that's . . . yeah, my assistant Googled that, it's from Wreath of Khan . . . no, wait, 'wrath,' Wrath of Khan.”
“Yeah, so maybe do that, but a little different.”
“Maybe I could have Spock say 'KHAAAAANNNNN!!!' and have Kirk be the one who dies at the end.”
“Whoa whoa whoa. You can't have Kirk die in the end, what about the fuckin sequel, JJ?”
“Yeah, I know . . . that's why he's not really dead, they bring him back to life.”
“Sounds great! Okay. Make us rich, buddy.”
Thursday, April 18, 2013
|To The Wonder|
There's a tendency, with Terrence Malick films, for writers to spill much ink tearing their hair out and rending their garments about how difficult they are to parse, which is why it was a pleasant surprise indeed that To The Wonder, his latest, was as accessible as it is. Told in Malick's sui generis elusive/allusive style with little dialogue and mostly voiceover but total clarity, To The Wonder follows a couple, played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, through a passionate but troubled affair. Along the way, contrasts between male and female are explored, as is the earthly and divine, with the latter seemingly tangentially explored through a priest (Javier Bardem) struggling with the apparent absence of God, before that thread rejoins the “main” part of the movie.
Talking about a Terrence Malick picture having a story in any conventional sense is a bit off the point, since his movies are more about opening all three eyes to the vastness of the universe than they are abecedarian sequences of events. A portal to infinity is a different beast than something with three acts and an inciting event thirty minutes in and all that quotidian bullshit. With the specific focus on romantic relationships here, the scope is a little less overwhelming than it was in Malick's previous outing, The Tree Of Life, which was—literally—about the entirety of existence of life on Earth. It's necessarily a little less profound, but even that is as pointless a contrast as comparing one cloud to another.
Another thing that becomes difficult is talking about the acting in normal ways. Malick's actors are mostly—but not exclusively—there as photographic subjects. Though, interestingly, for as unlike his pictures are to the typical, “naturalistic” mainstream, the way Malick shoots (that's a great read for when you have a sec; peace, Bilge), stressing spontaneity to be captured rather than staged, allows for actors to be realer, and more present in the given moment, than they would in something with more conventionally shaped scenes with traditional dramatic beats. This is how Affleck ends up being so effective; he has almost no dialogue and is more a presence than a traditional character. His blankness here, letting audiences project their previous experience with his career onto him, ends up rendering him a kind of ur-leading man, generic in a good way, in the interests of universality. If anything he'd have been more effective in his peak B-Fleck days, when he literally made movies called Paycheck, but now in his respectable “I'm a director now” post-Argo period it's like, “Yeah, you fuckers can't call me B-Fleck anymore, I'm an ar-tiste” and that's fine, especially since what makes him effective in To The Wonder is actually his greatest limitation as an actor in most movies, to wit his inscrutable side-of-beef-ness. (Again, the disclaimer I always need to put in when talking about B-Fleck: I like the guy. I swear. It always sounds like I'm running him down, I know, it just comes out that way.)
As for the other central presence (since “character” is, as above, a little reductive, this being a Malick picture), Olga Kurylenko, here's the only way I can describe how amazing she is: when I was pretty young but not too young to know I was in the presence of greatness, I saw (and, of course, heard) Leontyne Price at Carnegie Hall, and she was so awesome opera queens kept randomly blurting stuff out in Italian because English just couldn't cut it. That's Olga Kurylenko in To The Wonder. You could be like “she's a vision” and rhapsodize about the exquisite balance between physical fragility and emotional power in her very presence and talk about how Malick's camera can't help but constantly frame her in the context of the whole wide natural world because it can't bear to consider the world without her in it, but really? English can't cut it. She's that good in this.
As for the movie in general, I'm actually kind of surprised that I liked To The Wonder as much as I did. It's male-gaze-y, sure, but I am male and it's a good movie, so that's okay. The religion thing would be immensely problematic for me because my usual response to art about the struggle to look for God is an eyeroll + jerkoff motion because there's no such thing, but Malick's conception of the divine is just cosmological enough, and just related enough to human beings, and so deeply personal, that I don't really mind at all. The best example in To The Wonder is the way in which he eroticizes the act of communion, framing Olga Kurylenko kneeling before Javier Bardem to receive the wafer in very similar fashion as she kneels before Ben Affleck to undo his trousers.
That kind of linkage between the earthly and the divine keeps happening throughout To The Wonder, conveyed with exquisite, proudly singular filmmaking. Terrence Malick is entirely his own entity, making cinema entirely unlike anyone else's, a pure form unlike anything that came before it, and, as evidenced by Shane Carruth's ambitious but frustrating Upstream Color, hard to emulate (which is not to say Carruth wasn't informed by other sources as well, just saying, this is harder than it looks). Auteurists can sometimes extend their reach beyond their theoretical grasp, or ascribe singularity to the generic when it's something they happen to like, but if all else fails, there will always be Terrence Malick, pointing a camera at something/someone gorgeous, murmuring about God.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
|Bruce Willis (right), searching for any textual connection to the previous movies|
I had the opportunity to see the picture with a friend who'd only—and only recently—seen the first movie, so I seized on this to ask her whether it was a piece of shit beyond its willful disregard of everything that made John McClane a great character in the first place, and she immediately was like “No, it's just bad.” So, jumping off that point, here's why it's just bad: the visuals are muddy, the goddamn camera jumps around all over the fucking place to a degree that makes the fucking Hunger Games (which, in spite of that, I did like) look like La Jetee, the story's bullshit, the action's competently staged but distractingly fucking dumb, they wasted a semi-awake Bruce Willis (YOU NEED TO CAREFULLY BUDGET BRUCE WILLIS AWAKE TIME, FILMMAKERS, IT'S A RARE AND PRECIOUS RESOURCE), the guy who plays his son makes Sam Worthington look like fucking Paul Newman, and there is a complete absence of evidence that anyone gave the remotest fuck about the movie they were making.
To make my point in the most gratuitously cruel way possible, I compare A Good Day To Light Farts unfavorably not to an actual Die Hard movie (and not even to Len Wiseman's competent non-Die Hard movie Live Free or Die Hard) but to American Ninja 2. In that august classic, Michael Dudikoff (the ninja from whom the film takes its name) and Steve James go to the Philippines or somewhere and have to take out some bad guy who's up to some bad shit. There's a scene where the baddie is walking some stiffs with mustaches around his big villain compound—a tradition proudly ganked from Han in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon—and, gesturing to an open training ground with a bunch of extras in ninja outfits awkwardly doing calisthenics, he says, in a classic bad acting villain line reading, “My private army.” Is it stupid and redundant? Sure. But is it clear? Do you know who the fuck the bad guy is and what he's up to? Yes and yes. And that is why American Ninja 2 is a better movie than Die Hard 5.
Back to which, a summary involving the revelation of
Yes, that is the entire movie. There's just no way to fully convey how fucking stupid it is without laying out all the cards, though. It's also important to note that all of the seeming lack of motivation behind the twists is because there's literally none to be found. Action movies in general may not have terribly high standards for character and story, but the whole fucking reason Die Hard is fucking Die Hard is because, while the movie contained some of the finest and most exalted ownage in the history of the cinematic form, its hero, John McClane, was a human being. He was not Dr. Manhattan with pants. The first three movies in the series were predicated entirely on McClane's working from an outnumbered and outgunned position and triumphing through intelligence, balls, and being kind of nuts. This changed in the fourth movie, where McClane was presented as a more generic action-movie hero who could kill helicopters with cars and stuff. But even that iteration is closer to the original character than this cranky old dipshit whose sole skill is the ability to jump off the roofs of buildings and land, twenty stories below, uninjured.
The point being, Die Hard 5 is a very bad movie. It fails to meet even the most modest of standards. It's an absolute embarrassment. If any though remotely resembling “oh, I have to see it, it's a new Die Hard movie” is going through your head, RESIST. This is not a thing that is remotely enjoyable on any level. May we never speak of this motherfucking monstrosity again.
Saturday, January 26, 2013
My ability to be neutral about the 1979 comedy Fast Break is questionable. It is, almost literally, about everything I like: a comedy about a basketball-obsessed New Yorker that touches on race, gender, and class, with a scene where a bunch of people in a car have to eat a pound of weed for—ultimately unfounded—fear of thrown in jail by the cops (over 20 years before Super Troopers, n.b.) and with Bernard King in a major supporting role. Just about the only things missing are a ten-minute steadicam shot of leather-clad Chinese women murdering villains with machine guns (psychoanalyze away, I won't squawk) and a wrist-slashing Manchester rock score to give my id a screenplay credit on Fast Break. As it is, it's fucking close.
Taking myself as far out of this as I can, Fast Break stars Gabe Kaplan in his feature film debut, fresh off Welcome Back Kotter, as David Greene, a diehard basketball nerd who plays pickup games at the West Fourth St. courts and dreams of becoming a coach. These dreams are answered when the president of tiny (and fictional) Cadwallader University in Nevada offers Greene the head coaching job, under extremely shady conditions. To wit: first, he will be paid per every game he wins as a coach, but only if he wins, and second, he will get a three-year contract with a very reasonable salary if he is able to get a game with national powerhouse Nevada State. To be perfectly clear, the chances of Greene's ability to pull off the second condition under normal circumstances are approximately fuck-all.
Undaunted by these conditions (and his wife leaving him), Greene takes the position as coach and begins to assemble a team to head west with. He starts with Hustler (Bernard King), his spectacularly talented pickup game buddy, named Hustler because he supports himself financially by fleecing motherfuckers at pool (said motherfuckers object to this practice, leading to Hustler's immediate need to fuck off out of New York). Next is Preacher (Michael Warren), a preacher, and talented baller, who's incurred the wrath of his mentor in quasi-Christian scamology by getting the mentor's 15 year old daughter pregnant (Preacher is but 19 himself; also, it bears remembering that the movie takes place In The 70s), and is similarly in need of a change of scenery. Greene and Hustler stumble on DC (Harold Sylvester) almost accidentally, hiding in an abandoned house uptown fucked up on drugs with warrants out on him; after some convincing, he joins up. Finally, Greene discovers a girl named Roberta James, who goes by the nickname Swish, who's enrolled at CCNY but can't play ball because she's a girl (Fast Break being set either pre-Title IX or in an alternate universe where it had yet to take hold), and has her dress in drag and answer to Bobby so she can join his team.
Greene heads west with his four-player team, and DC decides to spend the entire journey smoking up everyone in the car. Though Greene declines, this leads to some very wobbly driving and the encounter with the cops mentioned in the opening paragraph. Once they arrive in Nevada the tone shifts slightly from laid-back 70s hangout picture to a familiar sports-movie “get ready for the big game” narrative complete with the usual contrivances. It bears remembering, thought, that Fast Break comes early enough in the cycle of modern Hollywood formula that any number of the familiar aspects in it predate the things they remind one of. The revelation that DC can't even read and the brief subplot in which Greene and Swish team up to teach him so he won't get kicked off the team calls to mind a similar subplot in Blue Chips where Nick Nolte and Mary McDonnell have to tutor Shaq to pass his SATs, only Fast Break predates that picture by fifteen years.
One other later basketball movie to which Fast Break invites comparison, as its moral opposite, is Hoosiers. Hoosiers is all about Gene Hackman redeeming himself and teaching kids to play basketball The Right (White) Way and prevailing over the odds by sheer force of gosh darn goodness. Fast Break, on the other hand, does not give a fuck. Gabe Kaplan's character recruits players strictly on the basis of their ability to kick ass at basketball. The only academic wrinkle comes from one of those players not even being able to fucking read, but aside from that, he lets them blow curfew and, in Bernard King's case, hustle the locals out of thousands of dollars at pool, with no more than mild ball-busting. The white kids he rounds out the team with can't even play basketball: the fifth starter, Bull, is a would-be football player (Cadwallader doesn't have a football team) who isn't much use beyond being big enough to knock anybody else down, though he does shape into a serviceable rebounding-and-defense center by the end of the movie. On the bench are a bunch of scrubs who never play, and two utter psychos whose sole value to the team is their ability to piss opponents off enough to get thrown out of the game.
The team, in short, is everything that, at the time, casual fans found irksome about basketball: a core of flashy black stars with questionable off-the-court habits, brutish enforcers, and shit-starters (Fast Break came out at a time when on-court fistfights were an extremely common occurrence, to the dismay of “purity of the game” pearl-clutchers). And there's none of this coming back from behind bullshit: they beat the fuck out of everybody. Including—mild spoiler alert—the rah-rah big time normal kids' team.
Fast Break also has no moral qualms at all about the fact that the way Coach Greene gets the big game against Nevada State is by having Hustler take the Nevada State coach to the cleaners at the pool table and then blackmailing him into arranging the game as a means of paying his debt. And let's just be perfectly fucking clear about things right here: this is fucking awesome. There's all this bullshit focus-grouped “moral” derpery in modern Hollywood where the hero has to learn something and the audience has to be reminded that drugs/gambling/lying/screwing teenagers/bribing cops/racism/homophobia/transphobia (damn, Fast Break keeps busy) are wrong. Fast Break is just like, fuck it, if you can't keep up that's your problem.
But simply because Fast Break doesn't subscribe to modern, absolutist notions of right and wrong, it's not an immoral movie. It just prioritizes. Hustling dudes at pool? Hey, fuck it, their fault they're not as good as you are. Do dumb stuff with your dick? Okay, you're dumb, but you're redeemable. Blackmail a rich guy to secure yourself a steady living doing something you can totally do but society won't let you because inequity prevails? Go right the fuck ahead.
When it comes to larger questions, Fast Break is on the absolute right side of all but one. The big one it gets right is race. David Greene is not a complete anomaly as a white guy in the 70s who is capable of being friends with black people, but the degree to which he, repeatedly and explicitly, corrects people on mild racial dipshittery by calmly treating black people as normal human beings is progressive even by today's standards. The movie also avoids the trap of treating him like a saint for this. He has slip-ups here and there, and even fucks up really badly at a key moment in the big game. In order to stop this one player on Nevada State from eating them alive, Greene puts one of his psychos in the game with explicit orders to get the guy pissed off enough to get him ejected. It works almost immediately, and when Greene and Hustler are helping the bloodied provocateur off the court, Greene asks him, “What did you say to him?” The reply: “I called his mother a dirty nigger.” With the tone, unmistakable, conveying the key information that this is exactly what Greene told him to say. Hustler stops immediately, and makes it very clear to Greene that this is unacceptable. Greene later, ashamed, apologizes, and Hustler makes it clear that he personally forgives him, but that goddammit, man, certain shit is just not right, this end does not justify those means.
This same moral complexity comes into play, though handled less successfully, with the building romantic chemistry between DC and Swish, that starts when Swish teaches him to read in like five minutes. Now, the whole movie DC and Preacher have been taking every opportunity possible to say hideously homophobic things about Swish (whom they, if you'll recall, believe to be male). DC starts becoming attracted to Swish, deflecting it with harsh asides about “faggots” and wild seizures of gay panic played for (unfunny) physical comedy. Things eventually get to the point where he splits from the college and is on his way, by means not yet considered, back to New York. At this point Greene catches up to him and reveals the “good news” that there's “nothing wrong” with him, because Swish is a girl! Yay. This is the only thing in the movie that lands this badly, fortunately, and it's buffered by the fact that no one in the movie is especially supposed to be seen as a good person or an audience surrogate.
Fast Break's fundamentally good-natured tone allows it to get a conditional pass on that one fuck-up, too. Again, it's hard to get morally outraged at a movie where everyone's walking around not giving a flying fuck, especially when they're doing so in such charming fashion. Also, it's funny. Gabe Kaplan was a really fucking great comic leading man back in the day before he went off to be a pro poker player. But the standout performance in the movie—perhaps only to me—is Bernard King as Hustler. He looks great on the basketball court, which one expects, but his performance is one of the loosest, perfectly in the moment athlete performances ever captured on screen. Forget the athlete qualifier, Bernard King is really, really goddamn good in this movie.
He's kind of a synecdoche of Fast Break as a whole: at the end you're like “Holy shit, how is this kind-of-by-the-numbers silly, stoned basketball comedy this good?” As cinema it's nothing earthshattering . . . but it's nothing to shake a stick at either. Basketball that's plausible as basketball is a rare thing in cinema, and the game scenes are all excellent, shot in long enough takes that it's clear that actual ball is happening. The possibility exists that Fast Break requires that level of basketball geekery to properly appreciate it, but even without digging that deep, it's still a refreshingly nasty-ass 70s comedy with some good performances and moments of surprisingly incisive truth. Could it lose the homophobia? Absolutely. But overall it's not fucking bad at all. And it's on Instant til the end of the month, so you can see for yourself.
Saturday, January 19, 2013
A few words on genre: some genres are eternal, like drama, which is often mistakenly called “non-genre” because there are no hobbits running around with lasers fighting Indians over who gives the best blowjobs (this was my controversial “lost draft” of Cowboys & Aliens, before that picture was rewritten into a steaming pile of banal derp). And the reason drama seems like it's not a genre is because it's, more or less, the stuff life is made of. Dramas don't always depict life as it actually is, but consider the fact that a lot of weird fucking shit happens in real life at times. Then there's comedy, because stuff's always gonna be funny, even if the particular things people find funny evolve over time.
But then there are genres whose vitality is finite. The most famous of these is film noir. “But wait,” you might demur, “how is that true when noir's influence is felt to this day?” Well, my dear friend made of straw, allow me to be that doctrinaire fuck who points out that the years 1941-1958 constitute the period of film noir proper, and that all films since that got their noir on have done so either as a comment on the noir of the classical period, or through employment of the techniques developed therein. Classical film noir was about immediate societal concerns of the age in which the movies were made, most particularly a general repression of shadowy impulses people liked to pretend they didn't have. When the impulse cat was let out of the social bag toward the end of the 50s, a lot of shit was demystified and thus noir stories and techniques passed into formalism.
So. A natural question at this point would be, “What the fuck does any of this have to do with the new Arnold movie?” And I'm glad you asked, because I'm finally (sort of) ready to get to the goddamn point. The action movie as we know it today came to be in the 1980s, with the advent of Sly Stallone's decadent period and the rise to grace of his rival and eventually clear superior Arnold Schwarzenegger. The purest expression of the genre was Arnold's first non-Conan, non-Terminator movie, Commando, which has its origins in Stallone's Rambo cycle but has a joyous, feverish absence of giving a fuck that carries it to legendary heights. There isn't a clearly definable end period—yet; when someone gives me money to write Ownage: A Comprehensive History I'll set one in stone after careful research—but at a certain point we were all self-aware and suddenly it wasn't enough to have a cartoonishly muscular man with the accent of the Austrian expatriate colony on Mars (why else would Arnold call his memoir Total Recall? Think about it), the action genre shifted to a more self-aware state in which cleverness, grace, and speed were as vital as brute force. Violence maintained, but increasingly action sequences in American have been features in movies that have at least one foot in other genres, with the closest thing to pure action cinema in recent mainstream American releases coming in the Bourne and Mission: Impossible series, both of which are nominally about espionage.
Arnold himself spent some years out of the game, most of them spent in the Governor's mansion in California. After a couple pop-ins with Sly's Expendables movies, The Last Stand is Arnold's return to a leading role for the first time in a decade. It plays as an homage by Korean director Kim Ji-Woon (making his American debut) to Arnold movies that utterly nails certain key aspects of them while exuberantly trying to do a little bit too much. The Last Stand isn't the blatant and incompetent attempt to make “fetch” happen that the Expendables movies are (fuck those movies suck), it's a noble effort by a good director, but it's a little too dumb to be as quirky as it tries to be (not to mention trying to be quirky is a reflexively self-defeating enterprise) and a little too smart to be the Commando-style ownage fest it also tries to be.
It's definitely got its moments. Peter Stormare adds another entry, perhaps his strongest yet, in his Bad Accent Hall of Fame career as—hold on, I have to finish laughing—an American. (Wait, still not finished laughing.) The thing is, at this point, I'm pretty sure when Peter Stormare gets a new script, his eyes get all big and he's like, “Oh, man, this movie seems perfect for this new terrible 'American' accent I was just trying out in the shower the other day.” He's awesome enough at being a flamboyant, scenery-chewing villain to earn the right to be cut some slack with regards to the fascinatingly godawful accents. And here, again, he's in top-of-his-game form as a dickbag who shows up in the small Arizona town where Arnold's sheriff with his flashy clothes and big-city ways, herald of ill portent.
There's a bit of awkward cross-cutting to some shit in Vegas where Special Agent Forest Whitaker of the FBI (who wrecks some dental work on the set in his own fucking right, trust) is getting ready to have an uber-baddie drug cartel kingpin who looks eerily like a shorter Pau Gasol (but who is actually Eduardo Noriega, the lead from Abre los Ojos all them years ago) escape in a thrilling, hilariously convoluted scheme that would fall apart in a second if any of Forest Whitaker's FBI dudes simply looked upward. But if Pau Gasol (sorry Eduardo Noriega, they really do look alarmingly alike) hadn't escaped there wouldn't be a movie, so in short order he's in an experimental thousand-horsepower sports car headed straight for Arnold's town. Plotwise the whole rest of the movie is: bad guy's on his way with a bunch of heavily armed dudes, Arnold has to stop them.
When the time comes and the ownage is finally upon us, The Last Stand is pretty fucking glorious. Arnold has the single greatest Ownage Face that has been or ever will be. There's a reason why he's Arnold. That's because he's fucking Arnold. (I'm the motherfucker that taut this ology, byetches.) And when Arnold cuts loose and fucks shit up it's as if he never left. Problem is, Arnold's acting is a little rusty; he'd gotten to the point where he was acceptable and even occasionally quite good back when he was doing it all the time, but in The Last Stand he's playing (I forget who pointed this out, but I wasn't the first) a guy who's more like a Clint character than an Arnold “character,” so there are a few moments where his timing just fucking blows.
The rest of the movie teeters similarly between fun/strange and derpily executed. It's not immediately apparent whether it's a script or editing issue but the chronology of the bad guy's approach is all fucked up. There's no urgency to it; put it this way, you should never, ever, ever say “fucking finally” when the stranger finally comes to town, and yet that feeling of “fucking finally” pervades the concluding act of The Last Stand. And the thing is, the impulse to set up the townspeople as charming, weird, and worth saving is a good one. They need to be worth saving. It's awesome that they're not stereotypical small town bumpkins (much as small towns ick me out personally, with everyone all up in everybody else's shit all the time just because there's only that tiny-ass group of you there, they deserve to be portrayed with honesty and empathy). And I'm not doing that “well, I would have done shit differently” thing, but there's totally a way to set things up in the town without making it feel like it takes fucking five hours to do so. You can even cross-cut to the whole Forest Whitaker derping it up in Vegas storyline. But the way it plays in The Last Stand is unfortunately inefficient.
What I'm wondering now is whether the problems The Last Stand has as a movie are merely its own or a reflection of the obsolescence of the action genre as a purely discrete entity from other genres. Just as film noir became something overlaid onto or incorporated into pictures in other genres, it may be that action has reverted to what it was before the Arnold/Sly period (and the second, broader tier dominated by Cannon Films, Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van-Damme, Steven Seagal, et al): an element in a movie, rather than its own separate genre. Maybe.
On the other hand, I'm not entirely sure the time is right yet to write an elegy for ownage, or for Arnold. The former is going nowhere. There's a bit of quiet pearl-clutching about The Last Stand having the amount of gunplay as it does at a time when America faces an epidemic of gun violence etc etc. I don't think that's the problem; Jamie Foxx cavalierly blows away every white (and white-haired, har har har) dude in Mississippi in Django Unchained and that picture's making a mint. Ownage will be with us as long as there's cinema. And Arnold isn't necessarily done either. When he's not floundering in the acting scenes, there's enough old-school Arnold clearly visible that Old Arnold is probably still a viable action lead. But it's his next picture where we're going to find out whether that's really true.
Friday, December 21, 2012
It's both deeply unfortunate and inevitable that Kathryn Bigelow's latest picture, Zero Dark Thirty, will be impossible to approach impartially. Completely aside from its subject matter—the hunt for Osama Bin Laden—it only just opened to paying audiences Wednesday, and even then only in New York and Los Angeles, but has already been the subject of a furious torrent of blogging. By the time it opens nationwide mid-January, there's a distinct possibility of audience burnout from both overhype and the controversy surrounding the movie's depiction of torture as an interrogation tactic. This would be a shame, because—and I recognize the irony of contributing to the potential overhype with this, but fuck it—Zero Dark Thirty is the best American film of 2012.
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who worked together on the brutally intense multi-Oscar-winner (and only good movie about the Iraq war) The Hurt Locker, pull off the impressive feat of topping it with Zero Dark Thirty. Over the course of two and a half hours that absolutely fly by, they construct a wholly convincing utterly fascinating procedural in which every scene feels like everything could suddenly just fucking explode. And all too frequently does.
The story mainly follows a young CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain) who seizes on a random detail that sends her on a years-long obsessive search for a man who may not exist, but who she believes is a courier to Osama Bin Laden. In the early going, powered by a deeply irrational emotional reaction to the 9/11 attacks (explained, tacitly, with the audio recordings of 911 calls from terrified, doomed people from that day), the CIA's interrogation methods—painstakingly shown by Bigelow and Boal to be completely worthless—consist of little more than impotent attempts at revenge by pulling wings off flies. Principal interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke) tortures suspects out of a deeply complicated (and fascinatingly played) tightrope walk along the business/personal divide, and gets no information for his trouble. It's only when Maya seizes on the age-old cop's trick of taking advantage of the interrogatee being out of the loop, cleans the guy up, hooks him up with a nice lunch, and lies her ass off about an attack being foiled based on intel he unknowingly divulged, and voila, she gets a list of names. The one unfamiliar one, as mentioned above, ends up consuming Maya, as the hunt for Osama Bin Laden becomes her entire life.
Jessica Chastain leads an amazing cast with a performance that could easily become iconic, the kind of brilliant obsessive (who is also, occasionally to her disadvantage, an attractive woman with all the attendant condescension and sexism from male colleagues that entails) that anyone with a working knowledge of Kathryn Bigelow's life and career can't help but see as a bit of an author surrogate. Antoinette Doinel, if you will, without the romantic entanglements. Toward the end of the movie, after Maya's relentless tradecraft (a word whose repetition gains resonance over the course of the movie) leads to identifying the compound in which Osama Bin Laden is staying, there's a briefing where it's Maya and a bunch of dudes in suits sitting around being all “harrumph harrumph I'm important harrumph I have a penis” and Leon Panetta (a drily funny James Gandolfini) asks Maya what her role in the whole thing is, and her reply is, referring to Bin Laden's Abottabad compound, “I'm the motherfucker that found this place.” I submit that that is the kind of thing an author surrogate for the director of Near Dark, Point Break, and Strange Days (to say nothing of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) would totally say. And holy fucking God is that a badass moment. That's Jessica Chastain looking any and every man who ever tried to fuck her over dead in the eye and saying, “yield, fool.”
It's to Zero Dark Thirty's great credit that it avoids every other temptation to indulge in hagiography, or to treat this material like a typical Hollywood action movie. The closest thing the movie has to big swaggery hero dudes are Jason Clarke's Dan and Joel Edgerton's SEAL team leader Patrick, and the former is shown both as the avatar of failed policy and self-aware enough to realize that he is, while the latter is the guy who asks, “Dude, do you know what you just did?” to the guy who kills Bin Laden rather than, per swaggery hero dude regulations, the guy who kills Bin Laden. The rest of the cast is populated by solid actors being solid, like Harold Perrineau, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Steven Dillane. That is, occasionally, slightly distracting, as when Dillane showed up as Obama's national security advisor I squinted through his first couple bad-American-accent line readings and went “oh, shit, Stannis Baratheon” before snapping back to movie world. But this is, along with a slight elision of some procedural details, the only thing wrong with the movie, and easily overwhelmed by what the picture does right, like the absolutely stunning climax of the SEALs methodically advancing on and taking the Bin Laden compound.
So yeah, Zero Dark Thirty's every bit as great as everyone's saying. It's a thriller constructed of reportage, an action movie by default because it's about action movie shit that actually happened, and a quietly powerful bit of accidental autobiography by a fiercely talented filmmaker who, after a long career of not being taken seriously because she made genre pictures, is finally being recognized as the motherfucker that found this place. If this place is ferociously intense keenly observed cinema about Where We Are In Early 21st Century America, I'm all right with that.
Saturday, December 8, 2012
Silver Linings Playbook is an extraordinarily frustrating movie, in part because its seeming ambition—to rehabilitate the romantic comedy genre, one of cinema's oldest and finest before falling on extremely hard times in recent years—fails, in spite of a stellar cast and a talented director trying their hardest. That effort leads to a movie that has its moments, largely through the tireless efforts of that astonishing array of actors, and David O. Russell's firm directorial hand, but Russell digs himself into a huge hole his script, which is as big a mess as one is likely to see in a major release. The structure takes the form of a story being related by a narrator who is not taking prescribed psychiatric medication, which is an interesting formal experiment in a movie to such a large degree about mental illness, but one that does not work to the movie's advantage. At. All.
It doesn't help matters that mental illness is portrayed with cloying, patronizing vagueness. Russell goes to great lengths to establish a link between the various disorders of which son and father, Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) respectively, show symptoms, and then laugh off things like the fights they get into at Eagles games, Pops' crippling OCD, and Pat's As(shole)perger's-ish fuckheadedness. (Yes, the DSM-V says Asperger's doesn't exist anymore, but Silver Linings Playbook takes place in the fall and winter of 2008, judging by the Eagles and Phillies scores Jennifer Lawrence reels off in borderline pornographic fashion at one point; more on Jennifer Lawrence and pandering to straight doodz later.) Movies have no obligation to dutifully replicate every aspect of real life, nor are they supposed to line up exactly with any one audience member's personal sense of right and wrong, but the way it laughs off mental illness is a little fucked up, and leads to a couple scenes where Pat is having genuine breakdowns that are supposed—as far as I could tell—to be funny. Maybe it's because I have to deal with chronic depression, near-crippling anxiety, mild (fortunately, extremely mild) bipolar disorder, and a couple robust phobias (claustro- and cyno- being the big boys on the block), but SLP's whole “yeah, mental illness is a real problem; on the other hand lol” trip wasn't doing it for me, to put it mildly.
The movie's other fundamental disaster is the dynamic between the two leads, Pat and Tiffany (the above-mentioned Ms. Lawrence). He's an asshole who refuses to take his meds, she's a young woman who, in the process of figuring out whether she wanted to have children with her husband, was widowed, triggering a period of intense depression and self-destructive behavior (involving a lot of joyless sex in an attempt to fill the void, which the movie misses no opportunity to slut-shame the shit out of her about) who's only now pulled it together enough to get back out there and date. Granted, this is a subjective value judgment, but Tiffany a) is a far more interesting character than Pat, and b) deserves better than to be his prize for lifting one fucking finger to be less of an asshole to people. Even when he's on his meds and not being overtly shitty to everyone, Pat is kind of a nothing as a person. His sole motivation the whole movie is, after getting released from the mental institution where he was sent for beating the guy who was fucking his wife half to death, to get back with his wife, who liked him so much she was fucking someone else. And, because Tiffany knows said wife, Pat spends the entire goddamn movie dickishly insisting that Tiffany pass a note to her, with nothing in the bargain for Tiffany, who selflessly puts her entire goddamn life (and recovery process) on hold for this Bradley Cooper lookin' ass motherfucker, out of the kindness of her heart. Her reward, in the end, is not much of one. If this were more overtly a condemnation of the artificiality of the modern romantic comedy, it would be okay, but the movie's concluding act not only embraces the conventions of the romantic comedy, it sticks its dick in them. The main convention it disregards is that even in shitty romantic comedies, the female characters have desires the movie cares about, even if those desires suck. Here, nah.
On the other hand, one thing that can't be overlooked is that, even saddled with a character the movie doesn't care about, Jennifer Lawrence turns in an amazing performance, making her character's desires vivid and important, even in the service of dude-pandering moments like relating her same-sex adventures to a rapt, horny Bradley Cooper or swilling beer and reeling off football and baseball scores (a moment that brought to mind this blistering passage from Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl). Both those scenes worked, by the way: in spite of knowing they were pandering bullshit I still thought they were hot, because they went right for the lizard brain (or dick....or the dick's lizard brain....hmm, this needs work), and it didn't hurt at all that Jennifer Lawrence, on top of being a phenomenally talented actor, is gorgeous. Still, it takes every bit of that prodigious talent to make her character work at all.
The rest of the cast, though Jennifer Lawrence is the standout, does some fine work too. First, though he's barely in it, my old fave Chris Tucker is charming in a fifth-business-y role as a charming, harmlessly daffy pal of Bradley Cooper's. Anupam Kher, in a slightly larger but still too-small role as Bradley Cooper's shrink, has some lovely moments as the only character in the entire fucking movie who doesn't succumb to slut-shaming Jennifer Lawrence. Robert De Niro and Jacqi Weaver do well with thankless, monotonous roles as Bradley Cooper's parents, and manufacture good moments out of thin air by being awesome. John Ortiz gets to play a guy who isn't a drug dealer—YAY!!!!—and even kind of manages to transcend his character being kind of a reified sexist complaint (i.e. “oh no, my wife [played by the criminally overlooked Julia Stiles, no less] has opinions about things, quelle damage!”) Shea Wigham shows up for like a second as Bradley Cooper's brother and is so good I almost want to march on Los Angeles with torches and pitchforks demanding that he get more work and bigger roles. The weak link in all this is the frequently-mentioned Bradley Cooper, who dominates the proceedings, and it's not like Bradley Cooper's bad in this. He does exactly what the script calls for. It's just that the guy he's playing is such an unnecessarily overbearing burdensome fucking jerkoff that it's nearly impossible to keep from getting crushed. He does his best, and he's a good actor, I just fucking hate the characters he plays.
On the other hand, there's a difference between “I hated it” and “it's bad.” Silver Linings Playbook is not an entirely bad movie, it's just an extremely stressful one to sit through, because it'll be going fine and actually being funny for a few minutes and then some searingly awful insult to mentally ill people zings past and then the female characters' agency is being not only denied but mocked but then the actresses playing those characters do something magical in a tiny moment and it's like “hey, maybe it's gonna be okay now” but then something infuriating happens again.
If David O. Russell intended the movie to replicate the feeling of disorienting mood swings then hey, someone give him a cookie. But goddammit, man. The whole point to difficult movies is that there's a pot of thought-provoking gold at the end of the rainbow. Emotionally difficult movies are just pointless torture. We already have real life if we want something frustrating and intermittently fun.