Archive for October 2004

Saw

October 29, 2004

I found Saw reasonably entertaining and diverting while never forgetting its heavy debt to the films of David Fincher. Even setting aside the obvious influence of Fincher’s big-hit thriller Seven — which also featured a sicko mastermind passing harsh judgment on his hapless prey — Saw carries echoes of Fincher’s subsequent movies Fight Club, in which Brad Pitt held a gun on a cringing convenience-store clerk and told him he’d better start working towards his true calling as a veterinarian or else Pitt would find him and kill him, and especially The Game, wherein Michael Douglas suffered an endless night of torments intended, it turns out, to shock him into a fuller awareness of life. Saw‘s mysterioso villain works the same side of the street: He picks on people who don’t appreciate their lives enough. One victim who escaped (hauntingly played by Shawnee Smith of The Stand and 1988’s The Blob) goes so far as to say, “He helped me.”

In the original The Grudge, we were reminded that the dead hate the living. In Saw, it’s the alive-but-only-existing who earn wrath. Two seemingly unconnected men — a smug surgeon (Cary Elwes) with a crappy bedside manner and a grungy young photographer (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the script) — wake up in a disgusting bathroom, their ankles chained to thick pipes. They’ve been deposited there by the distant madman, who communicates his demands via tape-recorded messages and cryptic clues. Inside the tank of the toilet, for instance, are two saws, which won’t cut through the chains but will carve through flesh and bone.

Saw probably won’t stand up to excessive scrutiny — for one thing, you might ask whether the killer, or any human being outside a gimmicky screenplay, would have the physical and mental capacity to do all the elaborate things he does. And the red herring in this very underpopulated movie might as well be neon red: we expect to hear a “ding” and see an arrow point down at the character. But if first-time director James Wan has attended the school of Fincher, he gets high marks. Saw gets by on its mood of industrial dread, even during the expendable scenes featuring two cops (Danny Glover and Ken Leung) on the trail of what the press has dubbed “the Jigsaw Killer.” (Though, as Elwes points out, the villain isn’t technically a killer — he just sets up nasty traps that people either have the brains and survival instincts to get through, or they don’t.)

Carrying much of the movie, the frazzled and occasionally bickering Elwes and Whannell (the real mastermind behind the film’s horrors) do what’s required, but this is less an actor’s showcase than a director’s. The flashback to a portly man forced to crawl through a maze of razor wire is suitably squirmy without being overly graphic except for the usual forensic dialogue about it (“The cuts were so deep we found stomach acid on the floor”), and there’s a memorably eerie bit involving a stethoscope. Like Seven, Saw isn’t a typical slasher film so much as a philosophical charnel house inviting you to re-examine your life. But it’s too self-consciously clever a machine to truly send you out chilled. The madman’s exhaustive efforts stretch plausibility till it snaps; films like this always make me wonder how someone could have the time, let alone the resources, to devise and implement such fancy lethal head-games. Saw is like two guys in a room trying to top each other with morbid “what-would-you-do-if” scenarios. On that level, it works exactly as long as you’re in the theater with it, but not long afterward.

Sideways

October 22, 2004

Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), the sad-sack oenophile who forms one-half of Sideways, is the sort of intellectual loser often found in the work of Woody Allen and Wallace Shawn. Miles doesn’t know much — about himself, about why his marriage failed two years ago, about where his amorphous novel-in-progress is going — but he does know one thing: wine. He sniffs, sips, swishes, and analyzes the stuff like a born expert — not that anyone in his immediate sphere cares. Miles toils as an eight-grade English teacher, hoping, like many other English teachers, that a publisher will warm to his work and finance a cozy life spent at book parties and wine tastings.

Sideways, directed by the incisive Alexander Payne (Election, Citizen Ruth), follows Miles and his old college buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a has-been soap actor, on a week’s vacation through the well-lit banality of California. Jack is getting married the next week, and Miles wants to take him out for a final bachelor roar — which, for the schlumpily ascetic Miles, means wine tastings and golf. Jack has fleshier goals in mind: he’s out to get as much pre-marital sex on the road as he can before entering a life of fidelity. These two nowhere men are a kind of indie-film odd couple: Miles scourges himself with self-doubt, while Jack — the sort of genially oblivious, action-oriented guy who isn’t, to paraphrase Shakespeare, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought — just wants to drink and get laid. Miles is nothing but a pale cast of thought.

The men arrive at various vineyards, where Miles is greeted as a regular — accepted among others who share his passion for the grape. Payne doesn’t score easy points off the wine-sniffers; they’re not presented as snobs or dorks. In fact, two of the movie’s more dynamic characters — Maya (Virginia Madsen), a grad student who waitresses at one of Miles’ favorite restaurants, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh, the director’s wife, who made a bold impression as Diane Lane’s acerbic, very pregnant friend in Under the Tuscan Sun), a wine pourer, are both also smitten with wine. The movie respects the funkiness of specialized interests; Maya and Stephanie lend oenophilia a patina of cool.

Most of the movie is a two-character play, and the rising anti-star Paul Giamatti is ideally cast as the depressive, mercurial Miles. Giamatti’s specialty is schmucks we can identify with, not because he sentimentalizes them, but because he has a rock-solid instinct for regular-guy mannerisms. Miles, in Giamatti’s hands, is pathetic but never off-putting. Sitcom actor Thomas Haden Church, of Wings and Ned & Stacey, may have the harder role as a slick womanizer with easy charisma and a streak of callousness. He gives Jack a sort of rough-hewn humility — Jack may be washed up, but by God, he was on television for a few years, and women still recognize him from the soap opera and take him to bed. He questions neither his past good fortune nor his current obscurity (he does voice-overs for commercials). He’s also a boy who never grew up, and in a key scene Church shows us the despair under the mask of the eternal frat boy.

Alexander Payne may be warming up a bit. I wasn’t a fan of his previous film, About Schmidt, which seemed too consciously tailored as a Jack Nicholson bid for indie cred. (If Nicholson wants that, he should continue to work under Sean Penn’s direction, and leave the ugly toupees at home.) That movie left me cold, but maybe only because Payne’s first two films, especially Election but also the equal-opportunity offender Citizen Ruth, were such vital satires. Sideways squirts no venom in particular; the flawed people onscreen aren’t ridiculed for who they are or what they want. Payne is a compassionate observer here, letting the dialogue scenes breathe, unafraid to throw in some slapstick (a sequence with Miles trying to retrieve a wallet is laugh-out-loud funny) but keeping the comedy rooted in the characters’ flaws and strengths. When Jack scores with women, the movie doesn’t disapprove — we see that the women are grown-ups and are choosing one-night stands with him. And when Miles lifts a glass of wine to his nose, transported by the hint of avocado or berries or whatever, the movie doesn’t nudge you to giggle. Sideways, in brief, is about happiness and where you find it, and Payne has found it in himself to allow for the comedy and tragedy of ambition. Moving forward or upward, we see here, may be overrated: If Miles never sells his book, and if Jack never finds quality acting work again, at least they can always go sideways.

Team America: World Police

October 15, 2004

Watching the free-swinging satire Team America: World Police, I was reminded of a bit by the late great comedian Bill Hicks: I’ll show you politics in America, here it is right here: “I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.” “I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.” “Hey, wait a minute, there’s one guy in the middle holding up both puppets.”

Or, in this case, two guys — Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the ruthless iconoclasts behind South Park, who have now unleashed Team America upon a politics-weary world. The puppets here, of course, are literal: Thunderbirds-style marionettes manipulated by visible strings. At first, director Parker plays the puppets’ jerky movements for laughs, in much the same spirit as when Eric Cartman, in the previous Parker/Stone feature South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, complained about the crudely animated Terrance and Phillip, and the movie cut to the four crudely animated boys waddling away. But it doesn’t take long for us to suspend our disbelief, even during the now-legendary lovemaking scene between two Team America members. What are human actors in big-budget action movies but highly-paid puppets anyway, mouthing lines and moving from one over-the-top scene to another?

Team America‘s biggest target turns out to be not terrorists or even politicians but actors. One actor in particular, up-and-coming Broadway star Gary Johnston (voice by Parker), is recruited by Team America to pose as a terrorist and find out, y’know, when the next terrorist attack is. Gary’s teammates include Joe, a blonde quarterback type; Lisa, who knows how terrorists think; Sarah, an empath who goes around “sensing” how everyone is feeling; and Chris, a bitter martial-arts expert with a tragic backstory involving the cast of Cats. Presiding over everything is the gray-haired eminence Spottswoode, who has a rather unique way of demanding proof of loyalty from his cadre of freedom fighters. They’re all pitted against Kim Jong Il, who wants to level civilization but also has time for the poignant tune “I’m So Ronery.”

The movie is funny, sometimes uproarious, but doesn’t hit the delirious heights of the South Park movie, one of the funniest comedies of the ’90s. It’s closer to the hit-and-miss first feature by Parker, Cannibal: The Musical, and probably comes in behind 1997’s Orgazmo, which began the long-standing feud between Parker and the MPAA (who objected to Team America‘s puppet-sex scene). Parker and Stone are all about shitting on everyone, and Hollywood liberals (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Michael Moore) get the worst of the pair’s wrath here; they would probably do likewise for Hollywood conservatives who pose and expound on Republican talking points, if there were any besides Ron Silver (or Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s now more a politician than an actor anyway). I think Parker and Stone just can’t resist tearing down anyone who sounds holier-than-thou; they do have a message here, but, typically, it’s expressed in jock-filth terms that would make Howard Stern blush.

Consciously structured like a Jerry Bruckheimer action flick (Pearl Harbor takes some lumps in a ballad called “Pearl Harbor Sucked and I Miss You”), Team America sports some true artistry in the form of the puppetry work by the Chiodo Brothers and the intricate set design by visual consultant David Rockwell. As usual, heart and soul have been poured into an enterprise that Parker and Stone want you to think they just knocked off after a night of smoking weed.

It amuses me that probably the biggest star to appear in any Parker/Stone film is Ron Jeremy (in Orgazmo); after Team America, which thoroughly trounces the Hollywood elite, the duo shouldn’t expect many actors to chomp at the bit to work with them. Nor, I’m sure, do they care; in South Park and now Team America, Parker and Stone have resolved their disdain for actors by not hiring any. Their movies now play like goofs made by two guys in their basement, financed and released on Paramount’s big dime. Billy Wilder once opined, “Actors: can’t make movies with ‘em, can’t make movies without ‘em,” and I think he would’ve understood Team America.

Taxi

October 6, 2004

Bringing Down the House notwithstanding, Queen Latifah is usually fun to watch. Fun-loving but no-nonsense, she has a way of seeming like the sanest presence onscreen — she’s up there reacting to the movie along with us. She drifts through Taxi more or less unscathed, rubbing her familiar persona up against that of Jimmy Fallon, who specializes, here as on Saturday Night Live, in boyish naïvete. As the inept New York detective Washburn, who can’t drive a car without disaster, Fallon manages some mild amusement — I enjoyed the way he handles what’s left of his badge after someone has taken a blowtorch to it. He and Latifah fall into a predictable dynamic — he does something stupid, she rolls her eyes and delivers some variation on “Crazy-ass white people.”

Latifah’s character — Belle, a cabbie with a cartoonishly souped-up car — at one point diagnoses Washburn’s problem: “You try too hard.” The same can’t be said of Taxi, a laid-back, inoffensive time-waster that doesn’t even try to make Gisele Bündchen look like a guy. Bündchen, the Brazilian supermodel, plays Vanessa, a Brazilian supermodel type who leads three other lookers on various bank robberies, disguising herself with a mustache. At least the first Charlie’s Angels came up with some unnervingly male make-up for Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore in their crossdressing scene, but never mind. The movie has a touching faith in mustaches as an all-purpose disguise; Washburn also wears one when going undercover as a Cuban thief. Surprisingly, Queen Latifah doesn’t get one.

Taxi is a remake of a French action-comedy smash hit (it has spawned two sequels) written by Luc Besson (The Professional), who gets a producing credit here. Fans of the original have cried “Sacrilege!”, as if this were a remake of Last Year at Marienbad starring Adam Sandler and Missy Elliott, but I daresay the French film is too high-concept to be considered violable by Hollywood. (Hell, I preferred the American remake Point of No Return to Besson’s own La Femme Nikita.) As directed by Tim Story (Fantastic Four), this Taxi is fast and amiable idiocy, never stopping long enough for us to dwell on such questions as how Jennifer Esposito could possibly be a New York City police lieutenant or how Ann-Margret, as Washburn’s mom, stays upright after her fourth or fifth margarita.

One thing struck me as odd: Despite what you’ve seen in the trailers — Queen Latifah blowing a kiss at Gisele Bündchen and delivering an impressed “Damn!” when the supermodel thieves disrobe — her character is steadfastly hetero, with a neglected boyfriend (Henry Simmons) who shuffles around the movie’s margins waiting for her to show up. Why would the trailer set Belle up as a lesbian when nothing could be further from the movie’s reality? (In the movie, her “Damn!” is in response to the villains’ speedy work behind the wheel.) In any event, admirers of Sapphic subtexts won’t totally be let down, as there’s a gratuitous scene where Bündchen frisks Esposito while a bunch of cops’ jaws hit the pavement.

Taxi is a standard buddy movie right down to the floor, in which the two temperamentally opposed protagonists learn to respect each other grudgingly, though without the romantic/sexual tension you might expect of a male/female team-up. It’s a summer movie unaccountably marooned in October, when we’re supposed to start getting more adult fare. If you want a more substantive film concerning four female robbers and starring Queen Latifah, now’s the time for me to point you towards 1996’s Set It Off; if you want a funnier film involving a “Weekend Update” anchor, go rent Tina Fey’s Mean Girls; if you want this same material probably done with more panache, you could do worse than the original French Taxi, if your DVD player can handle discs from other countries. Failing all that, you can always watch this Taxi next time it turns up on cable.

Celsius 41.11

October 1, 2004

Right-wingers have talk radio and left-wingers have documentaries. Let’s keep it that way. Based on Air America, the lefties just haven’t perfected auditory agitprop the way Rush Limbaugh and his ilk have. And based on movies like Celsius 41.11, when it comes to galvanizing moviemaking, the righties ain’t got game.

A quickie slapped together to refute Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (it was one of several Moore-is-the-devil screeds to emerge during the election autumn of 2004), Celsius 41.11 is subtitled “The Temperature At Which the Brain Begins to Die.” Or, perhaps, the temperature at which the brain begins to nod off. I needed an iced coffee just to get through it, and it’s only 72 minutes long. The movie devotes its first forty minutes to dealing with five popular liberal objections to George W. Bush: He stole the 2000 election; he wants to steal our civil liberties; he didn’t do enough to prevent the 9/11 attacks; he lied about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction; and his doctrine will inflame Islamists. I’m not here to debunk the so-called debunking, except to point out that it was definitively proven shortly before the film hit theaters that Iraq had no WMD or capability to make same. Oops.

Then we have a lengthy dissection of John Kerry, Bush’s challenger that year. I have my own feelings about Kerry — he was a terrible candidate, at least in terms of the sort of guy America is or was apparently looking for in a president. Listening to him drone on in the clips in Celsius 41.11, even at his supposedly most impassioned, I cringed more than once. The section on Kerry is magnanimously prefaced with statements that, certainly, we’re not questioning Kerry’s patriotism, heavens no. Of course, the movie then brings in John O’Neill, one of the discredited Swift Boaters, to question Kerry’s patriotism. Others who speak on the subject of Kerry and did not see any combat in Vietnam, such as Charles Krauthammer, Fred “Frankenberry” Thompson (the poor man’s Tommy Lee Jones), and the preternaturally whiny Michael Medved, I will pass over in generous silence.

Say what you will about Fahrenheit 9/11, but at least it didn’t morph into a free campaign ad for Kerry in its last minutes. A large portion of Moore’s film delved into the connection between Bush and the bin Laden family, something Celsius 41.11 mentions not once. Moore also humanized the movie by bringing in the crestfallen Lila Lipscomb, who’d lost a son in Iraq. Celsius 41.11 has no comparable figure, just a bunch of white talking heads — as well as Mansoor Ijaz, a commentator who berates Clinton for not going after Osama bin Laden (oddly, I find that Ijaz has a long history of contributing to Democratic campaigns). The whole thing ends with Bush throwing the first pitch at a Yankees game. If not for him, dammit, there wouldn’t be any Yankees games! (Rudy Guiliani pops up to lionize Bush in footage, too.) The idolatry can only produce giggles — it plays like a Michael Moore parody of Bush propaganda. Bush gives candy to kittens! Bush is Batman! Bush jizzes red, white and blue! Well, it doesn’t literally get that bad, but it seems right on the edge of going there.

Actually, the worse Celsius 41.11 gets in its last reel, the more entertaining — in a darkly ironic way — it finally becomes. The movie was written and produced by Lionel Chetwynd, who also penned the Bush-fellating Showtime movie DC 9/11: Time of Crisis (with such hyper-macho Dubya dialogue as “If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come and get me! I’ll be at home, waiting for the bastard!”). Chetwynd’s next project will be The Resurrection, a post-crucifixion account of Jesus’ life co-produced by Left Behind hack Tim LaHaye. At times, Celsius 41.11 comes close to being The Passion of the Bush. As for debunking Michael Moore, whose treasonous unshaven face was splashed all over the film’s advertising, the movie doesn’t really deal with him at all outside of a few out-of-context quotes that Moore probably voiced in his usual jocular-satiric mode.

Now that we’ve had the four more years of Bush that the movie was designed to encourage (though, since it only played theatrically for three days on a fast track to a November DVD release, it didn’t reach, much less convince, nearly enough people to have anything to do with the outcome — indeed, Bush only beat Kerry 51% to 48%), Celsius 41.11 seems pretty sad and naïve. Fahrenheit 9/11 — whose net was cast far wider than merely condemning a sitting president and endorsing a candidate — looks more and more savvy with each passing year.

Ladder 49

October 1, 2004

Any movie can teach us something if we open ourselves to learning, and from Ladder 49 I learn that Baltimore has a thriving Irish community. Who knew? Well, maybe those who hail from Baltimore. But from our two premier Baltimore filmmakers, Barry Levinson and John Waters, we’ve gotten stories focusing on Jews and freaks, respectively — not a St. Paddy’s Day pub scene anywhere in their combined filmographies. For a long while, I sat through Ladder 49 expecting it to be set somewhere obvious like Boston, except that I heard no glaringly fake Boston accents. By setting up shop in Baltimore, of all places, and playing up the Irish angle, the movie stakes a claim to uniqueness in at least one respect.

Otherwise, this is a fairly routine firefighter drama, with burning-building sequences that more or less all look alike. In Ron Howard’s Backdraft (1991), the previous major firefighter movie, the fires had personality; the flames were sneaky, seductive, deadly. The fires in Ladder 49 look too neatly art-directed, as if you were watching Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, and the rest of the cast stumble around a Universal Studios theme ride. Fancy editing and clever angles do all the work; we never feel as if the characters — or we — are really in there among the flames, and in a movie that’s supposed to be paying tribute to those who risk their lives, that’s a rather large liability.

The script, by Lewis Colick, is a bit too neat, too. We follow rookie fireman Jack Morrison (Phoenix) from his first time down the fire pole (a nice POV shot that gives us false hope that the subsequent scenes will have some you-are-there excitement) to his later days as an established and respected firefighter who’s saved quite a few lives, one on live TV. Because Hollywood fears we won’t care about a childless bachelor, Jack is promptly set up with a cute blonde wife (Jacinda Barrett) and two darling kids (one girl, one boy). We are, thankfully, spared the scene where Jack misses an important birthday party or dance recital because he’s busy dousing flames, but we do get the scene where Jack’s wife frets about his safety and nudges him to take a desk job. To which an attentive viewer might say, “Lady, he had this gig when you met him, remember? It’s not like he was a librarian who suddenly decided to go fight fires.”

John Travolta works hard to redeem his scenes as the sloppy but caring Mike Kennedy, the captain and father figure of the firehouse. He’s introduced snoozing at his desk with an unlit cigar in his paw; you sense, however, that Mike slacks off everywhere but on a fire site, where he’s crisp and authoritative. As he has aged and filled out, Travolta, wiry and somewhat high-strung in his youth, has puffed into a relaxed Buddha whose presence seems to chill out everyone around him. He sells a couple of emotional speeches after a couple of the men have fallen to the flames; a few years ago the movie might have been his story, but the film is carried by Joaquin Phoenix, who might be better suited to scene-stealing supporting roles in big Hollywood movies than to lead roles. Phoenix is the sort of actor who can make villains interesting and likable despite themselves, but can’t do much with a hero who seems to have been written as a cautiously dull family man and courageous fireman. And the movie’s flashback structure (Jack remembers most of the movie while awaiting rescue in a gutted, fiery building) kills whatever momentum Phoenix’s performance might have built up.

Ladder 49 has been all-too-consciously constructed as a salute to the men (no female firefighters in this movie — shh, don’t tell Caroline Paul) who offer their lives in the literal line of fire, not only on a daily basis but on 9/11. The movie bends over backwards to depict firemen as great guys who play hilarious pranks on each other and throw elaborate birthday parties for each other’s kids. That may be, but it doesn’t make for a terribly meaty film. Two other projects, the Denis Leary black-comic TV series Rescue Me and Peter Berg’s still-unmade fireman-heist film Truck 44 (said to be sidelined out of “respect” after 9/11), might do a better job of showing firemen warts and all — what’s wrong with showing some greedy, loutish, disagreeable firemen who can still pull it together and save lives when necessary? That they all have to be nice guys on top of being heroes is laying it on a little thick, and is beside the point. How about a movie that points out how the budgets of first-responder teams — police and emergency medical teams as well as firefighters — have been slashed under the current administration? Any of the above would honor your local fire department far more than a nicey-nice tearjerker like Ladder 49 does.


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