Archive for September 2005

MirrorMask

September 30, 2005

MirrorMask proves that a movie can be brilliant and awful at the same time. The most instructive credit on the film is “Designed and Directed by Dave McKean,” and that sounds about right: designed first, then directed. McKean, a vastly gifted artist who’s illustrated children’s books and comic-book covers, has made an art major’s dream movie. And Neil Gaiman, his longtime friend and collaborator, has enabled McKean’s visual fancies by writing a script that functions as a clothesline on which to hang baffling, shimmering imagery. MirrorMask is unquestionably the work of an artist, but it’s not the work of a film artist. Production-designed to beyond an inch of its life, it dawdles and harrumphs when it should soar.

Stephanie Leonidas is Helena, the teen heroine whose predicament is a facile inversion of the usual little-girl dilemma in fantasies: Rather than longing to escape a humdrum life and enter a world of fun and color, Helena has been brought up by circus-performer parents and dreams of escaping into a humdrum life. McKean and Gaiman capture the performer’s discontent, the constant money problems, the inability to function in the “real world.” A typical rebellious girl, Helena is sick of putting on fabulous costumes and hanging out with trapeze artists and mimes. When Helena’s mom (Gina McKee) takes ill, we see some of the real world — Helena stays with her TV-addicted aunt, and McKean stacks the visual deck by making these scenes drab and blue.

Then, apparently, Helena gets her escape — into a teeming universe where her mission is to awaken the White Queen with a charm known as the MirrorMask. She’s accompanied by an annoying juggler (Jason Barry), who, like everyone else in this world, wears a mask. The movie essentially becomes a protracted dream sequence, a tip of the hat to The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland and many other books and movies you and Neil Gaiman have seen and read. The mix of dream logic and conventional quest narrative doesn’t come off here, because McKean, having labored at length on this low-budget project, wants you to see every bit of weirdness he and his underpaid team have put on the screen. So we get eyeball spiders, hovering giants that talk like Ents, angular sphinxes, and much, much more.

Every frame of this is ravishing and worth isolating and framing. But after a while, even the visuals grate on the eye; the too-muchness of the art will no doubt delight some and bore others. MirrorMask is the perfect midnight movie for stoners in the mood to park in front of something that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I found it almost unbearably whimsical at times, altogether too content with its own visual ingenuity. Sometimes an image or even a sequence is entrancing — the highlight for me was a trippy scene set to a swooning cover of the Carpenter’s “Close to You” in which Helena is given a killer goth makeover. (Which also turns her into “the anti-Helena,” which may disappoint goth fans of Gaiman and McKean.) But it was a mistake to stay inside Helena’s dreamworld for most of the running time. We’re supposed to see parallels between this world and the real world, and we get glimpses of possible futures and sideways glances at what Helena might become without a mom. At heart the movie is about saying “I’m sorry” to Mum and learning to be happy with your family.

As a fan of Gaiman and McKean, and a supporter of off-kilter projects like this, I wanted and expected to love MirrorMask. I suppose I expected to be as surprised and diverted by Gaiman’s story as I often have been by his work in comics and in fiction. And an hour and forty-one minutes of swimming around in Dave McKean’s visual imagination sounded fine to me. But the story is thin and too easily dwarfed by the incessant bizarre imagery, which struck me as ugly as often as beautiful. I can count on one hand the number of normal-looking shots in the film, and the movie needed more normalcy, more contrast, more respite from McKean’s exhaustive cleverness. Some will take MirrorMask as a lovely banquet, and I wouldn’t dream of arguing the point — it’s the kind of movie that gets a strong reaction one way or the other, both equally valid. But a little of it went a long way with me.

Serenity

September 30, 2005

2_serenity_050928034532063_wideweb__300x500Where’s the twang? In Serenity, a feature-length continuation of the prematurely cancelled TV series Firefly, there’s no hint of the show’s mournful country theme song (“You can’t take the sky from me”). That song struck many home viewers as iffy at first, but it grew on them, much like the show itself, a self-conscious shotgun marriage of westerns and science fiction. Firefly made explicit what was barely concealed in many so-called sci-fi shows and movies — that they were really just oaters with spaceships — and created an unstable but gradually charming world, in which men in cowboy hats bartered stolen goods for cattle, and then stowed the cattle aboard their spacecraft. As if afraid to alienate sci-fi-geek newcomers who wouldn’t like the show’s Reese’s Cup approach to entertainment — hey, you got your Louis L’Amour in my Gene Roddenberry! — Serenity all but drops the western aspect. And that isn’t all that’s missing.

For what it is — viewed as filmmaking in and of itself — Serenity is tense and smoothly put together. I speak not as a Firefly die-hard (“Browncoats,” true believers are called) who wept when the show was jettisoned after only eleven aired episodes in 2002, but as a recent convert who spent the past week or so curling up with the complete series on DVD. I enjoyed the show very much, mainly because of the characters: gruff, bluntly practical Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion); his trusted war buddy Zoe (Gina Torres) and her goofball pilot husband Wash (Alan Tudyk); kindly mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite); elegant “companion” (i.e., call girl) Inara (Morena Baccarin); idiotic but violently useful Jayne (Adam Baldwin); more-than-meets-the-eye preacher Shepherd Book (Ron Glass); and brother-sister team Simon (Sean Maher), a doctor, and River (Summer Glau), a genius whose head has been tinkered with by the universal government, the Alliance.

The movie introduces these characters to the newcomer in a flash, with telling dialogue and situations that are supposed to define them. But here we run into the difference between a TV show, even one truncated to fourteen hours, and a movie limited to two hours: There’s no time for character nuance or development. Serenity is like the particularly hectic two-hour premiere episode of the Season 2 that Firefly never had. As such, fans of the show may go along for the ride and enjoy this jumped-up TV episode. The action is certainly stepped up, as if the movie were afraid of boring the newcomers. Everything is plot, plot, plot — in this case, the crew trying to keep River out of the clutches of an assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) while avoiding the violently insane Reapers, the show’s equivalent of Klingons or Borgs. But the best episodes of Firefly — like the hilarious “Jaynestown” or the poignant “The Message” — didn’t really advance the show’s narrative. They just paused to show us something we didn’t know about the characters, often changing the way we felt about them.

Not much changes here, other than River’s being revealed as a master of martial arts and the loss of two characters. One of them has barely five minutes of screen time here, and whatever secrets about his past that the show had been hinting at go to his grave with him. Joss Whedon, who created the show and wrote/directed the film, seems to want to bypass Star Trek: The Motion Picture and go directly to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He forgets, though, that there were a lot more Trekkies than there are Browncoats, and that even non-Trekkies at least knew of Kirk and Spock and the rest. Serenity reeks of insecurity that borders on desperation: Please see my movie so I can do more of them, please, please, I’ll take out the corny western stuff and give you lots of action and take out most of the humor and the boring character stuff too.

In brief, Serenity feels like a capitulation to the dumb mass audience. The show had an oddball mix of East and West (cowboys and Chinese culture) that the movie scarcely touches on. And does it mean anything that this movie’s cold-blooded assassin (like the cold-blooded bounty hunter on the show’s final episode, incidentally) is a black man? Maybe Chiwetel Ejiofor was the best actor for the job, but it comes off as yet another white-nerd touch in which the villain is dark of skin as well as soul. It doesn’t smell right in a time when the world was horrified by post-Katrina accounts of rape, murder, and general animalistic black behavior in the Superdome which all turned out to be lies. Did the Browncoats falling over themselves to get everyone to see Serenity think about things like that? I was thinking about it because Serenity didn’t offer me much else to think about.

Capote

September 30, 2005

97130-004-EA905326Try as it might to wrestle with the ethics of writing, Capote is a very minor film with a major performance. That performance is by Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith, the killer made famous in Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood (and played in the 1967 film version by Robert Blake). Collins, who impressed me as the coke-snorting campus drug dealer in The Rules of Attraction, gives us a murderer with the soul of an artist, a man intelligent enough to wonder how he and his partner Dick Hickock came to kill an entire family. We understand why Capote finds Perry interesting enough to keep visiting and writing about.

And Philip Seymour Hoffman (who picked up a Golden Globe, a SAG Award, and an Oscar for his performance)? He’s good, too, but the movie seldom gives him a chance to rise above caricature. His Truman Capote is the Capote we’re familiar with from countless talk-show appearances: fey, witty, self-aware of his self-absorption. What happens when a cosmopolitan sprite like Capote collides with the rough masculine world of law enforcement? Capote manages to charm everyone he meets in sleepy, wheat-covered Kansas, giving no one a chance to reject him as a snob or a homosexual. We understand intellectually that beneath that charm is a remorseless ambition — to write the great American book about the Kansas murders — driven, in turn, by his rootless upbringing and need for approval. Unfortunately, the motives of an affluent writer are considerably less compelling, and useful, than those of a killer.

Hoffman tries, but mainly just gets the surface of Capote. There’s more going on with Capote’s lifelong friend Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, played by Catherine Keener with a nicely restrained sharpness. I could’ve done with more scenes of Capote and Lee, and a bit less of Capote whining on the phone about the book he’s writing, or not writing. He zeroes in on Perry, the sensitive killer — a fabulous subject! — and seduces him into his confidence. I applaud the film for keeping Capote’s feelings about Perry ambiguous; we’re never sure if he really likes Perry or is just cozying up to him for the book. But the movie assumes our interest in Capote’s conflict with himself is stronger than our interest in, say, the relatives of the victims, or even the other killer Dick Hickock, who’s barely sketched in.

Non-directed by Bennett Miller, who previously made the 1998 documentary The Cruise, the film runs only 98 minutes but drags terribly, its camera wading through drab color schemes that the peacock Capote himself would’ve found intolerable. Whether the fault of the sound mix or the theater’s sound system, much of the dialogue is incomprehensible, particularly Capote’s. The film rode to its nominations for Best Picture and Best Director on the strong back of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has given better performances in better movies; 2005 was simply his year, his time to be recognized by his admiring peers. Capote is more fun to talk about than to watch; its chosen subject and theme deserved a writer and director who could make its interiorized conflicts crackle, and Bennett Miller just points and shoots like a TV hack.

I was ready for a solid drama about a writer entering the heart of darkness and, through equal amounts of manipulation and compassion, emerging with great literature. Capote is that drama, sort of, but it’s oddly remote and full of editing choices (sometimes the movie plays as though they used the first take of whatever they had and banged it together as best they could in the editing bay) that distance it even further. Is this the best that American independent film can muster nowadays?

A History of Violence

September 23, 2005

a-history-of-violence_lIn A History of Violence, brutality hurts and has sickening consequences in a way it hasn’t in any American movie since Unforgiven. Men expire inconveniently, gurgling face-down in their own blood on a diner floor; they get pounded in the face until the nose effectively disappears in a smear of cartilage and ripped skin. The movie, however, sets up situations in which we want, need, the killing and maiming to happen. The tension builds in a slow boil, then ignites furiously when we’re not quite ready for it. Man is a violent species, and director David Cronenberg, who has spent thirty years studying that species in such films as Dead Ringers and The Fly, implicates his audience and himself in the violence, as he did in 1982′s grotesque Videodrome. The theme of the movie could be: Killing feels good until it’s over — then what do you do?

The mystery of the film, adapted loosely from a mediocre 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner (writer) and Vince Locke (artist), is whether small-town diner owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) — an aw-shucks guy to all appearances — is hiding dark and bloody secrets from his past. One night, a couple of thieves and thrill-killers invade Tom’s diner. (Aside: Suzanne Vega’s song of the same name — I am waiting at the counter/For the man to pour the coffee — will take on inadvertent macabre humor after this film.) Tom dispatches them with suspicious ease, is crowned a local media hero, and attracts the attention of shadowy men led by a scarred Ed Harris (dropping his usual intensity and coming across all the more frightening), who seems convinced that Tom is actually a man named Joey Cusack, from back in Philly. We assume that Joey, whoever he is, wasn’t a kindly city hot-dog vendor or puppy breeder.

Cronenberg isn’t terribly interested in artificial mysteries, though. Nor is he all that impressed with the novel’s emphasis on mob connections. What he’s after is simple: Is the human machine hard-wired for violence, and what happens when the machine tries to rewire itself? Tom, played by Mortensen with effortless precision in moments both cruel and gentle, is a classic movie figure — the man capable of ghastly carnage who has chosen a peaceful path until circumstances force his hand. In Cronenberg’s hands, this neo-western becomes a meditation on the essence of all those movies. Family life (civilization) is nurturing; killing is exciting. But switch “killing” with “going to strip clubs” or the disreputable bachelor pastime of your choice, and you have a metaphor for how a man changes — or doesn’t — when he opts for the credibility of wife and children.

A great deal of the movie’s impact depends not on Viggo Mortensen but on Maria Bello, who should be ready to take over the planet any day now. She plays Tom’s wife Edie, a lawyer who, I think, was attracted to safe homespun Tom and his small-town life and moved away from city stress (her voice still has an urban cadence; Tom has an Indiana drawl that eventually slides into something more threatening and razory). Edie finds Tom exciting, going so far as to recreate the innocent devirginizing neither of them really had, fantasizing being a cheerleader in bed with her quarterback boyfriend. The first of the movie’s sex scenes is warm and playful (unusual for Cronenberg); the second, a thrashing and bruising event on a stairwell after Edie discovers the truth about Tom, is considerably uglier, more disturbing, and — this being a Cronenberg film — more erotic. Bello performs in both scenes, and everything in between, with deeply committed delicacy. We believe in her love and her revulsion.

A History of Violence is of a piece with Cronenberg’s other work, though it seems to offer easier catharsis (but doesn’t really). A confrontation late in the movie between Tom and a bad man played with cool, self-amused malevolence by William Hurt is played out almost as drawing-room comedy, with the violence no longer painful because we’re now in a world where life is meaningless. Ultimately, we find Tom at the dinner table with his son — who seems infected with his father’s virus of swift retributive force — and his little daughter and Edie, and volumes of the unspoken pass between man and wife. That’s the movie’s true mystery, and the one Cronenberg prefers to leave us with: Then what do you do?

Corpse Bride

September 16, 2005

CorpseBrideA maggot and a black widow spider sing a duet to raise the spirits of a brokenhearted dead woman. A man is reunited with the playful skeleton of his childhood puppy. This and more are on view in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, a sportive vision of the macabre. Burton thinks in intuitive images, and there are sights here that I would love to have framed on my wall — the image of the Corpse Bride, in her sooty gauze floating around her decaying blue flesh, slowly approaching her “suitor” on a bridge in the dead of night. Some of Corpse Bride has the iconic power of great silent cinema, and Burton is so cavalier about — and accepting of — the conditions of death and dismemberment that I can’t imagine anyone but the smallest child finding it frightening.

Unfortunately, Corpse Bride seems to have been made for that smallest child. Burton has tended towards mainstream pursuits in recent years, and though I’ve stood by him thick and thin — I enjoyed his Planet of the Apes remake for what it was (in the face of near-unanimous ridicule), and Mars Attacks! deserves serious re-appraisal as some sort of nutbrain classic — I’ve been dispirited by how little fight he seems to have put up against the mainstream. Corpse Bride clocks in at a whiplash 74 minutes, and it might have been even shorter if not for several uninspired Danny Elfman songs, which here feel like padding. It’s as if Burton and his co-director Mike Johnson had one eye on the clock, so as not to bore … well, what audience, exactly? The audience for Corpse Bride will indulge just about anything gothy and Burton-esque from Burton. But they may not indulge him this time.

Johnny Depp gives voice to Victor Van Dort, a skittish young man who is to be married, whether he wants to or not, to the pleasant if boring Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). Victor blunders through the wedding rehearsal, and when running through the procedure alone in the woods one night, he slips the wedding ring on what he takes to be a branch but is the finger of Emily, the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter). Emily pursues the horrified Victor and brings him into the land of the dead, which is designed to look much more colorful than the land of the living. Bones rise up and sing, swapping skulls and dancing with halved cadavers, bodiless heads, skeletons with luridly jutting jaws. The tone is both antic and morbid; Burton is in his element.

Fans of 1993′s Nightmare Before Christmas expecting another Burton-Elfman stop-motion triumph, however, need to dial their expectations down a notch. Elfman’s songs for that goth favorite had infinitely more variety, and the movie found show-biz funkiness in the creepy and ghastly. Corpse Bride, technically impeccable though it is, plays like the work of a fervent Tim Burton imitator. The look is certainly in place, and some of the jocular sinisterness is fun. But Victor is a singularly dull character, and we can’t see why either Victoria or Emily wants him; the irony is that this is a romantic triangle without romance. Victor is caught between death and life, but neither one seems to be fighting very hard for his soul.

Towards the finish, the movie takes a turn towards disaster, when a nefarious character turns up and instigates, of all things, a sword fight. None of this was in the Russian folk tale Burton is borrowing, a fable derived from actual anti-Semetic violence and tragedy. In that tale, the living bride promises to live the Corpse Bride’s dreams, and the bereft cadaver finally rests in peace. Here, Victor seems ready to join Emily in death, until Victoria — whom he’s known barely a day — shows up. In the context of the film, and of Burton’s work, it seems like a sad capitulation to the “normal.” Will Victor really be happy in the glum land of the living, with Victoria’s horrid parents looming over him? And what about Scraps, Victor’s long-lost dead puppy? Won’t the poor little guy miss Victor? Corpse Bride has been envisioned but not thought through.

Lord of War

September 16, 2005

LordOfWar190705-5The ads for Lord of War promise a farcical, half-crazy satire on a subject close to no one’s heart — gun-running. Making a living by supplying weapons to chaotic nations is so indefensible that perhaps the movie, we think, will flip things around and find the thrill of it — the monetary rush, the power. Writer-director Andrew Niccol, however, has already decided how he feels about it, and he isn’t the kind of filmmaker to give you a down-and-dirty rise-and-fall story, like Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas or Ted Demme’s Blow. Those movies at least enticed us into complicity with intelligent men who chose to profit from human frailty. Lord of War can’t stop reminding us that gun-running crushes the soul; the movie ultimately crushes itself in a vise of self-loathing. Niccol is so busy making the profession unattractive that he forgets to make the film engaging.

Nicolas Cage, as the suave weapons dealer Yuri Orlov, stands amid deep puddles of bullets and tells us (as in the ads) that there is a weapon for one in every twelve people on Earth, and that the problem is closing the deal with the other eleven. Then he smirks. Lord of War is a two-hour effort to wipe the smirk off Yuri’s face. After witnessing a botched mob hit in a Little Odessa restaurant, Yuri decides that if people are going to kill each other anyway, they’ll always need the means to do it. He begins small, with local gangs, and soon expands his clientele to global gangs — revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, whoever pays on time. Yuri has no scruples; he’s just supplying a product, and what people do with it is their business. He enlists his slacker brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), who becomes his partner as well as a raving coke addict.

The movie’s emotional reading is neutral. Other than the fact that the plaintively decent Nicolas Cage is playing him, we get little sense of Yuri’s humanity, so we don’t feel that his profession is rotting him away inside, even though the script tries to sell that later on. Yuri arranges to meet and seduce a woman (Bridget Moynahan) he’s had his eye on since he was ten, and she has no spark or personality aside from maintaining a willing moral blindness to what he really does for a living. Yuri’s riches buy him nice things, but we don’t get any kick from the American dream realized by deception and blood. Niccol puts Yuri’s lavish furnishings on the screen with no comment pro or con. Lord of War doesn’t work as a tragedy or as a comedy, especially since Niccol fills the soundtrack with glib, obvious songs that editorialize on the action (he actually puts Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” on when Vitaly starts his habit). Some of Niccol’s other touches, like the ka-ching of a cash register on the soundtrack accompanying each bullet shell out of a machine gun, are shockingly puerile coming from a previously sophisticated filmmaker.

Did Andrew Niccol really want to make this movie? His previous efforts, 1997′s Gattaca and 2002′s Simone, both studied the human effects of technology. He also wrote 1998′s overrated The Truman Show, which took the same tack. But Lord of War, which seems like a depressed remake of William Friedkin’s 1983 flop Deal of the Century, has only the slightest connection to his previous concerns as an artist. It feels like something he made because the money was there to make it, effectively rendering him as much of a whore as Yuri, though far less dangerous. Maybe Niccol, having fought hard battles to get some intelligent entertainment into theaters, sees himself in Yuri — sees Yuri as a stand-in for major-studio directors, who foist unpalatable product on people and don’t care who it hurts. In that case, Lord of War is a self-hating Hollywood parable with no special insight into its putative subject, no matter how much research Niccol reportedly did.

As for Nicolas Cage, whose name is on the film as a producer, he probably lied to himself as much as Yuri does, telling himself he was making an important film shedding light on the global cycle of violence. But the movie doesn’t care much about violence; there’s a too-clever credits sequence following a bullet from creation to execution, and it ends its journey by thudding into a blank, anonymous face. The point isn’t the life taken, it’s the bullet. Cage can’t find a consistent tone for Yuri, and he seems awfully constrained, denied either the heroism or the freakiness we know he’s capable of.

About an hour into the movie, the great actor Eamonn Walker (of HBO’s series Oz) turns up as a casually brutal dictator who does business with Yuri, and the audience is shaken awake. Walker gives us a violent man, not without humor, who knows exactly what he is and isn’t bothered by it. He’s so much more interesting than anyone else on the screen (including Gattaca star Ethan Hawke, thrown away as a goody-two-shoes agent on Yuri’s trail) that he derails the movie by suggesting a complexity far beyond the margins of the rest of the film.

Bloody Mallory

September 13, 2005

bloody+mBloody Mallory can best be described as Buffy the Vampire Slayer on acid. Its eponymous heroine (Olivia Bonamy, who resembles a young Demi Moore), once married to a man who turned out to be a demon, dyes her hair a fiery red (like the heroine of Run Lola Run) and tools around in a pink hearse, with the words “FUCK EVIL” emblazoned on the knuckles of her gloves. Her Scooby Gang includes a tall, blue-wigged drag queen named Vena Cava (Jeffrey Ribier) and a mute telepath named Talking Tina (Thylda Barès), a little girl who can also transmit her mind into the bodies of people and animals. Her mission is to save the newly selected Pope (Laurent Spielvogel) from hordes of demons led by the ab-fab vampire bitch Lady Valentine (Valentina Vargas).

I don’t need to tell you this is a French movie, do I?

It never quite rises above the level of a well-done pilot episode for a series that would probably be cancelled after four weeks (for being too weird), but I enjoyed Bloody Mallory all the same. The few reviews I’ve found have been rather hostile and uncomprehending, as if director Julien Magnat and his co-writer Stéphane Kazandjian hadn’t intended to make a cheerfully schlocky horror farce. For me, Bloody Mallory goes on a special shelf alongside Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter and Frankenhooker, two other movies that revel in the horror genre and in their own self-conscious cheesiness. Released in France in the summer of 2002, it was quietly issued onto Region 1 DVD in America three years later; I’d think any fan of loopy horror who doesn’t mind subtitles would slurp it up as avidly as Lady Valentine drains one of her victims.

Mallory, who still has some of her demon hubby’s blood in her veins and is often visited by him (Julien Boisselier plays him with a mix of insouciance and smitten affection that reminded me of Jean-Claude, the vamp lover of Laurell K. Hamilton’s vamp-killer Anita Blake), grudgingly accepts her mission to rescue the Pope. (He’s a dick anyway — his first words upon ascending to the papacy are to condemn gay people as evil.) The mission is personal for Mallory anyway, since the same demons who absconded with the Pope also killed her former comrade Inspector Durand (Thierry Perkins-Lyautey) and put Talking Tina in a coma (from which she escapes by occupying various bodies throughout the film — most amusingly when she inhabits a big, brainless bruiser les scoobées meet in a village overrun by demonic power). Along for the ride is a young priest, prankishly named Father Carras (Adriá Collado), who gets on Mallory’s nerves but does get to use his self-defense papal-bodyguard training on occasion (like the famous priest in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, he kicks arse for the Lord).

Bloody Mallory looks cheap (especially some of the demon make-up, which is sub-Buffy) yet ravishing — Magnat puts together a colorful piece of eye candy, wedded to a propulsive techno beat by Kenji Kawai (who scored Ghost in the Shell and Ringu). The fight sequences are about on par with Buffy, sometimes pushed over the top by absurdist touches (such as Vena Cava’s deadly boots or the head-exploding spray Mallory keeps in a cross on her belt — you wonder why she doesn’t use it more often, though). The narrative’s big surprise is really no surprise to anyone who’s seen a movie before, and the climax lacks a certain oomph (it’s as if the filmmakers ran out of money).

Still, Bloody Mallory is worth seeing just for Olivia Bonamy, a fun addition to the growing roster of ass-kicking heroines, whose defining moment comes early, when she kisses the near-dead Durand and her voice-over informs us, “I never cared for him much, but how can I deny a man’s final wish?” Both cynical and sentimental — she still wears her demon husband’s ring — Mallory may have been too much for the French and not enough for American viewers trained by Buffy, Xena, and Alias. But she demands to be taken on her own terms or not at all, and so does the goofy, consistently amusing movie she’s in.

Bam Bam and Celeste

September 13, 2005

Bam Bam and Celeste (2005)Margaret Cho has described Bam Bam and Celeste as “a fag and fag-hag Dumb and Dumber.” It’s actually closer to a gay-friendlier Romy & Michele’s High-School Reunion (which was already pretty gay-friendly), and even shares two of its stars, Alan Cumming and Elaine Hendrix. I guess Janeane Garofalo and Camryn Manheim were busy, or they’d have done cameos as well.

I’m a Margaret Cho fan, though in a couple of her recent concert films she has drifted away from comedy into liberal call-and-response sessions meant to offer catharsis to her audience. All to the good, I suppose, though I like her better when she isn’t telling me stuff I already believe. Then there’s Bam Bam and Celeste, which mostly isn’t especially political, but also isn’t especially funny. Amiable enough to produce the occasional indulgent chuckle, and colorfully photographed to resemble the cotton candy it obviously wants to be, the movie is light and inoffensive but lacks the depth and revolutionary bite of Cho’s best stand-up material.

Celeste (Cho) and Bam Bam (Bruce Daniels, Cho’s frequent opening act) are misfits stranded in DeKalb, Illinois. Celeste has the Manic Panic pixie look going on; Bam Bam, a makeup artist, is the sort of man-hungry, swishy queen that’d be considered a stereotype in any other film — and, though the film (written by Cho) clearly has affection for him, he is a stereotype. Almost everyone else in the movie is, too, except Celeste, who is allowed quirks like running a website called dictatorssuckass.com. That doesn’t have much to do with the plot, except that it sets up Celeste with Eugene (Alan Cumming), assistant on the New York makeover show Trading Faces; turns out he’s a fan of her site. Eugene is there so Celeste can pair off with someone, I guess, though the sight of Alan Cumming kissing a woman in the gayest film I’ve seen since 300 has its own amusement factor.

Cho must’ve enjoyed Elaine Hendrix as one of the three bitches who tormented Romy and Michele in high school, because she returns here as essentially the same character, played with snarky brio (“I am not…done… TALKINNNG!” she snarls at Bam Bam at one point; “Actually, I’m done,” she adds — the comedy’s all in the delivery). Hendrix is now allied against Bam Bam and Celeste in competition on Trading Faces (hosted by a smarmy John Cho); Bam Bam will make Celeste over and show off his genius. The result is unintentionally funny, as Celeste comes out looking perfectly presentable and professional and rather dull (shades of Ally Sheedy’s makeover from goth to boring in The Breakfast Club), something like how she comes off here in general. Neither Cho nor Daniels really commit to their characters; they just seem to be “doing” their respective types as they would in a brief onstage bit.

Bam Bam and Celeste starts out as a road comedy, allowing Cho to bring out the butch-dyke stereotype with Jane Lynch as a shotgun-totin’, trailer-dwellin’, wood-choppin’, everythin’-but-tobaccy-chewin’ lesbian living in an otherwise racist, homophobic backwater. Bigots in this movie exist primarily so that Cho can yell “Fuck you” at them, a touch calculated to elicit many “You go, girl” whoops at gay film festival showings. This is Cho’s first feature-length screenplay, and it has the rambling, slightly dizzy quality of her blog entries. It’s cute enough, a box of chocolates for her fans, though probably lost on the uninitiated.

As onstage, Cho’s most inspired moments find her in old-Korean-woman drag playing Celeste’s mom, who looks and sounds exactly like Cho doing her own mom in concert. That alone earns this friendly but uneven movie a fourth star. Speaking in her mom’s halting, sweetly oblivious but accepting voice (“Use condom!” Mom barks at Celeste; “No glove, no love! Hah! Your mommy cool!”), Cho hits genuinely surreal and hilarious notes. One day, perhaps, Cho will learn to write other characters as quirkily ornery and individualized. Failing that, she could always just hand an entire movie over to her mom. 4

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

September 9, 2005

EmilyRose010805-13Back when The Exorcist was terrifying millions, Pauline Kael dismissed it as “the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Well, The Exorcism of Emily Rose might be trying to be the biggest recruiting poster since The Passion of the Christ. This glum and undistinguished drama — it’s certainly nothing so crass as a horror movie, despite the spooky come-on of the marketing — focuses on the battle between faith and science. A nineteen-year-old girl, Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), died of malnutrition and general physical disrepair. (This isn’t a spoiler — it’s established from the start.) The solemn priest entrusted with her care, Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson), has been charged with homicidal negligence; clearly Emily’s problems were medical, not spiritual. Who’s right, Father Moore or the law?

Enter Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), the worldly lawyer tapped by the Archdiocese to defend Father Moore. We know she’s worldly because she sips martinis at an upscale bar after getting a murderer off on a technicality. Also, she’s agnostic, which is important. Grudgingly, she takes the case, going head to head with aggressive prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott with a bad-guy mustache), a self-described man of faith who nonetheless can’t hide his contempt for Father Moore’s handling of Emily’s ailment. (Also, he’s not Catholic. That’s important, too.) The noble priest doesn’t actually care whether he goes to jail — he just wants to tell the truth about what happened to Emily.

What about the movie? The Exorcism of Emily Rose claims to be based on a true story — the story of Anneliese Michel, a German girl whose death resulted in her parents, as well as the two priests who “exorcised” her, being charged and convicted of manslaughter. Some have said that Anneliese’s symptoms were consistent with major neurological illness and the psychological complications that can arise from it (a devoutly religious person, as Anneliese and the fictionalized Emily were, might interpret her affliction as demonic). So, too, with Emily, and everything the disapproving prosecutor says made perfect sense to this agnostic critic. Your mileage may vary if you believe that exorcisms are anything more than throwing pretty words ineffectually at brain damage.

We get a few flashbacks illustrating the possible rational explanation for Emily’s behavior, but they are fleeting. The real meat of the flashbacks takes Father Moore’s interpretation completely to heart, including an admittedly intense, high-pitched exorcism attempt in a barn. More significantly, Father Moore warns Erin that “dark forces” are surrounding the trial — keeping up with it on CNN, one assumes — and that she may find herself “under attack” from demons. Which she does. She wakes up at 3:00 every night, and eerie things happen. Since we see things happen that can’t be explained away by science, there’s no question which side the movie is on. It’s neither a serious film nor a horror movie (aside from the exciting sequence in the barn); it’s just an agenda put on celluloid. And the agenda is, Father knows best; the Church knows best, and never mind all those lurid stories about child-molesting priests.

I don’t know whether Jennifer Carpenter can act in a more everyday role — she was neurotically amusing in the few minutes of White Chicks I could stand — but in the demanding role of Emily Rose she performs with more energy and pathos than even Linda Blair all those years ago. She has a haunted look even before the demons take her. She manages to outshine her more high-powered costars, who both look stranded; Linney has to pursue a murky, ill-defined character arc, and tormented sincerity comes a bit too easily to Wilkinson. (I prefer the libertine-in-a-collar he played in 1996′s Priest.) The direction by Scott Derrickson is pleasingly realistic in spots — the heavy creaking floor in the Rose household after tragedy — and TV-ish in others; the only scene of any real visual sophistication, when a hysterical Emily skitters through the rainy night past blood-red windows, looks like an outtake from Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

After mean old Ethan Thomas delivers his closing statement insisting on facts — boo! hiss! — Erin takes her turn, and doesn’t actually refute anything, merely asks the jury to accept that Father Moore’s version of events might be possible. In other words, the possibility of the Catholic Church’s absolute authority in all matters should guide a serious legal decision (next week, Father Moore takes on Roe v. Wade!). The movie doesn’t miss a button-pushing trick. Emily’s problems don’t start until she leaves her religious family and goes to college — that hotbed of (gasp) intellectualism — and, worse yet, starts dating a boy. Poor Emily goes from one paternal hell to the next, and at the end, in court, Father Moore reads a letter she wrote that, in effect, exculpates him and his role in her death. Could this letter be interpreted as the delusions of a deeply sick girl in the throes of religious mania and terror? Could this movie be a reactionary tract disguised as a horror-drama? As Erin might say, it’s possible.


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