Archive for February 2006

Freedomland

February 17, 2006

Richard Price’s novels, like Clockers and Freedomland, are kaleidoscopic character studies and closely observed social dramas. They don’t fit easily into two-hour movies, though Spike Lee did a fine job with Clockers. When he isn’t working with his own lengthy source material, Price knows how to shape a screenplay — rent Night and the City or Kiss of Death or Mad Dog and Glory and hear some of the sharpest dialogue you’ll hear outside a Tarantino film. That’s because he leaves himself room for characters to talk and reveal themselves. In Freedomland, which he adapted from his 1998 bestseller, Price only has space for the basics. So he covers essentially what happens in the novel, but leaves out its flavor. Having a non-entity director like Joe Roth (Christmas with the Kranks) can’t help.

Here’s an early passage from Price’s book, wherein Detective Lorenzo Council, played in the film by Samuel L. Jackson, gives a speech berating the residents of a New Jersey project for keeping quiet about a local killer: “It has been a whole year. These people were shot a total of eight times. Eight explosions at nine o’clock in the morning. But nobody heard nothing, nobody heard nothing. Now how can that be, if I know that I turn on my radio too loud on the fourth floor someone on the first floor’s gonna be complaining about the racket. How can that be, if I know that if I drop a, a juice glass on the second floor someone from the third floor is gonna be running to the housing office complaining about the party in my apartment.” Can’t you just hear Samuel L. Jackson saying those words? Not in the movie, you won’t.

Instead, we’re left with the bare bones, which won’t hold up this drama. Council is saddled with a hot-button case: a white woman, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), shows up at the hospital with bloodied hands, claiming to have been carjacked by a black man. What’s more, her four-year-old son was still in the car when the man took off. The project where the crime allegedly happened is locked down by the police, inciting much racial tension between the residents and the cops. The whole thing makes Council’s lungs ache (literally; he has asthma). As an excuse to examine urban malaise at novel length, this premise works; as a film drama, it feels both overlong and sketchy.

I’m sorry to say it, but the usually dependable Julianne Moore sucks all the air out of the movie. Brenda is beside herself with grief and terror when she first appears, and she’s never not beside herself. Moore never, ever lets up; it’s an overacting marathon made all the more irritating by the character’s working-class, recovering-addict Jersey accent. Some actors, however dazzling, shouldn’t do accents. Moore is one of them. The one she’s using here especially doesn’t match her pale, aristocratic features. And when she’s acting with Edie Falco (as the leader of a parents’ group that tries to find missing kids), who does look and sound like she belongs here — and who consistently underacts, therefore coming at the material in a more realistic fashion — Moore looks really bad. Brenda, in fact, would’ve been a perfect role for Edie Falco. Why not give a plum part in a major-studio film to her? And why not give Julianne Moore the other role?

Freedomland would’ve been better served as a miniseries on HBO, which is my default suggestion for any movie that needs to be longer than a theatrical showing will allow. As it is, the film gets rid of an entire major character, a reporter following the case, so we miss out on most of the media frenzy that would obviously be surrounding the missing child, the mother, and the police lockdown. Other characters, like Brenda’s racist cop brother (Ron Eldard), barely make any sense — we’re led to believe he may be in on a cover-up, but that comes to nothing.

A resident named Billy who’s been beating his wife similarly gets lost in the shuffle; in the book, there’s a quietly effective confrontation between him and Council, but in the movie he presumably goes on beating his wife. “Talk to Billy,” the guy’s wife says to Council. “Don’t forget,” she says again. And later, “Are you gonna talk to him?” Council never does talk to him. Does he forget, or does the movie just not care about the suffering of a non-white woman?

Final Destination 3

February 10, 2006

Harlan Ellison once wrote a semi-famous essay about wandering into a Saturday-night showing of The Omen. He left with a bleak view of humanity: it seems the late-night audience hooted and laughed at David Warner’s notorious decapitation-by-pane-glass. What Ellison didn’t get, I think, is that his fellow filmgoers weren’t applauding real death; they were responding to the elaborate clockwork contrivance of a fake demise. (It’s the same sourly amused reaction we have when reading the Darwin Awards.) The entire raison d’etre of the Omen films, and the Friday the 13th films after them, is simply this: who’s gonna get it next, and how?

Anyway, Ellison would’ve been doubly appalled at the audience’s carrying-on at a late-Friday showing of Final Destination 3, which shares the same reason for being. I enjoyed the previous entries, especially the second one, which kicked off with a truly magnificent diorama of highway catastrophe as relentless and precise as a ticking clock. Nothing in FD3 is quite so inspired, though the bit in which two topless high-school girls are trapped inside malfunctioning tanning beds has a certain cruel vigor. These movies all share a premise: a teenager has a premonition of disaster — a plane crash (part one), a car pile-up (part deux), and, here, a rollercoaster flying off the rails — and manages to save a few people. Those people have cheated death, and so death follows them throughout the movie, apparently quite pissed off, as none of the victims dies peacefully in his or her sleep.

Here, poor Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has the vision of impending doom, which isn’t enough to save her boyfriend, but does spare the lives of several obnoxious kids and another kid (Ryan Merriman) who understands what’s going on. The familiar template clicks into place: Try to convince skeptical people that they should stay away from, say, the fireworks display in the park; they ignore you; they die. Sometimes the director, James Wong, and his co-writer Glen Morgan (they initiated the series but sat out the second film) catch us leaning the wrong way: a pair of gleaming swords hanging precariously on a wall do not, as we expect, fall down and cleave someone in two; they fall harmlessly, cutting something else, and then the guy gets it.

Whoo! Man, that had to hurt! And other similar things one says at movies like this. As a parade of intricate carnage, Final Destination 3 delivers, though by now the novelty — for those with no sense of horror-film history, that is — must have played itself out. Aside from Wendy, her concerned friend, and her snarky sister, we don’t actually care whether any of the characters dies. Over-identification with the victims would only interfere with the gory schadenfreude, so the two tanning-bed victims are straight out of Mean Girls, the jock is a boastful knucklehead, the goth kid and his girlfriend are imperiously disdainful of Wendy and her mission, the horndog with the camcorder hits on everything female while referring to himself in the third person. Wendy’s conscientious fight to keep them all alive seems a mere formality, a gesture towards morality. But nobody in the audience is there to watch people avoid death.

Final Destination 2 involved people of various ages; it wasn’t only teens in peril, and each potential victim had careers, experiences, lives that were worth preserving. This one regresses the series to what Roger Ebert, back in the splatter-film ’80s, dubbed the Dead Teenager genre. So the first and third movies play something like Heathers given a morbid supernatural spin. It could be that James Wong and Glen Morgan (who had a hand in The X-Files, and remade Willard to fantastic effect a few years ago) are working off some bitterness against teens; I couldn’t say for sure. Their next collaboration will be the remake of the ’70s slasher flick Black Christmas. I suspect one way to exact delayed revenge for getting shoved into your locker a lot in high school (I’m assuming Wong and Morgan, who’ve worked on several sci-fi series, were nerds back then) is to kill off your tormentors in movies. Better that than in real life, I guess. Would that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had waited a few years and gone to Hollywood.

Zzyzx

February 4, 2006

zzyzx1bWithout the internet, Zzyzx might languish unseen. But now you can download it for three bucks from the official website. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

Zzyzx Road is a four-and-a-half-mile stretch of sand and asphalt in the Mojave Desert. People usually encounter the famous exit sign on the way to Las Vegas. The road leads to nothing more exotic than a mostly abandoned settlement (also named Zzyzx), though it hasn’t stopped scores of travellers from wondering what Zzyzx (it rhymes with Isaac’s) is or where the road will take them. Zzyzx, a low-budget indie thriller (not to be confused with the crappy Tom Sizemore movie Zyzzyx Road that literally only made $30), theorizes that it’s a real end-of-the-alphabet place — a place where people take leave of their senses and are reduced to the noir basics of greed, desperation, and murderous intent.

Two guys — macho jerk Lou (Kenny Johnson of TV’s The Shield), a Gulf War vet, and his travel companion Ryan (Ryan Fox), a wimpy computer-store clerk — are taking the time-honored road trip to Vegas. Ryan’s seen mysterious stuff on the web about Zzyzx — something about a Manson-like cult, skeletons found stacked on top of each other. It sounds like a freaky place to stop along the way. Goofing around behind the wheel to intimidate his skittish passenger, Lou accidentally runs over a Native American guy stumbling along the road. What will the guys do with the body? Especially when the dead man’s young newlywed (Robyn Cohen, from The Life Aquatic) shows up looking for him?

Zzyzx is not a terribly original thriller; its influences are obvious, from A Clockwork Orange (referenced in dialogue and in a hallucination) to Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven (the constant crackle of half-heard radio on the soundtrack) to your choice of desert-baked tales of evil (Red Rock West, The Hills Have Eyes). As I’ve said many times before, noir movies like this would only be surprising if the characters were all exactly as they seemed; as usual, those we take to be evil may not be so bad, those we presume innocent perhaps not so flawless.

The difference, as always, is in the execution, and director Richard Halpern — aided by a fluidly conversational script by Art D’Alessandro — frames Zzyzx as a jittery, sweaty exercise in paranoia fuelled by blood, drugs, and just plain fear. The small cast is beyond reproach, creating a realistic spine for the action, and one of the performances inspires hatred the same way Edward Norton’s famous turn in Primal Fear does — you feel betrayed, played. You believe in the situation, and the detail that this road brings out strange behavior in people covers any potential implausibilities. (Also, you look at this bleached, godforsaken place and you have no trouble buying that otherwise sane people might lose it here.) Zzyzx is a harsh, bitter and sometimes grotesque thriller; it has no MPAA rating, but I’m guessing we’re looking at a hard R here, especially during the denouement, when every available thread of clothing is doused with — as the Clockwork-referencing guys might say — red red krovvy.

Where can you see Zzyzx? If you don’t live near a festival that happens to be showing it, Richard Halpern has taken advantage of the pay-and-play capabilities of the web by making the entire film available for a mere $2.99 on the official website. [NOTE: The film is now available on DVD as well.] The goal, apparently, is to spread the word and make a bit of money back. As an inveterate supporter of indie film, I anted up, fired it up on my iTunes, and found it to be the best three bucks I’ve spent in a while. In a time when filmmakers are circumventing traditional methods of distribution — Steven Soderbergh’s film Bubble debuted in theaters, on cable, and on DVD the same week — finely crafted exercises like Zzyzx, which you otherwise wouldn’t have seen or heard of, have more of a fighting chance than they would’ve ten years ago. In this case, the mode of delivery isn’t all that sets the film apart; it would play just as well for a theater audience. Zzyzx is a good little film of the sort that Hollywood should be making but isn’t, and since exhibitors don’t even pretend to be interested in such films anymore, maybe the future of indie film does lie on the information superhighway.


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