Archive for September 2006

The Queen

September 30, 2006

Princess Diana was mourned by the world’s public to a degree not seen since Elvis was found on the toilet. Though she came from royalty, Diana seemed to be viewed as the storybook everygirl who had found her prince. I tend to think back on her as an attractive blank that millions of people projected onto — an image of perseverance and charity. Even Americans were fascinated by Diana, an unseemly sentiment from a people descended from opponents to the very idea of the throne.

The conflict of The Queen, a small but precise drama chronicling the immediate aftermath of Diana’s death and its impact on England and the Royal Family, is between the traditional and the modern — on more levels than one. In a prologue to the events, we see Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) ascending to the office of Prime Minister on a wave of public support. Blair pays his first visit to Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren), who knows that he has risen based on his spoken intent to “modernize.” Yes, good luck with that while I’m still here, her manner seems to sneer, though outwardly she is never less than polite.

After Diana’s fatal crash, the English public launches into sloppy mass grieving. This is not a response the Queen has been aware of in her lifetime — she can perhaps be forgiven for missing the flower-bedecked shrines to John Lennon. Who are these people? Surely they’re not the stoic English people she remembers. The world looks to England for an example of dignity and grace under pressure, not this…this public sobbing. What the Queen hasn’t anticipated, because she only knew Diana as a rather annoying girl who never knew her role, is Diana’s phenomenal popularity among the people — indeed, “the people’s princess,” as Blair refers to her.

Director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan keep the behind-the-curtains intrigue on a low simmer. Nobody could really have believed that the public would rise up and howl for the Queen’s head because she failed to respond publicly to Diana’s passing; but Blair points to rumblings in the press as proof that she’s really not getting the point of all this. This isn’t just the death of a former HRH, or the death of a woman; this is the death of a symbol of idealism — the sort of modernized sensibility shared by Tony Blair and anathema to the royal way of life. In effect, the Queen must publicly mourn something she cannot conceive of supporting.

Playing a woman who never shows her emotional hand, Helen Mirren gets all of this across with the tiniest flickers of doubt. She allows the Queen her dignified remoteness while quietly subverting it — which comes across as the Queen, once a young woman herself, subverting herself. With animals, such as her beloved Corgis, the Queen is comfortable and cheerful, because they don’t know she’s the Queen, nor do they angle for her favor for political reasons. And she gets a look at a mighty stag, soon to be shot down sloppily and hung up ignominiously, and she might conclude that the idea of royalty might suffer a similar fate in the tabloids, or worse. Mirren gives the opposite of an over-the-top Oscar-chasing performance, which makes the increasingly likely prospect of her actually winning one all the more tickling. Like the Queen, Mirren is saying: This is how you act, this is how you survive, this is how you reign.

Fearless (2006)

September 22, 2006

Jet Li’s Fearless (as it’s credited in the ads and onscreen) feels like his martial-arts valedictory, the way Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was his Final Statement on the Western. Both films weigh the costs of violence and revenge, and although Fearless isn’t a gnarled classic like Unforgiven, it’s similarly a beloved action star’s meditation on the genre that made him. Jet Li has been working towards this film; Hero and Unleashed both expressed a certain growing reticence to fight, an urge for something deeper in life. As such, it reveals Li as a thoughtful man trying to honor his violent screen past and put it behind him, and with the help of director Ronny Yu (in probably his most restrained mode) and master fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, he succeeds.

Li plays Huo Yuanjia, a real-life turn-of-the-century martial-arts master who took on various foreign fighters to defend the honor of China. Amusingly, the film’s depiction of one of Huo’s battles was rather more anticlimactic in real life: he was supposed to face the burly British opponent Hercules O’Brien (played here by Nathan Jones, who was also in Tony Jaa’s recent The Protector), but O’Brien was a no-show. He isn’t a no-show in the movie, wherein Huo fights him and ends up saving O’Brien’s life. By that point, Huo has already gone through a baptism of fire and embraced a humbler, more spiritual way of life. There was a time when he would’ve let O’Brien die.

The movie follows Huo from his unpromising days as a hothead and terrible student to an up-and-coming master of his clan’s style of Wushu fighting. Huo beats everyone, even the punk who once humiliated him when they were both striplings. He becomes arrogant, stuffed plump with drink and praise. Everyone wants to be his disciple; only a fool wouldn’t. Huo is riding high, but when he faces the tough, revered Master Chin — who lays a smackdown on one of Huo’s disciples for offending his wife — he wins the match but loses far more.

After about an hour of flashy, expertly staged fights, Fearless goes inward, finding Huo living monklike in a village, planting crops and helping a blind woman cook meals. He learns to stand still and appreciate the rush of wind through the leaves — I am still standing, he seems to be thinking, and the wind teaches me that I am still alive. The movie becomes sedate and spiritual without losing its power. Huo must renounce the reasons he used his virtuosic skills — glory, money — and go back to basics. Wushu must not divide; it must unite. Fearless is a deeply Asian film, and refreshing because of it. Its drama unfolds in the gradual shift of Huo’s philosophy.

Jet Li was a bit posed and stiff in Hero, but he seemed childlike and eager in Unleashed; it was at that point, I think, that he started wanting to pass on what he’d learned in life, rather than (or in addition to) just thrilling audiences by busting heads. In Fearless he gives perhaps his most engaged and engaging performance ever, running the gamut — proud, foolish, devastated, becalmed, compassionate, grateful. His moves, as always, are savagely beautiful and, this time, more emotionally expressive. Though not as stately as other wuxia films like Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the movie manages to be eligiac and ultimately touching in its own way. It’s a fine swan song.

The Black Dahlia

September 15, 2006

Morose yet flamboyant, overstuffed with stylistic flourishes that dazzle even as they baffle, Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia is sure to appear on many critics’ year-end lists — ten best and ten worst. De Palma is an obsessional craftsman; at his best, he uses his peerless technique to put you inside his characters’ paranoia and anguish. This time, though, he’s working with someone else’s obsession, and he never really gets inside it himself — he just presents it with a gloss. De Palma and scripter Josh Friedman miss the tone and flavor of James Ellroy’s hard-charging novel — its bebop prose, its toxic mix of lust and shame, its genesis in the still-unsolved murder of Ellroy’s own mother. Ellroy’s book was felt, painfully, from the inside; De Palma’s movie is filmed from the outside.

The premise is the same: Los Angeles cops Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), former boxing opponents, get drawn into the case of the Black Dahlia — Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), a wannabe actress who fumbled through the nightlife and screen tests of bottom-feeder Hollywood before ending up mutilated and cut in half, looking like someone’s demented science project. In the book, narrated by Dwight, the cops’ love lives are warped by the case; it turns Lee into a monomaniacal obsessive, swallowing benzedrines and littering his dining-room table with Elizabeth’s autopsy photos. The movie follows that track, too, but nothing is as starkly compelling as the glimpses of sad-eyed Elizabeth, gamely smiling through tears in some director’s office.

The movie starts off top-heavy, devoting more screen time than expected to Dwight and Lee’s boxing match, staged in order to get the public to vote for a budget increase for the police department. Ellroy wanted us to see the intersection between law and politics, cops maiming each other for the city’s elite. But the way De Palma shoots it, it’s just his homage to old boxing pictures. The entire movie, in fact, is his homage to old movies. Cosmetically, he’s a good match for this material; in classics like Blow Out and Casualties of War, De Palma focused on young, untested men haunted by women they couldn’t save. But here he just seems motivated by getting to wallow in a lush period setting (the late forties) for the first time since The Untouchables almost twenty years ago.

Playing in his sandbox of the past, De Palma forgets about his talented cast, who struggle to forge some reality inside the movie’s stylized scheme. The women, trying to mimic the heavy-lidded seductiveness of past screen legends, come off worst; Scarlett Johansen, as Lee’s platonic companion, and Hilary Swank, as a bisexual rich girl Dwight gets involved with, are terribly miscast. (Especially since we keep hearing how much Swank’s character looks like Elizabeth, though she clearly doesn’t.) De Palma fills the margins with old favorite actors — it’s fun to see Gregg Henry and William Finley again, though the former is reduced to glowering at the camera and then disappearing — and interesting performers like Rose McGowan and Fiona Shaw (going waaay over the top as a batty matron) keep turning up. But none of it coheres. We don’t share the main characters’ inner conflicts because the director, usually such a strongly visual artist, resorts to telling us about them (if you blink, you miss the reason why Lee is so fixated on the Dahlia case).

The Black Dahlia won’t do much to dissuade the common rap against De Palma as a cold technician who takes projects just for the elaborate set pieces they provide him — here it’s yet another staircase sequence (The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way) topped by yet another fall into a fountain (Scarface). De Palma keeps himself amused — sporadically — but elsewhere stages things lazily, ladling an overly rambunctious Mark Isham score over everything. The movie is De Palma’s essay on film noir technique, and some of his hardcore followers may enjoy it on that level, but most of The Black Dahlia is neither entertaining nor compelling. James Ellroy made this material work — by crude, brutal force — because he believed in it. Brian De Palma only believes in its surface, and that’s where the movie stays and dies.

The Ground Truth

September 15, 2006

In Patricia Foulkrod’s sobering documentary The Ground Truth, men and women who served in the Iraq war want you to know that they didn’t serve honorably. Further, they want you to know that there’s very little chance of anyone serving honorably in a dishonorable war, in a dishonorable military system. Most importantly, they just want you to know. The movie could be said to be one-sided — a pamphlet for veterans against war (we see a number of Vietnam vets as well). But Foulkrod begins the movie with a montage showing the allure, and then the relentless brainwashing, of the military. Commercials make it all look exciting, a terrific training/proving ground for the young (especially the urban poor young). The Ground Truth, in part, counteracts the propaganda with its own. There are probably Iraq War vets who come home with no physical or psychological complaints. They’re not in this movie, which focuses on the cost of not just this war but of any war.

Foulkrod front-loads her film with a sort of nonfiction reiteration of the point Full Metal Jacket made so brilliantly — that the overriding function of the military is to kill, and so military training dehumanizes the recruits by necessity. David Grossman (On Killing) points out in the film that the hardware used in combat is more or less the same, but the software — the mentality that pulls the trigger — has changed radically over the years. The military has got it down to a science; as technology has advanced, so have the ways in which men and women can be conditioned to kill without hesitation or remorse.

The remorse, however, comes later. The Ground Truth is filled with anecdotes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, ranging from “intrusive thoughts” to flashbacks to outright violence. Once the brain is wired to kill or be killed, it’s awfully hard to rewire it after it returns stateside. The vets are also decaying inside from the horrors they saw or participated in. We hear from parents of a vet who hanged himself after coming home — his misery had reached such a pitch that he had no other option. According to the movie, there are distressingly few options, and the military makes it almost impossible to access any of them. A soldier can’t be allowed to be diagnosed with PTSD — he or she must have had a pre-existing personality disorder.

Meanwhile, we’re still not allowed to see the coffins coming home, our president still has yet to attend a single funeral to pay respects to the fallen of his war of aggression, and we hear bloodless stats of “two soldiers wounded” without seeing the extent of the wounds — the blasted-off limbs, the ruined lives. The Ground Truth fixes that with a vengeance. One veteran in the film barely has a face left — melted, scarred, no nose to speak of. He talks about wanting to make sure no other prospective soldier has to go through what he’s gone through. Maybe if there were one of him to stand outside every military recruiting center in the country and show his mutilated face as the true face of war, there wouldn’t be so many recruits. The scary thought arises that, at the rate this war is going, maybe there will be one of him for every recruiting center in the country.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

September 9, 2006

all_the_boys_love_mandy_lane_reviewThe retro slasher film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane has become semi-notorious for its non-release status — it keeps getting pushed back (it first reared its head at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006). Horror fans keep hearing about it, keep yearning to see it. As I understand it, the distributor, Senator Entertainment, is sitting on the flick until they can make a stronger debut with a Julia Roberts vehicle. The true reason may be more banal and discouraging: the movie isn’t very good.

A first effort by director Jonathan Levine (whose sophomore film The Wackness found its way into U.S. theaters first), Mandy Lane follows the standard drunk-teens-in-the-boonies slasher template. Seven kids, including the eponymous Mandy Lane (Amber Heard), head out to a remote ranch, guarded over by a brooding Gulf War vet. After more toking, drinking, Ritalin-snorting, Truth-or-Dare-playing, and general sexual tension than I generally cared to sit through, the killings begin. Who’s the slasher? Well, that doesn’t remain a secret for very long — though the script (a first by Jacob Forman) tacks on a twist anyway.

For the most part, I had trouble telling the kids apart: close your eyes and they all sound and act pretty much the same, except perfect Mandy Lane, a level-headed Nice Girl who’s the obvious — perhaps too obvious — Final Girl, the virgin who waves off intoxicants and intoxicated boys. All the boys love Mandy Lane, and all the girls envy her but not enough to hate her. The trouble is that Mandy Lane is a blank, and her final scenes aren’t built towards or prepared for in any way. I felt cheated and annoyed; we’re left with a rather dull meat-and-potatoes slasher film front-loaded with lots of tedium where character development used to go — much like a similar (though much more sadistic) film that did see release, 2005’s Wolf Creek.

Technically, the movie is acceptable. The young actors seem natural; it’s difficult to tell whether Amber Heard can act, given what little she has to work with here, but she’s likable enough. Levine achieves a couple of wince-worthy moments, though once the killer is revealed the suspense drains out of the film rapidly. Slasher movies used to have a little more imagination, even if the elaborate motives and laughable red herrings were a bit much. The prologue, detailing a tragedy at a pool party, turns out not to have very much to do with what follows … or, well, it does, sort of. The motives here are vague and highly arguable — the film will probably inspire much post-movie dissection, but what’s going to be dissected is essentially screenwriting laziness.

What we have here is a movie that seems unaware of its own subtext — horny guys buzzing around the title character, literally like moths to the flame. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane could’ve found much more interesting things to do with this basic premise, things that could’ve turned the whole subgenre on its head. Instead it stays pretentiously artsy — like so much indie horror, it seems intended as a calling card for young filmmakers rather than a true work of fear emerging from specific terrors and obsessions — and it comes to a wishy-washy, meaningless conclusion. To be honest, this can stay unreleased for all I care.

The Protector (Tom Yum Goong)

September 8, 2006

In The Protector, known in its native Thailand as Tom Yum Goong, Tony Jaa plays a young man whose elephants are stolen. He wants them back. There are shabby attempts at other plot threads, but that’s all the movie is about. A gangster named Johnny has taken a majestic adult elephant and his baby son. Tony Jaa is supposed to protect those elephants. So Tony Jaa confronts Johnny on numerous occasions with dialogue so basic it’s almost a Zen koan: “Johnny, where are my elephants??” “Johnny, you stole my elephants!” “Johnny, give me back my elephants!” Uh, Johnny? Tony Jaa really wants those elephants back.

Word around the campfire is that The Protector has been shorn of some fifteen minutes for its American debut; its distributor is The Weinstein Company, whose owners Bob and especially Harvey Weinstein are fond of taking scissors to everyone’s movies except Quentin Tarantino’s. (Tarantino “presents” The Protector, though he probably didn’t do anything other than to say “Hey, Bob! Harvey! This movie is fuckin’ cool!”) So there were certain plot elements that lost me. Someone I didn’t remember seeing before in the film shoots the police commissioner of Sydney, Australia, to the horror of several characters who seem to know the shooter. Tony Jaa’s previous import, Ong-Bak, had similar problems. Characters appear and disappear at random. Fans of early Jackie Chan films will recall comparable plot dissonance.

As with Jackie Chan, though, you go to a Tony Jaa film for one reason, and it isn’t the plot. Jaa, a master of Muay Thai martial arts, once again disregards gravity and physics, flying across rooms to knock down several flunkies with his knees. If a video game allowed you to do what Tony Jaa does, it would be the bestselling video game in history. This outing doesn’t give Jaa quite as many eye-popping stunts as he had in Ong-Bak, though it does boast a truly astonishing sequence in which Jaa runs up several flights of stairs, disabling one attacker after another on each floor, in one unbroken take that lasts about four minutes. I couldn’t even climb stairs for four minutes straight, never mind kicking dozens of asses. The sequence, which took a month to prepare and two weeks to shoot, is some sort of compressed masterpiece of kinetics.

After a while, The Protector becomes a kind of brutal comedy. Getting closer to the true power behind the elephant-stealing Johnny (a whip-wielding woman in blood-red lipstick), Jaa goes up against several wrestler types who look to be about twelve feet tall. (Jaa stands five-eight; like Chan, he’s compact.) My favorite was the Aussie strongman Nathan B. Jones, a towering baldy who shrieks and roars at Jaa. (Oh, for some meaningful dialogue between the two: “RAAARRRGH!” “Where are my elephants??” “AAAARRRGH!!!” “Give me my elephants!!”) There’s also the alarming-looking Lateef Crowder as a dreadlocked capoeira fighter who almost gets the drop on Jaa, and Xing Jing as Madame Rose (ha, I love that name), the aforementioned whip artist. What I really wanted, at some point in the narrative, was a werewolf. Yes, a werewolf with a flamethrower, getting between Tony Jaa and his elephants. Or maybe a robot. A samurai robot with, like, fangs and shit. Because if you’re going to make a movie this daft, why not go all the way?

The Protector is a fun, junky Saturday evening out, though I suspect you’d do better to get your hands on the original Tom Yum Goong, which may, for all I know, contain mitigating plot intricacies, plus a werewolf. Jaa remains perhaps the hardest-working actor in the world, and probably occupies the top slot on Internet death pools now that poor Steve Irwin has taunted his last croc. Actually, I worry more about the health of the many stuntmen who wind up on the receiving end of Jaa’s heavy elbow landing on their skulls from twenty feet up. I would like to see a documentary about a stuntman working on a Tony Jaa movie, unable to sleep the night before shooting his big scene in which he speeds towards Tony Jaa on a motorcycle and Tony Jaa knocks him off the bike into a plate-glass window with a well-aimed knee. And then it has to be done again because someone on the set sneezed. Maybe one of the elephants.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

September 1, 2006

Like David Cronenberg, Kirby Dick is a mild-mannered, professorial sort who happens to make outrageous movies. Dick, though, makes documentaries — such as 1997’s lacerating Sick and 2004’s Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith. Ironically, as far as I can see, none of his films have, in fact, been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. This Film Is Not Yet Rated follows Dick as he attempts to make sense of the MPAA, which since 1968 has warded off the spectre of governmental interference with movies by acting as a sort of in-house censor board. They don’t consider themselves censors, of course, because they only suggest what should be changed or deleted to get a more lenient rating — though indie filmmakers are left with vague references to “general tone,” while major-studio pictures get the benefit of detailed notes.

Dick interviews Matt Stone, who can speak with authority from both sides of the fence. The indie Orgazmo, which he worked on with South Park cohort Trey Parker, was slapped with an NC-17 despite the fact that Parker turned the lack of female nudity into a running gag. Why? Its general tone. Parker and Stone didn’t have the money to keep re-submitting Orgazmo to the board and appealing the rating, so it got the kiss-of-death NC-17, opened on 94 screens, and died (even though, by that time, South Park was a phenomenon and a wider audience would’ve been there for the flick). By the time Stone and Parker came around with the South Park movie (financed by Paramount), suddenly the MPAA was vastly more forthcoming with suggested changes. Since Paramount wanted an R rating, the money was there for repeated re-submissions and appeals.

TFINYR touches on the many hypocrisies of the MPAA system. Violence is okay, especially in a military context (has there ever been a harder R than Saving Private Ryan?); sex makes all kinds of trouble. Like TV censors scandalized by Elvis’ gyrations in the ’50s, the MPAA seems obsessed with the number of pelvic thrusts in a sex scene — leading to the notorious digital obscuring of the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. Anything focusing on female pleasure is right out: Dick shows a split-screen comparison of Steven Weber being fellated in Single White Female (rated R) and Chloe Sevigny happily receiving cunnilingus in Boys Don’t Cry (NC-17, particularly when Hilary Swank wipes some vaginal juice off her chin).

Dick doesn’t stop there, though. The MPAA’s policies are blinkered enough — and deep in the pockets of the movie corporations — but there’s no public accountability because, aside from MPAA bigwig Jack Valenti (who retired in 2005 and died in 2007), everyone’s identity is a big secret. So Dick, with the help of two lesbian detectives, sets out to uncover the raters. Exactly who decided that Maria Bello’s pubic hair needed to be cut out of The Cooler? Nobody knew — until now.

It’s significant that the women who flush out the raters are gay, because part of Dick’s point is that the MPAA comes down harder on “aberrant sexual behavior” — i.e., queer sex. (Kevin Spacey as a married guy wanking in the shower in American Beauty: a-OK. Natasha Lyonne rubbing herself — fully clothed — as a lesbian in But I’m a Cheerleader: not OK.) One of the detectives, Becky Altringer, talks about how it took her a long time to come to terms with her sexuality in a culture that denies it. The MPAA certainly denies it, and its treatment of gay filmmakers — Kimberly Peirce, Jamie Babbitt, John Waters, Gregg Araki — has been consistently prudish.

The film preaches to the converted a bit. Movie fans who’ve long decried the MPAA will find little to argue with; Dick doesn’t talk to any parents who may have found ratings helpful, or many filmmakers who took on the board and won. Michael Tucker, whose Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace was first slapped with an R for its salty language before getting a PG-13 on appeal, is the film’s only success story; oddly, no mention is made of Michael Moore, who complained about Fahrenheit 9/11‘s R rating. Maybe because the latter was critical of the reasons our troops were over there and the former wasn’t?

Mock-ingenuously, Dick submits This Film Is Not Yet Rated to the MPAA (he never intended to accept their rating anyway). We see him going through the process of appeal, mostly for the sake of more material for his film; he’s told he’s not allowed to know the identities of the people on the appeals board, so he sics Becky on them, and he comes back with a roster of mucky-mucks in the film and exhibition industries.

What the film doesn’t offer is much hope — or much balance. Unlike Michael Moore in Sicko, Dick can’t really point to superior systems in other countries, which are often far more stringent. Britain’s ratings system has a bit more wriggle room, but many films are still outright banned there (remember the Video Nasties hubbub?). Larry Clark’s Ken Park is still, as of this writing, banned in Australia. Borat is banned in China, Russia, Thailand, and Singapore, among others. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is banned in Germany. And so on. Very few films are actually banned in America any more, in terms of being illegal to view or screen. And even then, it’s because of a legal issue (the anti-Scientology The Profit, the asylum expose Titicut Follies, Todd Haynes’ Superstar for using Carpenters songs without permission), not issues of morality. Cries of “censorship!” regarding the MPAA would ring truer if not for the examples of actual, government-ordered suppression of films in most of the rest of the world. (Even Canada banned Catherine Breillat’s 2001 film Fat Girl for two years.) So it’s a shitty, dumb, hypocritical, homophobic, prudish system we’ve got in the U.S. of A., but it seems we’re stuck with it; it’s the only one we’ve got, and at least we can see what we want to see eventually.


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