Archive for March 2007

Blades of Glory

March 30, 2007

Whether playing an anchorman, a stock-car racer, or now, in Blades of Glory, an ice skater, Will Ferrell is as imperturbable as a five-year-old happily lost in his own fantasy kingdom. He’s the best, he’s the star — and yet his soft-bellied schlumpiness only enhances his manic self-regard. In Blades of Glory, Ferrell is the ridiculously named Chazz Michael Michaels, a long-haired rock star on the ice, humping the air in time to various power ballads. An admitted sex addict, Chazz turns everything he does into sex, and the crowd loves him. The sight of Ferrell’s body poured into a skater’s skin-tight duds is a visual joke, but it’s also the triumph of the average man’s will to be dazzling despite his physical foibles.

Chazz and rival skater Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) get themselves in trouble with the Skating Federation, which bans them from male single skating for life. As it happens, a loophole allows them to re-enter competition as a pair, and though they despise each other, they learn to work together. This aspect of Blades of Glory is tired, especially since the antagonists seem to warm to each other when we’re not looking; at midpoint, Chazz refers to Jimmy as “my friend,” though they haven’t seemed very friendly — they’re more like roommates passing the time with small talk.

Blades of Glory could’ve used a bit more of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as the Van Waldenbergs, a flashy brother-sister team (the actors are married in real life) plotting to cheat Chazz and Jimmy out of the gold medal. Arnett, with his rumbly, insinuating growl and almost-handsome looks, and the mad pixie Poehler, never more dangerous than when she’s smiling, make the perfect debauched prince and princess of a sport the movie clearly sees as cut-throat. Nobody onscreen is pure of heart except for naïve Jimmy and his new girlfriend, sweet little Katie (Jenna Fischer), sent by her siblings the Van Waldenbergs to spy on our heroes. One of the four screenwriters came up with a neat way for Jimmy to express his love for Katie, by taking her out for sno-cones — Jimmy is so at home on ice he eats it.

Overall it’s a painless if unremarkable night out, lifted considerably by the over-the-top skating sequences. It looks as though Ferrell’s and Heder’s features have been digitally mapped onto stunt skaters whenever possible, so you get the benefit of the actors’ expressions and the skaters’ physical expressiveness. The chunky, hypercharged Ferrell and the lithe, slightly zonked Heder are like Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton on ice, and the costumes are suitably glittery and nutty and, well, gay. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of two heterosexual men going through highly homoerotic gyrations, a surefire gag in many recent hit comedies from Borat to 300.

Some bits, like Heder eating reams of toilet paper or an overextended chase between Ferrell and Arnett on skates (it continues, awkwardly, even off the ice), aren’t very inspired. A lot of Blades of Glory feels like padding between the skating events, though the outcome of an early North Korean attempt at the hazardous maneuver the Iron Lotus is hilariously ghoulish, and Jenna Fischer enjoys a small triumph when she reads the last line of a phone conversation with the perfect note of distracted incomprehension. There are some small pleasures between the bigger pleasures of the ice, but not enough of them. Blades of Glory might’ve been better off as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary; who wouldn’t want to watch Parker Posey neurotically swanning around in a peacock costume while Fred Willard offered clueless commentary and coach Eugene Levy shouted well-meaning but disastrous encouragement?

The Hills Have Eyes II (2007)

March 23, 2007

Who’d have thought that a quickie sequel to a horror remake would turn out to be the strongest argument against going into the military since The Ground Truth? Lifelong liberal Wes Craven (who directed the original 1977 Hills Have Eyes) and his son Jonathan wrote the script for The Hills Have Eyes II, and they seem to have approached it as a golden opportunity to warn the teen, mostly male audience away from fighting unwinnable battles in the desert. The result is a nastily effective piece of action-horror, as reflective of its time and its war as the Vietnam-era Deliverance was of its time and war.

For those who think I’m reading too much into a horror film, let me point out that we’re introduced to the heroes — a bunch of cheesedick National Guard troops — while they’re negotiating a faux-Kandahar training mission. They bollocks it up pretty well; their sergeant informs them that if it had been a real mission, they’d all be dead. One soldier, nicknamed Napoleon, dares to remark that the President lies too much, and is told that all presidents lie. So if you sign up to serve, you’re going to be sent by liars to kill and die — welcome to the Army, son. This all happens before the movie is ten minutes old.

As noted above, The Hills Have Eyes II isn’t as much of a straight horror film as the Craven original or the Alexandre Aja remake from last year. It’s more in line with Deliverance, Southern Comfort, Rituals, Aliens — the subgenre of survival horror wherein a motley crew of hardcases unwisely enter a nightmarish terrain whose grotesque inhabitants know the turf lethally well. As such, it’s better than recent attempts like Doom and the Resident Evil series — by virtue of not being based on a videogame, in fact, it’s the most brutally efficient such entry we’ve seen in years.

The soldiers are all given one trait to cart around in lieu of characterization, but subtle character development is not what we want from a film like this; we want good guys vs. bad guys, and when the soldiers arrive at the desolate Section 16, the irradiated patch of New Mexico where the previous film unfolded, they’re set upon almost immediately by a band of repulsive, inhumanly strong mutants. One by one, the men are torn apart and one of the female soldiers is dragged off to be raped; the movie actually opens with a captured woman giving bloody birth to a mutant child and then summarily smashed to death. If Craven can’t get you to worry about being mangled in Iraq, he’ll hammer on your fear of a female family member in the service getting plowed from behind by The Enemy. There’s no exultation when the soldiers fight back; again and again, they say “Let’s get out of here,” as clear a signifier of support-the-troops-bring-them-home as anything Michael Moore could’ve come up with.

For what it is, The Hills Have Eyes II is muscularly directed (by Martin Weisz, another foreign horror director delighting in showing us the vicious rot underneath our patriotic veneer), setting up a harsh, dusty, rocky milieu only monsters could survive. Ruthlessly gory at times — it’s no wonder this was one of the movies that sparked complaints that the R rating was becoming too permissive — the film has an authentic grindhouse ugliness. For 35 years now, Wes Craven has spoken uncomfortable social/political truths in the language of blood and guts. This grim piece of work, which comes at just the right time to counteract 300’s fighting for glory against Persian ogres, proves Craven hasn’t yet lost his voice.

Dead Silence

March 16, 2007

There’s something eerie about dolls, particularly ventriloquist’s dummies. Their faces frozen in one expression, their jaws carved open on either side of the chin — they’re like mutilated corpses made to move and speak for our amusement. A few films over the years have capitalized on the innate creepiness of these dummies, such as the Michael Redgrave segment of 1945’s Dead of Night, or the 1978 Anthony Hopkins thriller Magic. We could’ve used another good evil-dummy film, but Dead Silence isn’t that film. It’s a convoluted ghost story in which the ghastly stillness of the dummies hardly plays a role at all.

In the first of many mistakes, the movie offers bland TV actor Ryan Kwanten as the hero, Jamie Ashen, whose wife is murdered right after a dummy is mysteriously delivered to their home. This feels like a prologue promoted to a premise, and Kwanten can’t convey the anguish of a young husband who’s just discovered his wife horribly disfigured (her mouth sliced wide open, like a dummy’s); he just goes around looking sullen. A skeptical detective (Donnie Wahlberg) pins the crime on Jamie, who hightails it to his hometown Raven’s Fair, where the dummy came from. Years ago, the spooky ventriloquist Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) held the whole town in thrall, inspiring an insipid ditty after her death: “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw/She had no children, only dolls…” That doesn’t even rhyme.

Apropos of its title, Dead Silence offers one neat trick, though director James Wan (Saw) botches it consistently. Whenever a dummy is around and something evil’s going to happen, the soundtrack runs down like a record player in a power outage, then goes completely silent. Well, almost completely. Apparently to discourage filmgoers from stampeding to the counter and complaining that the theater speakers just died, Wan gives us tiny noises and wannabe-scary strains of music. It’s a cop-out, and when there’s a jump moment, the soundtrack jerks to life with the usual “eek” cacophony. The movie begins with a vintage Universal logo, promising a thriller more old-school than new-slash, but hasn’t Wan seen any of the old Universal chillers, some of which barely even had music? They may not have dated well, but they have a stark, uncompromising quietude that Dead Silence, of all films, sorely needed.

Jamie keeps wandering around Raven’s Fair, grilling the terrified townspeople (the only one who seems to have a job is the funeral director) as well as his estranged dad (Bob Gunton) and his new trophy wife Ella (Amber Valletta). In a movie this underpopulated, we figure something’s up with Dad and Ella, though we’re not quite prepared for the goofiness of what Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell (also Saw) have in mind for them. Regardless, Wahlberg’s tough detective soon joins Jamie in town, swiftly losing his skepticism and becoming a scaredy-cat (Wahlberg, responding to the escaping Jamie with a resigned “I don’t have a full tank of gas!”, is the movie’s sole connection to entertainment). There’s a climax promising a rampage of 101 evil dummies, but Wan settles for making their eyes and heads move ominously. It’s a rotten time for the movie to go minimalist.

Dead Silence is perhaps a serviceable rental on the slowest of slow Sundays. It comes across as a conscious attempt by torture-porn gurus Wan and Whannell to break away from the laborious cruelty of the Saw series and work a different side of the horror street, but they can’t let go of their shock-cut instincts. Aside from the condition of some of the victims, the movie could easily have been PG-13 or even PG; nothing in the story demands gore, as it is an old-school ghost story at heart, but Dead Silence sometimes plays as if the filmmakers bargained with the MPAA to get an R rating rather than to avoid one, in order to keep their cred with splatter fans.

As a horror fan who scarcely blinks at cascades of fictional blood, I’m in the odd position of saying: Here’s a horror movie that didn’t need the gore. It could even have been one of those Disney thrillers of 25 years ago (like, say, Watcher in the Woods) with a little imaginative effort. But all Wan and Whannell know is shock-and-awe tactics. They may shock, but there’s no awe.

300

March 9, 2007

Outside in the parking lot after 300 was over, I saw a few guys running to their car, imaginary swords poised, shouting “Fight for glory!” and laughing. This is as appropriate a response as any to 300, an overwrought, revved-up, and deeply silly symphony of clanging steel and spurting blood. That may sound fun, and in fits and starts it is, mostly in the first half hour. After a while, though, its heavy-metal thunder becomes white noise; some of us may wish the stalwart Spartans would just die with honor already so we can go home. The movie isn’t without some humor, but generally it’s so grimly full of itself it invites derision. You either buy into its warrior-class snobbishness or you don’t, and if you don’t, it’s a long sit.

300 is based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller, the same artist whose comics inspired 2005’s Sin City. Miller made his name working on the Marvel comic Daredevil, and he seems to have worked backwards to Batman, then to old pulp fiction, and finally to the battle of Thermopylae, the birth of manly heroism, wherein three hundred of Sparta’s finest soldiers held off the massive Persian army for as long as they could. Miller has a thing about machismo, and his graphic novel fetishized the Spartans’ toughness, bravery, and did I mention toughness? The Spartan men are trained from childhood to kill or be killed; the women are allowed to speak, though when it counts, even the Queen has to submit to rape in order to be heard before the Council.

Directed by Zack Snyder, who helmed 2003’s uninteresting Dawn of the Dead remake and next threatens to adapt Alan Moore’s seminal comic Watchmen, the movie has been run through God knows how many digital filters to achieve a look slavishly identical to Miller’s drawings. The difference between this dubious achievement and Sin City, a far more entertaining comic-to-film transplant, may simply be that 300 strains so hard to be cool it keeps blowing its cool, while Sin City was just cool, returning Miller’s noir-flavored narrative to its source. Again and again in 300, limbs are lopped off, spears pass through ribcages with no resistance, dark red bee-swarms of blood explode from each slash and hack. It’s all very pretty, but also hermetic and fake.

The only moment of true beauty comes when Sparta’s king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) goes to visit the Oracle before battle, and she’s doing what appears to be an underwater dance on dry land; the visual is pinched from Howard Schatz’ photography, but one is grateful for its relative quietude. Elsewhere, Leonidas and his noisy elite — the few! the proud! the Spartans! Ah-roo! — set the movie’s tone. When the Spartans aren’t destroying every Persian they see, Leonidas is either bellowing about destroying Persians or having destroyed Persians. Leonidas is a terrific bellower, though you’d think one of Zack Snyder’s legions of digital artists would’ve whited-out the fillings visible in Gerard Butler’s bottom molars as he bellows. (Spartans are so tough they even fill their own cavities. With the innards of their foes! Ah-roo!) The Spartans are also raving heterosexuals, contemptuous of the “boy-lovers” among the other Greeks (as if Spartans were exempt from the common homosexuality of the day), while the Persians are ruled by the freaky-tranny Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who adds a craven hunchback to his collection of fags, disfigured dykes, and other unworthies. 300 goes beyond homophobia into homoterror.

Ah, but nobody appreciates the warrior! He will be betrayed by non-combatants at home; he will die on the battlefield in a crucifixion pose, nearly 500 years before there was a Crucifixion. I wouldn’t say 300 has much relevance to current conflicts; Snyder says politics were far from his mind as he made the film, and I believe him. He plays toy soldiers heedless of anything except the aesthetic, iconic charge. The timing is interesting, that’s all. 300 isn’t exactly pro-war; it’s too unconscious for that. It yearns for a war worthy of all this totally awesome bad-ass filmmaking technique, dude. Ah-roo.

Zodiac

March 2, 2007

A certain kind of journalistic sorcery can make you believe a movie is absolutely real. A density of fact, a camera that whisks us into the action while never calling attention to itself, a lack of the expected Hollywood narrative beats — all of these add up to something deeper than fiction and richer than documentary. In Zodiac, directed by David Fincher (Seven) from a crackling script by James Vanderbilt, the various characters circle around the Zodiac killings of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as if drawn towards an existential black hole. The killer taunts them, idly musing about future atrocities he doesn’t bother to carry out. His very existence is an affront to the professionalism of the California police and reporters — and one editorial cartoonist — who track his every move. In a way, the Zodiac becomes their dark god, appearing at intervals with maddening omens.

Zodiac is not an exploration of the killer, who in any event was never caught, though the cartoonist — Robert Graysmith, who wrote two books about the Zodiac case — is pretty sure he knows who did it. It’s a mammoth police procedural, running a leisurely two hours and 38 minutes, yet the editing (by Angus Wall with Kirk Baxter) keeps the scenes clipped, taut, compressed. This is the film equivalent of a big, thick paperback full of crime photos and clippings and digressions that usually don’t mean anything but sometimes do. David Fincher, who in movies like Fight Club and Panic Room had been falling a bit too much in love with his own stylistic perfume, approaches Zodiac humbly, without fuss or excess, and winds up delivering his most electrifying film to date.

Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) hangs around on the margins of the case, working out the Zodiac’s coded messages and making connections no one else makes. But he’s seen as an eager-beaver kid by people a generation removed from him — people like the jaded detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and the shambling reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), neither of whom take Graysmith very seriously until he’s stayed on the case long after everyone else has fallen away in exhaustion. Gyllenhaal anchors the movie in enthusiasm passing over gradually into obsession, but once again Robert Downey Jr., the hippest skull-and-crossbones in the room, mutters his way in and out of scenes and casually steals the movie.

Shot by Harris Savides using the new digital process Viper, Zodiac looks nothing like most of today’s drab, monochromatic films; warm, natural light is used whenever possible, and the movie, right down to its old-school Paramount logo, could be shown alongside a run of Sidney Lumet or Alan Pakula films from the ‘70s and not look out of place. Zodiac has considerable menace (especially its use of Donovan’s shivery “Hurdy Gurdy Man”) but very little violence, though Fincher makes the most of it. One attack takes place on a bright sunny day in an idyllic setting, and it’s filmed as a well-lit grindhouse horror that brings to mind the rougher scenes in Last House on the Left. A late scene, fairly terrifying, finds Graysmith at the home of a film aficionado played by Charles Fleischer with quietly nightmarish creepiness. Graysmith is alone in a basement with a man who could be the Zodiac. Nobody knows Graysmith is there, nobody will come save him, and the man has just turned out the light. We know Graysmith survived to write the books this movie is based on, but for a few moments we forget.

Overall, Zodiac is a stuffed package, a densely woven tapestry of data and entertainment. It ends, by necessity, on a rather flat note. Fincher, a modern master at sending the audience out buzzing, restrains himself this time. Graysmith gets what he wants, after a fashion, and the movie ends on the haunted face of the Zodiac’s first target. The movie’s refusal to fabricate an easy, manipulative finale will frustrate some and gratify others. Somehow, this thorny, stop-and-start, difficult work made it through the studio system and into thousands of theaters, reminding us what movies can do better than any other medium. Zodiac is the most beautifully shaped and satisfying big Hollywood film in years.


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