Archive for August 2007

Halloween (2007)

August 31, 2007

It’s hard to imagine a greater stylistic mismatch than Halloween and Rob Zombie. Zombie’s previous two films, House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects (I am perhaps a minority of one in that I enjoyed both), were done up in his grubby-spastic grindhouse style, in which the camera jiggles so much you think the film has slipped its sprockets. John Carpenter’s original 1978 Halloween was clean, classical filmmaking, with  dread and suspense building in those long, smooth, menacing takes. Zombie is too antsy a director to duplicate Carpenter’s technique, and he doesn’t even really try. For a while, I agreed to take this as Zombie’s way of putting his stamp on this remake.

But only for a while. Zombie frontloads his Halloween with backstory. Here, we see the origins of the madness of Michael Myers, the looming Shape who slashed his way through Carpenter’s masterpiece and its progressively awful sequels. Michael, it appears, grew up in a luridly dysfunctional white-trash family — his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) was a stripper, his stepfather (William Forsythe) a broken-down drunk as mean as a tick. Young Michael likes to kill small animals — “a warning sign of deeper problems,” intones Michael’s new shrink Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, wearing a hilarious stringy wig in the early scenes). Do we really need to know this? Not hardly. Didn’t we go through this earlier in the year with young, troubled Hannibal Lecter? When will people like Zombie learn that you shouldn’t shine a light on the boogeyman?

Like Brian Helgeland’s Payback, Zombie’s Halloween seems to locate itself in several different eras at once. The decor, the soundtrack (Michael’s mom pole-dancing to “Love Hurts”), Michael’s KISS shirt, all scream ‘70s, but the attitudes and language are modern. Years later, after the adult Michael has escaped the asylum, we get an establishing shot of a truck stop and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” kicks in. Huh? Why? I think the movie is Zombie’s Halloween scrapbook — it’s stuck in the late ‘70s in some ways because that’s when the original film made its mark on Zombie. He also drags in a parade of horror-geek cameos — Ken Foree, Udo Kier, Tom Towles, Sybil Danning. Even Danielle Harris, who played Michael’s niece in Halloween 4 and Halloween 5, returns here as the free-spirited Annie, the sheriff’s daughter. And the sheriff? Brad Dourif. At times it’s like an all-star fan film. I kept looking for Forrest J. Ackerman.

Cute as a button but without much personality, Scout Taylor-Compton’s Laurie Strode (whom Michael pursues for the film’s last half) won’t challenge Jamie Lee Curtis’ scream-queen throne. It’s not all her fault, though; Zombie really only has eyes for Michael. He spends so much time setting up Michael that there’s not much time left to get to know Laurie and her doomed friends. Pauline Kael called Carpenter and Debra Hill’s original script “pitifully amateurish,” but it turns out they had a sense of structure that Zombie completely misses (or totally misses, according to Laurie’s bubble-headed friend Lynda, who’s still saying totally). Zombie does have enough sense to include the famous Michael head-tilt upon surveying a freshly impaled victim, but then he forgets all about Dr. Loomis’ classic speech (delivered with frightened resignation by Donald Pleasence); instead, he has Loomis point to the cover of the book he wrote about Michael and say “Look at his eyes! There’s blackness in those eyes!”

Maybe Zombie left out the speech because it concludes that Michael is “purely and simply evil,” but in this film he isn’t — he’s just a toxic mix of nurture (or lack thereof) and nature. This Halloween has a far higher body count than the original — young Michael has killed three people, not just his older sister, before he’s taken into custody — though it’s not especially gory, just brutal. (As embodied by wrestler Tyler Mane, Michael will knock the entire house down onto you if he can’t stab you.) The ending, if I’m not being too generous by calling it such, hits new lows of shrieking incoherence and doesn’t come near the creepy elegance of the empty-houses montage that sealed Carpenter’s film. I believe Zombie when he says he’s a huge fan of Halloween, and I don’t think he’s tarnished the legacy any more than the last few sequels already did. But he’s not right for this material, which demands a cool-headed formalist. Zombie is all about garish, gnarly grindhouse freakshows, and that’s fine and fun, but it’s not Halloween.

Superbad

August 17, 2007

What does it say about this era of lowered expectations that a comedy managing to be consistently amusing and occasionally insightful is lionized by the press as if it were the second coming of Preston Sturges? Superbad, the latest Internet darling from the factory of anointed-god-of-comedy producer Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), gets most of its charge out of its two leads, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. Hill is a mini-Seth Rogen, which makes sense, since the loudmouthed, strenuously horny kid he’s playing (named Seth) is an analogue for co-screenwriter Rogen. The sweetly nervous Cera, meanwhile, is playing Evan, a quieter, smarter type, though no less awkward in the presence of girls. The other screenwriter is Evan Goldberg; he and Rogen started writing the script when they were thirteen. For a long while, Superbad feels — in a good way — like the product of sex-soaked thirteen-year-old minds.

High school is running out its clock, and our young heroes are desperate to get some action before leaving for college. (They won’t be heading off together — Evan got accepted to Dartmouth, Seth didn’t.) Seth figures the only way he’s going to get lucky is by getting a girl drunk, and when a crush of his (Emma Stone) invites him to her grad party, he agrees to bring the liquor. To do that, Seth and Evan need the help of geeky associate Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who steals the movie), who gets himself a fake ID that renames him, inexplicably and hilariously, McLovin (no first name). The boys run into their share of obstacles, naturally, including a pair of goofball cops (Bill Hader and Rogen himself) and a bizarre adult party with the most memorable use of menstrual terror since Carrie.

For all its R-rated talk about porn and genitalia, Superbad is part of an honorable ah-when-we-were-young tradition encompassing Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, George Lucas’ American Graffiti, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, and the granddaddy of them all, Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953). In all of these, the comedy lies in slacker boys at the crossroads between goofing off and moving on into adulthood. A sort of melancholic nostalgia blankets these films — adjust the age a bit and all of them could end with Stand by Me’s epigram, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” The exception to this sort of looking-back-fondly subgenre was Animal House, which couldn’t have cared less about redemption via maturity or lessons learned.

Judd Apatow wants us to know that such redemption — signified by pairing up with a Good Woman and ultimately having kids — is possible for anyone, whether man-children like Steve Carell in Virgin and Rogen in Knocked Up or actual teens like Seth and Evan. The last half hour of Superbad becomes a bit soggy with retrospective wisdom. The two boys confess their love for each other — totally hetero and platonic, of course, just like the Spartans in 300 — and the girls they’re interested in take their hands and pull them off in separate directions. End of movie, though perhaps Seth and Evan will collaborate on a screenplay later on. Like Apatow’s other hits, Superbad indulges in dialogue that would embarrass Larry Flynt and situations that would mortify Tom Green, then turns around and reassures us it’s all okay because the characters Grow and Learn Something. Did Bluto grow? Did Bill Murray learn anything in Stripes or Meatballs?

On the basis of Apatow’s output, it would appear that he sees male bonding as raffishly funny and profane but something that must be left behind for male-female relationships. What isn’t clear is what the males and females see in each other, especially in Superbad, in which the idea of Emma Stone pairing off with Jonah Hill is — with apologies to Jonah Hill — even more unlikely than Seth Rogen settling down with Katherine Heigl. Of the three Apatow hits, I prefer Superbad, which gains in the writing department from Seth Rogen’s robust raunch and, I presume, Evan Goldberg’s attention to weird details and social disasters. At its best it’s naggingly and obscenely funny, but its “heart” fails to convince. Maybe the thirteen-year-olds’ screenplay should’ve been filmed as it was.

Stardust

August 10, 2007

Stardust, the latest attempt to wrest fantasy cinema away from hobbits and ogres and boy wizards, benefits from a kind of buffet-table approach to fairy-tale flights of fancy. Like its nearest predecessor The Princess Bride, it borrows liberally from centuries of tall tales, tumbling out like a bedtime story made up on the spot by a grandfather — or, in this case, by Neil Gaiman, the hipster dream-weaver who crossed over from comic books to bestseller lists. Gaiman’s illustrated novel Stardust has inspired a busy, generous movie containing multitudes: witches, pirates, ghosts, a falling star in the form of a woman, and a good amount of gentle humor about transgenderism.

Bracketed by the dulcet tones of narrator Ian McKellen, Stardust follows a young commoner named Tristan (Charlie Cox), who lives in the English town of Wall right next to the forbidden magical land of Stormhold. From the looks of it, Stormhold is a ren faire on steroids, presided over by a dying king (Peter O’Toole) who charges his remaining heirs with finding a ruby. Said ruby has found its way into the luminous hands of Yvaine (Claire Danes), the falling star whom Tristan has promised to a shallow beauty (Sienna Miller) from his hometown.

Still with me? Wizened witches, led by Michelle Pfeiffer as the diabolical Lamia, want to cut out Yvaine’s heart to recover their youth. A crew of airborne pirates, led by Robert De Niro as the multifaceted Captain Shakespeare, scoops up Tristan and Yvaine from the clouds. A goat turns into a man, a man turns into a woman, a woman turns into a bird, a corpse turns into a swordsman — Stardust denies itself no transformative twists or gags.

Some have called the movie cluttered, but I enjoyed its flamboyant grab-bag spirit. As directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake), who wrote the script with Jane Goldman, Stardust bops along smoothly and confidently, filled with color and wit. Neil Gaiman specializes in the purple picaresque, and though his work can sometimes be a bit precious (I didn’t care for his 2005 scripting effort MirrorMask), he generally writes the sort of good-hearted escapist fare he would’ve loved as a boy (and still loves). There’s affection in his work, and it seems to have spread to the cast; Pfeiffer and especially De Niro haven’t had this much fun in many years. It’s the sort of idiosyncratic party that brings out the best instincts in actors — the instinct to keep the party and the story going.

I, and others, have compared Stardust to The Princess Bride; so has Gaiman, since it’s a wry amusement that goofs on fairy tales while still honoring the source and the primal desire to be told a story. In truth, Stardust has a far different tone; the conceit of Princess Bride was that it was a dry book by S. Morgenstern whittled down to “the good parts,” and it was very much in the Jewish comedy tradition. Stardust has a decidedly English tenor, which allows for more deadpan jokes (and hilariously cavalier treatment of guest stars like Rupert Everett, Ricky Gervais, and Coupling’s Sarah Alexander, a beauty unrecognizable beneath pounds of old-witch latex). Ultimately it’s its own fearless beast, a comic love story in which Claire Danes can confess her deepest feelings to a mouse, Robert De Niro’s closet proclivities can be warmly accepted by his macho crew, and Michelle Pfeiffer — who turns 50 next year — can simultaneously show how great she still looks and how unafraid she is to look catastrophically ugly.

The Bourne Ultimatum

August 3, 2007

At the end of a long and bruising car chase in The Bourne Ultimatum, the cars come to a smashing halt, and the camera vibrates as if from the impact and continues vibrating for a few seconds. Behind me, people complained about the near-incessant “shakycam” technique employed by the director, Paul Greengrass. Though he’s only recently vaulted to international success with United 93 and this film’s predecessor The Bourne Supremacy, Greengrass is no young upstart who whips his handheld around out of filmmaking ADD — he’ll turn 52 this month. Obviously the tremulous, stress-inducing (and, for some, nausea-inducing) technique expresses a forceful you-are-there aesthetic for Greengrass; he used it to brutal effect in United 93. But those, like me, who appreciate clarity in action sequences may feel the same visual impact could be attained by filming a blender for two hours.

In The Bourne Ultimatum, the tormented ex-agent Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), pursued by the CIA and by “deep cover” spooks who claim full authority to kill, gets closer to the truth of who he is. Diamond-hard and close-cropped, Damon is all business in the Bourne movies, yet he understands how to smuggle in small flickers of doubt, remorse, frailty. Jason may be running on autopilot — at this point, he’s a bunch of nerve endings humming entirely on instinct — but Damon isn’t; he provides a quiet, assured center for these hyperactive movies, in which the camera zips madly around the room even during simple conversations.

Gray-haired eminence David Strathairn, as a merciless head spook, stands in a control room and rattles off orders, most of which bounce right off the cool blonde Joan Allen, as the ethical CIA director. The clenched sparring between Strathairn and Allen — he’s almost dashing, she’s never more sultry than when she’s long-haired and hard-bitten in these Bourne flicks — is the closest the film comes to romance. Jason, meanwhile, pairs off with Julia Stiles, a baby Joan Allen, as the junior agent from the previous films. When Stiles dyes and crops her hair late in the game, just like Jason’s doomed paramour (played by Franka Potente in the first two Bournes), Damon permits Jason a tiny expression of 404: Page Not Found before he clicks out of his emotional browser and gets down to business again.

The Bourne movies are about pursuit and assault; they’re perpetual-motion machines. As such, they entertain inside the moment but leave you with few leftovers. A sequence in which Strathairn’s goon squad tracks Bourne and a journalist through some of the most densely busy parts of London is a taut, dizzying triumph of suspense and narrowly-averted disaster — hats off to editor Christopher Rouse, who keeps the events skipping along maliciously. The hand-to-hand fight scenes have a certain feral nastiness; Greengrass and cinematographer Oliver Wood manage to give the impression of bone-splintering force without actually showing much of it. And then there are the vehicular bits — motorcycle, car — which really test the mettle of one’s stomach. Greengrass makes a car chase look high-speed and terrifying, something we wouldn’t want to try at home — admirably realistic, perhaps, but it takes some of the fun out.

I like the idea of the Bourne movies more than I like the actual movies. I don’t begrudge anyone’s enjoyment of them. But such high skill and intelligence go into these films, along with an up-to-the-minute mood of ominous paranoia about what really goes on behind closed doors, that the end result — an embittered, whittled-down spy vs. spy story — feels undercooked and underachieving. These are essentially 007 movies for Generation X, grounded in drab, coffee-cup-laden offices and preoccupied with questions of identity. They’re worth it for Matt Damon, who does small, delicate work when he’s not throwing people down flights of stairs, and Joan Allen, that wicked woman with a Puritan’s name, who single-handedly makes any movie smarter and sexier.


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