Archive for February 2010

Shutter Island

February 21, 2010

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is the most bizarrely portentous and overemphatic Hollywood thriller I’ve seen since, well, Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear. This one is a lot more fun, though; Scorsese has mellowed since 1991, and this time he wants to mess with our heads, not bash them in. The movie plays like a loopy fever-dream Scorsese had after a marathon of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Val Lewton’s Bedlam, Kubrick’s The Shining, and William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration. The officially anointed Greatest Living American Director uses Dennis Lehane’s novel as a gorgeous, elaborate toy, spiked with deliberately disorienting details that will mortify those who love to spot continuity errors (hint: they’re most likely intentional).

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal called to an offshore mental institution to find an escaped patient, is Scorsese’s nod to the archetypal ‘50s gumshoe. Teddy has his fedora, his gun (which he’s obliged to check at the gates) and his Luckies. All he needs is a femme fatale, and during the course of the movie he contends with several. Whether any of them are to be trusted is one of many questions. Shutter Island, like Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, is the ultimate paranoid film noir in which the place itself — which may have devious ways to control minds and alter perceptions — is an illogical hell where nothing is what it seems.

The plot is just a smokescreen, an excuse. Shutter Island not only demands to be seen twice, it demands it at the top of its lungs. DiCaprio, sinking deep into conspiracy theories and chasing down leads that could mean everything or nothing, gives the film a jittery, desperate energy, while Mark Ruffalo, as his partner, accompanies him and looks nonplussed. The movie is an actors’ feast; Ben Kingsley has the plum role of the asylum’s main shrink, who seems to have a good time acting vaguely diabolical (both the character and Kingsley), and people like Max von Sydow (still going strong at 80), Jackie Earle Haley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas and Robin Bartlett pop in for brief, haunting appearances.

Technically, Shutter Island is unimpeachable. It’s the clear work of a master bringing his full game. Like Hitchcock in Vertigo, Scorsese transforms pulp into hallucinatory art; every choice from the color schemes (radiantly shot by Robert Richardson) to the dangerously lulling editing (Thelma Schoonmaker) seems geared towards showing us what it might feel like not only to be on Shutter Island but to belong there. Within the missing-patient thriller framework, Scorsese does some pretty wild and experimental things, stretching his legs, gathering his expert crew to do everything perfectly and, at times, to do everything wrong, on purpose. The excitement is palpable — this is Scorsese’s looney-bin picture, in the grand, shameless, operatic B-movie tradition of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, and his control is so free and flowing at this point that he makes rich, bountiful cinema out of it. I’ve run hot and cold on Scorsese in recent years — The Departed I found hackneyed and perfunctory — but Shutter Island reveals a man who, at 67, still has film in his blood and bones. He throws himself a real party here, complete with the hurricane of 1954 as an apocalyptic backdrop. It’s the first movie in a very long time that I feel a strong need to see again on the big screen.

The Essential Man

February 16, 2010

I sit here mourning Roger Ebert. “I’m not dead yet,” he would almost certainly protest, and indeed he is not. But I sit here with thoughts of Ebert’s mortality — all mortality — in my head just now. This has been occasioned by Chris Jones’ brilliant Esquire piece, which has been making the internet rounds the last few days.

Without Roger Ebert and his partner Gene Siskel, many of us would not have started writing about movies. We would not have graduated from loving movies to a deeper way of thinking about movies (and loving them). We lost Siskel in 1999. At the time, I wrote this for the email zine I was “publishing,” Organized Chaos:

Like Ebert, and like many of you, I have had my disagreements with Siskel over the years. The fact remains, though, that Siskel and Ebert were a generally underrated team. Alone among TV “critics,” they actually stood for intelligence and originality in movies, and Siskel in particular had a greater tolerance for experimental movies than Ebert sometimes had. Also, Siskel saw through all the Oscar bullshit (so do we here at OC, but hey, it’s a fun parlor game anyway). They have been scorned and parodied, and sometimes self-parodied (as on Letterman), but as I’ve said here before, we lucked out: Despite some lapses (what were they thinking when they gave thumbs-up to “Speed 2″?), America’s two most famous movie critics also happened to be pretty good at it. Now one of them is gone.

Jones’ article contains the gut-punch sentence “Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it.” First thing that hits you: Ebert is dying. Dying? No, he can’t be! He’s always been there (at least for those of my generation or later)! He can’t leave now! We need him now — we never didn’t need him! Who’s going to replace him when he’s gone? Nobody! He’s a one-off! Nobody can replace him, and even if the conditions existed today where a young rookie film critic could thrive and ascend to the cultural significance Ebert did, he or she still couldn’t “replace” him.

Ebert, the dear man, seems to have anticipated my and everyone else’s alarm. Today he Twittered, “I’m physically feeling tip-top these days. It’s true I’m dying–but no faster than anyone else.” And, yeah, who isn’t “dying in increments”?

“How’s your mother?”
“Oh… I’m afraid she’s on her way out.”
“We all are. Act accordingly.”

The new photo of Ebert is a shock at first. Most of us have seen only the face Ebert has presented at public events, with his neck swathed and literally keeping his chin up. In 2007, when he first chose to reveal to the world what he now looked like, Ebert wrote, “I have been very sick, am getting better and this is how it looks …. We spend too much time hiding illness.” The new image, though, is more naked; nothing is supporting what’s left of his jaw. He is, again literally, letting it all hang out. And what comes through is the man’s bravery and disregard for vanity. This is how it looks.

The combination of the photo (which is how Ebert, one assumes, has appeared for the last few years without the jaw support) and the bluntness of “Ebert is dying by increments” has made many of us Ebert fans panicky, nostalgic, prematurely grief-stricken. My god, why is Esquire running such a piece now? He must be on death’s door. Actually, Ebert has a third Great Movies book coming out in the near future. This in no way invalidates the beautifully written piece or Ebert’s deserving of same, but it does tell us there’s a practical reason for the profile’s timing other than “Ebert’s a goner.” We all are. Act accordingly.

Ebert has, if nothing else, acted accordingly. Since returning to the movie beat, his consumption of film hasn’t slowed much. (He may not be able to speak, eat or drink, but his appetite for movies has not lessened, and he can gulp those down using his eyes and ears. His brains and hands finish off the meal with a review, the after-dinner mint.) He continues to live passionately, intelligently and with great curiosity. He continues to live, full stop, and that should be enough for us; and when the day comes when that’s no longer true, we can be thankful for having lived at the same time.

I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.

The Wolfman

February 15, 2010

According to legend, The Wolfman was supposed to come out in November 2008, but its release kept getting pushed back. They should’ve kept pushing it back indefinitely. This famously troubled production went through a number of potential directors before getting stuck with Joe Johnston, a hack who generally brings nothing of himself — no personality and certainly no vision — to his work. If ever a movie needed some true wildness, it’s The Wolfman, traditionally a story of the base, animal urges all humans have and usually repress. What we get is an over-edited mess that tries to sell energy without having any — it’s listless and bland.

What happened? Benicio Del Toro as the lead, Lawrence Talbot, sounds like so natural a fit it’s almost typecasting. (He’s also a confirmed fan of the old Universal monster movies.) But whatever passion and fun Del Toro may have experienced at the very idea of being the Wolfman is nowhere evident in his morose, saggy performance. He looks puffy and sallow. Everyone else in the film, from Anthony Hopkins as Lawrence’s father to Emily Blunt as his dead brother’s widow, seems to follow suit. They stand around looking grim and lost — Johnston doesn’t know where to put them or how to use them. Poor Emily Blunt, one of the sexiest new comediennes we’ve got, spends the whole movie pining in drab interiors. There isn’t a laugh anywhere in the movie — not an intentional one, anyway.

The hyper editing scheme — can’t let the kids get bored, even though the film is rated R and they’re not supposed to be there — ruins what should be the film’s gothic moonlit atmosphere. We never get enough time to luxuriate in the fog and shadows — not that the awful cinematographer Shelly Johnson works much with mood and lighting anyway. Nobody on The Wolfman is on top of their game — not Danny Elfman, whose score explicitly apes Wojciech Kilar’s compositions for Bram Stoker’s Dracula; not Rick Baker, who designed an entertainingly retro Wolfman only to see his work “augmented” by CGI. About the only participant who comes off well is Gene Simmons, who’s said to have recorded a few howls.

In this telling, Talbot is deeply afraid of his own inherited, inherent violence, and afraid of his lust for the widow of his brother (who gets chewed up by a lycanthrope in the opening scene). But the subtext doesn’t tickle or haunt us the way it should — it just lies on top of the narrative like a wet academic blanket. After a while the movie just becomes a clothesline on which to hang transformation sequences and bloody slaughter, reaching its low point in a battle of the werewolves that’s like the big-boss part of a videogame. (This does lead to the film’s one inspired image, though: the Wolfman howling in the middle of his burning house.) I don’t know how you begin with Del Toro, Hopkins, Blunt and Rick Baker on a wolfman movie and end up with boring junk. I do know how you begin with Joe Johnston and an endlessly rewritten script and end up with boring junk. If Universal really must remake their old monster films, the least they can do is hand them to a director who’s an artist, who is difficult, and who might make something interesting — even interestingly flawed would do.

The Race to Save 100 Years (1997)

February 15, 2010

This entry is part of the For the Love of Film blogathon to support the efforts of the National Film Preservation Foundation. If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can do so here.

“EVERYTHING WE ARE DOING NOW MEANS NOTHING!” This was Martin Scorsese’s calm, cool, collected way of alerting his colleagues in filmmaking that bolder, faster steps needed to be taken in the area of film preservation. We see that memo, and hear Scorsese talk about it, in 1997’s The Race to Save 100 Years, a 57-minute program produced for television by Turner Entertainment. We also learn that Scorsese’s decision to shoot Raging Bull in black and white wasn’t entirely an aesthetic homage to such classic boxing pictures as Body and Soul; he was horrified by the epidemic fading of color movies, and he wanted Raging Bull out of the crosshairs of time. (He also drops an interesting anecdote about Star Wars: it seems George Lucas planned the color scheme of the film around the inevitability that it would fade.)

The cynical way to look at The Race to Save 100 Years is that it’s an hour-long commercial for Ted Turner and his wonderful efforts to keep films like Gone with the Wind from decaying into dust. This is the same Ted Turner, after all, who earned the sobriquet Crayola Ted for his brief dabbling in colorization in the ’80s. “Keep Ted Turner and his goddamn Crayolas away from my movie,” Orson Welles reportedly said, since Citizen Kane was now owned by Turner. (As it happened, Welles’ contract with RKO blocked Turner’s Crayolas anyway.) Yeah, so it was a crap idea, but Turner has also been instrumental in film preservation, if only by leading by example. This film, a sort of Preservation 101 for casual viewers who don’t understand that a lot of work and money goes into restoring the classics they enjoy on DVD, gives some hope that everything Scorsese and every other director is doing now means something. (Well, maybe not Uwe Boll.)

Again and again in the program, we hear that long-lost elements of a particular film were found in some Czech Republic archive, or elsewhere overseas. That’s because studios used to whip film prints like mules, playing them in American theaters until they simply fell apart. In other countries, they got much less wear and tear. You never know where films will turn up; the most hilarious example, to me, is Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc being discovered in a janitor’s closet in an Oslo mental hospital. And MIA sections of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were recently found in, of all places, Argentina. I think many film geeks harbor the fantasy of perusing some estate sale or looking around in a long-abandoned theater and unearthing London After Midnight or the missing footage from The Magnificent Ambersons. Of course, once found, there’s no guarantee it would be watchable or even salvageable.

We hear that 85% of all American silent films are considered lost today. Want to see Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle? Sorry, you can’t. How about Emil Jannings’ Oscar-winning performance in The Way of All Flesh? Tough luck, it’s gone. 1913’s The Werewolf, the first werewolf film? A fire claimed it in 1924. I imagine that the advent of television, which convinced studios that old films now had another venue to generate profit, played a big role in the growing realization that movies were worth saving. But the battle isn’t limited to creaky old flickering celluloid. The famous story about Jaws is that Steven Spielberg went back to look at the original master in the ’90s and was shocked by how badly the print had degenerated in only fifteen years.

Today, of course, every new movie from the great to the not-even-close-to-good gets digitally preserved. When this program first aired in 1997, the DVD format had only been around for a few months; movies had previously been “remastered” for videocassette, but DVD created and met a demand for high-quality picture and sound, and putting out a disc whose transfer looked like the flick had been in your grandpa’s attic for fifty years just wasn’t going to cut it. Criterion stepped up in a big way, as did Kino and such purveyors of grindhouse fare as Blue Underground, Synapse, and Dark Sky, making grungy old exploitation pictures look better than they ever had in fleapit 42nd-Street theaters or on drive-in screens.

Every month seems to bring more and more classics given a new polish for DVD and, increasingly, Blu-ray. We may be trending towards on-demand streaming video, but those films still have to look good on the HD televisions everyone will probably have by the end of this decade. Any home-video format needs content to feed it, and eventually people will get tired of what contemporary Hollywood has to offer and look to the past. Preservation will continue to make not only historical and aesthetic sense but financial sense as long as people continue to sit in front of moving, talking images to be told a story.

Movie Night

February 9, 2010

The second Movie Night in the series of concert films unspooled (well, spun) tonight at the local library. Good turnout, applause at the end. The film was Monterey Pop.

A Dead Rat in a Lucite Block: “Cruising” 30 Years Later

February 8, 2010

“Hell isn’t hot. It’s cold,” begins an issue of Frank Miller’s celebrated run on the Daredevil comic book. And so it is with William Friedkin’s Cruising, a movie so spat-upon during its release, and so decorated with crinkly-browed reappraisals years later, that to read the disparate reactions to the film is to risk whiplash. Homophobic! Incompetent! Revolutionary! Experimental! Since the movie turns 30 today, maybe now’s a good time to enter the darkness with gun and flashlight and see what sense, if any, can be made of this polarizing … thing.

Is it possible that Cruising is everything its detractors and defenders say it is? On whatever level, the movie is difficult and steadfastly uninterested in being what you want or expect it to be. Police procedural? Doesn’t really fly that way. Social portraiture? You’d get more insight from a Tom of Finland collection. Hot gay erotica? Top Gun is sexier. Friedkin has said he had to hack Cruising down from 140 minutes to 102, which might account for the movie’s disjointed feel; protesters nearby sabotaged the filming aurally, yelling and letting off airhorns, so a lot of the dialogue had to be looped in later, resulting in a dead from-nowhere sound — in an era notable for urban verisimilitude in movies — that somehow adds to the film’s inarguable creepiness. Nobody in Cruising seems to be quite there.

Al Pacino’s Steve Burns is a New York cop offered a tricky undercover assignment: Someone out there is butchering gay men, all of whom share the same basic look as Steve. Steve will be out there alone, sans gun and shield, playing the part of a rough-trade gay man to lure the killer. This doesn’t seem to give him pause: “I love it,” he says, smiling, when his superior (Paul Sorvino) asks him what he thinks of the job. Is this an ambitious cop eager for promotion, or a latent/closeted homosexual thrilled that the police force has just handed him an official excuse to get down and dirty the way he’s always wanted to?

Steve has a girlfriend (Karen Allen), but we can pretty much dismiss her; Steve does. After he goes undercover, he sees very little of her, and spends more time with friendly gay neighbor Don Scardino (notable these days for directing many 30 Rock episodes) when he’s not haunting such seamy back-in-the-day meat-packing-district clubs as the Ramrod and the Anvil. Steve wanders around the S&M gay scene with an air of befuddlement and detachment. Is he repelled or aroused by what he witnesses (including the infamous Crisco moment)? We don’t know. When he goes off with a guy and the scene fades to black, do they have sex? We don’t know.

Cruising, then, is the sort of maddeningly opaque movie that almost demands that you bring your own reading to it. For fuck’s sake, the killer himself is played by different actors throughout! Does this mean there’s more than one killer (Friedkin himself has said that’s the case), or that it doesn’t matter who the killer is in this nihilistic night world, or that (as one essay I found theorized) it’s actually a demon jumping from body to body as in Fallen … or as in AIDS, which was first diagnosed in NYC a year after the film came out? No matter what he looks like, the killer always has the same spooky, insinuating voice, except for when we meet him when he’s not on the prowl, at which point we find out the voice is his dead father’s. No doubt about it: This movie can inspire a thinking viewer either to say “I fucking give up, this is incoherent” or to probe its incoherence for deeper meaning.

One thing Cruising isn’t is boring. Friedkin keeps us off-balance throughout, partly by his typical to-the-bone editing (Bud Smith), partly by the needling, bizarre soundtrack (Jack Nitzsche), which at one point runs underneath a morgue scene with a sound like a baby screaming. The photography is blue and cold throughout, moving Stephen King to comment that “it has a sparkly look which is still somehow cheesy — it’s like a dead rat in a Lucite block.” I’d say the deadness is intentional; the film is full of emotional zombies, and even Pacino gives a hollow, exhausted performance only occasionally touched with warmth or fear. So what is going on here?

Any pleasure in the film is seen very remotely. The men in the bars are occasionally seen enjoying themselves, but largely it’s grim theater of the damned — not damned because they’re gay but because they have to go to these places, in a stinking area of the city where carcasses hang on hooks, in order to be themselves. It’s a milieu where a serial killer can flourish because to admit witnessing something is to admit being there in the first place. Despite the many protests to the contrary, the movie doesn’t really read as homophobic. The putatively hetero Steve gets along fine with his gay neighbor and doesn’t seem to have a problem with homosexuality in general (a far cry from the protagonist in Gerald Walker’s source novel, a far more complex and disagreeable character). And the film isn’t indifferent to the victims’ suffering; as I wrote in a capsule review on my first viewing years ago, “The first, horrible murder is almost impossible to watch,” and indeed it is. To say that one psychotic gay man may hate himself enough to take it out on other gay men is not the same as saying that all gay men are killers or deserve to die.

Back to Steve, who dutifully mounts his girlfriend and soon after loses sexual interest in her — if he ever had it. Cruising has been criticized because Steve seems to “turn gay” — and, possibly, homicidal — by his proximity to gay men, but there’s enough there to support the reading that Steve is latent or closeted from the get-go. The first conversation we see in the film is between two uniform cops (one is the great Joe Spinell), grousing about the women in their lives, then stopping to harass and sexually assault two queens in leather drag. Spinell’s cop later turns up in one of the clubs Steve visits. And of course there’s the odd scene wherein Steve enters a club apparently frequented solely by cops, or at least guys playing at being cops. And I was reminded of Nick Nolte’s violently closeted detective in Sidney Lumet’s underrated Q&A. The closet does weird things to people, especially men in macho lines of work. Some, like Nolte’s cop or Spinell’s cop, deal with it by terrorizing “fags.” More sensitive types like Steve might become confused but still function sanely.

The consensus seems to be that, when a gay man is found dead after the killer has been taken into custody, it’s Steve who’s the killer now. That may have been the case in Walker’s novel, where such a twist is prepared for a bit better, but in the movie it elicits a “Huh?” I think Friedkin is trying to end on a question mark, but I think it’s also possible to understand the final killing as merely a lovers’ quarrel, which has been prepared for. Neither reading is particularly nice, but if you want nice, what are you doing watching a William Friedkin cop movie?

Cruising is a deeply strange film, and though I don’t think it’s entirely successful, I don’t think it deserves its status as the skunk in Friedkin’s resume, either (nor, incidentally, do I believe it’s a misunderstood masterpiece of dread or something). I will say that its ambiguities might be viewed more charitably if its style and emphasis weren’t so alienating. It holds us at arm’s length; instead of approaching us, it makes us come closer, makes us join it inside some brackish men’s restroom that smells bad, and then leaves us in there with a lot of unanswered questions. Then a black guy wearing a cowboy hat and a jockstrap comes in, slaps us, and leaves to go read the newspaper.

Old but newly posted

February 6, 2010

A review, if you dare, of the Gary-Busey-becomes-a-pomeranian epic Quigley. Yes, really. Also: Crazy Heart.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 71 other followers