Archive for April 2011

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

April 30, 2011

On the evidence of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, the long-awaited and probably quickly forgotten partial adaptation of Ayn Rand’s behemoth novel, objectivists have no balls. I don’t mean the objectivists on the screen; I mean the ones behind the camera. In the movie, heroine Dagny Taggart defects from her family’s railroad line to forge her own, in cahoots with the prosperous metal-slinger Hank Rearden. She takes a huge risk, and what could’ve been an epic folly pays off. If you want the cinematic equivalent of what Dagny does, look at Avatar. This movie, however, feels bargain-bin all the way. The $20 million budget being bandied about for the film largely refers to about eighteen years of pre-production costs; what was left over couldn’t buy nearly as lavish a folly as what Rand’s opus deserves.

At one point, Angelina Jolie was rumored to be circling the role of Dagny. Toss in Brad Pitt as Hank, add some broth and a potato, and baby, you got a stew going. The movie couldn’t afford them, or seemingly anyone else of note (Taylor Schilling? Grant Bowler?), though it did amuse me to see former Barton Fink co-stars Michael Lerner and Jon Polito batting a few scenes back and forth here. Talking of the Coen brothers, Atlas Shrugged needed an almost indecently excessive echo-chamber look, like The Hudsucker Proxy on steroids, if the human brain can imagine such a thing. What we get is an assortment of scenes in very bland offices, cleverly lighted to conceal how small they are. I realize this isn’t The Fountainhead, Rand’s other biggie, which was devoted to architectural integrity — but Christ, even the home of oil magnate Ellis Wyatt looks like a bed-and-breakfast.

It isn’t really my job to drone on here about Rand, her philosophy, or its recent resurgence among certain citizens obsessed with viewing birth certificates. Nor can I offer much insight on the novel, which amused me for a couple of weeks at the laundromat before I dumped it for Joe Hill. It’s not you, Ayn, it’s me. Honest. From what I did read, Rand’s fiction has conviction and a certain flair for world-building, neither of which shows up in the movie. What you have here is an hour and a half of set-up; even Peter Jackson got three hours to introduce viewers to Middle-Earth. Captains of industry keep disappearing, visited in the shadows by a fedora-wearing man. Who is this man? “Who is John Galt?” people keep asking, seemingly apropos of nothing. Is this man John Galt? Well, if you’re familiar with the story you know the answer, but God help the randomly curious moviegoer whose maiden voyage with Dagny and Hank this is.

The weirdly resentful tone (“People can only own one company!“, a character spits in response to a repressive government edict, probably finding little empathy among viewers who own a grand total of no companies) is easily dismissible. Atlas Shrugged is essentially a sci-fi fantasy, rubbing awestruck elbows with high rollers and players. When you get right down to it, the story says, Don’t be a player hater. In the movie’s universe, player haters care about such emasculating things as fairness and public safety. They don’t trust big companies to have the public’s best interest at heart. Ayn Rand says, in effect, “Screw the public.” All that’s true and good and beautiful is the entrepreneurial brilliance of the elite — we few, we happy few, we band of sociopaths.

None of this would matter if the movie bucked every possible odd and emerged as a great film. Alas, it is not, and its underlying worldview has little to do with its failure. The dialogue reduces the English language to the sound of heavy objects tumbling downstairs (my favorite: “That metal is completely untested! The consensus of the best metallurgical authorities is highly skeptical!”), the leads have negative charisma (Taylor Schilling must’ve been cast as Dagny due to her passing resemblance to a young Ayn Rand but emotes more like the present-day Ayn Rand, dead since 1982¹), and actor-turned-director Paul Johansson makes no creative spatial use of the wide frame — this could’ve, and by all rights should’ve, been a TV miniseries. The saddest part is the concluding title card, which reads “End of Part 1.” Wishful thinking, that: Part 1 has faced such critical pounding and ticket-buyer indifference that producer John Aglialoro has now publicly questioned whether the projected parts 2 and 3 are feasible. See what I mean? What would Dagny say about that? What would Ayn Rand say? Objectivists are pussies.

¹ Rand also spent the last eight years of her life on Social Security. So much for “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Super

April 18, 2011

Here’s a case of mismarketing, I think. Super is being sold as a wacky iconoclastic comedy in the mold of Kick-Ass, but it hews closer to the depressive sting of the underseen Defendor. The movie, an original by James Gunn (Slither), tells what I assume to be the truth about what kind of person really would be driven to be a superhero. Sometimes the Batman comics come close, implying that Bruce Wayne is short a marble or two, or at least is trying to fill a very large void. But he’s still rich and handsome and cool. Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) is none of those things. Frank has recently lost his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering addict, to local scumbag Jacques (Kevin Bacon). Something snaps in Frank’s mind; he pours himself into a red costume, arms himself with a pipe wrench, and takes to the streets.

Tracking Frank’s grim journey, Super sidles into psychodrama territory, with the accent on psycho. But then Ellen Page pops into the picture as Libby, a comic-book-store clerk who giddily offers herself as Frank’s “kid sidekick,” and the mood jumps considerably. It’s fun watching Wilson and Page reunited after Juno (even though their scene in that film boasted some of the most vilified dialogue in history, homeskillet), and they’re an amusingly unstable team. Libby may be even more twisted than Frank is; her head full of simplistic heroics, she has to be reminded not to kill people. If he’s a psychopath, she’s a sociopath.

Whenever possible, Gunn uglifies the violence (though not as much as he could have); hitting someone with a pipe wrench will file them away in the ICU for a while. And the bad guys, Bacon and especially Michael Rooker as his main henchman, are allowed brief moments to register just how scummy they’ve become: when Jacques is obliged to hand Sarah off to a guy he’s doing a deal with, Bacon has an amazing little bit when he flips from angry to sad to resigned to put-on callous in the space of a few seconds. Gunn tends to marshal fine actors — his frequent secret weapon Nathan Fillion turns up in classic droll form as a kiddie-show religious hero who influences the deranged Frank. As for Wilson, if there’s any justice Super should kick his career up a notch; there’s nothing of the closed-off dweeb Dwight Schrute in the vulnerable, damaged Frank. Again, the movie is sort of being sold, in part, as Dwight Schrute: Superhero. But Wilson goes to more uncomfortable places than that.

The whole thing builds up to a mock-cathartic Taxi Driver climax, with which the only problem I have, treading lightly around spoilers, is the question of what exactly becomes of a major character. (I mean, we see what happens, but then there’s the aftermath, and how such a thing is explained to authorities and friends.) But then, by that point, I doubt we’re meant to take the film literally. Super will probably nudge fans into endless what-was-real debates, similar to the eternal discourse about Taxi Driver‘s finish. At heart, though, it’s the latest whack at grappling with the adolescent power fantasies that have current blockbuster cinema in a stranglehold (I wonder what our summers would look like if the first X-Men and Spider-Man movies had tanked). If the tone is uneven, if the “comedy” doesn’t yield as many laughs as we’re led by the ads to expect, that’s only the collateral damage of the destruction Gunn hopes to wreak on the increasingly debased and tired genre. A superhero in real life would be a delusional narcissist with serious rage issues, his sidekick would be an impulsive kid who really hasn’t thought through the life choice, and the film puts that across nicely.

Scream 4

April 16, 2011

“Where is the next Wes Craven?” That’s how I ended my review of Wes Craven’s Scream fifteen years ago. Now I have to ask, Where is the current Wes Craven? Scream 4, which nobody particularly wanted except executive producer Bob Weinstein, is further proof that the director who unleashed such horror classics as Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street is long gone. All of those films have been poorly remade in recent years, and Scream 4, I think, would like to consider itself a commentary on the remakes and reboots that have choked the horror genre for the last decade. Instead it just becomes part of the problem.

Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the Final Girl heroine of the previous Scream films, returns to her hometown of Woodsboro after ten years as part of a book tour for her new memoir. Almost immediately, the Ghostface killings start up again. Who’s the killer — or killers? Does it really matter? The Scream movies have offered increasingly ridiculous reveals of the killers’ true identities, and this one is no different — actually, I take that back; it’s even more ridiculous, given that the people involved are so tiny and spindly they’re hardly credible as slashers who can ram a blade into tough flesh and, in one case, a forehead. Do the filmmakers (including returning screenwriter Kevin Williamson) have any idea how hard the human skull is? That’s why brain surgeons use bone saws.

The movie takes easy shots at such fat targets as the horror subgenre “torture porn,” which is generally agreed to have died on June 8, 2007, when Hostel Part II opened to the sound of yawns and crickets. But you just go ahead and snark about it anyway, Kev. There’s also a good deal of movie-within-the-movie meta-nonsense involving the horror series Stab, based on Sidney’s experiences; we’re told there are now seven Stab films, all of which look more fun than the movie we’re actually watching. The clownish cop Dewey (David Arquette) and the erstwhile reporter Gale (Courteney Cox) are back, seemingly re-enacting the actors’ marital troubles we’ve heard too much about lately; Gale is bored of Dewey and he knows it (but stops short of whining to Howard Stern about it).

The secret of the original Scream‘s success was trumpeting Drew Barrymore’s presence in all the ads and then killing her off in the first scene. From there, the movie was on wheels: all bets were off, anything was possible. There wasn’t yet a lucrative franchise to endanger by picking off a major character. There sure is now (word is that Bob Weinstein hopes Scream 4 will be the first of a new trilogy). And so we never fear for Sidney, Dewey or Gale, much less any of the newer characters (Alison Brie, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettierre), whom we barely care about. Needless to say, the movie is never less scary than when it tries to be, and oftentimes it doesn’t even bother to try. If people being murdered made something a horror story, then ABC’s Castle would be a horror series (and Castle is consistently more tense and entertaining than anything in Scream 4). All that’s left is someone running around in a cloak and Edvard Munch mask, a visual parodied so often by now it’s lost its punch. Fifteen years ago, I ended my Scream review by saying that the horror genre needed a new face. It now needs considerably more than that.

Hobo with a Shotgun

April 15, 2011

The best and worst thing I can say about Hobo with a Shotgun is that it tries hard. Really, really hard. Almost too hard. Jason Eisener, who directed Hobo as well as the Grindhouse contest-winning fake trailer that inspired it, has made a film that belongs on videocassette, in an oversize cardboard box. That it’s going to join many movie geeks’ Blu-ray collection in the near future feels wrong. This movie is too lovingly grubby to be all shiny and digital. The premise is sheer ’70s, the style and attitude more or less ’80s Troma without the Lloyd Kaufman intro. The blood, gushing and misting and spritzing, turns the Nova Scotia exteriors into a Jackson Pollock remix of RoboCop. The bad guys rocket far beyond cartoon villainy.

But at the film’s center is a rock, Rutger Hauer as the stoic Hobo, who wants only to pass through and perhaps collect enough scratch to buy a $49.95 lawnmower. Hauer invests the Hobo with a rotgut dignity, even when he’s on his knees chewing glass shards for twenty dollars. With Hauer in the role, Hobo‘s manic gore-streaked hyperbole begins to make sense. Aside from a kindly prostitute he befriends, the Hobo is the only normal character around, and I began to suspect that we’re seeing the crime sprawl of Hope City — renamed alternately Scum City or Fuck City in graffiti — through the Hobo’s cracked filter. The film’s insanity is his insanity. He may not actually be the most normal person onscreen. He might not even have a shotgun.

In the film’s/Hobo’s reality, though, he does, and he uses it on a variety of scum. The city is ruled by a mob boss who has the entire police force in his pocket. His two sons (Uday and Qusay?) waltz around trying to strike fear in the population, who are mostly seen as mindless rabble. Many people die, in public Caligula-like executions, while trollops bathe in their blood. Into this chaos comes the Hobo, a smelly Mifune or Eastwood, pushing his shopping cart and not wanting to get involved until the violence touches the hooker he likes (so he’s also a smelly Travis Bickle). Hobo is a compendium of highlights, tropes and clichés from a thousand 42nd-Street fleapit flicks; it’s the film equivalent of Robin Bougie’s zine Cinema Sewer. Bougie, Eisener, the Soska Sisters — Canada of late has birthed a new generation of grindhouse babies who dig the wildly impolite exploitation of America’s drive-in past.

Anyone who would see a movie titled Hobo with a Shotgun in the first place won’t be overly fazed by its gallons of gore. Past a certain point it’s just surreal, having nothing in common with real pain and death. It’s just red paint flying. There may, however, be a mild pang of is-this-it? disenchantment. The fake trailer, and then the real trailer for the real film, existed in an internet viral zone entirely separate from the movie. The title, the poster, the advertising — you almost don’t need an actual movie. When you watched Jason Eisener’s original 2008 Hobo with a Shotgun trailer, you essentially made the rest of the movie in your head; you extrapolated from what was there and envisioned something amazing, and you told your buddies you’d see the shit out of that film. Eisener probably said the same thing.

Now Eisener has made that film, and people are seeing the shit out of it, but does it compare with the epic badassery in their heads? Does it compare with the movie in Eisener’s head? You never really finish a movie like this, you just run out of time and money. And Eisener had $3 million, which is $3 million more than you and I have, but it also doesn’t go very far these days — not with all those special effects and a star who probably asked (and was fully worth) at least a low six figures. And then there’s all this ironic appreciation buzzing around the thing — Eisener may have been working sincerely, in his way, out of a love for grindhouse trash, but Hobo with a Shotgun may attract, in part, the same derisive audience that made Snakes on a Plane an internet meme for a few months. So there’s a tension between the movie this really is — cut almost exactly from the same cloth as its forebears — and the movie so many viewers either mockingly or genuinely want and expect it to be. You can’t just stumble across this in the mom-and-pop video store any more. It comes with too much preemptive laughter attached, both with it and at it.

And that’s too bad, because there’s fun to be had here, and it hasn’t escaped my notice that the films Hobo emulates also came out of an era of paranoia and economic murder. But if it plays too much like a sim, instead of the thing itself, it’s partly the film’s fault and partly ours. Honest trash like Doomsday and Drive Angry comes and goes fast. We seem to need extra incentive to watch stuff like this — the humble backstory of a contest-winning fake trailer, an ad campaign that carries on the grindhouse aesthetic, an almost farcically it-is-what-it-is title. Hobo both is and isn’t what it is. There’s the movie itself, and then there’s all the crap we bring into it.

Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe

April 11, 2011

How often these days do you get to see the Chin himself, Bruce Campbell, headlining a movie with a halfway decent budget? Not that often, so I’d advise all you primitive screwheads to check out Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe even if you’ve never seen an episode of the USA spy series Burn Notice.

You don’t need to have seen any episodes anyway. This is a stand-alone film focusing on, yep, Sam Axe (Campbell), the ex-Navy SEAL buddy of Burn Notice hero Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan, who sits in the director’s chair here and puts in a brief appearance near the beginning). We find out why Sam left the military and ended up in Miami; we also discover, in a good little in-joke for the show’s fans, where Sam got his favored alias “Chuck Finley.” But overall The Fall of Sam Axe is a diverting trifle pitting Sam against a cadre of corrupt Colombian military guys who want to destroy a clinic and pin the blame on the supposed “terrorist group” Espada Ardiente.

Campbell, slimmed down for the two-years-younger Sam Axe before he relocated to Crockett and Tubbs’ stomping grounds and had a few too many ice-cold beers, won’t disappoint his cult. Wisecracking all the way, but not cynical like Ash, Sam’s a good guy in a bad situation, which he works through with his smarts and military training. His Español may be terrible, but he tries hard to gain the trust of Espada Ardiente — mostly a scruffy band of goat-herders, led by a tough teenage girl (Ilza Rosario) — and prepare them, along with a couple of clinic workers, for the Colombian onslaught.

Donovan and writer/series creator Matt Nix keep things slick, fast and light, like the better Burn Notice episodes that don’t get too bogged down in the show’s serious master arc. Sam’s interplay with Michael (aside from that brief scene) and Fiona is missed a little, but he gets to flirt with a food aid worker (Kiele Sanchez) and, in nods to Campbell’s most iconic role, wield (and even hurl) a chainsaw and hold a rifle aloft in what Evil Dead geeks will instantly recognize as the Boomstick Stance. Campbell’s affable narration helps, and is a welcome change of pace from Michael Westen’s sometimes-irritating narration on the show, which always sounds like this: “As a spy, you usually have to do something or other, and I’m telling you this in a really condescending cadence, because you’re an idiot.” Campbell sounds more like a guy bending your ear as he bends his elbow.

Sam ends up in Columbia in the first place because he got caught nailing an admiral’s wife, which is perfectly in character for Sam and for Campbell. Really, this is the sort of lightweight adventure we should be seeing Bruce Campbell in much more often, on the big screen, but since he’s kind of aged out of that role, this movie and the Burn Notice show are the only places you get to see him being heroic on a regular basis. It’s not Bubba Ho-Tep, or even My Name Is Bruce, but then what is?

Arthur (2011)

April 10, 2011

To those who hold up the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy Arthur as if it were a snifter of fine brandy, I have to ask: Have you seen it lately? It hasn’t aged well; aside from John Gielgud’s deservedly Oscar-winning exercise in dry wit, which remains evergreen, it’s a dreary throwback to fizzier ’30s comedies of manners, with Moore falling about and cackling tirelessly, Liza Minnelli in that stage of her career when there could only be the thinnest pretense that she was playing anyone other than Liza Minnelli, and that ghastly Christopher Cross theme song, also (far less deservedly) Oscar-winning. What may have been refreshingly retro thirty years ago is now doubly musty.

Which is not to make any bold claims for the new Arthur, with the lanky, amiably decadent Russell Brand in for Moore and the mock-forbidding Helen Mirren in for Gielgud. The idea of Mirren as the new Hobson, the disdainful but covertly loving valet of the tippling heir Arthur (Brand), looks good on paper. But Mirren, delivering some of the same dialogue Gielgud did, can’t really compete. (Sometimes the dialogue can’t compete, either: Mirren’s “Wash your winkie” versus Gielgud’s towering delivery of “Perhaps you would like me to come in there and wash your dick for you, you little shit.”) And without any wildness or complexity to reveal, Mirren seems stranded. Two other actresses come off better. In the Minnelli role of the free-spirited woman Arthur loves but isn’t supposed to, here substantially rewritten, Greta Gerwig actually is as enchanting as Minnelli’s character was supposed to be. And Jennifer Garner, as the woman Arthur is meant to marry but doesn’t love, creates a soulless businesswoman who doesn’t really love Arthur either but wants the old-money cred of his name.

The premise is archetypal: Arthur must marry this horrid woman or he’ll lose his inheritance (here upgraded to $950 million from the original’s $750 million). But we don’t want to see him disregard his fortune any more than he wants to do it. The point of both films is that Arthur the coddled man-child in his kingdom of playthings must grow up enough to be willing to give it all up for true love. I hate to say it, but Russell Brand enacted a similar bad-boy-reforms arc last year in Get Him to the Greek, and he was funnier there; that comedy, for all its sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, was the real 21st-century Arthur (as well as an unofficial remake of My Favorite Year, of course). And it had better songs; this one gives us a soundtrack of twee romantic ditties, including a Fitz & the Tantrums end-credits cover of “Arthur’s Theme,” which, like the rest of the film, is a less annoying remake but no great shakes either.

During those end credits we see Arthur and his love depicted as if in a storybook. It looks a little like the illustrations Eric Chase Anderson does for the Criterion DVD editions of his brother Wes’ films, and that made me imagine a Wes Anderson remake of Arthur. It would be exponentially drier, perhaps with Owen Wilson as Arthur and Bill Murray as his valet (or perhaps his chauffeur, a role here that wastes the comedic gifts of Luis Guzman). When a movie has ended and you’re left thinking about an alternate version of it, that movie is probably in trouble. Otherwise, Arthur peddles the comforting fiction — especially offensive these days — that love trumps money, without quite acknowledging that life is more easily negotiable for people with money but no love than for those with love but no money. As Keith Richards put it when deriding the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”: “Yeah, try payin’ the bills with it.”

Insidious

April 2, 2011

In theory I’m all for a horror movie like Insidious. It’s cheap (a reported $1.5 million), it gets its scares the old-fashioned way (the only blood in the whole film is the gory handprint of a demon¹), and I could see very few, if any, effects that were born in a computer. Director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell may have made the original Saw, thus unleashing a seemingly ceaseless franchise on the public, but they aren’t entirely about torture porn; their previous collaboration was 2007′s fatally silly Dead Silence, which also went in for old-school creeps and creaks. The best I can say of Insidious is that it’s better than Dead Silence. I would like to encourage Wan and Whannell — as if they were hanging on my every word anyway — to continue in this splatter-free vein by handing Insidious a glowing notice. But I can’t. Maybe next time.

The demons in Insidious, or malefic spirits, or whatever they are, could be whipped up in a couple of hours in time for a Halloween party. In a way, that’s kind of cool. Wan and Whannell seem to have studied what kind of visuals will freak us out when barely glimpsed. They want to take us back to the makeup-chair sorcery of the old Universal monster classics. And it works, at first, but boy, would I like to see Insidious without the soundtrack. Here, as in Dead Silence, the score SHRIIIIEKS every time a paranormal menace pops up, and it gets to be EVERY BIT AS ANNOYING as it is to READ THIS SENTENCE. If, as a director, you feel you need booga-booga music this badly to put over a scare, it may be time to rethink your approach. John Carpenter, the modern master of the musical “sting,” used it sparingly and thus more effectively. Even the famous shock in 1942′s Cat People when the bus hisses into the frame would’ve been diluted if something like it had pierced the soundtrack every ten minutes.

What we have here, as in Paranormal Activity (whose director, Oren Peli, is a producer here), is not a haunted-house movie but a haunted-person movie. A little boy lapses into a coma, or something; it’s unlike any coma the doctors have ever seen. One scene, wherein a home-care worker teaches the boy’s mother (Rose Byrne) how to operate his nasogastric feeding tube, carries an authentic pang of helpless despair. We read it in Byrne’s face: So this is how it’s going to be. I did not ever want to need to know how to do this. Byrne also keeps hearing and seeing threatening things, though her husband (Patrick Wilson) doesn’t. Nevertheless, he acquiesces and they move out of their newly bought house into another. The weird sounds and sights continue. Experts must be called in, in the form of psychic Lin Shaye and two goofballs who reminded me of Dwight and Ryan from The Office as ghostbusters.

Shaye, perhaps best known for her farcical turns in comedies by the Farrelly brothers (though she was also in the original Nightmare on Elm Street), gives a fine serious performance here as a perfectly pleasant, non-batty lady who happens to have expertise in the spiritual or astral world. But the script turns her into Explainy McExposition, and during a key scene she is asked to sit wearing a gas mask connected to her assistant’s headphones — this actress truly has no embarrassment switch. Neither do the filmmakers, who try to make Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” a manifestation of dread (as if it weren’t creepy enough) and set up the last act as an astral quest through a lot of fog, during which some ominously grinning, Lynchian spirits come from everywhere.

Sadly, I don’t think this sort of literalized, physicalized terror works as well in the spectral genre as it might have decades ago. Especially when the head demon, or hungry ghost, or whatever, looks like what he’s called in the credits: “Lipstick-Face Demon.” In that respect, Diane Ladd smearing Revlon all over her face in Wild at Heart comes out the scarier by far. Most of David Lynch’s stuff does, really, despite Wan’s wan attempts here to emulate the master. Then again, Lynchian horror derives its charge from the inexplicable. In Inland Empire, the sight of rabbit-headed people exchanging gnomic pronouncements in a static wide shot while a laugh track bellows irrelevantly is terrifying (and funny) in a way that the rational waking-life brain can’t pin down. Wan and Whannell would spend ten minutes making Lin Shaye explain it all, and then send Patrick Wilson out into the fog to punch the rabbit people.

¹ I’ve since learned that the handprint is supposed to be lipstick. So: no blood in the movie whatsoever.


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