Archive for March 2003


March 21, 2003

As long as you don’t expect it to make much sense, Dreamcatcher is a bright spot of silliness in unsilly times. From what I gather, quite a bit of the Stephen King book has gotten lost in the translation; I haven’t read it, so I was free to enjoy the movie as a creature feature involving, among other things, slimy, toothy worms that issue forth, in a crescendo of blood and gas, from their victims’ recta. My taste in horror movies, I admit, is low and shabby enough for this bizarre detail to have won me over, though the film has nothing else comparably entertaining up its sleeve. I wonder what director Lawrence Kasdan, who made such high-toned dramas as Grand Canyon and The Accidental Tourist, was thinking about as he set up the scene with the alien in the toilet.

King likes to assemble a group of (male) friends haunted by their childhoods — see Stand by Me and It — and Dreamcatcher is no exception. Four guys — Henry (Thomas Jane), Beaver (Jason Lee, whose career has definitely led up to playing a guy named Beaver), Jonesy (Damian Lewis), and Pete (Timothy Olyphant) — head up to a remote cabin in snowy Derry, Maine, as they’ve done every year for the last twenty years. The area, it so happens, is under paramilitary quarantine; rogue commander Curtis (Morgan Freeman) is trying to isolate and destroy a vicious race of galactic visitors, though decades of E.T. hunting have left him a few pennies short of a dollar. This is a heartening return to villainy for Freeman — let’s not forget his breakthrough role as a heartless pimp in 1987’s Street Smart. But 1987 was a long time ago, and Freeman, working against dozens of noble past performances, just seems more irritable than usual.

The four guys have telepathic gifts, passed on to them by a mentally disabled kid they once saved from bullies. Sometimes these gifts manifest themselves in interesting forms, as when Jonesy “calls” Henry on a handgun borrowed from ambivalent soldier Tom Sizemore. In what immediately became one of my all-time favorite mainstream forays into the surreal, the gun actually rings, and Henry chats away into it. And if you want first-class deadpan comedic genius, check out Tom Sizemore’s blandly inflected response after the call is done: “Give me back my gun.”

I also enjoyed Jason Lee’s nervous-tic characterization of Beaver, who scoops peanut butter out of the jar with his finger and is never without a toothpick between his teeth; while sitting on that toilet lid to keep the alien confined, Beaver must reach perilously to the floor for one of the few spilled toothpicks not floating in anal gore. Call me crude — I have to love a scene of suspense built around fallen toothpicks and a toilet monster.

Dreamcatcher eventually collapses under a barrage of exposition. The grown disabled kid, “Duddits” (Donnie Wahlberg), turns up to participate in the finale, carting his Scooby-Doo lunchbox and stuffed Scooby-Doo doll. Dreamcatcher is a Warner Bros. movie, as are the Scooby-Doo films, so I have no idea whether King’s book was similarly Scoobified or this is simply the most blatant cross-marketing ever. Perhaps King’s book also explains why the alien who takes over Jonesy’s body is known as Mr. Gray and speaks with an English accent, or what happens to all the alien-infected people quarantined in Derry, or why the recesses of Jonesy’s mind look like an overstuffed library archive (complete with X-rated fantasies filed by year). In fact, the more I think about this loud, confusing, borderline terrible, but cheesily enjoyable movie, the more I want to read the book. Just please don’t tell me the book doesn’t have any toilet monsters.


March 14, 2003

I didn’t think much of the original Willard (1971) when I finally caught up with it recently. Impersonally directed, and cartoonishly acted by everyone except Bruce Davison in his classic cringing-hysterical turn as rat lover Willard Stiles, it looks these days like nothing so much as a shrewd generation-gap revenge thriller: Willard was kept down by his elders, and, much like others his age in 1971, he gathered his forces and rebelled. The new Willard remake, ingeniously casting Crispin Glover as Willard, is more timeless and far, far superior. What was once clunky is now stylish; what was once dull and predictable is now a sick-funny ritual of vengeance. This Willard remix is a gothic, creaking, brilliantly macabre and unexpectedly intimate movie.

Director Glen Morgan (a veteran of The X-Files) and his co-writer James Wong stick close to the original story. Willard lives in an ornate old house with his sickly, domineering mother (that experienced wacko Jackie Burroughs, whose scenes with Glover are like a duet of freaks). He clerks at his late father’s company, now owned by bulldozing bully Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey, attempting to beat us to death with his economy-size eyebrows). The only one Willard can turn to for solace is Socrates, an intelligent white rat he encounters in his cellar. Socrates is the brains; Ben, a grotesquely large rat we first see eating a tire, is the brawn. Willard befriends them (and scores of other rats), training them with such simple phrases as “In,” “Out,” and “Tear it up.”

Crispin Glover certainly tears it up. He belongs in, I don’t know, maybe black-and-white underwater unsubtitled German films. Lacking that, he’s brought his sui generis Crispin-tude to one movie after another; this may be his only lead in a film that opens nationwide in 1,800 theaters, and he gives it his blend of sensitivity and whirligig madness. He’s a Tim Burton movie all by himself. As Willard, he has a way of shivering out his joy or rage, as if his repressed passions were devils physically leaving his body. When he loses his cool, he screeches much like his rat companions. In the original film, the rats came to trust Bruce Davison because he was kind to them; here, it’s as if they took one look at Crispin Glover and recognized one of their own.

Anyone who fetishizes Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and dusty old expressionist horror films will want this Willard in his or her collection. A yapping little dog and, later, a cat find themselves hilariously outnumbered and outclawed by Willard’s legion of rodents. There’s a remarkable shot of Willard covered in rapidly dispersing rats that scamper off to do his bidding; he’s like a god of the lower orders, or an unholy cross between Nosferatu and Renfield. Glen Morgan and cinematographer Robert McLachlan achieve a sort of cobwebbed beauty, a world the color of old blood stains. Crispin Glover slinks in and out of the shadows as if they’d birthed him.

Willard is an elegant visual essay on the bizarre. Willard’s scenes with his beloved Socrates play like the weirdest unrequited romance moments of all time; he tenderly shares a bed with the rat, while the neglected Ben skulks in corners, somehow managing to look hurt and resentful. This conflict between rat leaders — Willard, Socrates, Ben — is much more fleshed out here than in the original, and is just eccentric enough to work. Much of the credit for that goes to Crispin Glover, who has the genuine cracked inspiration to persuade you that weird things matter. This dark valentine to misfits, and the love between misfits, was released a month late.

A Mighty Wind

March 12, 2003

mitch-and-mickey-106Christopher Guest’s great comic theme is the self-delusion inherent in entertainment: it’s always seen as hapless competition, whether among film students (The Big Picture), repertory players (Waiting for Guffman), dog owners (Best in Show), or one’s own past glory (This Is Spinal Tap). Guest’s new mockumentary, A Mighty Wind, is, like Spinal Tap, about aging musicians revisiting their golden old days. The subject here is folk singers, though, not pampered metal-rock dinosaurs, so A Mighty Wind is the gentlest satire Guest has yet created. As Guest gets older, I think, his instinct is to honor the entertainers who are still in there pitching, rather than to tear them down.

Once again fashioning a loose framework with co-star Eugene Levy (within which the cast is free to improvise), Guest proposes that a trailblazing folk-music manager has died, and that his son (Bob Balaban) wants to organize a reunion concert of all the old ’60s acts the old man represented. There’s the New Main Street Singers, who seem to have only one original member left (a sour-faced Paul Dooley); the Folksmen, a one-hit wonder reuniting the Spinal Tap group of Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer; and Mitch and Mickey (Levy and Catherine O’Hara), who once crooned sweetly to each other to the oohs and ahs of America, but haven’t spoken since their acrimonious split decades ago.

As before, Guest lets the characters talk at length, obliviously revealing their own quirks and neuroses. The New Main Street Singers, for instance, seem to be a haven for society’s drop-outs, fleeing ugly reality and snuggling into the safety and pieties of the group dynamic. One couple, the waggishly named Bohners (John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch), talk like chipper suburban drones, but she has a past as a “performer” in movies “for mature audiences,” and they both solemnly worship the “dimension of color.” Parker Posey, with bulletproof smile, appears as a younger group member who took solace in the Main Street Singers after living on the streets for a while. Folk music here is seen as a calming illusion, an almost religious structure.

We watch the various groups as showtime approaches. The Folksmen argue over whether to take their old Dickies out of mothballs; Harry Shearer has the movie’s home-run line when he tries to distinguish between hip and retro. The Main Street Singers, shiny and happy to a fault, nevertheless show some integrity when deflecting the goofball ideas of Fred Willard in the perfect Fred Willard role as their manager. The emotional core of A Mighty Wind is the tentative reunion of Mitch and Mickey, and Guest finds something real and spiky in their anti-rapport. O’Hara gives a rather frightened performance as a woman looking back on her past and seeing nothing but ghosts, while Levy, the ghost who walks, goes so far into Mitch’s near-autistic misery that he creates a void that the movie is drawn into. It throws the film’s tender comedy off a little, but Guest and especially Levy give us a man whose demons won’t be resolved in a lifetime, never mind in 92 minutes of screen time. The movie bravely lets Mitch be screwed-up and unreachable, and the comedy deepens.

Everything leads up to the live televised reunion concert, and Guest correctly concludes that we don’t want to see everything fall apart — we don’t want any Stonehenge embarrassments, we want these people to come back and bask in the glow again for an evening. Suspense gathers alongside the comedy — will Mitch get it together enough to perform again with Mickey? — and there are some good laughs involving an unauthorized cover version and Harry Shearer’s stone-faced lecture on the anguish of the Civil War. A Mighty Wind is not as biting as some Guest fans might want it to be, but who wants to see these people bitten? They’re harmless enough, and their music — composed by the actors, some of it genuinely good — brings them together, like a bridge between personalities or between eras.


March 7, 2003

Most critics, confronted with the toxic structural exercise that is Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, have tended to zero in on the film’s two most notorious moments of savagery, which arrive twenty and forty minutes into the proceedings, respectively. While certainly disturbing and repulsive at times, Irréversible is about more than garden-variety shock or cleverness (the story, about an enraged man seeking revenge for the brutal rape and beating of his girlfriend, is told backwards á la Memento). Indeed, the moments of horror take up only about one-tenth of the entire film — about ten minutes or so. Nine of those minutes, though, feature a literally unblinking, unbroken shot of a seemingly unending and vicious anal rape.

We’ll get the nasty stuff out of the way first. Irréversible begins on a note of vertiginous disorientation, with the closing credits scrolling upward and eventually tilting to the side, forcing the viewer to literally lean to the right, a fitting political omen for what follows. We see two thugs sitting in a room, one of whom, Philippe Nahon, was the star of Noé’s previous merdiste lightning rod for controversy, I Stand Alone. Sitting naked in bed, Nahon delivers the film’s epigram: “Time destroys everything.” Yep, sure does. The camera swirls and tilts away from the thugs, out the window, and down to the street outside a gay S&M club called The Rectum. We see one man on a stretcher with a broken arm, another being taken into verbally-abusive police custody. Then the movie begins its backward, downward spiral: we transition to the scene before this one, which explains the broken arm and the police.

The men are shown delving into the darkest, scuzziest corners of gay fetishism, demanding to see “Le Tenia”; we don’t know why yet. Eventually they find a man they take to be Le Tenia; what follows brought me close to vomiting, and not just because of the flashing lights and incoherently spinning camerawork (the style redefines “assaultive,” and I gave silent, nauseated thanks that I hadn’t seen the movie on a big screen). Simply put, metal fire extinguisher meets skull; skull loses. With the aid of CGI, which enabled Noé to create a seamless blend of real, latex, and digital heads, we see, from beginning to end, a man’s face bashed in — caved in, really — and it’s the sort of thing Martin Scorsese might show us if he didn’t have to worry about getting an R rating and were really sadistic.

What’s the motive for this horrifying assault? After a while we see it: the beautiful Alex (Monica Bellucci) — girlfriend of one of the men, Marcus (Vincent Cassel), former lover of the other, Pierre (Albert Dupontel) — has been brutally raped and then beaten into a coma. Here, the camerawork is as arrogantly nailed-down as it was arrogantly chaotic before; we are trapped on the floor along with Alex and her rapist. For nine minutes or so, we’re in hell as Alex’s assailant, the pimp Le Tenia (Jo Prestia), rapes her anally while she emits muffled screams and cries. Our knowledge that Marcus and Pierre exacted gut-wrenching revenge for this crime comes as no comfort, especially because of Noé’s wicked little twist in the narrative (unrevealed by me). The rape, for me, is made even more horrifying by the addition of little everyday details like the way the rapist, once finished, rolls off of Alex and wipes his brow as if he’s just gotten done with a particularly strenuous jog.

If a viewer survives the first fifty minutes, the rest of Irréversible chills out considerably, with nothing more violent in store than a little sexual debate. Noé knows exactly what he’s doing: Tensed and ready for more atrocity (dreading more), we instead get elegant long takes in which we see the comparably peaceful and pleasant part of the day for Alex, Marcus, and Pierre. We learn that Pierre used to be Alex’s lover and still carries a torch for her; still haunted by what he sees as his sexual inadequacy, he drills Marcus on whether Alex has ever orgasmed with Marcus, and if so, how did he do it? The characters are not terribly fleshed out, and the acting, while fresh and credible, is obviously ad-libbed (Noé gave the actors a three-page outline of the story, leaving the dialogue in their hands). But we also get a sense of the past these three share (Bellucci and Cassel were a couple in real life during filming), and why Alex prefers the more instinctive and elementary Marcus to the philosophical Pierre, who’s too sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.

Rather cruelly, Irréversible runs backwards into an idyll, ending as sweetly and joyously as it began so hideously and hatefully. The cruelty, of course, derives from our knowledge of what’s to come for the three friends and lovers. Watching Alex and Marcus recline lazily (naked) in bed — with golden light and pensive framing that proves Noé isn’t just an ADD whiz with a camera — becomes unspeakably sad when we reflect on what later happens (or, to us, has already happened) to them. Irréversible also has a clever bookending effect: It begins with incestuous talk, homosexual fetishism, and gory murder; it ends with love, life, happy children, and the affirmation of heterosexual values. (The movie’s early scenes set a new record for the number of anti-gay epithets in one film. The movie itself isn’t homophobic, I don’t think; it just reflects the sordidness of a particular gay-fringe milieu and the average hetero’s recoil from it.) Irréversible‘s first thirty minutes are a special endurance test solely on the basis of style, with its loop-de-loop camera and grinding, headache-inviting soundscape (which needs a Dolby Digital 5.1 playback for the full bowel-loosening effect). Noé is a confrontational master, no question — a filmic martinet whose control over his effects and our responses is like an iron fist. Shoved where it’ll do us the least good.

I came away shaken yet oddly refreshed — it’s always comforting to know that a movie can still shock me, and even scare me. As a horror-movie fan, I’ve seen just about every trick in the book, and so horror movies for me are more fun rituals than actual scary experiences. Irréversible, however, frightened me, the way Oz on HBO used to frighten me — humanity in extremis, the proof of barbarism in our DNA, the intimation that the only difference between a sensible, socialized person and a rabid murderer is one bad day. A bad day that can begin, as one character describes it, as “a special day.”

Tears of the Sun

March 7, 2003

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan has had a terrible, lingering effect on war movies. Technological whiz-bang — the ability to craft, with digital effects and digital sound, a bone-cracking you-are-there aesthetic — has replaced personality; the soldiers themselves seem digital (and sometimes are). Tears of the Sun (nice-sounding title, having no apparent meaning in the movie) is the latest example of war-as-toy-soldiers. Bruce Willis, as the stoic, no-nonsense Lt. Waters, sets the tone; he expresses so little that the performance could be taken as a parody of dead-cool machismo if there were any evidence of wit. The rest of the cast follows suit; there isn’t even, for God’s sake, a wisecracking soldier who serves to lighten Waters up a bit. Most funerals have more laughs than this film.

Of course, Tears of the Sun, like its hero, doesn’t have time for levity. The mission is simple and single-minded: Waters and his men are to land in the Nigerian jungle and rescue a volunteer doctor (Monica Bellucci) from an area endangered by approaching rebel forces. No more, no less. But she doesn’t want to go — at least not without the people she’s helping. Waters’ response is a firm negative, but when he sees piles of massacred villagers he has a change of heart, signalled by Bruce Willis’ change of expression from blankly grim to grimly blank. The men go back into the chaos to get the innocent people out alive, engaging the rebel soldiers in the process.

The action, as constructed by director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), is the usual hash of Cuisinart editing and “moody” photography. An early scene in which Waters rises up from the river and startles a native is so dimly lit that I guess it achieves its objective — to establish that Waters and his guys are so good they can see in pitch darkness. (Oh, for a shot of one of the soldiers tripping over something.) The battle sequences are mainly a matter of sneak attack and retreat — no strategy, just cut and run. The rebels are faceless targets, except for the big cheese, who strolls into churches wielding a machete. Like Black Hawk Down, the movie regales us with the heroics of a (mostly) white American platoon picking off anonymous black savages.

The movie runs nearly two hours yet allows itself no moments of R&R in which to get to know the soldiers or the people they’re protecting. The cast includes at least two firebrands given nothing to work with. Monica Bellucci can be a dark, electrifying presence, as seen in Brotherhood of the Wolf, but you wouldn’t know that from her noble, perfect-doctor performance here. (Couldn’t she, like Ben Kingsley in Rules of Engagement, say something like “Thank Christ! Get me the hell out of this shithole”?) Eamonn Walker, late of HBO’s prison drama Oz, has the ability to play a character who could lead his own platoon with unquestionable moral authority, but here he’s reduced to the role of Waters’ right-hand man; he’s the black guy who affirms the white hero’s decency by assuring him he did the right thing.

Then there’s Bruce Willis. Stone-faced and stubble-headed, he seems to be out to prove to Vin Diesel — who’s been called the new Bruce Willis — that the old Bruce Willis isn’t decommissioned yet. I have enjoyed Willis far more in far worse movies than this — like, say, 1999’s Breakfast of Champions, a botch of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel that Willis believed in enough to finance most of it out of his own pocket. Did the failure of that film scare Willis back to tried-and-true mainstream junk? With the money he made from Tears of the Sun, will he foot the bill for another lunatic risk? Experimental failures can push the medium forward; movies like Tears of the Sun are stuck in neutral.

Laurel Canyon

March 7, 2003

Laurel-Canyon-2003-Frances-McDormand-pic-7Jane (Frances McDormand), a California record producer who’s hung out with most of the greats, has a theory about pop music: “Either it pulls you in or it leaves you cold.” The highly intelligent and enjoyable indie film Laurel Canyon may leave some people cold — it is, after all, about the pains and problems of the well-off — but it pulled me in with its friendly, inclusive, nonjudgmental appraisal of human nature. Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, whose previous film was 1998’s High Art, likes to poke around in the psyches of creative people (or their hangers-on) and see what happens; here, she adds some rather uncomfortable almost-familial infidelity to the mix.

Jane is a proudly unreconstructed flower child, endlessly getting high with the guys whose album she’s producing, and flirting with a longer-lasting-than-usual relationship with one of them, lead singer Ian (Alessandro Nivola). “We have a deep connection,” she explains to her grown son Sam (Christian Bale), a Harvard Med graduate interning at a psych ward. Sam’s heard this before; he counters with the names of various partners (male and female) Jane has been deeply connected with in the past. Yeah, but Ian is different, perhaps starting with the fact that he’s sixteen years younger than she is.

Sam is staying in his mother’s house with his girlfriend Alex (Kate Beckinsale), who dutifully toils on her dissertation on the reproductive habits of fruit flies while Ian’s band blares in Jane’s nearby home studio. Sam finds Jane “embarrassing,” even attempting to pass her off as “mentally undeveloped,” but you sense a childhood full of hectic fun times that Sam needed to escape. He and Alex are supposed to be looking at apartments, but Alex, who takes a liking to Jane, doesn’t seem to be hunting too hard; neither does Sam, who lingers too long in the car with alluring fellow resident Sara (Natascha McElhone), who’s been giving him rides to work and seems to want other rides with him.

Frances McDormand cheerfully turns Jane into the polar opposite of the forbidding, anti-drug mom she played in Almost Famous; the two performances function as bookends. (Yet both mothers ultimately let their sons go off to become their own persons, and would probably get along with each other on that basis.) Jane’s relationship with Sam (played by Bale with flustered decency) is by far the most intriguing aspect of the movie. There’s a rather poignant snapshot of her cuddling Sam as a serious-faced little boy, perhaps already a seasoned veteran of his mom’s excesses. You feel that Jane would like Sam to loosen up a bit, but also needs him just as he is; she has produced a self-reliant son, too straight for his own good, yet honestly who he is. The two actors weave a fine thread of mutually exasperated respect and love.

When Alex begins to enjoy Jane’s company a bit too much — expressing some of the wildness she’s repressed for too long — Laurel Canyon takes an uneasy turn but plays it mostly for erotic comedy. A son’s worst nightmare — your girlfriend making out with your mom — is hinted at but not explored; Cholodenko rightly senses that this would derail the movie’s emphasis, which is on life’s dissatisfactions rather than on sex. This writer-director, like the similar Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing), allows her smart characters to act stupidly but doesn’t punish or scorn them for it. Laurel Canyon is an easygoing study of different kinds of foolishness, relaxing into human flaws and coming up with something that feels fresh.