Archive for June 2005

War of the Worlds (2005)

June 29, 2005

Steven Spielberg, in the first hour or so of War of the Worlds, summons the apocalypse with all his genius for suspense and sadism. Yes, sadism. I’ve long felt that Spielberg has a lot of anger to work off — it’s come out in the oddest ways in some of his films — and here he gets to kill most of us off via tripod-riding aliens who squash millions of people as if they were less than ants. Knocking over buildings, flinging cars in the air, up-ending ferries, zapping screaming humans into ash, Spielberg is, make no mistake, having the time of his life. War of the Worlds differs from a callow destruct-a-thon like Independence Day in that the large-scale carnage, with catastrophe building on catastrophe, thrills as much as it hurts. This is really the first whack Spielberg has had at depicting mass destruction since 1941 over twenty-five years ago, and he shows all the summer-movie whippersnappers how it’s done. When the aliens emerge from the cracked asphalt of New Jersey and begin their brutal business, you can safely strap in for some of the most awe-inspiring work Spielberg has done in years.

The rest of War of the Worlds, though, is hit or miss. The problems, for some, may begin with Tom Cruise as the film’s default hero — Ray Ferrier, a divorced dad who never grew up. Spielberg’s portfolio is full of men like Ray, and they were more believable when smaller-scale actors like Richard Dreyfuss were playing them. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dreyfuss, playing an equally childlike father, gave off a schlumpy Everyman vibe, but with a manic gleam that kept you unsure what he was going to do. Certainly Spielberg wouldn’t find it in himself these days to give us a hero who leaves his wife and kids behind, as Dreyfuss did; and Tom Cruise is not the sort of actor who makes you nervous in that way, at least not in this kind of role. Cruise hurts the film because you don’t buy for a minute that a summer movie starring Tom Cruise will end with him or his two kids (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) anywhere near dead. A remake of War of the Worlds directed by Spielberg would have sold itself; it didn’t need star power, and if Spielberg had cast someone like Paul Giamatti — an actor who can play someone who might fail — the movie would be more successfully terrifying.

As it is, we’re not sure why Ray, running with hundreds of others on the chaotic streets, doesn’t get zapped along with the dozens who get reduced to ash constantly on either side of him, other than the fact that he’s Tom Cruise. As written and played, Ray has nothing much going for him aside from bulldog determination. He has to protect his kids at all times and at all costs, thwarted by one crisis or another (sometimes it’s aliens, sometimes it’s panicked mobs of people), and you get the sense that he’s being punished for being an absentee father. Millions of humans perish by fire so that Ray the deadbeat dad can redeem himself through action — or action-movie action.

Apparently it wouldn’t be a Spielberg film these days without a stretch of film that makes little sense and could be deleted with no harm done, and here we have Ray and his little daughter holing up in a basement with a grim-faced survivalist played by Tim Robbins. The climax of this plot thread serves no purpose other than to prove that Ray will do anything to keep his daughter alive, except that the proof is kept behind a closed door. For Robbins’ part, playing a gun-toting redneck, he gives the sort of crude performance — to paraphrase Pauline Kael — only a very dedicated liberal would give. His character is Bad News the second we lay eyes on him, because he’s rural and he’s armed. Spielberg and Robbins are both capable of more subtlety than this.

Some viewers have been bothered by the film’s wealth of 9/11-inspired imagery — the missing-person posters, the flakes of ash that used to be flesh falling everywhere. Spielberg gets a pass there — 9/11 showed us all what real disaster looks like, and it would be disingenuous of the movie to go back to the relatively clean zap-zap of something like Independence Day or, for that matter, the original 1953 War of the Worlds. If the destruction is unavoidably exciting, the aftermath is by necessity sobering and chilling. A director can be of two minds about the carnage he wreaks — we saw it in the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter-attack sequence in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, equal parts invigorating and appalling. Spielberg, following H.G. Wells’ book, eschews the ID4 formula of “Aliens attack; we hit back.” The power of our military is shown to be haplessly meaningless against the well-shielded aliens; the aliens’ downfall, as relevant today as in Wells’ day, is simply the arrogance of dominion. Too confident in their ability to wipe out big foes, they don’t account for smaller ones.

In the end, this War of the Worlds plays on American fears much the same way earlier versions of the story (including Orson Welles’ notorious 1938 radio hoax) did — in this case, terrorism, with a side order of unease about the way things are going in Iraq. (Talk about the arrogance of dominion; if anyone finds it implausible that aliens would invade a planet they know fatally little about, how about a country that starts a war on bullshit pretenses with an insufficient number of troops and threadbare equipment, hoping that the people will greet us as liberators? We have met the aliens, and they are us.) It’s fun to analyze summer entertainment this way, if not terribly satisfying; it doesn’t make the movie larger than it is. I still prefer Tim Burton’s flamboyantly goofy Mars Attacks, which had no agenda other than to blow stuff up for fun. Spielberg blows stuff up better than anyone — he proves himself the maestro of that by-now-degraded game. But he does it so well that it’s a hard act for even the maestro to follow.

Land of the Dead

June 24, 2005

The key to George A. Romero’s Dead films is that, movie by movie, the flesh-eating zombies become more and more sympathetic — animalistic, but pure and sincere, compared with corrupt human survivors — until, in the fourth entry Land of the Dead, they emerge as something like heroes. Breathes there a moviegoer with soul so dead who won’t cheer on the zombies as they tuck into a refreshing midnight snack of rich people? Romero has always used his zombie films as vehicles for social commentary, and here, several years after the dead began to rise and eat the living, the city is separated into two segments: those who are wealthy and white enough to afford a safe skyscraper existence far away from the moaning undead; and everyone else. What’s more, the zombies have grown tired of being used for target practice. Through instinct, or perhaps through trial and error, they have begun to learn.

For many horror fans, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1979) are the gold standard of independently financed fearmaking. His Day of the Dead (1985) was by necessity truncated — Romero simply didn’t have the budget to realize his initial concept — and it was a bitter and frustrated movie, yet still offered some pleasures. Two decades have passed since Romero has put a zombie in front of a camera, and the danger is that some fans will bring to Land of the Dead twenty years of anticipation, dreams of the epic Romero should have been free to make for all these years in limbo. Forget all that. The film cannot and will not meet such expectations; no film could. What it does, and does tightly and with a finely wrought sense of purpose I haven’t seen from Romero in a very long while, is to tell a ripping good zombie yarn.

The hero, of a sort, is Riley (Simon Baker), a weary veteran of warfare with the “stenches.” He has built an impenetrable transport rig called Dead Reckoning, and in it he and his men travel to hot spots in the zombie-laden areas of the city, scavenging for supplies. (This saga may have begun in 1968 in our time, but in the movies’ timeline we’re probably only talking about a span of a few years, which would explain why there are still places that can be scavenged from.) One of Riley’s men, Cholo (John Leguizamo), has other ideas; his scheme is to hijack Dead Reckoning and threaten to blow up the rich-people sector of Fiddler’s Green unless the boss of everything, Mr. Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), gives Cholo a large amount of money. Meanwhile, a band of zombies, gradually growing in number, line up behind a vengeful zombie (Eugene Clark) who, like “Bub” in Day of the Dead, is a rather quick study.

The movie is fast but never rushed; with a master’s control, Romero sets his characters in motion and against each other. Special-effects guru Tom Savini isn’t in charge of the gore this time (he does reprise his role from Dawn, though, a brutal machete-wielding biker now turned shambling zombie), but Savini’s loss is Greg Nicotero’s gain; Nicotero’s zombie make-up is, dare I say, subtly crafted, and the splattery bits are suggested more often than shown, just as in Night of the Living Dead. I’d also say that, with a cast including Asia Argento as an ex-hooker Riley rescues and Robert Joy as a sort of Lennie to Riley’s George, not to mention dependable veterans Leguizamo and Hopper, Land of the Dead boasts the best acting since Night. The movie successfully brings this series full circle, or perhaps begins (dare we hope?) another trilogy. Hey, if George Lucas could do it, why not this much more visionary George?

Land of the Dead quieted my misgivings early on, when we see zombies chained up for cheap entertainment at some punk-goth dive frequented by the scummy dilettantes of the city. You ache for one of those poor zombies to break loose and gnaw some meat, and soon enough they do. In the Dead films, Romero shows us humanity at its most callous, against which the guileless hunger of the zombies seems innocent. Supposedly soulless, the flesh-eaters have more soul than those trying to eradicate them. Romero understands his genre from top to bottom: The subject is not humans but monsters, and how they reflect each other, and how, as Nietzsche put it, humanity consists mainly of battling monsters without becoming one. It’s a message that has been uniquely relevant in every decade Romero has advanced it, and it is ultra-relevant now.5

March of the Penguins

June 24, 2005

It’s possible that the human race is the only species narcissistic enough to see itself in every other species. As a pet owner myself, I can relate, but what we read as our pets’ love might, for all we know, just be self-preservational loyalty to the big animal that’s feeding them. In the French documentary March of the Penguins, an international sleeper hit that took America by storm, the Emperor penguins of the Antarctic are imbued, as in a standard Disney nature film, with emotions we can’t know for sure if they really have. The new English narration, prepared by Jordan Roberts and read with predictable gravitas by Morgan Freeman, keeps selling us on the penguins’ similarity to us. It’s a rather offensively human-centered approach to what should be a mystifying and beautiful experience.

To be fair, it could have been worse, and it reportedly was worse in director Luc Jacquet’s original French version (La marche de l’empereur), which according to Variety used “actors Romane Bohringer and Charles Berling to voice penguins murmuring sweet nothings to each other.” (Someone get me a barf bag.) Here, the only voice heard is Morgan Freeman, who once played God and now functions as a godlike presence, telling the story of the waddling critters with an air of detached sadness when required, sometimes a hint of amusement when the funny little guys flop down on their tummies. Either way, the effect is to cheapen the footage, which is striking enough on its own.

Much is made of the harshness of the penguins’ quest, wherein they must walk 70 miles to a place where the ice is thick enough to support mating. Eggs are laid, and the mothers take off for food while the fathers stand around sheltering the eggs, and eventually the hungry chicks, for four months while the mothers gather fish. Then the fathers take off and the mothers take over the “parenting,” and eventually the chicks are left all alone until they, too, are ready to make the journey back to where the penguins started from. The presumptuous narration never misses a chance to jerk tears: “This is the first time the father has broken his bond with the chick. It is not an easy thing to do.” Really? How do we know? Did Jacquet interview the daddy penguins?

God only knows how Jacquet and his crew withstood the freezing environment and gained the penguins’ trust enough to allow such intimate footage. I can applaud March of the Penguins as a technical feat; the photography by Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison captures the savage beauty of the Antarctic as well as the details of the penguins’ fur, and Sabine Emiliani edits the footage with an organic sense of suspense and grandeur. On that level it’s a step up from the stuff you might see on Animal Planet or a National Geographic special. But then here comes Freeman glossing over the deaths of tired penguins who can’t endure the journey: they don’t die, they “disappear” or “fade away.” When a mother’s chick freezes to death, “the pain of her loss is unimaginable.” We’re told that “love can find a way even here in the harshest place on Earth.” It’s certainly not anything so mundane as the biological imperative.

And what about leopard seals? Don’t they have to eat and feed their young, too? Doesn’t their “love” count? Here, they become bad guys slaughtering the mommy penguins before they can make it back to feed their chicks, and Freeman intones gravely, “They have taken two lives — the mother, and the chick who will starve without her food.” And, presumably, the poor sad-sack daddy penguin, too, waiting around for four months for his regurgitated fish meal. (Three! Three are the lives taken by the leopard seal evildoers…) Heck, what about the fish — don’t they have young to feed, enduring love in a harsh place, and so on? No, they apparently willingly swim into the mommy penguin’s beak, because they know those cute little chicks are squealing for chow. March of the Penguins is great footage in a shotgun marriage to a sappily anthropomorphized point of view. It’ll play far better on DVD, where you can watch the making-of featurette, turn the sound down on the narration, and put on some Philip Glass or something.

Batman Begins

June 15, 2005

Pre-sold to skeptical fans and non-fans alike as a more “serious” take on a vigilante who dresses up as a bat, Batman Begins — presumably the start of a trilogy in which Batman Continues and Batman Concludes will follow — kicks off promisingly enough. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), the billionaire orphan whose parents were gunned down by a mugger, has gotten himself tossed into a squalid Chinese jail, where he takes his rage out on his fellow prisoners. A mysterious figure named Ducard (Liam Neeson, who seems to have resigned himself to playing mentors for the rest of his career) springs Bruce from prison and indoctrinates him into a secret order known as the League of Shadows. It’s here that Bruce learns not only combat but the quality of mercy: Killing criminals, he reasons, makes us no better than them. So Bruce returns to the vice-ridden streets of Gotham, taking a bat — bats frightened him as a boy — as his power animal. He becomes Batman, scourge of the criminal element.

Some of this may sound familiar (the murdered parents), some not (everything else). Batman Begins strains mightily, at least for its first two-thirds, to be a Batman movie for people who don’t like Batman movies. (Considering the awfulness of the previous two, Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, it’s fair to say Batman lost a lot of the cred he built up in Tim Burton’s two Bat-entries and in Frank Miller’s groundbreaking comics.) Director Christopher Nolan, who wrote the script with Blade scripter David S. Goyer, lays a halfway plausible framework for Batman’s expertise, his mission, and even his gadgets: Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a sort of Q to Bruce’s James Bond, supplies him with body armor, grappling hooks, and a bitchin’ new Batmobile. “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” asked Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Burton’s 1989 Batman; well, now we know.

The movie takes such time and care to set up Bruce/Batman that it’s a bit of a bummer when it launches into summer-movie overdrive. We’re given two villains — mobster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and shady psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) — who turn out to be mere pawns in an overall scheme that makes very little sense. Also, the murder of Bruce’s parents is tied into said scheme, a large mistake: The whole point of Bruce’s trauma is that his parents were gunned down randomly, because they were in the wrong alley at the wrong time, and Batman is born out of the need to protect others from becoming random statistics. I grow weary of movies that feel compelled to tie everything together in a neat little bow (even Burton’s 1989 film did it, with the Joker turning out to be the one who killed Bruce’s parents, but at least there it was used as part of the film’s Joker-created-Batman, Batman-created-Joker symmetry).

Along about the second hour, Batman Begins abandons whatever grim realism it has constructed, collapsing into scenes of chaos in which Batman is more like damage control than like the world’s greatest detective he’s supposed to be. Gary Oldman, as clean cop James Gordon, is underused; so is Katie Holmes as Bruce’s love interest, but I didn’t mind that, since Holmes hasn’t progressed much as an actress beyond Dawson’s Creek.

Nolan, whose thrillers Memento and Insomnia were justifiably acclaimed, seems at sea here. Unlike Burton, who brought a Gothic-carnival sensibility to his Batman films, and even Joel Schumacher, whose neon-campy reworking of Batman was ludicrous but at least his own, Nolan brings no particular vision to Batman Begins. The style is best described as portentous nonstyle: glum, drab, bland. And Nolan sure isn’t an action director. The first scenes of Batman on the prowl go by in a blur, which makes sense because we’re experiencing him the way his terrified, disoriented criminal victims do. But later on, when there’s no longer any reason for it, the fight scenes are still shot far too close in and edited so sloppily we have no idea what’s happening.

The casting of Christian Bale, so memorably and hilariously batshit in American Psycho, as perhaps the most psychologically dodgy comic-book hero in history promises more than you get. Bale’s best moments here, when Bruce playacts as a drunken playboy to throw off suspicion, recall his work as Patrick Bateman. But elsewhere we need to feel that Bruce is driven and a little crazy, and we don’t. This Bruce seems like more of a put-out frat boy than an obsessed loner trying to impose sense on a senseless city. And in the Bat-suit, he’s pretty much interchangeable with everyone else who’s worn it, with the addition of a meant-to-be-spooky Bat-voice.

Both this film and the 1989 film have the caped crusader deliver the same pivotal line. Michael Keaton said “I’m Batman,” but managed to invest it with a trace of self-mocking wit, enjoying striking fear in his prey: “Yeah, I’m Batman, that’s me,” he seemed to be saying; “pretty cool, huh?” Bale grunts “I’m Batman!” and punctuates it with a head-butt. As soon as I saw that, I knew that this might be the Batman movie Roger Ebert was waiting for (as he wrote), but it’s not the one I was waiting for.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)

June 10, 2005

Assassins are lovable and attractive; at least, that’s what movie after movie tells us. Hollywood filmmakers, who know a thing or two about taking soulless jobs for the money, are mesmerized by the cool amorality of people who kill for a living (as well as the potential for action blowouts in which dozens of people drop like flies and the audience doesn’t have to care). Some movies use the hit-man as a useful launchpad for commentary: Grosse Pointe Blank, for instance, was a slyly satirical view of middle-class mores, and Collateral explored the human cost of murder for hire. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as a married couple who don’t know they’re also rival assassins, is a jovial, half-smart domestic comedy in which domesticity itself is a joke.

John (Pitt) and Jane (Jolie) have settled into a lucrative rut together. Each thinks the other is in some fat-paycheck line of work that keeps them out of the house a lot. The amount of elaborate deception required to sustain their mutual lie isn’t credible in the least, but we’ll let that pass. The movie’s bottom line is the pairing of Pitt and Jolie, and the happy (or not so happy for Jennifer Aniston) accident of their apparently having become a real-life couple during filming. How’s their chemistry? Well, they’re both in on the joke, and they both know how to keep themselves amused in big-budget spectacles. Certainly they lack the sparks that, say, John Cusack and Minnie Driver shared in Grosse Pointe Blank. Part of the movie’s point is that John and Jane are bored with each other until they’re trying to kill each other, and that part of the film doesn’t last very long.

I suppose it’s useless to expect wit and elegance from a movie like this. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is amusing, but only in the “surprisingly not-infantile for a $100 million summer action flick” sense of the word. Vince Vaughn, dropping in now and then as John’s crony in assassination, scores some laughs but reminds us how far he and his director here, Doug Liman, have come — or fallen — since their mutual debut in Liman’s 1996 indie comedy Swingers. I wasn’t a fan of that film, but it caught the pulse of something real, and Liman’s next feature, 1999’s Go, was a chaotic little sweetheart of a Gen-X comedy. Since then, though, Liman has gravitated to impersonal big-budget thrills, with 2002’s The Bourne Identity and now this. The Liman of nine years ago might’ve cast Vince Vaughn as John and perhaps Janeane Garofalo as Jane, and allowed the film to rest on intelligence instead of concussive action climaxes.

The film’s structure is predictable in every beat. John and Jane are set against each other, then rediscover their passion for one another and band together against their mutual enemy. (It isn’t a black, bleak comedy like The War of the Roses, ending in degradation and death for them both.) For what seems like forever, the movie devolves into duck/cover/shoot, in which the heroes’ virtuosity with firearms somehow means that the six hundred trained assassins shooting at them are all lousy shots. A car chase in a stolen SUV has comic potential, starting off with Air Supply’s plaintively nerdy “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” oozing out of the car radio and featuring Brad Pitt briefly making hostile use of a golf club, but it eventually peters out. Just because Liman has found himself at the wheel of two action movies doesn’t make him an action director.

For a brief moment, when John and Jane are joined in an embrace while firing guns in opposite directions — like a romantic parody of John Woo — I dared to hope that Mr. and Mrs. Smith would end on a high operatic note: the killer lovers going out with guns blazing and tongues entwined. But the movie is bracketed by the couple’s visits to an offscreen therapist, and we’re to understand that the whole experience has brought them closer. No fallout from all the people they’ve killed, no further danger from whoever wanted them dead, no competitiveness between each other. The upper-class killers, smirking at us from the screen at the end, are validated in their highly lucrative and destructive lifestyle choice. I guess that’s less tiresome than the “crime does not pay” punishments of much older movies, but it still leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth.

High Tension (Haute Tension)

June 10, 2005

Anyone who resents the eleventh-hour tricks M. Night Shyamalan plays on the audience should probably steer clear of the notorious French slasher film Haute Tension (released in the U.S. as High Tension). For most of its running time, though, this second feature by Alexandre Aja is a taut homage to ’80s slash. The blue lighting scheme is a tip of the chapeau to Dean Cundey’s Halloween colors; the whole enterprise is a stripped-down-for-action throwback to the days of gratuitous nudity and splatter. Haute Tension is like a French art-house essay on slasher-movie clichés, and as such is good nasty fun.

Two college girls, Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco), are heading to Alex’s parents’ remote boonies house for a weekend of studying. Here the plot differs from old-school slash in that no boyfriends are along for the ride in order to have sex and die. Actually, the pixie-ish Marie is a lesbian, with (we gather) some unrequited feelings for Alex. But all of that takes a back seat to the narrative’s immediate threat — a hulking trucker (Philippe Nahon, from Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible and I Stand Alone), who we first see in his ratty vehicle getting orally pleasured in a uniquely grotesque way (Aja must have seen Joel Reed’s Bloodsucking Freaks). The killer, as he’s named in the credits, heads to the remote house and wastes no time repainting the walls in crimson. He butchers Alex’s family and kidnaps her, and Marie, who has remained in hiding, stows herself on his truck to save Alex from a certain fate of mutilation and extinction.

Haute Tension is as much a tribute to Halloween as Halloween was to Dario Argento’s Suspiria. All three are bloody-minded exercises in style, narrowing the conflict down to a battle of wills between a willowy protagonist and implacable evil. Aja leaves few stones unturned, drawing the suspense out and borrowing liberally from old classics (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) as well as new (From Dusk Till Dawn, in a scene set in a gas station). Once the events are set in motion, precious little plot gets in the way of the story. Cécile De France, who reminded me of Patricia Arquette (particularly in Arquette’s more feral, Gandolfini-pulping moments in True Romance), makes a fine smart survivor type, smart as well as brave (sometimes too brave, as when she consistently edges into rooms where the killer might still be prowling). The gruff Philippe Nahon brings his scowl and from-the-bowels-of-France voice to the killer; his casting here, to anyone who’s seen his Noé films, is so on-the-money it’s almost too obvious. I’d like to see him in a bubbly romantic comedy — perhaps something in which he isn’t a nihilistic misanthrope.

The screenplay’s lesbian aspect adds a new wrinkle to the genre’s standard I-must-rescue-my-girlfriend arc, and also a twist that some will find unpalatable — but then, Haute Tension has not been conceived as palatable on any level other than aesthetic. The film reads as though Aja wanted to make a classical slasher movie with a send-’em-out-buzzing finale that flips everything around. Unfortunately, it flips a bit too much. I won’t give anything away, but very many logical questions will occur to the post-movie viewer; the movie simply won’t withstand close scrutiny, and many viewers put off by the film’s rather graphic brutality won’t feel like revisiting the story to tie up the loose ends. For fans of the genre Aja is both working in and honoring, though, Haute Tension is worth at least a rental — much of it is finely wrought suspense wedded to some of the nastiest carnage I’ve seen since The Passion of the Christ.

Haute Tension is available on R-rated or unrated DVD. Whichever version you see — the cuts really only amount to the usual difference between lingering shots of bloodshed and not-so-lingering shots, although a decapitation scene is noticeably trimmed — Haute Tension is a gory trip down memory lane. But if you don’t dig twist endings, you might want to eject the disc after the final bout between Marie and her adversary. You won’t be missing much.

Man with the Screaming Brain

June 6, 2005

038333_33Some filmmakers struggle for nineteen years to make an intensely personal drama about their inner demons. Bruce Campbell, B-actor extraordinaire (and proud of it), moved heaven and earth for the same amount of time to make a comedy about a guy who gets half of a Bulgarian cabbie’s brain. Man with the Screaming Brain, which made the rounds at city art-house theaters on the back of Campbell’s book tour before settling in on the Sci-Fi Channel and DVD, is fun for fans of Bruce and the wacky ’50s sci-fi flicks that inspired it. At a screening in Brookline, Massachusetts, Campbell presented his directorial feature debut fairly modestly, making no claims for its being the savior of cinema. It’s simply the sort of goofball entry you rarely see in theaters anymore — a drive-in flick, really.

Campbell argues persuasively that today’s big-budget flicks are just drive-in flicks with more money and less charm than the drive-in fare of the past. Man with the Screaming Brain has less money and more charm. Granted, the plot is a bit thin; the script (by Campbell and David M. Goodman) had to be rewritten at the last minute when the story’s setting was moved from East L.A. to Bulgaria, and it shows. Why is the movie set in Bulgaria? Because it was cheaper to shoot there — nothing in the story demands it, and when Campbell’s arrogant capitalist character William Cole finds himself sharing his skull with a thuggish communist cabbie (Vladimir Kolev), we don’t get the philosophical conflicts we might expect. Not that Campbell is all that interested in that aspect — “What the hell do you want, a treatise? It’s a damn brain-transplant story,” he might sneer.

If you eventually happen across Campbell’s labor of love on TV, you might enjoy it for its oddball blend of camp and slapstick — a tone familiar to fans of Sam Raimi, whose earlier films with Campbell, no matter what genre they officially belong to (horror, action), lean more towards comedy. There’s a fine, giggly moment when a post-operative Campbell (with a humongous forehead scar) scampers around town as horrified kids flee from him. And Sam Raimi’s brother Ted, whose mug is known to fans of Xena, pulls out all the stops as a hip-hop-obsessed Bulgarian scientist’s assistant (working for a hammy Stacy Keach) who builds a robot in which the brain of Campbell’s wife (Antoinette Byron) is deposited. Truly, the movie might’ve been even more fun if it had been set in the ’50s, the era to which it’s most relevant, but there’s only so much you can do for under a million dollars these days, even in Bulgaria.

I suppose I’d better be honest about my experience of the film: Going to a great old theater that specializes in weird movies, shaking hands with the affable Campbell and listening to his ruthlessly wise-ass Q&A before the flick, made for a night I wouldn’t trade for anything. The film itself isn’t quite something you’d go miles out of your way for. That isn’t a reflection on the film so much as an acknowledgment that it has modest aims and fulfills them. It’s more comfortable as a DVD, something you discover on your own by accident and then pass along to friends or use as the middle film in a Bruce Campbell video night. Hell, I enjoyed Crimewave, the little-seen 1985 Raimi farce (cowritten by the Coen brothers) that Campbell witheringly slams every chance he gets twenty years later, but I didn’t have to go any farther than the town video store to see it. Man with the Screaming Brain is a decent and diverting piece of work from perhaps the hardest-working man in movies. Don’t expect the end-all be-all, ride with the slapstick and the premise, and you’ll do fine.

Lords of Dogtown

June 3, 2005

tumblr_kpfbj7ltGz1qzcinno1_400Whatever else Lords of Dogtown is, it’s a chronicle of a brief moment in American teen culture. Classic rock was on the way out (though it didn’t know it yet) in favor of disco and punk. Long hair was soon to be shaved into mohawks. And surfing, a holdover from the ’60s, was about to make way for its urban counterpart, skateboarding — which, by its very anti-adult ethos (those damn kids skate everywhere!), was infinitely cooler. Roughly, Lords of Dogtown spans from 1975 to about 1977; Richard Linklater’s modern classic Dazed and Confused falls squarely in the middle of that time frame, and Dogtown has a similar restless energy, powered by comfortably familiar guitar riffs. You don’t have to care much about skateboarding (I really don’t) to find the movie exhilarating and engaging.

This story of three kids from Venice, California — Stacy Peralta (John Robinson), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), and Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) — who invented a new, aggressive form of skateboarding has been told before, in Peralta’s own acclaimed 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. I missed that one, but what attracted me to Lords of Dogtown was its gifted director, Catherine Hardwicke, a former production designer (she worked on two Linklater films as well as the brilliantly cluttered Tank Girl) who made her directorial debut in 2003 with the fiercely moving drama Thirteen. That film was about the anguish of teenage girls; this one, about teenage boys living their dreams, is much bouncier, paced like a bullet and wearing its ’70s milieu lightly. Hardwicke understands that a director needn’t focus on a Farrah Fawcett poster to evoke the era.

The boys initially compete under the tutelage of Skip Engblom, a dissipated surf-shop owner played, in his first genuine performance I can recall, by Heath Ledger. Skip looks at the kids and sees dollar signs, though he’s also snobbish and intense about board sport in a way that goes beyond calculation. Sneering through fake teeth and getting into drunken brawls, Ledger is like John Malkovich channeling Val Kilmer channeling Jim Morrison. He also has one of the great final scenes in recent movies, when Skip, reduced to making boards in someone else’s shop, cranks up “Maggie May” on the radio and sings along, treating the lyrics like defiant air-punches.

Lords of Dogtown is structured so that the boys are split apart by their new fame — Stacy and Tony rocket to the top, while Jay, troubled by the travails of his single mom (Rebecca De Mornay in a touching performance), falls into self-abnegating anger. (His head-shaving scene soon after he recoils from a stupid endorsement for Slinky seems to bring a deliberate close to an era; punk has arrived, and punks don’t sing the Slinky song.) Yet Peralta, who wrote the script, and Hardwicke don’t make the mistake of inflating the boys’ crises into a Dirk Diggler tragedy. The boys got drunk and high and laid, had a blast, and became the princes of their specialized field. Still, when the guys get together for one last skateboarding spree in an empty swimming pool — accompanied by a fallen Z-boy whose cancer sidelined him — you’re glad to see them getting back to their roots. Jetting around America to skateboarding events and being paid insane money for endorsements is cool, but, man, just goofing around on the board with your buddies is what it’s all about.

You won’t find much of a dark side in Lords of Dogtown. That’s because Catherine Hardwicke, like Richard Linklater before her, has a gentle and indulgent view of teenagers; she’s with them throughout their trials and errors, and she’s literally right there with them in the skateboarding sequences, in which the extraordinarily fluid camerawork makes us feel as if we’re riding alongside the boys. Hardwicke’s light touch is there, too, in the scenes when the guys break into people’s houses to skate in their pools, or when hot tempers and fat egos lead to fights. The whole movie has the chuckling tone of Stacy Peralta looking back fondly, and Hardwicke, fast on her feet, sprints successfully to keep up with Peralta’s memories. If you crave excitement and adventure, don’t bother with Revenge of the Sith; look instead to Lords of Dogtown, about as electric — yet fulfilling and relaxing — an experience as this summer will likely offer.