Archive for August 2005

The Constant Gardener

August 31, 2005

constant-gardenerCynics such as myself may wonder if, when Hollywood gets around to making the big-budget spectacular Katrina: The Drowning of a City or whatever they end up calling it, it will be told not from the point of view of the mostly black refugees trapped in the Astrodome, but through the eyes of white relief workers who nobly enter Hell to save the helpless black victims. Not that white relief workers aren’t noble; and not that, say, white activists trying to uncover a conspiracy affecting poverty-stricken Africans wouldn’t be noble; but the idea of people of color reduced to being a suffering backdrop in their own story sticks in my craw.

The Constant Gardener is a solidly crafted potboiler with enough feints towards political significance and humanitarian passion to keep an adult audience satisfied after a summer of bleak kiddie bubble gum. For what it is — a topical thriller that takes on “Big Pharma” (the frequently unethical pharmaceutical business) but nonetheless isn’t above spies, a car chase that turns out to be a “just kidding” moment, and shadowy figures beating people up in hotel rooms — it’s a good evening out. It reminded me of The Deep End, another late-summer drama (from 2001) about a bereaved protagonist struggling to make sense of violent loss. That film was good, but not as great as many critics, relieved to be dealing with something halfway mature, seemed to feel it was.

The good news is that Justin Quayle, a proper British diplomat tossed into a grief-driven quest for truth, is right up Ralph Fiennes’ alley. His Justin is buttoned down, but not all the way; when he meets Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a fiery activist who flings heated words at him about the war in Iraq, her words unbutton him. They seem to fall into bed, marriage, and pregnancy in record time, though I think the director, Fernando Meirelles (who made the similarly antsy City of God), is telescoping events a bit. Tessa, in fact, exists only in Justin’s memory; it’s not long into the movie before Justin receives word of her mysterious death beside a desolate African road. In a rare moment of directorial restraint, Meirelles simply holds the camera on Fiennes as Justin numbly registers the news, and Fiennes quietly fills in the rest. Later, back at his home, Justin will burst into tears against a damp window, its condensation dripping down, as if Justin’s agony were so great even glass weeps for him.

Justin discovers various things about Tessa, some of which he takes out of context. When he hears bits of conversations that indicate Tessa is having an affair, or isn’t satisfied in their marriage, the personal turns out to be political. The Constant Gardener, as written by Jeffrey Caine from a John Le Carré novel, is about how the political and the personal intertwine. Justin finds that Tessa had been involved in uncovering a vast pharmaceutical conspiracy to test new drugs on African patients without their knowledge. (If they refuse the drugs, they are refused medical care.) As much driven to carry on her work as to get to the bottom of what — and who — killed her, Justin pokes his nose into a few scary places and gets it punched a few times.

I’ve seen The Constant Gardener lionized as one of 2005’s best movies, or even the best, and individual moments are electrifying. Meirelles has a fluid camera style, subtly suggesting things and trusting us to make connections. But what it adds up to is a good yarn that uses real political concerns to make itself look beefier than the average Hollywood thriller. Some may say it’s all for a good cause; more people will respond to the subject if it’s cloaked in formula (the Grieving Hero Seeks Justice for His Dead Woman — in outline it’s not much different from Sin City). I’d rather watch a documentary about the same topic than a movie that depends, for its feel-good climax, on a letter that improbably blurts out everything that will incriminate the Bad Guys. And watching Justin go through his quest, I was reminded of the end of Cry Freedom, in which we held our breaths as Donald Woods tried to get out of South Africa with his book about Stephen Biko. Meanwhile, of course, all those black people kept suffering, but at least the white man triumphed.

The Brothers Grimm

August 26, 2005

18442937You’d think a movie called The Brothers Grimm directed by Terry Gilliam, one of the leading fantasists in world cinema, would be an occasion for true sorcery. But I can see no evidence, other than a few glittering spots of bent visual imagination, that Gilliam was even on the set. The movie feels thoroughly like a project Gilliam did halfheartedly, just to stay in the game. The result plays like what might have happened if Stanley Kubrick had directed an episode of Battlestar Galactica — some interesting moments no other director could’ve pulled off, but why the hell is he even bothering?

I’m beginning to think that old-school, quill-pen-and-candlelight fantasy and Terry Gilliam are too neat a fit, anyway. This director thrives on conflict; he has often yearned for the old Monty Python days, when they had no budget for real horses and had to make do with knights hopping around and clacking coconut shells together. Such a sloppy, scattershot genius as Gilliam needs something to push against, some barrier to force him towards a creative workaround, if he is not to disappear up his own nethers. Two of his best recent films, 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, had nary a whisper of fairy tales, giants, period costumes, etc. Maybe Gilliam, like David Lynch, needs stories that aren’t ideally suited to his past strengths, so that he doesn’t fall into easy self-repetition. Gilliam does nothing in The Brothers Grimm that he hasn’t done before, and far better, in such films as Time Bandits and even Jabberwocky.

The premise, cooked up by screenwriter Ehren Kruger (continuing his long run of mediocrity after a promising start with 1999’s Arlington Rd.), has the famous storytelling brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm (Matt Damon and Heath Ledger) as con artists who bilk superstitious villagers by fabricating supernatural menaces and then swooping in to save the day. Naturally, the Grimms are put to the test when a real paranormal threat rears its head: various children, including Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, have gone missing, and the Frenchmen who occupy Germany want the Grimms to get to the bottom of the mystery. This has promise, but the movie quickly degenerates into scenes of Matt Damon and Heath Ledger (the latter of whom is gradually shaking off some of his earlier stiff mannerisms) rushing around cluttered sets. As a fantasy, Grimm coheres even less well than Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which I thought was a righteous mess until I saw this one.

Is it a comedy? A dark fantasy? Gilliam never pinpoints it, and I’m not sure he wants to. I think he wants it to be a scruffy, disorganized tall tale, debunking the great brothers as a couple of fakers and wankers. But then they’re also supposed to rise to the occasion and become heroes — Gilliam tries to have it both ways, and it doesn’t work here. A Terry Gilliam movie about the real Brothers Grimm, with no lame formula thrills imposed onto the biographical material, might’ve been something to see and cherish. Instead we get a hodgepodge only slightly more intelligent than Van Helsing, and you have no idea how it pains me to say that.

A couple of bits — a horse that unfurls a spider web from its mouth, a girl who rubs her face off — are fantastical and disturbing in the classic Gilliam manner. Probably moments like that were what made Gilliam want to come to the set every morning. But the rest of it is just so much wasted, frantic energy. Jonathan Pryce turns up as a snitty French higher-up, looking visibly bored; the luscious Monica Bellucci, in spectacular costumes we never get a good look at, barely makes an impression as the evil Mirror Queen before she turns into a computer effect. The Grimms themselves seem lost in their own movie; they’re 19th-century Ghostbusters without the wit. I’m not often shocked any more by the badness of any given movie — movies, by and large, suck nowadays. But this is Terry Gilliam, man, the director of whom I could never have said that his work, even when flawed and sloppy, left me bored and irritated. Until now.

Red Eye

August 19, 2005

lead_red_eye_0509120226_wideweb__375x500It isn’t enough to enjoy playing a psychopath; you must also convey some wit, or some pathos, or at least some shading. In Wes Craven’s hollowly efficient Red Eye, Cillian Murphy, who seems to be grooming himself as the movies’ next Creepy Man after Batman Begins, plays a sort of assassination go-between. This sociopath, who goes by the name Jackson Rippner (oh, please — I guess we should be thankful his middle initial isn’t D), isn’t really a hands-on hit man; he facilitates murders, gets everything neatly set up for the real assassins. A movie about such a character might be intriguing — haven’t you ever wondered who does all the research for hired killers? Do they have staff reference librarians?

Murphy, however, plays Rippner mostly as a stone-cold desperate psycho (which is also mostly how he’s written). Even in his early scenes, when he insinuates himself into the trust of hotel employee Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), he betrays nothing human, nothing that would suggest an actual person doing this disagreeable job. And in a thriller in which we spend most of our time with these two people, that hurts. After Rippner and Lisa are seated together on a late flight according to his plan, he drops his amiable act fast and lays down the rules: Lisa must move the head of Homeland Security from one hotel room to another, or else Rippner will make a call to a hit man loitering outside the house of Lisa’s dad (Brian Cox).

It’s an extremely movie-ish premise — we have to believe that only Lisa has the clout to get that room re-assigned, and that the head of Homeland Security would even remember her (part of the plan is contingent on Lisa’s people skills). Hitchcock, of course, got lots of mileage out of just such absurd plots. But Wes Craven, whatever other strengths he has, isn’t Hitchcock. His talent lies in inspired nastiness and ruthlessness, but there’s only so far he can push the envelope in a PG-13 thriller, and Jackson Rippner is not, to put it kindly, one of the more memorable icons of fear from the man who gave us Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, and the anarchic brutes of Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes.

Red Eye gets in and out fast — it’s only 85 minutes long — but at times it seems not even movie-ish, but TV-movie-ish. (Craven has done his share of work for the tube, as has his screenwriter here, Carl Ellsworth, who penned, among other things, the first Halloween episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — not one of the show’s highlights, as I recall.) The film becomes a routine cat-and-mouse game, with the ice-blooded Rippner putting increasing pressure on the flawless Lisa. To up the ante — so that the audience won’t shrug and say “Who cares all that much if the Homeland Security guy dies?” — the politician’s family is also put in jeopardy, and Rachel McAdams does make us believe that Lisa wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she colluded, however unwillingly and under duress, in multiple murder. Of course, Craven also keeps cutting back to Lisa’s dad at home, mostly dozing in front of the TV. The movie is generally too humorless to find any wit in the contrast between Lisa’s plight and her dad’s heavy-lidded obliviousness to it. Poor Brian Cox, left with little to do except snore.

One actor comes through: Jayma Mays gives an amusingly insecure performance as a rookie at Lisa’s hotel, who in Lisa’s absence finds herself dealing with rude customers, visiting politicians, and a wayward missile. Ah, yes. The climax involves both a rocket launcher and a vengeful Rippner, sucking in gurgly air from a wound in his throat (Craven, amazingly, fails to make this detail creepy) and wielding a big knife. It’s the kind of climax in which we realize, with something of a contemptuous chuckle, why we were earlier shown a photo of Lisa on her school curling team — so that she could find the curling stick in her old bedroom and whack Rippner with it.

Obviously unintentionally, Red Eye has been fortuitously cast: The Scarecrow from Batman Begins versus the ingenue from last month’s surprise hit Wedding Crashers. I wondered how much more fun the film might’ve been if it had been Brian Cox in Murphy’s role and Jayma Mays in McAdams’ role. Or, hell, McAdams as the cold-blooded killer and Murphy as the white-knuckled hotel clerk. At least McAdams would’ve looked more fetching in the throat-wound-concealing purple scarf than Murphy does.

The Skeleton Key

August 12, 2005

skeleton-key-2It’s a measure of the sad state of horror movies that the first major voodoo film in almost twenty years is another bland PG-13 “thriller” with a big-deal twist ending. Something must’ve been in the air back in the late ’80s, which saw two voodoo flicks within seven months of each other: 1987’s The Believers, in which Martin Sheen’s wife faced death by blender in the first five minutes, and 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, in which Bill Pullman got a nail driven where a man never wants a nail driven. I’m not a fan of either movie, but they had a zesty ludicrousness. The same can’t be said for The Skeleton Key, which spends a lot of its time distancing itself from the very subject that ostensibly sets it apart.

Kate Hudson, who just a few years ago seemed poised for better things, is kindly nurse Caroline Ellis, who doesn’t like it when her patients die alone and unmourned. So she answers an ad for a caretaker in New Orleans. Her charge is a retired antiques dealer, Ben (John Hurt), who suffered a debilitating stroke in his attic and is not expected to live much longer. Ben’s wife Violet (Gena Rowlands, whose choice of good projects has fallen tragically since John Cassavetes died) seems vaguely sinister; she is described as “old South” despite not having much of an accent. She hires Caroline warily, entrusting her with a key that opens every door in the house except one.

Spooky things happen. Ben seems agitated; he scrawls “HELP ME” on his sheets, then tries to escape out of his second-floor window. Could Violet be trying to kill Ben? Why are all the mirrors in the house locked away? What, if anything, does this have to do with a pair of voodoo practitioners who, back in the ’20s, were found trying to teach an ancient ritual to a couple of children and were then lynched? Sadly, I can’t answer these questions, but I can ask another one: If a character who has been a nonsmoker throughout the movie dramatically lights a cigarette at the end, wouldn’t he or she at least cough a little? Last time I chatted with the Surgeon General, smoke has the same effect on virgin lungs regardless of supernatural influence.

The Skeleton Key might have made for a gripping 44 minutes on The Twilight Zone or The X-Files. Drawn out to an hour and 44 minutes, it dawdles far too long on scenes between Caroline and a nice young lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard), or scenes in which Caroline basically takes a self-taught Voodoo for Dummies course. The problem with voodoo as a movie subject, of course, is that its creepiness comes enfolded in black skin, which might’ve gone over back in the days of I Walked with a Zombie (1943) but comes off tacky (to say the least) today. The movie, as I said, approaches voodoo glancingly, somewhat reverently, as if to mute the forbidden electricity that voodoo films used to have: Politically correct or not, the terror in the material derived from a white person walking among incomprehensible black people who did incomprehensible things and knew the secrets of death and beyond. The Skeleton Key glides over this by having an old white woman, Violet, as the conduit for supernatural mischief. Then the twist ending twists that around.

Hudson tries, but seems somnambulistic, as if Caroline were afflicted with the walking death even before arriving in New Orleans. Rowlands and Hurt, sadly, must probably take what they can get in the twilight of their careers; in Hurt’s case, what he can get amounts to frantic gesticulating and grunting. The scares are very few and far between, the standard musical stings and people popping up where, at this point in horror-film history, you absolutely expect them to be. The voodoo lore is sketchy (it can’t hurt unbelievers, except when it can), the plot obviously little but build-up to the big reveal. The Sixth Sense made millions by serving the supernatural with a twist six years ago, and we’re still living with the aftermath.

Chaos (2005)

August 11, 2005

Chaos+2The opening crawl of Chaos informs us, “The film you are about to see is an extreme graphic depiction, based on actual events.” That’s certainly true, if by “actual events” you mean “a movie by Wes Craven.”

You’d likely never have heard of Chaos, you’d probably never have found your way to this review, if not for two critics, both with their hearts in the right place. First up to bat was Roger Ebert, who gave it a no-star review and sparked a public argument with the film’s writer/director David DeFalco and producer Steven Jay Bernheim. Then there was Vern, outlaw reviewer for AICN, whose hilarious summing-up is rightly famous. Both men, however, might’ve done better to let the film die in silence.

Billed as “the most brutal film ever made,” Chaos is actually the most boring movie ever made, especially if you’ve seen Craven’s Last House on the Left, from which this movie steals more or less nonstop. According to legend, Sage Stallone (who owns Grindhouse Releasing) and original Last House star David Hess had wanted to do a legit Last House remake, but then Bernheim came on board and fired Hess and consulting producer Marc Sheffler (also a Last House veteran). The result is an unacknowledged rip-off, right down to the promotional materials.

Chaos, I’ve seen Last House on the Left; I own the DVD of Last House on the Left; Last House on the Left is a favorite of mine. Chaos, you’re no Last House on the Left.

Refer to the plot synopsis of Last House on the Left; it’s the same as Chaos. Two girls go out looking for drugs (weed back then, ecstasy now). They run across a guy (Sage Stallone himself, looking none too thrilled to be stuck in this thing) who promises drugs. The guy leads them back to his crew — his violent, demented dad (Kevin Gage), Dad’s twisted bisexual girlfriend (K.C. Kelly), and another sexual psychopath (Steven Wozniak — not the Apple co-founder, I’m sure). The sadists capture the girls and do hideous things to them. One of the girls’ parents find out, and in this movie’s one real departure from Last House, the parents don’t kill the sadists — the sadists mostly kill each other, the father chainsaws the sexual psycho’s guts out, the cops kill the father (why?), the mother kills one of the cops, and then Chaos, the head bad guy, kills the other cop and the mother and gets away clean. There, I spoiled it for you so that you don’t have to watch it. You’re welcome.

Oh, and the movie distinguishes itself with nipple-severing and nipple-eating, as well as a knife being used to connect one of the girls’ vagina with her rectum. This takes up maybe a minute of the 74-minute running time; the rest is given over to tedium. If you’re renting it for gore, you’d really be better off with the original. Kevin Gage makes a serviceable villain, and the girls shriek piteously enough to offend me on behalf of the actresses who had to emote themselves hoarse for this shit, but otherwise Chaos is a big nothing. There’s the odd touch of making the parents interracial, which serves only to establish that even the cop who’s supposed to be coming to the rescue is a racist.

In his famous review of Caligula, Roger Ebert (who, by the way, gave three and a half stars to Last House on the Left) wrote: “There are no doubt people who believe that if this movie is as bad as I say it is, it must be worth seeing.” And that’s the problem I face with Chaos. It is bad, but not in an enjoyable way; it is violent and squalid, but not in a memorable way. It is a waste of time, a waste of resources, a waste of — for all I know — the talents of the actors, who may well go on to better things (hey, Renee Zellweger survived The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

Most of all, it’s a waste of the words I’ve already spent, and a waste of the time you’ve just spent reading about it. It is not worth writing about, reading about, arguing about, or seeing. It was not worth Ebert’s scorn, and it was not worth Vern’s wit. It is not, in conclusion, worth a goddamn thing.

Broken Flowers

August 5, 2005

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Does it truly matter who the mother of Bill Murray’s son is in Broken Flowers? I wonder. It is, as they say, the journey, not the destination. In this deadpan comedy-drama, the second of three films Murray has made (to date) with writer-director Jim Jarmusch, Murray plays Don Johnston, who receives an enigmatic, unsigned letter from an old flame who claims she has had his son. Don, who has just watched his latest relationship with girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) circle the drain, is dyspeptic about this note. His next-door neighbor and friend, the Ethopian transplant Winston (Jeffrey Wright), is a crime-novel buff and excitedly latches onto the mystery aspect. Winston decides that Don must go visit four of his exes and find out about his son. He draws up an itinerary for Don, advises him on which clues to watch for (typewriter, pink things), and sends him on his unmerry way.

Most of Broken Flowers is a series of duets between Murray and various women; he even has a nice little moment with one of Winston’s little daughters. Jarmusch’s script is maybe a bit heavy-handed about establishing the man’s Don Juan past, right down to his name and the movie he watches on TV, although this might be a wry joke on Jarmusch’s part. There are a few more hints and signs in the movie, suggesting that this loner is part of a larger pattern. Again and again, Don finds himself in ghastly mortifying situations, forced into awkward connection and into life. The four estranged women, who all have more nervous energy than Don, represent various social classes as well as various roles of American womanhood — the widow (Sharon Stone), the professional woman (Frances Conroy), the mystic (Jessica Lange), the outcast (Tilda Swinton).

Don’s former relations to any of these women are as mysterious as anything else in the movie; Jarmusch gives us only tiny indications of what they saw in Don, or vice versa. Each of the women seems to have a chaotic inner life agitated by Don’s presence. Sharon Stone’s widow (her husband was a race-car driver) looks upon Don with the most kindness, even taking him to bed; but her daughter, fittingly named Lolita, seems to share her mother’s erotic restlessness. We can see that, past a certain point, Don’s inability to commit drove him away from the women, or them from him. He may realize he’ll be alone forever unless he can find his son, if indeed he actually has one out there somewhere.

Murray gives one of his late-period micro-performances, showing us, as usual, that what was behind his early-period jaded-hipster shtick was a melancholy and fearful man — a child, really. Murray has a gravitas in these roles that’s oddly, and often amusingly, disputed by his rather light and unresonant voice. No matter how deep his scars run in his 21st-century funny-sad/sad-funny characters, he still sounds like the same guy from Meatballs. So he seems to combine the wisdom of an elder — and he has aged to look like one — with the insecurity of youth. The result, in movies like this or Lost in Translation, is a split Bill Murray, the one in our memories versus the one we see before us, and most of the women in Broken Flowers see a split Don. They see an older Don who is still, in the ways that matter, the younger Don who saddened or enraged them.

Jarmusch burrows beneath his surface affectlessness, which he’s usually done, really; his movies are more emotional than they appear, but seem almost embarrassed to express emotion in the standard false Hollywood manner. With the great cinematographer Frederick Elmes, Jarmusch makes America beautiful but not sterile. The key to the movie and to Don Johnston might be his only friend Winston, who, in opposition to the grey and pale Don, is black and passionate and fecund (three jobs and five kids). Generally, Jarmusch sets his protagonists in contrast with someone who points towards a more soulful way of being — think of William Blake and Nobody in Dead Man, or the titular hero of Ghost Dog and the ice-cream-truck driver. Did Don ever want a family, a wife, a son? We’re not sure at the end, nor is he, but as he watches two candidates for the position of son disappear into the horizon, he seems to have grown just to the point where he realizes what’s missing.


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