Archive for October 2005

Saw II

October 28, 2005

saw_ii_xl_01--film-BJohn Kramer (Tobin Bell), the dying mastermind behind the chamber of horrors in the Saw films, manages to find people who are frittering away the precious gift of life and administer a harsh lesson in why they should appreciate it. One would think that a man with such impressive brainpower and resources could turn both to curing the cancer that’s killing him, but then Lions Gate wouldn’t have a prosperous Halloween-weekend franchise.

In Saw II, the diabolical puppetmaster turns his rough attentions to a variety of people who’ve been on the wrong side of the law. They find themselves in the usual abandoned building, with the usual taunting tape recordings and the usual cryptic clues. Among them is Amanda (Shawnee Smith), who’s dealt with “Jigsaw” before, and Daniel (Erik Knudsen), the emo son of hotheaded cop Eric (Donnie Wahlberg), who’s been busted down to desk duty for cracking too many perps’ skulls. The cops actually track down “Jigsaw,” who sits hooked up to an IV and forces the impatient Eric to listen to his every whispered utterance.

Which boils down to: Hahaha, I know more about you than you do. Hahaha, only I hold the key to your safety and you must do exactly as I say in order to escape. What a control freak. Unwilling to fix what wasn’t broken (or original), Saw II dishes up more of the same dare-you-to-look moments. Will this guy put out his eye to escape death? Will someone dive into a pit of syringes to obtain a key? Will this person risk a paper cut by licking an envelope??? Well, actually that last one isn’t in the movie, but I guess they have to save something for Saw III.

The ornate sadism isn’t enough to carry our interest this time around; for one thing, there are fewer moments when a character does have to make a choice between the agonizing and the lethal, and the bloody fates don’t have much to do with the characters’ individual foibles. Much of the movie is given over to watching the various captives argue about what to do next. The madman’s ratiocinative powers seem to cross over into psychic abilities, since he seems to know how each character will react, when they’ll react, and what effect the reaction will have. As in the first movie, the real tormentors of the characters are the screenwriters. “Jigsaw” has such power, such malign foresight, he practically is the screenwriter.

If the first Saw was indebted to David Fincher, this one takes its cues from The Silence of the Lambs; there’s even a similar SWAT-team-invades-house misdirection, and “Jigsaw” himself comes off like a detached psychotherapist. I’d have more fun with these movies if they didn’t take themselves with such grisly shock-cut seriousness; they’re basically derivative, hermetically sealed head games for the young and jaded, and ripe for parody.

These movies have gotten a rep for being nastily transgressive, but the filmmakers may already be running out of tricks: aside from the admittedly wince-worthy opening demise, we have here a gunshot to the head, a slit throat, death by nail-studded baseball bat, death by furnace, and — most inventively — slow death by poison gas. Gee, haven’t seen any of those before. Saw II gives us a bunch of mostly stupid people and invites us to wonder aloud who’ll be stupid enough to stumble into the next uninspired deathtrap. Forgive me if I want a little more from my horror films.


October 21, 2005

Doom_051026023806352_wideweb__300x375A truly bold movie adaptation of the first-person-shooter videogame Doom would simply be an hour and a half of … well … first-person shooting. The camera would take the point of view of an anonymous soldier as he blasts his way through various mutants, zombies, and other unfriendly creatures in the catacombs of Mars. There is actually an extended sequence like that in the movie, tipping its hat to its popular source. It’s pretty clever and has a kind of trigger-finger wit. Otherwise, Doom the movie is likely to thrill only those who have been yearning for a Doom movie. Most others will have seen it all before, in superior action-horror films (Aliens, Predator) and not-so-superior ones (Resident Evil).

Scientists on Mars have been diddling around with a 24th chromosome that makes humans superstrong and almost indestructible. The process, though, also functions as a sort of moral litmus test: If you’re predisposed to violence or psychosis, it’ll make you a monster. So the result is a bunch of dead scientists, and a crew of Hollywood-issue Marines are shipped off to Mars to investigate. Character subtlety is out of the question: the only Marine with a full name is John Grimm (Karl Urban), which suits his general mood. The other guys go by names like Goat, Duke, Destroyer, and Sarge (The Rock).

Helmed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, a decent cinematographer (Thirteen Days, The Devil’s Advocate) turned schlock director (Cradle 2 the Grave, Romeo Must Die), the movie streaks by in unscannable short bursts of gunfire. Doom is plenty bloody and violent, though the hyperactive editors (four are credited) make sure you don’t see much of the carnage, in effect doing the MPAA’s censorious work for it. The videogame was (notoriously) much more brutal; the movie is suggestively brutal, offering quick glimpses of torn flesh, spattered blood. In one memorable bit, a tube of a character’s watery brain matter is applied to a monster’s severed tongue to see if there’s a reaction. That sentence has possibly never been typed before, and I suppose I have Doom to thank for it.

The Rock continues to pursue his apparent dream of being a stoic and colorless action hero, without a trace of the humor he’s shown in interviews, in supporting roles, or even in his old wrestling persona. His one tender moment is played opposite an enormous gun, taking trash-movie autoeroticism about as far as it can go. (Regardless, we see it fired only twice.) Usually a director would try to cast eccentrics around a rock like The Rock, but here we only get Karl Urban, here used for his imposing physique and little else. Urban emerges as the film’s closest thing to a hero, but he’s still not very close, playing a hard-boiled soldier who goes on the mission mainly to rescue his scientist sister (Rosamund Pike, who couldn’t act worth a damn in Die Another Day and still can’t). Only Richard Brake, as the sleazy and duplicitous grunt Portman, gives a performance of any interest, and even that’s on the level of caricature.

And what exactly did I expect from a movie based on a shoot-’em-up videogame? Well, there’s no rule that videogame movies have to be idiotic. And there’s no rule that action-horror flicks need be dumb: James Cameron’s Aliens remains the gold standard in a debased subgenre. Doom, however, proceeds as though those were inviolable rules. And except for a moment involving a monkey in an airshaft the script is as humorless as The Rock’s character. Some time ago there was a famous Internet clip of the online game World of Warcraft, in which a player loudly proclaiming himself “Leroy Jenkins” ran heedlessly into a hazardous level and (hilariously) got everyone else killed. Doom could’ve used a Leroy Jenkins.


October 14, 2005

domino-332-713222Domino Harvey, who died in 2005 at age 34, was a model and the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey. Her rootless early life left her with a lot of aggression, which found focus in her second career as a bounty hunter. The director Tony Scott was a friend of hers, and he’s made much in the press about how his film Domino is a tribute to her memory. That’d be nice if it were true, but the only thing Domino pays homage to — or shows affection for — is Scott’s heavy hand in the editing room. Sure to be regarded as excruciating by some and electrifying by others, the movie is run through so many filters, film stocks, and Avid whiz-bang it makes Natural Born Killers look like Barry Lyndon.

I usually loathe such hyperactive lab experiments; Oliver Stone, in Natural Born Killers, at least incorporated the scattershot style into his message about how the media fractures us all, and he used it in an emotionally direct (if bullying) way that kept us subliminally connected to the characters. Tony Scott doesn’t do anything like that in Domino — there’s no real thematic reason for the movie to look or act the way it does; it’s just a gimmick. That said, I didn’t mind it much. Domino has been lambasted all over the place, but it’s not that bad; it leaves us as exhausted as its heroine (Keira Knightley), but much of the ride is amusing.

“Based on a true story — sort of,” the ads qualify. Well, Domino is a movie — sort of. It’s like an entire season of a nonexistent Domino TV series telescoped frantically into two hours and five minutes of highlights, with all the plot convolutions that implies. Essentially, it’s a string of double-crosses and triple-crosses in which Domino and her partners — hard-bitten beef jerky Ed Mosbey (Mickey Rourke) and sensitive ex-con Choco (Edgar Ramirez) — attempt to locate $10 million so that their cut of the take can pay for a young girl’s operation. I could try to explain the connection between Domino and the young girl, but it would be the most complicated sentence ever; it involves Delroy Lindo, Mo’Nique, the FBI, the Mafia, the Jerry Springer Show, and a reality show tailing Domino’s every move (directed from a trailer by Christopher Walken).

Dabney Coleman is in it. Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering, veterans of Beverly Hills 90210, are in it as themselves — sort of. Tom Waits is in it — I kind of have to give this a “Worth a Look” rating for that alone. Domino is one insane gibbering beast, leagues more idiosyncratic than the average action flick, and I suppose part of this is due to the participation of screenwriter Richard Kelly, who wrote and directed 2001’s brilliantly confounding Donnie Darko. I enjoyed seeing Mickey Rourke and Christopher Walken share the screen again, though it’s nothing more dramatic than a “creative meeting” for the reality show. Keira Knightley poses and snarls fetchingly enough, but time will tell whether she can act or just attitudinize — in any event, Domino is written as a posturing and hollow collection of bad-grrl reflexes, so there’s nothing that even a seasoned and complex actress could’ve done that Knightley doesn’t do. Like the character herself, she’s needed only as a face, a voice, a body.

Domino is the sort of disreputable night out that I hesitate to recommend because it’s disreputable in the wrong ways — it exemplifies pretty much everything I despise about the direction movies are heading. But Tony Scott works in a spirit of caffeinated roughhouse fun. It probably gets at the tone of bounty-hunting work more effectively than a more sober-sided account of the actual Domino Harvey’s life could have. I have no idea if the film’s aggressively cluttered plot is based on anything real, but it’s structured as a bad-girl-makes-good parable with an Xtreme veneer. At the very end, we see the real woman herself, looking gaunt and tomboyish and almost shy, yet her eyes tell us more about the reality of her life than the preceding two hours have. Those eyes almost shame us for what we’ve been watching. I had a good time, though — sort of.

I Am a Sex Addict

October 14, 2005

357x480One certainly can’t fault Caveh Zahedi for candor. Standing stock still with his arms plastered at his sides, as if his whole body were mimicking his priapism, Zahedi tells us all about the various misfortunes arising from his indulgence of his “prostitute fetish.” His movie I Am a Sex Addict focuses on this and nothing else, and after a while it grows monotonous.

Zahedi talks about various women he’s gotten serious with, who for one reason or another were driven away by his compulsion to get blowjobs from prostitutes. Even when he finds himself a laid-back, free-spirited woman who doesn’t mind his fetish, after a while she finds it monotonous. Over and over again, we see Zahedi propositioning prostitutes in different countries (and in different languages) with the same words — “How much? Will you suck me?” — and sometimes he makes the rounds and mistakenly asks the same prostitutes twice, and after a while they find it monotonous. Zahedi can’t stop seeking out prostitutes, and after a while he finds it … yeah. You get it.

I got it too, after about thirty minutes. Which was possibly the ideal length for I Am a Sex Addict (it goes on for 99). Occasionally amusing, and capably performed by the actresses playing Zahedi’s ill-starred lovers (particularly Amanda Henderson — who’s like Jewel Staite’s dissipated older sister — as the aforementioned free spirit Devin), the movie nonetheless can’t sustain the thin interest of a man’s obsession with outlaw fellatio. It’s clear that Zahedi’s problem stems from issues with self-esteem and intimacy, though he grew up in time to be influenced by the I’m-OK-You’re-OK psychobabble of the ’70s. He wants to be honest at all costs, and he is. It never occurs to him to lie to his girlfriends, but it also never occurs to him that his “sensitivity” is just another form of insensitivity.

I Am a Sex Addict is interestingly assembled out of home-movie footage and re-enactments; Zahedi often pauses to tell us anecdotes about the actresses playing his girlfriends — he doesn’t even wait for the DVD to furnish an audio commentary. He has a compelling camera face, with deep-set eyes yearning for you, for everyone, to understand him. And he’s certainly not interested in making himself look cool for the camera; his orgasmic shrieks and cartoonish “oh” faces provide some low laughs, but after a while they get — you know.

I suppose the trap of the material is Zahedi’s absolute dedication to sharing every nook and cranny of his obsession; by definition, obsessive fantasies are like infinite loops, spinning their weaver round and round until he or she either seeks help or is consumed. After all that, Zahedi blows off his latest and most successful relationship — seven years together, then marriage — in about five minutes of screen time, which is about half as long as he spends on a sequence in a Munich brothel. I wish him and his bride the best — especially her, because she may need it.

Good Night, and Good Luck

October 7, 2005

good-night-and-good-luck-11A longtime member of the John Sayles troupe, David Strathairn plays close to the vest. He started out badly, as an overemphatic Robert De Niro clone in Sayles’ debut Return of the Secaucus 7, but he soon developed a sort of expressive reticence. That style serves him perfectly as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, an account of the TV news reporter’s dust-up with red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy in the mid-’50s. Strathairn’s Murrow makes a virtue out of lack of passion. Nobody could accuse him of nursing resentments or an agenda — he’s rather colorlessly dedicated to facts (like his TV contemporary Jack Webb). So when he risks everything to take on McCarthy, there must be a reason.

I enjoyed the movie as a snapshot of a time and a mood — the paranoia infecting all walks of life, the omnipresent cigarettes, the ability of politicians and television pundits to quote Shakespeare and assume that their listeners would be sophisticated enough to handle it (imagine that today). And there’s no question that the film’s message, that the powerful medium of television needs to buck its corporate masters and bring truth to the viewers of America, is particularly timely in an era when various lies and distortions about why we invaded Iraq were swallowed whole by most of the media. Good Night, and Good Luck gets credit for the above, though it lacks a certain sense of urgency, of drama. After all, we know how it all turned out — McCarthy discredited, Murrow vindicated — and the script, by director George Clooney and producer Grant Heslov, doesn’t find enough twists and turns in the factual record to create any suspense. The movie is scrupulously journalistic, sometimes to its credit, sometimes to its deficit as a movie.

Still, I’ll always sit for an intelligent film involving actual adult conversations. There’s a lot of cross-talk in Good Night, and Good Luck; busy men in newsrooms fire story ideas at each other, sometimes shooting them down in the same breath. The relationship between a married couple (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) who both work at CBS — against the network’s policy of employing married couples — is just about sketched in, but the actors turn their scenes into quiet conspiratorial comedy. Their fear of being found out stands in for the larger issue of the people whose names, rightly or not, have found their way onto McCarthy’s unseen list of communists. Murrow, like many Americans at the time, doesn’t really care one way or the other about communism; what he’s after is abuse of power. His campaign would be equally valid if McCarthy were waving a list of known homosexuals and trying to scare the country about them.

At this point, it should be said that George Clooney (who appears in the film as Murrow’s producer Fred Friendly) is interested in using his power for good — not just politically. He does films like Ocean’s Twelve to keep himself bankable so that he and business partner Steven Soderbergh can make smaller, more challenging films. I wasn’t impressed by what Clooney, in his directorial debut, did with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; he took acidly farcical material and made it depressing. But the film also established that he at least had integrity, and wasn’t interested as a director in ingratiating himself with the mass audience. Good Night, and Good Luck is much more pleasurable, shot in nostalgic black-and-white by Robert Elswit and given a crackling pace by editor Stephen Mirrione. Clooney, whose father spent years in broadcast news, clearly enjoys revisiting the salad days of the medium, when everything from comedy to drama to news was live. The real urgency in the film comes not from its narrative and resolution but from its milieu.

Clooney wears his mantle lightly. Murrow didn’t preach; he simply spoke sensibly and soberly for rationality and fairness, and so does Clooney. The movie is bracketed by a speech Murrow made years later at the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation. He talks about the responsibility of television to do more than “distract, delude, amuse and insulate” viewers — to be more than “wires and lights in a box.” That, moreso than any message about red-baiting and its parallels today (“If you’re not with us, you’re against us”), is what Clooney — who has done his share of distracting and amusing on TV — wants us to take with us. Far from biting the hand that fed him, Clooney has made a valentine to what television once was and — perhaps — can be again.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

October 5, 2005

121645__wallacegromit_lOn some level, Nick Park is obviously quite mad. At his award-winning Aardman Animations studio, he spends years at a time fiddling about with pieces of clay in order to tell stories about a poultry revolution or a lycanthropic bunny. Such men in less enlightened times were confined for their own safety. Fortunately, this is the 21st century and Park’s particular madness — or genius, take your pick — is on view once again in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The movie is the long-overdue feature debut of Park’s beloved creations Wallace, a cheese-obsessed inventor, and Gromit, his dog, who can only be described as “long-suffering.” Wallace considers himself quite clever, but his loyal servant Gromit silently begs to differ; they are the Claymation heirs of P.G. Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves.

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit finds Wallace and Gromit as “humane pest eliminators,” sucking up hungry rabbits with an elaborate vacuum and keeping them penned up in their basement. (The rabbits are well-fed; Gromit chops up dozens of carrots a day, scooping them down a chute into feeding bowls.) Their services are especially in demand due to the impending Veg Competition, for which various townspeople grow vegetables of unusual size, and would prefer not to see them nibbled by rabbits. The pair’s best client is Lady Tottington (voice of Helena Bonham Carter, in her second stop-motion effort after Corpse Bride), who admires their non-lethal methods. Their adversary is the buffoonish hunter Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes, having fun dropping his seriousness), who thinks there’s only one way to skin a rabbit.

Though circumstances too intricately bizarre to get into here (Park manages to wink at both A Clockwork Orange and The Fly, though), an experiment goes awry and one of the captured rabbits appears to have grown huge, moon-driven, and insatiably peckish. A were-rabbit, if you will. It’s a one-joke premise, but part of Nick Park’s madness/genius is the skill and detail with which he approaches it. As with his previous feature film Chicken Run, within five minutes you forget you’re watching Claymation, and within ten minutes you forget you’re watching animation at all. You’re sucked (as if by Wallace’s bunny vacuum) into a world of Rube Goldberg contraptions and mutely sardonic dogs — Park does wonders with Gromit, who has only his eyes to emote with — and unaccountably satisfying grace notes like the nocturnal howl of the Were-Rabbit, which sparks a rash of howling among the normal bunnies.

Any movie in which rabbits howl has my fast affection. And Park inserts any number of pop-culture references for his adult fans, not only the obvious Universal Monsters tributes but a brief nod to Watership Down (listen for “Bright Eyes,” that film’s Art Garfunkel ballad, on a car radio) and a possible dialogue hat-tip to either John Updike or Pink Floyd. Yet the film has its own antic pulse, and the animation obeys every cartoon-physics law of momentum and inertia. Even if the movie were utterly laughless, its blend of machine logic and surreal fantasy would fascinate the eye. Its very stop-motion roughness makes it friendlier and warmer than something like “A Christmas Caper,” the DreamWorks short starring the Madagascar penguins which played before Were-Rabbit in its theatrical run. The short is funny and slick but has an inescapable corporate feel — computer animation simply lacks the soul of something hand-drawn or hand-sculpted.

Nick Park will turn forty-seven in December. Selfishly, I sometimes find myself wishing he hadn’t picked a medium that takes so long, because it was half a decade between Chicken Run and Were-Rabbit, and he can’t have very many more five-years-in-the-making films left in him. It seems that he and Tim Burton are the only ones still interested in long-form stop-motion (Will Vinton has been silent lately, since being ousted from his own studio three years ago), while everyone else says “Why even bother? We can do that on a Mac.” But not everything can or should be done on a Mac, and Nick Park is like someone who’s still doing silent films or shooting in black and white, not for the money but for the love of doing it. God knows you have to love manipulating clay figures millimeter by millimeter for years at a time to do it for a living. I sure wouldn’t want to do it. But I want to see Nick Park keep doing it.