Archive for December 2005

The Matador

December 30, 2005

132552__Matador_lThe Matador swaggers around in love with its own cynical quirk for its first hour, and I was completely with it for a while. There’s always room for mean, funny hit-man satires, and Pierce Brosnan, as the dissipated assassin Julian Noble, makes the movie worth our time. Very far gone into macho detachment, but not irretrievably so, Julian has started to fall apart. He’s bungled at least one job, and he fears he’ll botch others until his boss finally removes him from the chessboard. And he’s pathetically desperate for some meaningful connection. When he chats up businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) at a Mexico City hotel bar, Julian offends Danny in a variety of ways without intending to or even realizing the offense. Brosnan’s work as a monster who’d like to become human, but has no idea how, is painfully funny.

Unfortunately, aside from Brosnan, The Matador does nothing that wasn’t handled with more precision and cool in 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank, which this film resembles right down to its mix of Latino-inflected tunes and I Love the ’80s soundtrack. Julian Noble might be Martin Blank 30 years later, lost in whiskey and soulless shags. He might also be meant as a real-world take on James Bond — probably what attracted Brosnan to the script. It’s a shame that script (by director Richard Shepard) doesn’t follow through on its promises, including its thematic link between Julian and a skillful matador whose bloody but clean killing Julian admires. Julian obviously sees himself as a matador, but what bull is he fighting? Shepard draws an explicit parallel visually but leaves it murky. The whole matador thing seems like a literary affectation.

Naive Danny, who’s nursing some personal and professional setbacks, is both repelled and fascinated by Julian even before learning what Julian does for a living. Like anyone else, Danny is morbidly curious about the job; Julian refers to “corporate gigs” in which he’s brought in to eliminate competition. The profession itself, really, is a corporate gig, but Shepard doesn’t develop that aspect, either. We’re set up to see Danny as Julian’s craven American doppelganger, who wants to be part of a culture that carries out its murders with paper and pen instead of bullets. Near the end of their time in Mexico City, a drunken Julian comes calling on Danny. What does he want, and what happens? Fade to black, and cut to six months later.

This is where The Matador loses its way. Back home, Danny is now a successful businessman; whatever job he flew to Mexico City to grab onto apparently fell into his hands. Again, Julian comes calling one night. He meets Danny’s wife (Hope Davis), who has heard all about Julian and is cautiously thrilled to have a paid murderer under her roof. Are Danny and his wife bourgeois novelty-seekers who must be punished for their sins of ethical blindness? Has Julian come to rub them out, or is there something darker and more lasting in store? Once again, Shepard hints at a bleak and fitting ending and then sidesteps it. I actually don’t know for sure, but The Matador feels as though it was heavily interfered with, in which case it wouldn’t be Shepard’s fault, unless he has internalized Hollywood’s fetish for neat and happy endings and has interfered with himself.

This would’ve been a fine, bitter hour-long short film if not for the “six months later” business. Or, if the script had had the courage to explore what Julian’s influence did to Danny, The Matador might’ve been a fierce little classic. Yes, I am asking for a different movie, but the different movie I’m asking for would’ve meant something. The movie’s tone and style, before it moves back to Danny’s boring home, have a lively malicious wit. But Danny, who has grown his own ugly mustache in apparent imitation of Julian’s, remains an innocent even when he joins forces with Julian. The film is presumably content to be an empty-calorie buddy flick. But Pierce Brosnan, sinking under the amoral weight of Julian’s 22 years of killing, makes you believe in Julian’s need to connect with someone, even a loser as unlikely as Danny. Brosnan elevates the material he’s given, but he could’ve risen to a sharper script and captured greatness. Maybe someday.

Wolf Creek

December 25, 2005

jarrett_wideweb__470x30901Undistinguished retro sadism, and pretty weak sadism at that, redeemed somewhat by an effusively evil (if Aussie-stereotype) turn by John Jarratt as an outback psycho who kidnaps three hikers (Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips). Writer/director Greg McLean hits all the expected buttons, padding out the 99-minute running time by giving us 45 minutes or so of prefatory footage that’s supposed to endear us to the victims before they get fed into the grinder. Stylishly crafted but utterly empty, with a reputation for shock-horror it doesn’t really earn; it’s for teens and college students unversed in grindhouse cinema who haven’t seen it all before, nastier and better. Of passing interest due to Jarratt’s contribution to the mad-slasher pantheon.


December 23, 2005

3471634Steven Spielberg has always known how to tell a story, but I remember a time when he also knew how to end one. In recent years, his work has been marred by flailing last-minute attempts at redemption, meaning, depth. It started, I’m afraid, with that awful “I could have sold this pin” scene near the end of Schindler’s List, and at the finish of Spielberg’s new film Munich we witness the conflicted hero Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) envisioning the slaughter of Israeli athletes while performing husbandly duties atop his wife. It reminded me of a Morrissey lyric, “In the midst of life we are in death, et cetera,” from a Smiths tune whose title could also describe Avner: “Sweet and Tender Hooligan.” The scene is embarrassing. Is Spielberg too powerful now to allow anyone in his sphere to tell him his fly is open?

Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was an old-school war movie that strove to say something larger; Munich is a traditional spy flick that has similar designs on significance (and Oscars). When Spielberg gets down to business, there’s no director more economical. The movie runs two hours and forty-four minutes but goes smoothly and swiftly. In a whirlwind of media, we learn that nine Israeli Olympic athletes have been kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists; Spielberg and his longtime editor Michael Kahn turn it into a global nightmare collage, with people all over the world reacting in horror. It’s the first of several parallels to 9/11, which seems to have haunted Spielberg’s work in 2005 (War of the Worlds capitalized on the imagery, Munich considers the wounded, affronted, vengeful aftermath).

Avner Kaufman, an Israeli Mossad agent, is picked to lead four other men in an unofficial campaign, blessed by Golda Meir, to hunt down and kill those involved in the Munich massacre. Avner’s crew includes the pugnacious Steve (future 007 Daniel Craig), the dyspeptic Carl (Ciarán Hinds), the forger Hans (Hanns Zischler), and the nervous toymaker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), whose talents are put to more brutal use building bombs. When the men plot and scam and pay their way towards their targets, and when not one of the assassinations goes as planned, Spielberg is in his pure-cinema element, working with sheer movement and suspense. There’s about an hour’s worth of greatness in Munich.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, Spielberg also genuflects toward the film classics of the period (1972-1973), right down to the naturalistic color scheme out of a William Friedkin thriller. Francis Coppola gets a substantial nod: a thwarted attempt on a terrorist bigwig recalls Vito Corleone’s stalking of the vicious Mafioso in The Godfather Part II, and when Avner rips his phone apart looking for bugs (or worse) it’s right out of The Conversation. Spielberg can still stage violence so that it brings you up short: assassination here is a sticky, ugly business, and when Avner and his men close in on a half-naked Dutch hit woman the movie willingly crosses the line into sickening. What makes the scene all the more hideous is the incongruous humanity of the dying woman reaching for her cat, for a final snuggle.

Munich presents terrorism and vengeful retaliation for terrorism as two sides of the same nasty coin, in perpetual spin. Spielberg knows there are no pat answers and offers none, other than that the Arab-Israeli conflict is foul and unresolvable. He gives voice to all sides and takes none, though there’s more than a hint that America’s retaliatory violence after 9/11 is on Spielberg’s mind as well. (An image at the end shows us the New York skyline circa 1973 — with, of course, the World Trade Center still standing.)

In the end, Munich is a chastened and inchoate work, atoning for the very spy-movie gambits it has thrilled us with. Perhaps the world weighs too heavily on Spielberg for him to be a simple entertainer anymore (his 2002 Catch Me If You Can is about the closest he’s come lately to the fanciful touch he used to have). He has the power and skill to get these muddled, clenched historical films made, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right director to make them.

King Kong (2005)

December 14, 2005

92834__kong_lPeter Jackson’s King Kong is a massive fetish object — his Christmas gift to himself for bringing home the bacon (and the Oscars) with his Lord of the Rings trilogy. He’s unquestionably a master, and this is unquestionably a piece of work — an impassioned act of tribute to Jackson’s favorite movie, the hoary old 1933 original — but I can’t really call it a masterpiece. I found it diverting yet exhausting, a nineteen-course meal from a chef who insists on feeding you long after you’ve unbuckled your belt and called it quits. This Kong rumbles on for three hours and seven minutes, twice as long as the ’33 version, and also twice as long as Jackson’s previous (and, I continue to think, his best) ode to star-crossed love, Heavenly Creatures.

Yet the movie’s length isn’t really the issue (aside from a few flabby spots, it flies by); the problem is Jackson’s eagerness to wow you. He’s like a little kid making you sit through an epic re-enactment of his fantasies using his toy dinosaurs and gorillas. And not just one or two toys, but dozens of them. When the tramp steamer Venture finally arrives at the desolate Skull Island (after about an hour of screen time), the heroes — including struggling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), obsessed moviemaker Carl Denham (Jack Black), and playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) — spend lots of time running away from dinos, bats, large and disgusting bugs, and a director with a serious case of overindulgence. After a while the spectacle becomes like a blunt object grinding into your forehead.

In all versions of this tale, the beast’s tragic error is to fall for a blonde. Jackson has blithely retained the material’s sexist and racist elements; in some schools of thought, the story is a warning to black men to stay away from white women. Naomi Watts’ Ann Darrow is a comedienne who wins Kong’s heart by doing Vaudeville routines. The erotic subtext of the 1933 version (who can forget Kong pulling off Fay Wray’s clothes and sniffing his fingertips?) and also the 1976 version is gone, replaced by a sort of teddy-bear affection that goes both ways: Ann and Kong think of each other as lovable pets. She also asserts herself with Kong, but not nearly as much — or as amusingly — as Jessica Lange in the much-criticized ’76 remake.

King Kong is curiously humorless for a movie about a 25-foot simian going mooshy over a dame. Even at its sprawling length, it scarcely has room to breathe; Jackson is always rushing along to the next thing, and even the sporadic attempts at beauty (like the overtly Hallmark-card moment when Ann and Kong enjoy a sunset and she teaches him the word “beautiful,” a moment sappily reprised at the end) are banal. Happily lost inside his WETA kingdom in New Zealand, Jackson appears to have forgotten what people are about. He gets a terrible performance from Adrien Brody, who seems restless — he’s not a green-screen actor by temperament. Jack Black does Orson Welles lite, cranking his damn camera when all hell is breaking loose; Jackson clearly identifies with Carl Denham’s relentless showman’s instinct, but all we see is an arrogant twit willing to get everyone killed just to make a name for himself.

Some of King Kong is entertaining, if oversold. A fight between Kong and one T-rex would be fine (and was fine in the original), but Jackson has Kong fend off three of them at once, until we can finally enjoy a showdown between the big ape and the toughest of the dinos. The New York of the 1930s is, to use a cliché, lovingly recaptured, though it’s a New York known only in movies. King Kong is far from a failure of energy or imagination — Jackson’s enthusiasm is often infectious, and the critical rhapsodies probably refer to the sheer big, thick, movie-movieness of the thing. I succumbed more than once; its good parts are enough to recommend it, with serious reservations. But, dear God, I wish Jackson would shake off his addiction to gigantism, his apparent need to punch everything up three times as much as it needs to be. As the creators of another big-monster remake a few years ago found out, size isn’t everything.

Brokeback Mountain

December 9, 2005

BrokebackMountainThe eponymous range in Brokeback Mountain is many things, but it sure doesn’t look like a place that could nurture love. The clouds in the Wyoming sky look like bruises on metal; if the cold or the hail don’t get you, the bears or coyotes might. Aptly named, it’s a real spine-cruncher of a locale, especially if you’re a cowboy riding a skittish horse and trying to move hundreds of sheep from one end of the rocky, barren place to the other. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, adapted from Annie Proulx’ 1997 story first published in The New Yorker, imagines the nosebleed parts of Wyoming as the world itself, a vast yet constricting place where forms of love that don’t meet with society’s approval are shunted off among the creeks and wildlife. The mountain is both an epic backdrop and a closet.

It’s 1963, and two hard-luck ranch hands — Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) — meet at the trailer of their would-be employer, Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid). They’re assigned to Brokeback, where they’ll theoretically keep Joe’s sheep from becoming coyote munchies. It’s a harsh and lonely job — the men are supposed to camp miles apart — and Ennis and Jack fill their time together with resentful talk about the boss and a few tidbits of autobiography. Jack does rodeos for off-season cash; orphaned young, with no family to fall back on, Ennis mostly kicks around. After about half an hour of screen time (seven pages in Proulx’ concise story), it happens: the men share a tent and find themselves in the grip of a passion neither one understands.

Brokeback Mountain is not, as some claim, part of “the gay agenda”; it has the simplicity and clarity of a fable, wedded to the gnarled and taciturn physical realism of the Western. It is the classical star-crossed love, intended by Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana to be universal. Two men form the core, but Ennis emerges as the (flawed) hero, a man so strangled by fear that even his words come out half-swallowed. Ennis knows from horrid experience what happens to men like him and Jack in this part of the land. He says goodbye to Jack at the end of the season, then throws himself into marriage (Michelle Williams, as his wife Alma, emerges here as a major young actress post-Dawson’s Creek) and kids. It’s what he’s supposed to do. Jack, for his part, meets and marries a feisty cowgirl (Anne Hathaway) and becomes an afterthought in his own life, treated contemptuously by his rich in-laws.

Every so often, the men reunite (for “fishing trips” that fail to fool their wives for long) and head for Brokeback Mountain, the one place they can be themselves. Jack is impatient; he wants to start up a ranch with Ennis and be with him all the time. Ennis, averting his eyes, mumbles about work commitments he can’t get out of. There isn’t much overt, external homophobia in Brokeback Mountain — even mean old Joe Aguirre doesn’t blow the whistle on the men when he spots them wrestling half-naked, and we feel that if Ennis and Jack had done a better job with the sheep, he would’ve hired them back no matter what they did at night. The phobia is all internal — Jack beating his head against Ennis’ nightmare of what might happen. Heath Ledger has gotten more interesting in the past couple of years, but this is his finest and most subtly shaded work yet; he makes Ennis a man mentally lashing out at shadows but too afraid even to speak most of the time. He shows us the terror inside the laconic Western hero.

Brokeback Mountain is the ideal project for Ang Lee, a director who has probed the sore spots of repressed people throughout his career: the gay-themed The Wedding Banquet (1993), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), even Hulk (2003). Lee tells this story with delicate candor, making stunning use of the imposing (and actually Canadian) backdrop and working with a sensual rigor almost unmatched in recent films: You can just about taste the terrible coffee, smell the sheep, feel the skin-flaying cold.

As pure cinema, the movie is a considerable triumph, told with as few words as possible; “You don’t say much, but you get your point across,” someone says to Ennis’ daughter (a chip off the old tight-lipped block), and that extends to Brokeback Mountain, which should not be used by one political side or another as a cultural bludgeon. It’s more like one of those bruise-colored clouds in the Wyoming sky — viewed by some as a harbinger of destruction, welcomed by others as a cleansing and undeniable force that allows for blooming.

Aeon Flux

December 2, 2005

2005_aeon_flux_headerInaugurated as part of the trippy Liquid Television block of MTV in the early ’90s, Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux sped along stylishly and plotlessly. In its first short segments, the angular and deadly Aeon died at the end of every clip. Art objects in and of themselves, watchable in any order, the expanded 1995 episodes brazenly ignored any sense of continuity. Chung’s aesthetic — anime by way of Egon Schiele — couldn’t be more different from that of Karyn Kusama, who wrote and directed the intimate independent film Girlfight in 2000. A gritty drama about a girl (Michelle Rodriguez) with deep anger that found expression in the boxing ring — and worth ten of the mawkish Million Dollar Baby — the movie found power in closely observed details like crude Magic-Markered signs in the gym, or overattended parties in neat but tacky homes.

I can’t think of a good reason that we are now looking at Karyn Kusama’s Aeon Flux, other than Kusama’s previously stated jones to make a sci-fi flick, and the cosmetic connection of two-fisted feminism. On the evidence, Kusama is far better at evoking the real world than at creating a new one, and she’s absolute rubbish at big action scenes. In her hands — or, rather, in the oafish hands of screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi — Aeon Flux becomes 2005’s Matrix wannabe, and less intelligent and enjoyable than MTV’s other transplant to the big screen, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. (B&B-H creator Mike Judge once said that the studio wanted a live-action Beavis and Butt-Head movie, with Adam Sandler and David Spade. That studio exec finally got his/her wish with Aeon Flux, which should’ve been an animated feature.)

Charlize Theron’s Aeon Flux looks sensational in an early scene, wearing a veil that doubles as a cowl; the effect is both elegant and pulpy, like Gayle Hunnicutt’s cat-suited, masked heroine in Georges Franju’s Shadowman. Aeon curls tongues with a man in the street, receiving a mouth-to-mouth pill that takes her into a headspace meeting with a fright-wigged Frances McDormand. The unexplained freakiness of this is true to the tone of Chung’s toon, though nothing else is. Aeon is on a mission to take down Travis Goodchild (Marton Csokas), the leader of a sterile, oppressive city circa 2415, where a surviving five million people live walled off from nature and are subject to periodic disappearances. The relationship between Aeon and Travis lacks the gnarled complexity it had in the animated series, and is rather too neatly capped by an underwhelming plot twist.

After Girlfight, which painted a picture with nary a white face without making a big point of it, how could Kusama be satisfied with a movie in which the pale, almost Aryan heroine (she even has a Hitler ‘do at times) teams up with a black sidekick (Sophie Okonedo) who has hands where her feet should be — like a monkey? This sidekick also betrays Aeon due to a misunderstanding caused by Travis’ scheming brother Oren (Jonny Lee Miller) — you just can’t get good help these days. Aeon Flux has its show-stoppers, like a field of razor-sharp grass, but overall the script doesn’t even try to duplicate Chung’s art-school ingenuity. The cartoon was intended, in part, as a parody of empty, self-resolving action blowouts; Paramount, perversely or perhaps spitefully, has returned Aeon Flux to what it once transcended.

Maybe Charlize Theron wanted to glam up and kick ass. But she doesn’t have Aeon’s slinky physique — no actress does — so she just runs through her paces, sustaining a highly publicized spine trauma in the process, and for what? To become yet another femme action figure in a dumbed-down Saturday-night flick for teenagers? There isn’t a hint of the actress who earned her Oscar for Monster in this blank performance (Theron has been better even in such crap as Trapped and The Astronaut’s Wife). She’s about the only eye candy on the screen; with ready-made storyboards from the show, the movie opts for schlock-deco architecture and uninspired costuming. By the time poor Pete Postlethwaite shows up in an outfit that makes him look like a pink raisin in a pickle jar, Aeon Flux has traded Peter Chung’s iconoclastic incomprehensibility for big-studio incomprehensibility. Guns go off, stuff blows up, and Karyn Kusama’s voice, so loud and strong in Girlfight, gets drowned out — hopefully not forever.


December 2, 2005

transamericaTransamerica is Brokeback Mountain‘s little sister, though not as universally tragic as the cowboy film. It plays out with deep compassion but with little insight into the particulars of its subject — a transwoman who’s discovered she has a 17-year-old son from when she was in guy mode. It’s as if writer-director Duncan Tucker had a great gimmicky idea for a conflict movie, did some research into transgenderism, and let the rest of it slide.

The movie is constructed as a road movie with a difference. Bree (Felicity Huffman) is a week away from sex-reassignment surgery when she hears that (A) she has a son and (B) he’s in jail in New York. She bails him out, and he turns out to be a drug-snorting hustler named Toby (Kevin Zegers) who wants to go to L.A. to be a gay-porn star. Transamerica comes awfully close to saying: See, this kid shares this tranny’s genes, of course he’s a fucked-up fag. (There’s a moment when Toby stands in front of a mirror holding Bree’s nightgown in front of him, perhaps indicating ‘Like father/mother, like son/possibly daughter.’)

I stopped believing in the movie’s idea of transgender fairly early, when the fuddy Bree doesn’t even know what ‘GG’ means — it has to be defined for her and, presumably, for the well-meaning but clueless indie audience who haven’t run across the transcommunity’s slang for ‘genetic girl.’ (The newer trans term for non-transpeople, “cisgendered,” seems well beyond this movie.) Bree’s counselor (Elizabeth Peña) at one point arranges for her to stay at the house of a post-op transwoman who’s throwing a full-out trans party. That’s about as close as the movie comes to portraying the transgendered as anything but timid victims. It’s unfair to hang a lot of expectations on one character, but Bree is very much in the mold of the transwoman Kim in the British comedy Different for Girls, who was so prim and respectable (to make up for all the tranny psychos and/or sluts in movies) she was dead boring.

Felicity Huffman at least gives Bree some spark and acid. Her Bree (née Stanley) seems to have come through a lot to reach even the shaky place of self-acceptance she’s at, and the movie ruthlessly dismantles that. She’s forced to reunite with her family — her horrid mother (Fionnula Flanagan), her easy-going dad (Burt Young), her alcoholic sister (Carrie Preston). She loses her hormone pills when her car is stolen. About the only break she gets is when a friendly Indian named Calvin (Graham Greene, effortlessly injecting much-needed serenity into his few minutes of the movie) lets her and Toby crash at his house. Calvin isn’t the only Indian reference in the script, either — Tucker works in more Indian call-outs than in any film since mid-period Oliver Stone. What it has to do with transgender is for others to guess at.

Transamerica is comfort food for a comfortable audience, with the TV-familiar Huffman (however vulnerable her performance) reassuring viewers that she’s really a real woman underneath that unflattering make-up and harsh lighting (there’s only one scene, with Bree reclining poolside with Toby, where the camera softens and allows her some delicacy). As a rambling indie ride, it’s often enjoyable; the performances keep it buoyant. But transgender is still a fairly new subject for movies, at least in non-exploitative form, and it’s still in the play-it-safe area occupied by other well-meaning films like Normal and Soldier’s Girl. It doesn’t risk the tangle of real-life emotions and flaws, like the documentary Southern Comfort (not the Walter Hill actioner).

It’s good, I guess, that a compassionate movie about a transwoman was made at all, and seen by more people than would’ve bothered with it if it hadn’t gotten Oscar nominations. One day the trans community will have its Brokeback Mountain, a wounding piece of art that goes deeper than an agenda or good intentions. That’s for tomorrow, perhaps; right now it’s still yesterday.