Archive for March 2006


March 31, 2006

Is there anyplace left for film noir to go? The quirkily enthralling Brick provides an answer: back to high school. Brick, a first feature by writer-director Rian Johnson (one of the editors on Lucky McKee’s May), recasts the old Dashiell Hammett template as a deadpan playpen for teenagers. I realize how annoyingly twee that sounds — a costume-party folly like Alan Parker’s gangster-kid farce Bugsy Malone. But Brick holds to its glum reality — it’s Sam Spade meets River’s Edge. And this film’s Spade is a bespectacled teen named Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a soft-featured, recessive boy whose standing apart from the crowd could be taken as shyness. It’s actually slyness; Brendan hangs back and takes everyone’s measure, and he’s unafraid of slapping punks around Bogie-style.

Johnson pushes Brendan into a convoluted plot involving a dead girl, some femmes fatales, and some heroin. This last is pushed by a shadowy figure called The Pin, played by a scruffy Lukas Haas as a twentysomething dandy who surrounds himself with muscled oafs and controls his empire from his mom’s panelled basement. (Occasionally, the characters go upstairs to hash out their agendas over brightly colored kiddie-cups of orange juice.) Brendan must find out what happened to the girl — who once went out with him — while playing both sides against the middle and stringing along the school’s vice principal (Richard Roundtree). Down these mean hallways a kid must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid

Oh, did I mention Brick has its own language? It speaks fluent hard-boiled, evoking the memory of vintage pulp verbally the way Sin City did visually. Brendan punches out a spiky-haired dweeb, then turns to the dweeb’s confederates and rattles off, “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night; that puts me six up on the lot of you.” Brendan’s way of telling The Pin that there’ll be no conversation while Pin’s muscle is in the room is “The ape blows or I clam.” You either accept this or you don’t, and I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t, but I took it as a pleasingly stylized route to noir‘s heart. “Accelerated English,” says Brendan when the vice principal compliments him on his turn of phrase. The rhetoric of noir is accelerated English, all right, a gat rat-a-tatting invective. Brick uses it beautifully, as a plausible extrapolation of how teens invent their own lingo to block out adults.

On some level Brick is a stunt, but so is every new movie that tries to re-invent noir; and on some level, even the old noir films were stunts (think of 1947’s Lady in the Lake, filmed entirely from Philip Marlowe’s POV). But after a while you’re drawn into the story, the way you always are, and the milieu seems like a weird hybrid reality, or alternate universe, or something. Whatever it is, wherever it is, whenever it is, it’s not remotely like anything else out there.

Inside Man

March 24, 2006

Spike Lee, who just turned 49 (can you believe he’s pushing fifty?) and is marking his twentieth year of feature filmmaking (I can’t believe that either), has lost none of his energy or his voice. You can say some of his films are duds — I certainly would — but you can’t say he’s repeated himself, rested on his laurels, or taken money for a project he didn’t believe in. Inside Man, Lee’s sixteenth narrative “joint” (not counting numerous concert films and documentaries), shows what this hot-blooded, sometimes hot-headed director can do when he decides to settle down and tell a story. A story that’s probably too convoluted and dependent on plot holes, but still a restlessly engaging tall tale, a crackling cops-and-robbers drama that outmuscles anything else out there. (Which isn’t hard.)

Carrying a little extra weight as hostage negotiator Keith Frazier, Denzel Washington ambles through the movie with the lightness of a serious actor happy to come to work on a smart piece of entertainment. Frazier’s nemesis is Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), the coldly shrewd mastermind of a bank robbery. Russell and his three associates have taken a lot of people hostage, but they don’t seem in any hurry to do what most bank robbers do, which is to, y’know, steal money. Their target lies inside a safety deposit box, which the bank’s owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) does not want to be opened. Case calls on a higher authority — a sort of executive facilitator named Madeline White (Jodie Foster) — to intervene between the cops and the robbers.

Inside Man doesn’t make a lot of logical sense when all is said and done. It seems like a lot of sound and fury signifying an anticlimax. Yet I doubt Spike Lee took this job just because he wanted a mainstream hit (as it happened, the movie’s opening-weekend take was a career best for both him and Washington). Lee loves New York, and loves its jostling disharmony, its short-tempered melting pot. Here, he gets to throw lowlifes in with the elite, leading to a sharp dialogue bout between patrician Madeline and unshaven Russell, or amusingly unlikely sparring between working-man Frazier and gray eminence Case. I think Lee made the movie just to shoot the dialogue (by Russell Gewirtz), and maybe secondarily to run a heist flick through the blender of his style.

What I’ll remember from Inside Man are the odd exchanges, like the one between Frazier and a white cop who consciously has to check his reflexively racist speech; Frazier chooses to let it slide, to let the cop be what he is, as long as the conversation leads to some insight. Or the way Russell sits down with a little black kid over pizza and registers surprise at the violent Grand Theft Auto-like game on the boy’s PSP. (I enjoy GTA myself, but Lee has a point to make about gangsta culture playing itself out in games, and he makes it well and hilariously.) Or the way Jodie Foster — for once not playing a role model — enjoys being smug and powerful; I’ve always known she had a terrific villain in her, and this role is about halfway there. The movie is full of entertaining digressions, like the way hard-bitten SWAT cop Willem Dafoe and another cop get in each other’s face over a cryptic trick question Russell asks Frazier. Or the difference between delivering pizza and sandwiches to the hostages, and what it means when Russell ends a phone call by snapping “Next time send sandwiches.” Most of the movie is, in fact, an entertaining digression.

I can’t say Inside Man is up there with Dog Day Afternoon (one of several predecessors it references), but it has the same interest in the people in the situation, rather than just in the situation. Critics like Roger Ebert have poked holes in the script’s logic, as if every movie needed to be a hermetic vault safe from nitpickers. Logic isn’t Spike Lee’s strong point. He nails the irritable yet alive soul of New York — particularly, now, New York post-9/11 — better than anyone else. Sometimes he doesn’t have the right story or characters to animate his ongoing ode to the city. Sometimes he does. And sometimes he just wants to enjoy himself, as he clearly does here. Inside Man is probably the most basically fun movie Lee has ever made.


March 21, 2006

I dabbled in Dungeons & Dragons in my teens, though it never quite took. I would lose patience and do dumb, suicidal things with my character just so I could get out of the game early, go home and watch a horror movie or something. But I’ve known guys like the guys in Gamers. They’re real and they’re scary.

After a string of back-handed odes to geekdom in the last decade or so — Free Enterprise, Trekkies, Comic Book Villains, Evan Dorkin’s The Eltingville Club — about the only strain of nerditude left untapped was role-playing games. Written and directed by Christopher Folino, Gamers strikes a mockumentary pose; like Christopher Guest’s masterpieces of the form, the film examines a small, weird subculture and the weirdos who put it above all else in life.

Gamers concerns itself with a close-knit group of four RPGers — aided by a less experienced fifth at times — who’ve been playing “DND” (Demons, Nymphs and Dragons) every weekend for 23 years. They’re six gameplay hours away from breaking the longevity record. A camera crew follows them, individually and as a group, as they prepare for their moment of glory. In a couple of spots, the mockumentary conceit doesn’t quite gel — in the prom flashback, for instance, the camera lapses into staged “omniscient” mode. Maybe it’s intentional, but it kind of breaks the reality. (Maintaining a mockumentary style in which there’s nothing on the screen that couldn’t be reasonably caught by a documentary camera crew is harder than it looks. Christopher Guest does it effortlessly; a lot of other mockumentaries don’t.) But for the most part Folino keeps it real, and funny.

Folino has himself an impeccable cast of up-and-coming comedians and improv artists. The scene-stealer is Dave Hanson as Reese, the infantile and deeply strange player who creates hot female characters, names them after ’70s babes, and gets way too attached to them. Hanson reminded me of Chris Elliott at his shit-eating funniest on Letterman. Then there’s Kevin Kirkpatrick as Gordon, who works the camera at the local cable-access station and can’t resist throwing inept avant-garde zooms and spins into coverage of town meetings. Kevin Sherwood is Kevin, the “Dungeon Lord” with an unfortunate sense of wizard fashion and a gig performing personalized kiddie songs. Scott Alan Rinker is Paul, who’s been documenting the DND journey since its inception and has sworn never to swear. Joe Nieves is Fernando, the movie’s Pedro, who suspects his hot girlfriend of getting knocked up by a gay Jesus.

If there’s any justice, Gamers will function as a you-saw-them-here-first intro to a lot of fresh talent. It also goes back to the ’80s and brings back various icons from the era: John Heard as Gordon’s veterinarian dad and Beverly D’Angelo as his wife; Kelly LeBrock as the resident MILF; and William Katt as a former gamer who counsels Reese (“Find a game you don’t die in; you can suck, but the suck’s on you”).

Gamers has an appealingly twisted sense of humor, and for every punch that doesn’t land (I could’ve done without the horse-jizz gag) there are several that hit, like the quilt of shame and the running David Lynch joke with a killer payoff. You don’t actually need to have navigated a dungeon or fondled a 20-sided to enjoy the movie, though I’m sure it helps; the basic throughline — an easily definable goal for the characters, however pathetic — will carry newcomers along. And any movie that takes mean passing shots at Ren Faire dweebs has a place of honor at my table.

It may be, too, that the more you identify with these guys, the more your laughter may be tempered with “Ouch.” The movie knows its milieu well enough to capture the clutter, the fetishistic Scorpions posters on the walls. Substitute the antisocial obsession of your choice and you’ve got a movie about you and your friends. Gamers captures the need to disappear into fantasy and the bonding among man-children who need each other to sustain the fantasy. If that makes it sound too cerebral, it also has dick jokes.

V for Vendetta

March 17, 2006

In V for Vendetta, screenwriters/producers Andy and Larry Wachowski (of the Matrix trilogy) pour all of their fear and loathing of the Bush administration into a dystopian melodrama. The problem is, this particular story shouldn’t be about the Bush/Cheney gang. British writer Alan Moore, mapping out the original V comic book in the early ’80s, aimed his barbs straight at the heart of the Thatcher government. And his tale was less about political alarmism than about a romantic carpe diem ethos in which the anarchy of individuality trumps the jackboot of conformity. Obviously that’s a theme close to the hearts of the siblings who pitted Neo against computer domination. But it gets lost amid too much thunder, not enough poetry, and too many senseless additions to or subtractions from Moore’s narrative.

As in the comic, a dark loner known only as V (Hugo Weaving) prowls London in a cloak and a mask patterned after Guy Fawkes, who famously tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. It’s the near future, and England is under a totalitarian regime that rose from the ashes of war and plague. (America, we’re told, is a shadow of its former self.) V’s mission is to wipe out the fascist machine and restore control to the people. He warms up by blowing up Big Ben, and later commandeers the government-controlled British broadcasting system to deliver his message to the oppressed and oppressors alike. He also rescues young Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) from rapist policemen and whisks her back to his lair, full of banned pop culture like Julie London on the jukebox and The Count of Monte Cristo on the telly.

So far, so good. But the Wachowskis (who gave this project to their longtime assistant director James McTeigue to helm) don’t have much to say beyond Totalitarianism = Bad, Freedom = Good. Alan Moore made an eloquent case for art surviving the maw of conformity: “Anarchy must embrace the din of bombs and cannon-fire,” his V soliloquized, “but always must it love sweet music more.” The Wachowskis hit some of the same notes, but they don’t come anywhere near Moore’s sweet music. Some of their additions are rubbish: Stephen Fry turns up as Evey’s noble boss at the network, who has a secret stash of contraband political art and puts together a Benny Hill-style program viciously satirizing the regime’s chancellor (John Hurt). Does he think he won’t be dragged away and shot for this? Or is he trying to go out in a contemptuous blaze of glory? The film doesn’t make it clear. When the script sticks close to Moore — as in a bravura anecdote about Valerie, a lesbian movie star turned casualty of the homophobic regime — it works best. Which, sadly, is seldom.

The look of V for Vendetta is perfect: blooms of orange fire at midnight, reflected off black latex and sharp steel. The film is a fine Viking funeral for the late cinematographer Adrian Biddle (who shot Aliens and Thelma & Louise; he died in 2005 after completing this film). And I’d be lying if I said the movie’s bracketing sequences of bomb-gasm didn’t give me a surge of adrenaline; it’s hard not to succumb when the “1812 Overture” bellows in accompaniment. (It sounds cheesy on paper, but plays beautifully.) But the film is a muddle, a victim of trying to shoehorn too much incident from a ten-issue comic series into a 132-minute film, and adding irrelevant things like the secret origin of the plague that befell London. If the analogy to the Bush America is meant to hold up all the way, the filmmakers sidle up to suggesting that the White House engineered 9/11 for political gain. Even Michael Moore didn’t take it that far.

The heavy breathing in the press over whether V for Vendetta “glorifies terrorism” is a smokescreen. V only blows up empty buildings and only kills those who have done a lot to deserve his vengeance (or who try to kill him); he’s not a terrorist, he’s a garden-variety vigilante, only the thugs he takes down are enemies in high places. The various heroes in Sin City (also based on graphic novels) did much the same thing, on a smaller scale. And the theme of the little guy against the evil machine is nothing new, needless to say: Orwell, Bradbury, Terry Gilliam, and many others have walked this path before. This movie simply doesn’t add much to the gallery of dystopian art — where Moore’s book already hangs quite prominently — aside from an embittered topicality that will look rather dusty in a decade or so.

It’s capably acted — Stephen Rea sags expressively as the inspector on V’s trail; Portman carries off Evey’s arc from naïf to radical with aplomb. But the film shouts when it should sing. Bombastically insecure, it treats the audience like V treats Evey, preaching condescendingly and instructing us to watch the fireworks. But, as it has been translated and condensed for multiplex consumption, it really has no deeper meaning beyond the fireworks. V for Vendetta was denounced in some quarters as dangerous and irresponsible. I’ll bet the Wachowskis would love to think it is. But at heart it’s as unwittingly conformist as those rebellious throngs of British citizens at the end, wearing their identical Guy Fawkes masks and cloaks, an army of Vs unknowingly obliterating their own individuality (a touch that was not in the book) for the sake of a cool visual.

Thank You for Smoking

March 17, 2006

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), the “yuppie Mephistopheles” at the center of Thank You for Smoking, brings Americans the message that smoking cigarettes is about freedom of choice, not about health issues. He may even believe it himself, but one can’t be sure. A tobacco-lobby spokesman with the charisma of Satan and morals to match, Nick loves what he does — in theory, anyway — and the beauty of the film is that we understand why he loves it. A genius at debate and misdirection, Nick prides himself on spinning verbal webs; he doesn’t actually have much emotionally invested in tobacco, but they sure pay him well, and he’s the lobby’s top dog. And he loves the challenge of defending the indefensible.

Thank You for Smoking is a fast, bubbly satire that does full justice to the addictive Christopher Buckley novel it’s based on — a story neither liberal nor conservative, like Citizen Ruth, the last great American satire. It’s not as nasty or as complex as that film — it skims the surface, but in this case the surface is a pretty fun place to be. In his travels, Nick runs across a beehive of colorful characters, the most interesting being his fellow lobbyists and friends Polly (Maria Bello), who represents the alcohol industry, and Bobby Jay (David Koechner), who shills for guns. The trio call themselves the MOD Squad — Merchants of Death. They sit huddled in a red cave of a pub and trade war stories and morbid statistics. Somehow, we sympathize with the rotten day at work they’ve all had.

Out in Los Angeles, Nick courts Hollywood agent Jeff Megall (a fatuous, kimono-wearing Rob Lowe) to get him to persuade movie stars to smoke in movies and make the habit sexy again. He also bears an attache case of hundred-dollar bills for Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), a former Marlboro Man now dying of lung cancer and using his last breaths to excoriate the tobacco industry. Nick, trying to hold onto his job, is desperate to get good p.r. for smoking, and though it’s not a noble goal, we enjoy watching Nick at work — he’s smart, and happy about being smart, and Aaron Eckhart makes him just about impossible to dislike. Going back to In the Company of Men almost a decade ago, Eckhart has a palpable talent for morally slippery characters you hate to love.

The movie has been directed with deadpan fizz (many freeze-frames catching characters with goofy expressions) by Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman — who, sadly, hasn’t made a film in years as good as his son’s debut here. Characters like the anti-smoking Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy) are introduced like the political specimens-under-glass they are, while others like seductive reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) — who lures Nick into ill-advised candor — or the tobacco kingpin “The Captain” (Robert Duvall in a fine great-old-man turn) get properly Hollywood treatment. Reitman also doesn’t become part of the problem: nobody smokes in the movie, though almost every character did in the book. Anyway, the movie is less about smoking than about a man who’s the best at what he does, though what he does isn’t particularly admirable.

I could’ve done without Nick’s son (Cameron Bright), whom Nick carts around L.A., hoping to reconnect with him. In the book, Buckley kept the kid offstage (and also made much more of the subplot in which Nick is abducted by anti-smoking zealots); Reitman writes several scenes in which Nick and the boy sit down and talk about proper debate tactics. It’s not bad as such things go — Nick doesn’t talk down to the kid — but it steals away time better spent listening to Nick’s boss (J.K. Simmons in full bluster) sound off, or sitting with the MOD Squad in their tight social exile, or hearing Robert Duvall wrap his creaky Southern accent around cynical remarks that pop liberal pieties like balloons.

I wish Thank You for Smoking weren’t so afraid of losing the audience; I wish it had more faith in Nick’s ability to persuade us, if not of the worth of his cause, then of his worth as the anti-hero of a satire. Still, the film is remarkable for what it does do, and it’s refreshing to see a lead character take such pleasure in his own intelligence and rhetoric. We enjoy the audacity of Nick’s claims and the skill with which he delivers them. That’s enough for me.

The Altruist

March 15, 2006

cast1bMick McCleery, I like to think, fired up a nice cigar after he thought up the premise of The Altruist. There are people out there who enjoy killing; there are people out there who would like to die. And there is, according to the movie, an organization that brings the two groups together. Terminal Assist, it’s called. Kind of a Jack Kevorkian rewrite of Grosse Pointe Blank, this is a twisty and darkly satisfying comedy that pushes beyond its premise to become a far purer example of film noir than The Black Dahlia ever manages.

Nick Andrews (the great Billy Franks) runs Terminal Assist out of a deep need to help his fellow suffering human beings, though he usually cloaks it with a cynical, foulmouthed veneer. His agency “matches” despondent or terminally ill people — clients — with sociopaths willing to put the former out of their misery. There are bound to be flaws in this system, and writer/director McCleery has thought of most of them: clients who have second thoughts, killers who can’t be trusted to carry out clean hits or keep their mouths shut about them. It’s a low-rent operation, tolerated by cops on the take and based in a shabby office plaza.

The plot thickens when Teresa (Bobbi Ashton), the widow of a client, looks further into his death (which got complicated by an overeager killer). She rightly suspects Nick, and he finds himself smitten with her pain and determination. Added into the mix is the deceased’s best buddy (John Innocenzo), a doctor who seems to have his own designs on Teresa. And the FBI is trying to infiltrate Terminal Assist by sending in an undercover agent (Nancy Jarrell) to pose as a deathly ill potential client.

It could’ve been all too easy for The Altruist to lapse into faux-Tarantino territory, but McCleery keeps the proceedings genuine and rooted in reality. There aren’t as many laughs to be found as the film goes on, but that’s not a criticism — it indicates that the movie is actually dealing with the issues it raises, rather than disregarding them in favor of some ironic, post-everything romp where life doesn’t matter. What happens, for instance, when the elderly widower of a client seeks revenge on the people who took her from him? She wanted to die, but he didn’t want her to; Nick may force himself to turn a blind eye to the bereaved — at least until Teresa catches his eye — but the movie doesn’t.

The denizens of this half-underworld are immaculately cast, too, from Mike McLaughlin as a company facilitator known as “The Weasel” (fifteen years ago, Steve Buscemi might’ve played him) to Jonene Nelson as the snappish receptionist to the hulking Nick Cammarano as “The Force,” the big dog who keeps the smaller mad dogs in line. Holding it all together is the smartly morose Billy Franks, who comes on like the product of John Cusack and Joe Strummer after a trip through Seth Brundle’s pod — he makes Nick a man exhausted by his knowledge of what some people are willing to do and what others are driven to do to themselves.

I hadn’t expected much beyond the neat concept, but The Altruist delivers something a good deal more profound — a light-footed riff on Eros vs. Thanatos, like all good noir. Where other films of this type fall apart, this one clicks together; it’s a tight unit, fully imagined and wittily presented. Like Grosse Pointe Blank, it understands that there is humor in the hit-man theme, but not just humor.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things

March 10, 2006

18813225For all its agony and anguish, Asia Argento’s film of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things is a labor of love — the love of a quirky, talented actress-filmmaker for a piece of writing and its author. Both, of course, turned out to be fake.

JT LeRoy, a traumatized, transgendered writer with a childhood full of abuse, became a cause celebre in the late ’90s when a posse of well-meaning hipsters — people like Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, Gus Van Sant, Dennis Cooper, and Asia Argento — took him/her (it was never clear exactly what stage LeRoy was at) under their wings following the publication of Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. The books spoke of trailer-trash despair, religious lunacy/sadism, and a great deal of sexual self-loathing. At the end of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, the young protagonist Jeremiah, having endured something like two hundred pages of cruelty and neglect, goes to visit a sadist and pays him for more abuse. (That denouement isn’t in the film version, nor is the motif of genital mutilation culminating when Jeremiah’s psychotic, crack-addled mother burns his penis with a car cigarette lighter.)

Who wouldn’t take pity on such a creature? Jeremiah, or JT, or whoever, was a ready-made symbol of art triumphing over white-trash horror — a sensitive Rimbaud arising from the toxic honky-tonk swamp. In 2005, though, it was revealed that JT LeRoy was actually a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert. More people read about this literary hoax, and the resulting fallout, than actually read the books, which hold up, surprisingly. I don’t know what demons led Laura Albert to impersonate an abused teenage boy and write about his supposed experiences, but the writing itself is no sham. It’s painfully, genuinely felt. Whatever Laura Albert was working out by writing the books, they are authentic feats of compassion and imagination. They are also unavoidably erotic, and not in a safe, approved way: the writing evokes a woman who wishes for a background like JT LeRoy’s so that she can get away with fantasizing about being a horribly abused boy. When Jeremiah asks to be whipped with a belt because it’s the only intimate act he knows, Laura Albert is indulging in literary masochism that fulfills her in some deep, diseased way. The sickness has heat to it, as it does in the work of Dennis Cooper or William Burroughs.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, the film, finished production in late 2003 and spent the next couple of years knocking around film festivals. By the time of its official U.S. premiere in March 2006, the JT LeRoy story had already broken, leaving Asia Argento with a literary-gossip footnote rather than a film to be judged on its own merits. Argento had made the movie in good faith, unaware, like everyone else, that the story she was adapting had no basis in anything real. So the movie treats the material with grave respect, though conscientiously leaving out the eroticism. When the cross-dressing young Jeremiah (played in alternating scenes by the twins Cole and Dylan Sprouse) seduces one of his mother’s many boyfriends by dressing up like her, Argento, who plays the mother, plays the scene herself — we’re to understand that the hapless boyfriend legitimately mistakes Jeremiah for the mother, or at least falls into a willing delusion, so Argento gets around the ickiness of the original scenario by filling in for the Sprouse twins on-camera.

Stylistically, the movie is jumpy and somewhat headache-inducing. Sonic Youth shrills on the soundtrack often, joined by the shrieks of Jimmy Bennett as the seven-year-old Jeremiah, who is rejected by his foster parents and taken in by his horrid mother, who had him when she was fifteen. It’s frequently a rough sit, and not just because of the intractable subject matter. Nevertheless, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, along with Asia Argento’s 2000 feature directorial debut Scarlet Diva, marks her as a far more adventurous and even risk-addicted filmmaker than her famous father Dario, who sadly seems to have fallen into a lengthy rut. Asia Argento has always been a dangerous presence as an actress, unpredictable and volatile (she looked titanically bored as the rote eye candy in xXx), and she has herself a fine time here as Sarah, the mean-as-a-snake stripper and truck-stop whore (or “lot lizard”) who drags Jeremiah everywhere, vacillating between not wanting him around and needing him. By the time she becomes obsessively terrified of coal, dyeing her and Jeremiah’s hair black in a restroom and tearing around a supermarket, Jeremiah seems to have entered into her mania with her.

Argento has good taste in actors; among the men Sarah sleeps with or hangs around with are Jeremy Renner (a perpetually underrated performer), Jeremy Sisto, Michael Pitt, Kip Pardue, and a surprisingly good Marilyn Manson, scrubbed of his diabolical makeup. Peter Fonda and Ornella Muti, of all people, turn up as Sarah’s parents, coolly vicious fundamentalists. Winona Ryder and Lydia Lunch even pop in as social workers. In a way, the film is just another party held in honor of JT LeRoy, back when people still believed in him. But that belief — in this story, in its wounded importance — is what keeps The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things from being a fashionable freak show. Argento disregards the sadomasochism (or perhaps doesn’t want to see it) and plumbs Jeremiah’s story for poetic sadness.

(Incidentally, if you happen to have bought or rented a copy of the DVD which, due to an authoring error, is missing the meth-lab explosion scene — which accounts for maybe two minutes of screen time — it’s up on YouTube:

The movie is harsh, and I can’t really imagine watching it again, though it has gained a devoted cult of fans who proclaim it their favorite film. It moves them, I would think, the same way the novel moved Asia Argento. It’s the story of a desperately lonely boy who doesn’t belong anywhere, with anyone. His creator, passing herself off as a similar misfit, was embraced and then shunned by the same people who responded so urgently to JT/Jeremiah’s story. Sounds, in fact, like a terrific movie — call Mary Harron.

The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

March 10, 2006

I wonder if the reason that the resolutely unscary Blair Witch Project scared so many people was that it had no stars. When you don’t recognize anyone onscreen from TV or other movies, you feel that anything can happen to them; they have, as yet, no image to protect. The vintage horror films of the ’70s, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, Halloween to some extent (whose only big name at the time was Donald Pleasence), and Wes Craven’s 1977 The Hills Have Eyes, worked like that. The problem — well, one problem among many — with today’s horror movies is that the studios, despite the evidence of Blair Witch, think stars are required to get asses in seats. So we get movies like the Chainsaw remake, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and now the Hills Have Eyes remake with comfortingly familiar faces you expect to survive till the end credits.

This new Hills Have Eyes has been scrupulously copied from Craven’s original template by hotshot French horror director Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension, released in the U.S. as High Tension). Craven himself was one of the remake’s producers, so he can’t complain, even if we can. Like Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects) and Eli Roth (Hostel), Aja loves the disreputable, ornery grindhouse horror of the ’70s, and his work here and in Haute Tension is exceptionally well-crafted, if unavoidably derivative. Aja’s Hills is shinier, gorier, and nastier than Craven’s Hills, though it has demerits of its own.

As before, we meet a family — headed by macho retired cop Bob (Ted Levine) and his ex-hippie wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan) — driving to California with their three teen-to-adult kids, a son-in-law, a baby, and two dogs named Beauty and the Beast. As before, young male power carries the day, right down to the fates of Beauty (don’t get too attached to her) and the Beast (arguably the hero of the movie). The parents, whom the remake goes out of its way to establish as Republican, haven’t a clue how to survive out in the desert when their car is totalled, especially when a second family made up of deformed nuclear-testing casualties comes out to play.

Up-and-coming young actors Aaron Stanford (as the liberal son-in-law — he’s Meathead to Levine’s Archie Bunker) and Lost‘s Emilie de Ravin (as one of the daughters) reassure you they’ll make it to the end, even if you haven’t seen the original. Similarly, the mutants, though imaginatively designed, are a bit too monster-movieish; they’re just make-up, not truly menacing. (The original film’s Michael Berryman needed no make-up, and you knew that such a low-budget film couldn’t afford to make anyone look like Berryman naturally did.) It doesn’t help that the mutants are given far less screen time than in the original. You barely know why one of the more compassionate mutants (Laura Ortiz) risks her life to keep the family’s baby safe once it’s been kidnapped, and you don’t even meet the mutants’ patriarch Jupiter until the very end. What was once a crude but effective parallel study of two dysfunctional family units is now just a Saturday-night shocker for teenagers.

As such, this Hills sometimes delivers, simply by way of its willingness to be nasty. But there’s a difference between Aja’s homage to nastiness and Craven’s genuine, Manson-and-Kent-State-inspired nastiness back in the day. It’s self-conscious nastiness, once removed from its motivating source. Some will point to the moment when the most vicious mutant molests a young mother while pointing a gun at her baby; others will single out the film’s anti-American streak (and sneeringly add that the director is French) — both, of course, were also in the 1977 version. One major new addition, a tour through a bomb-blasted town (with such touches as a fat bald woman glued to Jerry Springer on TV and a character named “Big Brain” in obvious tribute to Chris Cunningham’s freaky Rubber Johnny video), works well if only because we haven’t seen it before. And here what was subtle subtext in the original becomes overexplicit: The mutants are to us what Godzilla was to Japan — monsters forged in the heat of military/nuclear hubris. See, Aja is saying, we create our own terror(ists). But then it’s back to the original template, wherein we comfortably watch familiar faces pick-axing heavily latexed boogeymen.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party

March 3, 2006

Had she lived to see it, I think Pauline Kael, that notoriously hard-to-please film critic, would’ve loved Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. After all, she loved the concert films Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz, and this movie deserves to be on the same shelf as those classics. Kael also loved Richard Pryor, and she might’ve seen his legacy living on in Dave Chappelle, the quicksilver comic who turns racial tension into farce. Easygoing and levelheaded, despite his highly publicized conflict with Comedy Central over the fate of Chappelle’s Show, Chappelle isn’t so much an angry black man as a humanist who sees the lowdown, raffish humor in people’s delusions. (In one of his most famous sketches he played a blind white supremacist who didn’t know he was black.)

So when Chappelle pulled together an all-star concert on a Bed-Stuy corner in September 2004, he did it without anything to prove. He had clout now, and a means to get all his favorite musicians together for one eight-hour concert. Like Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz, the movie is all about a good time. It’s also about inclusiveness. The artists — Kanye West, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Dead Prez, the reunited Fugees — are primarily black, with the occasional white session player. But Chappelle, in the footage we see, goes back to his hometown of Dayton, Ohio to hand out free tickets to the concert (including transportation and a night at a hotel), and he approaches people of all races, ages, and genders. Some of them he probably expects to say no, like the middle-aged ladies who run the convenience store, but he just wants to see what they say and how they say it. As it happens, the ladies say yes.

Director Michel Gondry (who made 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) cross-cuts between the concert and the process of putting it together. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is less about the music than about the event. There’s a good deal of goofing around between Chappelle and various musicians in rehearsal, and we see Dave doing things like trying on pimp hats or just shooting the shit with the famous and nonfamous alike. Gondry brings a caught-on-the-fly style to the footage that nonetheless coheres into something that feels planned, or pre-ordained. Chappelle happens across a college marching band and asks them if they want to play at the concert; soon they’re backing up Kanye West for an electrifying, relentless run-through of his “Jesus Walks.”

I couldn’t honestly tell you what some of the hip-hop artists are saying without looking up the lyrics — the words sprint out in a rat-a-tat Uzi stutter that my ears just couldn’t process (I sympathize with the older white guy in the film who says he doesn’t dislike rap, he just literally can’t hear what they’re saying) — but not understanding all the words never stopped anyone from enjoying opera music. What matters is the syncopated joy, despair, love, hate, passion, and everything else that comes pouring out of the performers and their audience. As in the 1981 punk/new-wave concert film Urgh! A Music War, the women make themselves heard more clearly; they’ve worked too hard not to be heard, and singers like Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and especially the volcanic Jill Scott are almost frighteningly precise and powerful. Their segments reminded me of yet another classic concert film, Bert Stern’s way-ahead-of-its-time Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a gorgeous time-capsule record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

Chappelle says in the film that the block party was the best day of his career. I’m sure it was. Given the pressures that made him flee to Africa and bow out of a third season of Chappelle’s Show, it makes sense that he wanted to organize this concert (a month or so before he signed the famous $50 million contract) — it let him just hang out with creative buddies, and it let him be a fan again. Most of the time, Chappelle is just another face in the crowd, bobbing his head in time to the beat, nothing on his mind except the music. The movie lets us share in the experience.


March 3, 2006

If Ultraviolet had subtitles and starred someone like Maggie Cheung or, say, Elina Löwensohn about ten years ago, it might get a fairer shake. The movie is blathering sub-pop nonsense from scalp to toes, but, damn, is it fun to look at. Forget the subtitles, even — just turn the sound off, put on the techno or classical music or whatever soundtrack of your choice, and coast on the visuals. Writer/director Kurt Wimmer may not have two original ideas to rub together, but he sure as hell has an eye.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Milla Jovovich can act, but she has a surly supermodel presence and looks comfortable spinning around and waving sharp objects; in this film, that’s just about enough. Milla plays Violet, a “hemophage” (vampire) who takes it upon herself to protect a boy (Cameron Bright) carrying lethal antigens in his blood. This involves lots of costume changes, and since Violet is a busy woman, the movie helpfully changes her costumes for her via computer coloring. Sometimes her hair changes too. If you don’t like how Milla looks at any given time, wait two minutes and she’ll reboot for you.

Ultraviolet frequently lost me; it has the kind of simplistic yet convoluted plot that becomes white noise to my brain. But Kurt Wimmer, whose equally derivative yet eye-boggling Equilibrium was hailed by some (mostly the folks at CHUD) as the greatest thing since bullet-riddled bread, seems to have dedicated himself to making the prettiest pulp ever. Literally every frame has a burnished sheen, and the close-ups are digitally airbrushed — it looks like a high-end comic drawn by Richard Corben or Pete Von Sholly. A scene in which Violet and the boy share a rare moment of respite during a fireworks display — the colors and lights playing moodily on their faces — is gorgeous visual poetry. Directors have been lionized for far less.

Of course, to fully enjoy Ultraviolet you have to agree to overlook its story — which is eminently overlookable — and let it have its way with your eyes. I sympathize with the many charges against the film. “Idiotic,” some have said. “Hollow,” others say. “How the hell does Milla Jovovich keep getting film work,” ask still others. Apologies, but these objections are beside the point of the movie and beyond its purview. It wants only to catch Milla in a variety of poses against lovingly stylized backdrops while she handles weaponry and looks fetching in sunglasses. Which also change color. This is the kind of movie that makes me glad there’s a “Worth a Look” rating on eFilmCritic. Ultraviolet is absolutely worth a look — if not a listen or a thought.