Archive for April 2006

United 93

April 28, 2006

Resolutely un-Hollywood, Paul Greengrass’ much-discussed docudrama United 93 has been praised more for what it’s not — cheesy, manipulative, plastic — than for what it is. Structurally, I can’t see much wrong with it: Greengrass handles the story with a productive mix of gravity and stylistic off-handedness. The importance of the event is never oversold; nobody is lionized or demonized. But therein lies the problem: as drama, it inevitably flatlines. Shackled to the (few) known facts tighter than any other filmmaker in recent memory, Greengrass can’t elaborate, can’t imagine. After a while, the movie’s free-floating sense of dread shifts into neutral, and the incidents seem to unfold at an emotional remove. The film seems transcribed, not told or felt.

That said, what Greengrass does, he does superbly. The director of Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy works with his usual shaky-cam verisimilitude, his camera catching significant action and dialogue out of the corner of its eye. We witness the confusion of September 11 — the air-traffic controllers baffled by planes that have disappeared below the radar; the military scrambling for authorization to shoot down the planes; the disbelief that first one, then another, then four (the number isn’t clear at first) planes have been hijacked, when there hasn’t been an American hijacking in years; the sight of that second plane hitting the World Trade Center, demonstrating beyond a doubt that this was no accident. The madness of that day, including all the conflicting and false stories, is evoked with a casual chill.

Aboard United Flight 93, which was presumably headed for the Capitol, four men sit and wait. One is calm, presentable, bespectacled — he could be a professor of Middle Eastern studies. The others are younger, and more nervous, almost crawling out of their skin to do this terrible deed. Not out of animal hatred, though — it’s more like the fearful impatience that drives you to leave a little early for a dentist’s appointment you’re dreading. Greengrass depicts these men as men — not monsters — who, for whatever reasons, have come to a mental space wherein striking at the political and economic hearts of America seems a fine and noble goal. Depicting them as the standard Hollywood bug-eyed bearded screechers would help no one and illuminate nothing.

Once blood is shed on the plane and the hijackers take over, United 93 lapses, unavoidably, into convention — the screaming, terrified passengers; the hijackers shouting incomprehensibly and keeping everyone at bay with box-cutters and a fake bomb. We’ve seen it before, though usually handled less scrupulously. Some of the passengers cluster together, making calls from the plane phones or figuring out what to do (once they’ve learned that the hijackers have no intention of landing the plane, much less making any demands). Greengrass has avoided casting any stars — in some cases (as with FAA Operations Manager Ben Sliney, who gave the order to ground all aircraft) he has cast real-life figures from that day as themselves — but a few semi-recognizable character actors, like Boston Legal‘s Christian Clemenson and Sledge Hammer‘s David Rasche, stick out a bit and disrupt the illusion.

I can say that United 93 has been done well — with intelligence, compassion, efficiency — and yet still question whether it was worth doing. In form it’s little different from a television docudrama, and you don’t take anything away from it that you wouldn’t get from an actual documentary (there have been at least two) or from reading a book. As noted, Greengrass has very little wriggle room to interpret the events artistically or even emotionally. He does everything the opposite of how the worst Hollywoodized account of Flight 93 you could imagine would do it, but I think he overcorrects in the other direction. I prefer a film like 11’09″01, an anthology in which eleven directors from different countries were asked to make a short film (lasting exactly eleven minutes, nine seconds, and one frame) in response to 9/11. Some succeeded, some didn’t, but all were highly personal in a way that honored the multitude of feelings about that horrid day. United 93 isn’t personal — it’s just business. It’s all business, tending monkishly to data and jargon and physical detail, as if so afraid of offending left-wingers, right-wingers, the many people who were involved in air-traffic control, the many survivors of those aboard Flight 93, and God knows who else, that it can barely breathe.

Silent Hill

April 21, 2006

The creepy survival-horror video-game series Silent Hill, from what I gather, is an immersive and mystifying experience. It’s all about atmosphere and dread. The movie version is like a big piece of fan fiction that fills in everything left unexplained in the games, and some fans of the games may appreciate that, while others may not feel that the invented mythology lives up to the story in their imaginations. I come to Silent Hill as someone who’s seen the game played a couple of times, so I approach it as a horror fan watching a horror movie. What I can tell you is that the film imports the atmosphere successfully, but everything it adds felt tired to me — ah, jeez, not religious wackos again.

Silent Hill is certainly the oddest film in a long while to get a wide release in this country. Gnarled, twisted, faceless things come writhing out of the shadows, presenting not danger so much as a kind of metaphysical repulsion. The game started with the Japanese, as so much recent horror does, and they know how to tweak the senses with nightmare logic. For them it all seems post-Hiroshima — all ghosts, or deformity, or deformed ghosts. What a French director (Christophe Gans, who made Brotherhood of the Wolf) and a Canadian screenwriter (Roger Avary, who cowrote Pulp Fiction and directed The Rules of Attraction) do with this fundamentally Japanese material makes for a strange yet conventional mix.

Rose (Radha Mitchell) has been worrying about her little daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), who’s been sleepwalking and talking about a town called Silent Hill. The place has been deserted for years, a casualty of coal-mine fires. Despite the wealth of online information about the town, Rose decides to take Sharon there. In the dead of night, and without her husband (Sean Bean, little more than an afterthought). Well, if we outlawed dumb behavior in horror movies, there’d be none left.

A female cop (Laurie Holden) gets involved, and soon she and Rose are exploring the ashy town, looking for Sharon and dealing with various freaky creatures. One such critter, known to fans as Pyramid-Head, is the movie’s equivalent of a “boss battle.” Indeed, even gamers who aren’t familiar with Silent Hill will recognize the structure: Here’s a Clue! You may want to investigate room 111. There doesn’t seem to be a room 111, but there is a painting here — press the X button to check it.

Christophe Gans fashioned a pretty good werewolf-fantasy pastiche with Brotherhood of the Wolf, and here he goes all out with the rusty, gore-spattered walls and chained-up corpses. Silent Hill is unquestionably the most visually alive film based on a video game, though, given the source, it would take concentrated ineptitude not to make it look interesting. But all of this creepiness and visual ingenuity leads to … a bunch of holy-roller throwbacks who shout, without irony, things like “Burn the witch, kill the demon!” (I half-expected Michael Palin to pop up and accuse Rose of having turned him into a newt.) The last third of the movie, devoted to these idiots in 19th-century drag (led by a poofy-haired Alice Krige), is exceptionally dull, despite the appearance of a barbed-wire demon that earns the movie its R rating all by itself. The message goes all the way back to Carrie: Don’t abuse weird little girls or they will fuck you up.

The set-up of Silent Hill, like the video games, is intriguing and original — newcomers won’t be sure where it’s going. When everything starts being explained, though, the mystery evaporates and the world of the game loses its eerie bafflement — which is half its power. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is no more than functional and the acting little better (Radha Mitchell tries and sometimes fails to squelch her Aussie accent; Sean Bean doesn’t even bother to cloak his English accent; somehow, he’s supposed to be playing someone named Da Silva — his family must be from the famous British part of Portugal). Silent Hill takes something freaky and unclassifiable and gradually turns it into … a horror flick. And a horror flick that, as a horror fan, I’ve seen before: yeah, The Ring meets Hellraiser meets The Village. The game wasn’t anything meets anything. And now, unfortunately, the game has met Hollywood.

Scary Movie 4

April 14, 2006

When Airplane! came out twenty-five years ago, it didn’t depend on our knowledge of the Airport movies to be funny. It used the basic Airport situation as a clothesline on which to hang jokes that would’ve been funny in any context. For that reason, Airplane! is still considered a comedy classic. I wonder if anyone will be watching Scary Movie 4 twenty-five years from now and calling it a classic. I’d guess not, and the reason is that it depends far too heavily on specific movie parodies, as all the Scary Movies have. These new parodies are built for audiences now, and built to make money now, with pop-culture references as up-to-the-minute as the filmmakers can manage. In a quarter of a century who’s even going to remember that Tom Cruise went on Oprah’s show and made an ass of himself? Who’s going to remember Dr. Phil? Or Chingy? (Who is “Chingy”? I’m 36. I don’t know.)

Scary Movie 4 will need to be annotated for the viewers of 2026 to understand it, and it almost needs to be annotated now. It assumes you’ve seen The Grudge, The Village, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, the Saw movies, and even Million Dollar Baby. How all these movies are mooshed together to make a coherent plot is a mystery the screenwriters haven’t really solved. Then again, the very contrivance of somehow linking the hero and heroine from War of the Worlds and The Grudge is part of the movie’s ramshackle appeal, I guess.

Not that there’s much continuity running through the Scary Movie franchise, but series star Anna Faris is back as Cindy Campbell, the intrepid blonde who does whatever goofy thing the movie requires at any given moment. Faris is a good sport, and she has a certain slapstick charm, though I’d like to see her doing more films like Lost in Translation. Stepping into the Tom Cruise role is series newcomer Craig Bierko, who doesn’t look a lot like Cruise and doesn’t really bother to act like him either. Other returning Scary Movie veterans are Charlie Sheen (in an over-the-top Viagra gag), Anthony Anderson (who throws himself gamely into a Brokeback Mountain parody, which would’ve been funnier if I hadn’t already seen the film parodied to death and beyond on the Internet), and old trouper Leslie Nielsen, reminding us wistfully of the brighter days of Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies.

Not only does Scary Movie 4 assume you’ve seen the films it roasts, it assumes you enjoyed them. For my part, as I watched farcical recreations of every other scene in War of the Worlds, I was thinking, “Y’know, I already sat through War of the Worlds once. I don’t really need to watch it again.” Director David Zucker, one of the minds behind Airplane!, has a knack for aping the costumes and sets of Saw and The Grudge and the tripods of War of the Worlds — but so would any of us, given the budget. Zucker even reprises the boring Tim-Robbins-in-the-cellar scene from War of the Worlds (with Michael Madsen standing in for Robbins), though nothing at all comes of it aside from a garbled monologue from Madsen that proves he couldn’t be funny if humor were water and he fell into a pool.

I chuckled a few times — mainly at irrelevant dialogue (“I saw a face.” “Did it have a nose?” “Yes.” “Sounds like a face, then”) that reminded me of the old “And don’t call me Shirley” days. But it’s clear enough that Scary Movie 4 wasn’t made for me. Nor was it even really made for its target audience — it was made for Miramax, to deliver it a big opening weekend. (It worked.) These things will continue to be made every couple of years as long as they make money and there are popular horror movies for them to parody — putting this lifelong horror fan in the weird position of hoping that every horror movie in the next two years flops. Doesn’t seem likely, even though the genre is stuck in the most unimaginative rut it’s seen since the slasher boom of the ’80s; among the trailers I saw before the movie was one for the remake of The Omen. That trailer, sad to say, was funnier to me than anything in Scary Movie 4.

The Notorious Bettie Page

April 14, 2006

For decades, the pin-up and fetish model Bettie Page has been an intoxicating and suggestive image for many men (and some women). In The Notorious Bettie Page, she remains just that and nothing more. It’s as if writer-director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho) and her co-writer Guinevere Turner looked at Bettie’s life and found nothing there to relate to. Harron located the dark-comic humanity in two very different kinds of homicidal sociopaths — Valerie Solanas and Patrick Bateman — but in the gentle, innocent Bettie she finds no point of entry. She just presents a highlight reel, impersonally and without comment.

Gretchen Mol plays Bettie with a winning lack of self-consciousness. For a long while, the film is a portrait of a woman who manages to reconcile her devout Christianity with her exhibitionism, with no trace of hypocrisy or irony. The way she sees it, God made her to pose for photos, and the photos make men happy, and there’s no harm in it. The grim reapers of the Kefauver hearings, though, argued that Bettie’s work was indeed harmful. Like The People Vs. Larry Flynt, the movie congratulates its hip, liberal, indie-film-watching audience for sneering at prudes. I’m always up for prude-bashing myself, but does Harron really mean Bettie’s fetish modelling to come across as empowering in some way?

The Notorious Bettie Page is mostly shot in bland black and white, except for home-movie sequences (shades of Raging Bull) and, for some reason, the sequences set in Miami, where Bettie went to pose for Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson). Filmed against the blue, blue ocean, Bettie shows her body as innocently as a kitten would. But we’re also shown Bettie’s religious upbringing, and it’s implied that she was sexually abused by her father and violated by a bunch of men in the woods. How such a woman goes from those experiences to being a pin-up girl and not, say, a nun or a man-hating lesbian is a mystery and remains a mystery as the end credits roll. Essentially, Bettie is the anti-Valerie Solanas: instead of writing The SCUM Manifesto and shooting an artist, she is shot in various corsets and bondage gear by schlock artist Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his sister Paula (Lili Taylor, who played Valerie Solanas for Harron, and here brings it full circle).

Harron and Turner use Bettie as a sort of found object of pre-feminist feminism. Bettie just does what she wants to do, and eventually that includes leaving modelling behind and embracing Jesus anew. Again, Harron presents this with no comment, as if she didn’t know quite what to make of it. It’s implied that Bettie had a change of heart after hearing that a young man died while duplicating one of her bondage poses, but she also says she isn’t ashamed of what she did. Who knows how she feels? Bettie is a cipher throughout, despite Gretchen Mol’s honorable efforts.

And the movie steers clear of the allegations made by Richard Foster in his controversial (read: denounced by Page and her legion of fanboys) 1997 bio The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of the Pinups — that Bettie became a violent religious zealot in later years and was institutionalized repeatedly, once for attempted murder. Such messiness is outside the film’s sanitized purview. Conveying neither the joy nor the agony of its subject, The Notorious Bettie Page emerges as a real emotional zero — shocking, coming from a director of Mary Harron’s intelligence and vision. Some movies paint a complex subject in shades of gray and come out the better for it. But the Bettie Page of this movie isn’t a complex subject, however much Harron may want her to be, and the noncommittal grayness of the movie comes off as an inexpressive smudge.

Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey

April 14, 2006

I can’t really call myself a metal fan, though I dig some of it — my tastes in music are too weird and diverse to be pinned down to any one genre. But I understand the appeal of metal, because I’m a horror fan. It’s not too big a jump from the racket of Leatherface’s chainsaw to the racket of Tony Iommi’s riffs. Both are meant to electrify kids and scandalize their parents.

Metal is about cutting loose; in a way it’s a working-class hangover from the hippie era (would metal be possible without Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” and Dylan infamously going electric?). You don’t like peace, love, and beads? Fine, here’s blood, sex, and leather. Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, hosted and overseen by metal fan and anthropologist Sam Dunn, is an appreciation that places the music in proper historical and social context. It begins with footage from the well-loved cult found object of metal sociology Heavy Metal Parking Lot, admitting up front that, yes, some metal fans are as dumb as a box of hair. But the rest of the movie brings on a variety of eloquent voices from both the fanbase and the gods of metal themselves.

If there’s one thing metal fans love almost as much as metal, it’s family-tree diagrams of the history of metal — Jack Black drew one on the chalkboard in School of Rock, and Dunn frequently refers to one, tracing metal’s immediate roots to Black Sabbath and its on-the-dole origins in Birmingham. It goes back further, of course, to the early masters of blues and their emphasis on the working man’s hardships. Like rap, metal is often dissed and distrusted by the elite; metal is also primarily white, something the movie doesn’t contradict, despite bands like Bad Brains and Ice-T’s side project Body Count.

Bruce Dickinson, still in fine voice, talks about reaching the very last kid in the very last row of the stadium. That’s kind of what metal is about, or is taken as by the fans. Dunn is too much an admirer, of course, to get into how metal was commodified and corporatized, in effect selling rebellion the way every transgressive music genre has been and reducing it to conformity. As King Missile so bitingly put it in “It’s Saturday”: “I want to be different, like everybody else I want to be like. I want to be just like all the different people.” But there is an undeniable primal appeal to the music anyway, and Dunn goes all around the world — Germany, where the metal-Woodstock Wacken Open Air Festival is held; Norway, where death-metal satanists set fire to churches — to paint a portrait of the music crossing borders.

Dee Snider speaks snarkily about the PMRC hearings (not the Gores’ finest hour); Ronnie James Dio can’t help tweaking Gene Simmons (who, Dio chuckles, “invented breathing and shoes”); Alice Cooper gets a good laugh out of the FUCKING INTENSE DOOOOD posturing of today’s metal bands, each straining to be more hardcore than the last. (No mention here of the shit-flinging GG Allin, sadly.) One of the more amusing theses is that metal has such a big dick it can afford to wear makeup and frills (Mötley Crüe, Poison), and in recent years metal has gotten big vaginas as well, with such bands as Kittie, Arch Enemy and Girlschool (whoa, what about Joan Jett, Patti Smith, Wendy O. Williams, and the Slits? Ah well, female metal deserves its own documentary).

Dunn is an easygoing guide, not a psycho-fan but a guy with a life outside of metal. Several professorial-looking types (musicologist Robert Walser makes some of the most cogent points) weigh in; hipster writer Chuck Klosterman comes off like a dorkier Tarantino, if that’s even possible. There’s a fascinating sidebar about “the devil’s tritone” and how metal (like Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung”) uses a particular sound that medieval people believed was a shout-out to Satan. (Go here for more.) True to its title, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey drifts around but stays personal throughout; it’s a fan’s movie that seeks to understand why the fans are fans — other than, of course, that the music totally rawks ass, dude.

As long as there are teenagers, there will be cultural flashpoints — from bobby-soxers to MySpace — that alarm the cognoscenti and the soccer moms. So be it. That’s how walls that need to be torn down are torn down. At its best, Dunn’s journey reminds us that even the most self-consciously grotesque examples of the scene, like Cannibal Corpse and its album artwork and lyrics about monsters being torn out of wombs, are essentially just loud, wild, crazy reassertions of freedom, bellowing out that devil’s tritone over a sea of moshing, crowd-surfing, head-banging kids. Or adults.

Hard Candy

April 14, 2006

Hard Candy is certainly intense, in an attention-grabbing theatrical way. It feels very much like a filmed play, its conflict limited to the battle of wills between a fourteen-year-old girl and a possible pedophile. It even has a hook to buzz about — the notorious sequence having to do with castration. And it isn’t a spoiler to reveal that there’s a sequence having to do with castration, since that’s all anyone has talked about.

The movie, a first feature by music-video vet David Slade, bends over backwards to make the talking heads riveting. Of course, when one of the heads is talking about the damage it plans to do to the other head — or the other head’s body — our attention is practically guaranteed, if grudgingly given. Hard Candy goes a long way on the power of its leads, Ellen Page (as the lethal-Lolita Hayley) and Patrick Wilson (as the 32-year-old photographer Jeff). Page conveys a kind of sneering intelligence and has the flashier role by far, but it’s Wilson who does most of the heavy lifting, luring us to sympathize with a man who, it turns out, is not really worth our sympathy. Yet the movie is structured so that we dread what Hayley has in store for Jeff, even if he deserves it.

I suppose a two-character cat-and-mouse game like Hard Candy can’t help but be manipulative. It reminds me of Steven Spielberg’s plaintive objection to “manipulative” as a pejorative: every narrative manipulates to some extent. What critics mean when they brand something manipulative is that they feel manipulated — they feel the hands of the director and writer (Brian Nelson hit the keyboard here) pushing them this way and that. Hard Candy seems designed to do that and nothing else. It’s the kind of indie film that makes its mark by a controversial theme, an infamous scene, and dines out on its film-festival buzz. But at the end we’re left with nothing much other than bruises from having been handled so mercilessly.

Is Hayley supposed to be a psycho or a hero, or both, or neither? Other than Sandra Oh in a needless scene as Jeff’s neighbor and Jennifer Holmes as a model Jeff is still obsessed with, the movie really only has the two characters, and the fewer characters there are, the more they seem to stand for. Hayley is pure, infuriated Woman; Jeff is piggish, craven Man. If that sounds like an empowerment fable, or even a minimalist revenge flick, it’s actually more along the lines of the vagina dentata paranoia of David Mamet’s Oleanna. (That film would make a natural double bill with Hard Candy — just don’t bring a first date.) The characters aren’t written with any particular subtlety, so Page — an appealing young actress full of unpredictable energy — can’t do much with Hayley aside from bratty diabolism. The centerpiece of the film is like art-house torture porn, with the ultimate male fear of what women would do to men if given the chance placed right out front.

It’s gripping, all right. But, to paraphrase George Lucas, I could grip you pretty hard by making you think I’m going to kill a kitten. What would be the point of it, though, other than proving I could hold your attention (assuming you don’t walk out in disgust)? Hard Candy comes on breathing heavily about the real-world topics it exploits — men who prey on young girls via the internet — but goes about its squalid business in such a crude, basic way that it leaves some of us feeling resentful and insulted.

Friends with Money

April 7, 2006

Friends with Money is the third, and easily the least, feature by the gifted writer-director Nicole Holofcener. Previously, she made two small, excellent comedies, Walking and Talking and Lovely and Amazing. Holofcener’s way with dialogue and subtle, telling moments saves this one, but we’re led by her past efforts to expect more from her.

Catherine Keener is Holofcener’s ace in the hole — she shone in Walking and Talking and Lovely and Amazing, and she brightens this movie too, as Christine, one of three rich, married Los Angeles women. Franny (Joan Cusack) and Jane (Frances McDormand) are the others, and they all hang out together with Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), a desultory maid who used to be a teacher and thinks she wants to be a physical trainer.

At one point, Franny tells her husband (Greg Germann) that she isn’t sure if she’d be friends with Olivia if they were to meet now, and I thought, “Why were you ever friends in the first place?” None of these women, in fact, seem to have much in common; three of them have high tax brackets in common, but really all they share is a vague dissatisfaction. Jane is depressed, and everyone thinks her metrosexual husband (Simon McBurney) is gay. Christine has bitter fights with her husband and screenwriting partner (Jason Isaacs). Franny seems to feel guilty about her inherited wealth. Olivia has her own problems making the rent and making late-night calls to a married guy she had a past affair with.

Holofcener’s anecdotal narrative doesn’t give us much purchase on any of the characters. Instinctively, most viewers will want to identify with Olivia, but she’s a bit of a dope, letting a jerkwad physical trainer (the reason she wants to become one) sleep with her and dress her up in a French-maid costume and take half her housecleaning money. The other women are marked by varying degrees of obliviousness. Holofcener is a gently observational filmmaker; she’s not into denunciation, so she doesn’t demonize the rich ladies, not even in their rudest moments. But the movie seems to have no point of view; we don’t know why Holofcener is telling this story about these people. The participation of Aniston probably made Friends with Money easier to finance and distribute than Holofcener’s previous films, but it lacks those films’ focus.

Scene for scene, the movie can be enjoyable and even insightful. A bummer from Holofcener is better than most directors at the top of their weak game. But we don’t feel much connection between the women — which might be Holofcener’s point, who knows? — and in a relationship movie like this one, that matters. And instead of dealing with the huge class gulf between Olivia and her friends with money, Holofcener takes the easy way out with an unlikely sugar daddy.

On some level, too, I couldn’t get past Aniston’s miscasting. Others have remarked that it’s tough to accept Aniston as the financial weak link in this chain when in real life she could buy and sell Cusack, McDormand and Keener ten times over. But she also looks about ten years younger than the other women, and Olivia seems young enough to snap out of her current funk and find some purpose. We don’t really know why she doesn’t; we don’t know why the movie doesn’t, either.