Archive for August 2006

Soul Searchers (aka The Ritual)

August 28, 2006

It’s too bad there’s not much of a market for short films, because I see a lot of feature-length films that probably would’ve been happier at a third the running time. It’s not impatience on my part — I’ll watch a four-hour flick if there’s enough going on to justify it — it’s more that some material just plays better shorter. The Old Man and the Sea was not 600 pages and Un Chien Andalou wouldn’t have benefited from being 90 minutes long.

Which brings us to Soul Searchers, the writing/directing debut of Bentley Mitchum, who has clearly studied up on satanic cult movies of the ’70s and probably a few David Lynch films. Mitchum has a sharp eye and a good instinct for seat-jumpers. Stylistically, he’s one up on 75% of the so-called horror directors out there. And props must be offered that he didn’t go the easy way and crank out a slasher flick. The talent’s there, but the story he’s telling feels extremely padded out to fill 97 minutes.

Luke Tingle, who reminded me of a cross between Matt LeBlanc and James LeGros, is the movie’s clueless hero Charlie, a former-frat-boy type who moves from Massachusetts to L.A. in search of…well, he’s not quite sure what. He meets an alluring young woman in a diner (Jaime Anstead, the director’s wife), who turns out to work in a strip club. Visiting her there, Charlie runs across an old acquaintance (Scott Staggers), who takes him to a party at which Charlie meets the even more alluring Jade (Julie St. Claire). Charlie falls for her hard.

The new couple go back to Jade’s hometown in Oregon, and this is where Soul Searchers turns into a lot of scenes of Charlie wandering around in the woods, Charlie wandering around town looking for Jade, Charlie running across odd things he doesn’t understand, Charlie having recurring nightmares involving chanting robed weirdos. The script probably needed a subplot or two, or more characters for Charlie to interact with in a meaningful way that moved the story along, in order to feel less dawdling. There’s even a flashback to the time Charlie discovered a girlfriend in flagrante delicto that maybe, if you justify it real hard after the movie’s over, might have something to do with the rest of the movie. Personally, I figured it was just Mitchum going for some laughs, since he encourages Luke Tingle to act like a complete goofball in the flashback.

In the final half hour, though, things finally pick up and we learn what the deal is with Charlie’s dreams. Billy Drago shows up as a character called The Man in Black, and he ain’t carrying a guitar and singing about Folsom Prison, folks. It’s always fun to see Drago, though he has to deliver some top-heavy exposition that sounds a lot like The Prophecy. Things come full circle, and, again, if this were a half-hour episode, it’d be a clever little gem that stuck in the mind.

I didn’t really want to mention that the director is Robert Mitchum’s grandson, because why burden a guy with that when he’s trying to do his own thing? Then again, I’m sure Bentley Mitchum is proud of his lineage, and he’s got his dad Christopher in there too. The guy’s got talent, and he’s got a good story here, but next time he needs either more story or less running time.

Old Joy

August 25, 2006

There are two main characters in Old Joy — Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) — but it’s no slight to the actors to say that we can probably learn the most from the dog. The dog, named Lucy, tags along with her master Mark after he agrees to a camping trip with his old buddy Kurt. The thirtysomething men talk, get lost, drive around, camp for the night, find a hot spring in Oregon, talk some more, and so on. While the men do a quiet dance of unease around each other, encased in the bubbles of their own problems, Lucy just wants to run around with a stick or a branch in her jaws. It would be a mistake not to consider Lucy a third character; indeed, she may be the movie’s key character. Lucy is the only one onscreen who seems fully alive, who embodies the uncomplicated existence — I’m happy, I’m hungry, I want a stick — that the men appear to yearn for in their own lives.

But Old Joy is not a dog movie. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, who wrote the script with Jonathan Raymond based on his story, the film sits with these two men as they grapple with what their lives could’ve been versus what their lives actually are. Mark, who has a pregnant wife at home, envies Kurt’s nomadic life of drifting from one “transformative” event to another. Kurt seems to wish for Mark’s stable home life, someone to come home to and talk to, a routine, some certainty from day to day. We get the sense that Mark and Kurt used to be more alike back in the day, in their early twenties, when the landscape and their own possibilities sprawled out before them. Mark has grown, though not altogether contentedly, while Kurt, parodoxically, has fallen into a rut. Kurt may be “free,” with nothing tying him down or getting in the way of a jaunt to Big Sur, but he, too, is discontented, feeling stagnant and probably too old for the lifestyle of a 22-year-old.

None of this is really said in so many words. There are no big revelatory moments. There’s no clichéd conflict. But don’t make the mistake of then assuming that Old Joy has no drama, or that “nothing happens.” Reichardt is a miniaturist, fixated on small details (the sound design, especially when heard through headphones, is remarkable) and subtle signifiers. The movie reminded me of the work of Harvey Pekar, whose American Splendor comic book finds importance in the mundane. I also flashed back to My Dinner with André, the great two-character epic of words, which seemed to encompass everything and resolve nothing. We could read Mark and Kurt as an updated, post-grunge Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, though Mark and Kurt have their own inner lives and inner demons. They are probably closer to us and to people we’ve known than Wally and André, intellectuals of the New York theater, were.

The movie runs only 76 minutes, and there’s so little dialogue the entire script could probably be printed on the insert inside the DVD case. Reichardt draws out the silences, keeps her camera glued to the Oregon trees and mountains passing us by out the passenger-side window. The impatient will call this padding, but this is a movie truly about the journey. It’s about spending a couple of days with a buddy you’re not sure you have anything to say to anymore, and it’s about wondering why things have worked out that way. And in the margins, always, is happy little Lucy, trotting along, looking for the next stick.

Snakes on a Plane

August 18, 2006

In case you wondered, it comes about an hour and twenty minutes in: the call and response in the Church of B-Movies, with Samuel L. Jackson as the hellfire pastor. “Enough is enough!” bellows Jackson. “I have had it with these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane!” The heavily sarcastic audience at the Thursday-night screening went wild. The entire movie leads up to that line, that delivery of that line, that actor delivering that line in that way.

Is it worth the wait? As someone with a deep appreciation for B-movies done with panache, I’d say yes. Snakes on a Plane delivers the goods. How could it not? It does drag a bit in the middle; there are, as it happens, only so many ways you can do snakes on a plane, and the filmmakers’ ingenuity peaks early. Still, this is perfectly pleasurable drive-in fare, and would have been even without the incessant Internet hype that we’re all a little tired of by now. What’s going to be funny is watching Hollywood try to catch this schlock-zeitgeist lightning in a bottle twice. But they can’t. Snakes on a Plane will be often imitated, never duplicated.

I mourn the loss of original director Ronny Yu, who might’ve made his Snakes as a “crazy mad Hong Kong version,” to quote Jackson. But Final Destination 2 helmer David R. Ellis steps up authoritatively and gets the dirty job done. Jackson’s FBI agent Neville Flynn must protect a murder witness (Nathan Phillips) from the vicious ganglord whose baseball-bat antics he inadvertently eavesdropped on. Flynn puts the guy on a red-eye from Honolulu to L.A. to testify. The ganglord arranges to have a wide variety of poisonous snakes (from all over the world, we’re told by snake expert Todd Louiso) placed in the cargo hold, with pheromones making them super-aggressive. At a certain point, the snakes dangle down into the coach cabin along with the oxygen masks, and it’s showtime.

Snakes on a Plane was famously reshot to upgrade it from a milder PG-13 to a harder R rating, and the additional sleaze (snake vs. boob) and gore certainly don’t hurt. Watching it with a snarky crowd amped up for self-aware crapola is a meta experience — every death becomes a home run, every bit of foreshadowing (“Yes, coach is safe,” stewardess Julianna Margulies reassures a nervous chihuahua-carting bimbo) an occasion for MST3K-style goofing. This is absolutely one of the great audience films, if you see it with the right jaded mix of people (or just go with a large group of like-minded friends). I really don’t see it working as well in your living room (unless, again, you invite a bunch of derisive geeks over).

Jackson does his usual Jackson thing; he knows he’s there to come across with the Samuel L. Jackson-ness, and he pleases the crowd without too much effort. To be honest, it was more fun watching him gleefully promoting the film on The Daily Show than watching him in the actual movie; Snakes on a Plane doesn’t quite live up to the Great Ultimate Samuel L. Jackson Motherfuckin’ Movie in your head. But it’ll do, and there’s fun support from Kenan Thompson as the videogame-addicted Troy, Bobby Cannavale as an FBI desk jockey who finds himself collaring a snake wrangler in the desert when he’d rather be bidding on a black velvet Pam Anderson painting, and David Koechner as the unflappable co-pilot who manages to steer the plane with a Popeye-swollen arm full of venom.

Snakes on a Plane is a catchphrase, a marketing triumph, a hipster phenomenon. Fortunately, it’s also a slyly entertaining flick divorced from all that, with various satisfying snake kills (many will enjoy the fate of the poor sap who only sought to empty his bladder; others will thrill to the unfair match of insufferable British twit vs. boa constrictor). Best of all, it can’t possibly disappoint your expectations, because what are you expecting? There’s a plane. There are snakes on it. And there’s Samuel L. Jackson. For once, you get exactly what the ads promise.

World Trade Center

August 9, 2006

In his long, antagonistic career, Oliver Stone has never made a movie that I felt anyone else could’ve directed — until now. World Trade Center, which has been treated to Saving Private Ryan-style hype, is at least as manipulative and overrated as that film, with a comparable attention to excruciating physical detail but no particular reason to exist other than to garland itself with medals for telling an Uplifting True Story About Good Men. I’ll be blunt: If not for the still-raw wound it probes — if it were simply about two men trapped under a collapsed building and awaiting rescue, and carried none of our 9/11 associations — World Trade Center would be of very little dramatic interest. Viscerally, in the early scenes, it brings 9/11 back to us with shocking clarity — the disbelief, the misinformation, the sinking feeling when the second tower and the Pentagon were hit. After that, though, it’s not really a 9/11 film — it focuses on two of the few Americans that day who had no idea what happened until well after the fact. Stone pays a price for staying away from politics this time.

Working with a spindly script by Andrea Berloff, Stone keeps his camera grounded and centered, as if not only his attitude but his filmmaking were hemmed in by the weight of recent history. No matter what his public remarks to the contrary, the former controversialist behind JFK and Natural Born Killers is being a good boy here, going out of his way to show he can direct something respectful and respectable. Maybe Stone, in his declining years, is becoming less an iconoclast than an iconographer. His hero-worship of machismo was obvious in his previous features, Any Given Sunday (1999) and Alexander (2004), and here he’s got two men, New York Port Authority policemen John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), whose courage none dares question.

But to question the movie that enshrines them is not the same as impugning the men (who, by all accounts, are humble and grateful to be alive). I’m sure the real McLoughlin and Jimeno have some flaws, as we all do, some quirks, things that set them apart. In the movie, they don’t. Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña do a lot with very little, but it’s not enough (and once the men are trapped under tons of rubble, the script dooms the actors to repetition). Their characters are written and acted with a nervous eye on the real men and their families — the filmmakers and actors go for a kind of subdued heroism, but even that reduces any dramatic charge. Stone has cast two of modern cinema’s most idiosyncratic (and best) actresses, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as the worried wives of the men, and then gives them almost nothing to do but fret and wait for news.

The ads for World Trade Center announce the movie’s purpose: to remind us there was great good as well as great evil on that day. Stone chooses to illuminate this (literally) with gauzy shots of Jesus himself visiting the men in visions (though tauntingly holding a water bottle), and a devout churchgoing Marine (Michael Shannon) is the one who eventually finds the men. Move over, Mel Gibson: Stone has stepped up to carry on the religious/cultural fight — Christianity vs. Islamic fundamentalism in the big boxing ring of Hollywood. Look for this one to be shown at churches all over America once it hits DVD (and how could Stone make a PG-13 family-safe movie about the obscenity and horror of that day?).

Let the record show that I wasn’t a big fan of last April’s United 93, either. I’m not here to give out gold stars for effort and good intentions, and I’m not here to argue the importance of September 11 — the reverberations will endure for decades. What I am here to do is to assess the quality of a given film. World Trade Center has some chilling, bone-slamming moments when it shows us what it may have felt like to experience the fall of the first tower from inside, but that’s about all it excels at. It may sound heretical to say so, but last week’s horror flick The Descent did a better job of conveying claustrophobia and the rigors of grace under pressure — and because it wasn’t hitched to a true, still-sensitive story, it hit harder and sharper. I maintain that the best 9/11 film remains 11’09″01, the 2002 anthology collecting eleven different views of the day’s events and impact from around the world. Failing that, movies like 25th Hour — or The Descent — which deal with September 11 peripherally or subtextually may be the only way to tackle this large, inflammatory topic until time allows distance, interpretation, and artistry.

The Descent

August 4, 2006

The Descent, a mercilessly effective horror film from Britain, is not a movie I’d recommend to claustrophobics. Or maybe I would, if I were feeling sadistic. After all, it is a horror movie, and when we go to a horror movie we expect to feel emotions like, y’know, horror. Usually we don’t. This time we do. Written and directed by Neil Marshall, who made the well-liked werewolf film Dog Soldiers in 2002, The Descent arrives with all sorts of advance hype about how nerve-wracking and gut-wrenching it is, and for once a movie earns its buzz. Once it gets going, it shakes you and keeps shaking you.

Six young women of various nationalities get together to explore a cave in the Appalachians. One of them, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), endured a tragedy one year ago, and the other women hope to get her mind off things and surround her with support and excitement. The ringleader is Juno (Natalie Mendoza), who’s somewhat arrogant about the great adventurer she is, or pretends to be; she even has an apprentice of sorts, the spiky-haired wild card Holly (Nora-Jane Noone, from The Magdalene Sisters). Rounding out the sextet are compassionate Beth (Alex Reid), climbing expert Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and med student Sam (MyAnna Buring). As it happens, everyone ends up grateful to have a med student along.

About two miles down, a cave-in blocks the women’s way out, and they have to find or make another exit. Between this movie and World Trade Center, being buried alive seems to be the en vogue terror of the month. That would be traumatic in itself, but Marshall ups the ante with subterranean cannibals who live in the cave and presumably subsist on would-be explorers. They look like a bunch of Gollums, though the credits identify them as “crawlers.” The monsters are a slight letdown — the make-up on them doesn’t always fool the eye — but the way the first of them is fully introduced to the group is a memorably chilling image.

The Descent has two different endings depending on what country you see it in; we in America are getting a slightly shorter version, whereas the Brit edition is bleaker and brings back Sarah’s frequent birthday-cake vision for one last hurrah. I’ve seen both, and the American ending (approved by the director, who wanted to see how this alternate finish would fly with a different audience) is, in its way, more disturbing. Either way would be a proper way to seal off a film that plays for keeps and isn’t afraid to turn its likable, strong characters into moral weaklings who will do what they must to survive.

Indeed, the true horror of the movie — especially its one indisputably shocking moment — lies not in crawling, squealing Gollums but in the film’s certainty that even these smart, well-prepared women can be undone by their own flaws. The women are drawn swiftly yet definitively; nobody acts out of character, and so we don’t roll our eyes at rash or ill-advised actions that, in a lesser movie, would simply strike us as stupid. The Descent isn’t an exercise in unmotivated sadism like last year’s Wolf Creek, the previous heavily-hyped horror import. That film wanted to be a gnarly endurance test but came off as callow showmanship — like a ten-year-old boy, it wanted to wow you with how grotesque it could be. (“I wants to make your flesh creep,” said Joe the Fat Boy in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, without actually being able to; Joe could’ve directed Wolf Creek.) The Descent is an endurance test, too, but it gives you something worth enduring, and — for some, I’m sure — just barely endurable. Even the sequences of no particular menace, when the women are squeezing themselves through the tight nooks and crannies of that godforsaken cave, press down hard on your chest. I didn’t go into The Descent particularly claustrophobic, but I think I might be now.