Archive for November 2006

John Waters: This Filthy World

November 24, 2006

Is there a more lovable director now working (though not nearly often enough) than John Waters? The man wears his loves and hates on his sleeve, unapologetically; he won’t apologize for his films, either. Why should he? If he didn’t like them, why would he have made them?

In This Filthy World, Waters stands up in front of a New York audience for a little over an hour and takes them — and us — through a lifetime of obsessions, pet peeves, and filmmaking. Much of the material and anecdotes will be familiar to longtime fans who’ve read his interviews or his essential books (Shock Value and Crackpot). But it’s more fun to see and hear him presenting the stories. What we come away with is a self-portrait of a pre-punk transgressor gentled by the years into an elder statesman — with two Broadway hits, no less! — whom everyone expects to be wilder and crazier than he actually is. Hunter S. Thompson lived his role in and out. Waters prefers to get all his madness out in his movies, and go about his regular business dressed like a natty clerk and living a conservative life, albeit a life governed by fascination with things like murder trials and the consistent bad taste of his Baltimore neighbors.

Under Jeff Garlin’s unobtrusive if pedestrian direction, This Filthy World is your basic three-or-four-camera set-up, with occasional audience cut-aways and lighting on Waters that makes him look like he’s wearing a blue toupee. Fans of his films will appreciate that Waters offers at least one witty anecdote about each, from the Eat Your Makeup days all the way to 2004’s A Dirty Shame. His lasting affection for his incomparable star Divine is obvious; he says that if Divine were still alive, he would have wanted to star in Hairspray the musical and Hairspray the movie musical. It struck me anew how odd it should be that John Travolta, who ended up filling in for Divine (quite capably) in the movie musical, was making Saturday Night Fever at the same time Waters was making Desperate Living, his last “underground” film.

Reviewing Serial Mom back in 1994, I said that it was hard to tell whether John Waters had gone mainstream or mainstream had gone John Waters. He himself guesses that the story of Beverly Sutphin could happen today; “everybody can have a bad night,” he says, explaining why he doesn’t favor the death penalty. Waters is not for gay marriage, but not for the reasons bigoted straight people are; he opines that two of the perks of being gay were that you didn’t have to get married or go into the army, and now, as a gay man, he’s expected to fight the good fight to win gays the right to marry and go to war. Well, fine, he concludes, they should have the right if they really want to; leave me out of it.

The secret of Waters’ cult success, I think, is his essential good-heartedness. He’s too curious and easily amused by human foibles to be a misanthrope — if people were perfect, what would he make movies about? Even the rare villains in his work are seen campily, almost lovingly, the way he views the Wicked Witch of the West. That good-heartedness — the ease with strange behavior — comes through here, though he does draw the line at “adult babies.” He talks almost warmly about the woman who got him to sign a bloody tampon; sure it was weird, but he signed it, and he got a good story out of it. This Filthy World is a collection of good stories, and while it’s somewhat lacking as a deep probe into what makes Waters tick and as a piece of stand-up, it works well enough as a record for those of us who in all likelihood won’t ever make it to see him chat in person. The DVD has the added value of a featurette and an audience Q&A.

The Fountain

November 22, 2006

Izzi (Rachel Weisz) wants her husband Tom (Hugh Jackman) to walk with her in the first snowfall of the year, as they’ve always done. He would like to, but he can’t: he’s busy trying to find a cure for the brain tumor that’s killing her. The Fountain, a visually enthralling and emotionally overpowering fantasia by writer-director Darren Aronofsky (π, Requiem for a Dream), seems to have baffled many impatient critics and left many audiences cold. At this point, a lone reviewer’s quest to save the movie is almost as challenging as Tom’s quest to rescue Izzi. But I will try, and I will state it plainly: If you have ever taken my advice to see a movie and found yourself grateful you’d seen it, please go see The Fountain before it leaves theaters. I don’t do this often, but there may not be much time left.

Aronofsky has fashioned a spiritual triptych out of the story’s main conflict, a doctor’s drive to discover a remedy for his dying wife. Izzi is writing a book, called The Fountain, about a conquistador (Jackman) whose queen (Weisz) sends him to find the Tree of Life, whose sap gives eternal life. There is also the tale of a futuristic man (Jackman) speeding across the cosmos in a bubble that also contains the Tree. Yet underneath all the symbolic trappings is a very simple parable about how love can transcend death because it gives life meaning. That’s what Tom, throwing himself into research and missing his chance to spend time with Izzi in her final days, must learn.

I admired Aronofsky’s 1998 debut π, but his 2000 Requiem for a Dream seemed trendy and shallow, not honestly felt. The Fountain is Aronofsky’s triumph, an intoxicating blend of luscious cinematography (by Matthew Libatique) and brooding score (by Clint Mansell). Every frame hums with passion; like 2001 and Solaris (both versions), this is an art film in sci-fi dress, speaking eternal truths in the language of light shows. The actors shoulder the three-story burden effortlessly. By now we know Rachel Weisz can be winsome and enchanting, but here she brings a brittle kind of bliss to a woman who has come to terms with her own passing. The real revelation is Hugh Jackman, who jumps without fear into the sort of role that could’ve turned him into a laughingstock — he brings emotional urgency and transparency to the saga.

The Fountain is a fragile egg, easily cracked in cynical times. It’s sure to be misread as a soft-headed, muddled New Age treatise, but what it actually has to say is a good deal more tough-minded: that you had better love honestly and well in this life, because you don’t get a do-over. Death can be transcended but not conquered or denied. In all three incarnations, Tom is in perpetual motion, running away from his loved one towards something he believes will guarantee eternal life with her. Even his future-self — having lived centuries thanks to his medical breakthrough — turns away from the spirit of Izzi to hurtle through space towards Xibalba, the dying nebula wherein, he believes, he will be reunited with Izzi. But really the future Tom exists only in Tom’s mind — a cautionary tale of a literal bubble boy, sealed off from life and fixated on an impossible dream — just as the conquistador Tomas lives only in Izzi’s imagination. As in The Fisher King, the characters construct fantasy to process painful reality. The results may strike some as pretentious and others, like me, as adventurous and desperately moving.

Approach The Fountain as a love story informed by a grab bag of philosophies — Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, Mayan, take your pick — with sumptuous images to match, and you’ll have the key to its eternal life. It’s really nothing more complicated than the story of a couple, one of whom embraces life and so embraces death as a part of life, the other of whom tries to control life and death and is ill-equipped to deal with either. It’s a simple story told with Zen directness, its fingers deep in the age-old questions, its eyes and ears wide open to the sensual potential of cinema. For my money, The Fountain is the best that American film has to offer this year. If more movies equally daring and powerful are to be made, this one needs your support.

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny

November 22, 2006

The logical problem with Tenacious D episodes — on the 1999 HBO series, and now the feature-length skit The Pick of Destiny — is that nobody in the D’s unimpressed audience recognizes the D’s talent. Time after time, the two-man acoustic-guitar band — Jack Black on vocals and rhythm guitar, Kyle Gass on lead guitar and back-up vocals — go onstage and indulge their lofty fantasy of being great hairy beasts of heavy-metal rock. You’d think somebody in the crowd (as happened in real life) would see that Black is a master of comic bluster and Gass is a fleet-fingered, classically trained wizard. But the mythos of Tenacious D demands that they be overlooked and downtrodden, in the tradition of comedy duos going back at least seven decades.

Directed by frequent D collaborator Liam Lynch (also the co-creator of MTV’s serenely trippy puppet show Sifl and Olly), The Pick of Destiny tells the story of how J.B. and K.G. got together, bombed at open-mic nights, and decided to write their names in the legend books of rock by capturing the elusive titular pick — fashioned from a chip of Satan’s tooth, of course. Every guitar god you can name has held the pick at one time or another, and it currently resides in the Rock & Roll History Museum, waiting for our portly heroes to come and steal it.

This is a rambling sketch movie much in the tradition of Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and the Cheech & Chong films — plotless stoner comedy whose raunchy puerility is its point. I enjoyed it, though as a casual fan who also dug the Tenacious D album and DVD, I don’t know how it’ll play for newcomers. Some of it kind of blurs together with my memories of the Tenacious D HBO series; some of it, such as when K.G. gets lured away by college babes to play at their party, isn’t very inspired. But the company is consistently amusing — Jack Black with his baby-demon grin, hurling his stocky body into the spotlight, while Kyle Gass plants his feet and stoically lays down gorgeously intricate riffs. Musically, Gass and Black are Beauty and the Beast.

The Pick of Destiny gets a lot of mileage out of the overblown rhetoric and imagery of heavy metal — the bargain-basement Satanism, the schlock-medieval trappings, the tarot symbols, the worship of noise and weed and babes. On one level, the D — two guys playing head-banging anthems about kielbasa or karate on acoustic guitars — satirize the perennially sophomoric obsessions of rock. On another, though, they restore a kind of purity to it; Jack Black in particular is a loudly passionate acolyte of Everything That Rocks, and his church is inclusive enough to welcome Robert Johnson and Beethoven. If it’s loud or insane and it rocks your face off, it’s good.

Really, though, the best way to experience Tenacious D is to watch and hear them doing their mock-titanic specialty in concert; their Complete Masterworks DVD includes a full gig they did in London, and any five minutes of it are funnier and even more dramatic than this amiably dumb-assed movie. The Pick of Destiny doesn’t go much beyond the HBO show, and for every bit that hits (J.B.’s mushroom-enhanced romp with Sasquatch) there’s one that just sort of lies there (four guys dressed like the Clockwork Orange droogs beat up J.B. — a tenuous Beethoven connection, I guess). It’s the kind of movie that’ll play better on DVD, allowing you to kick back and check out the deleted scenes and listen to the audio commentaries. Still, the very fact that there’s a Tenacious D movie that opened in almost 2,000 theaters shows that this can still be a fairly cool and amusing world.

Casino Royale (2006)

November 17, 2006

Bond is back — sort of. In Casino Royale, the new “reboot” of the long-running 007 series, the idea is that we’re picking up James Bond (Daniel Craig now) at the start of his double-oh career. So he bleeds, he lets his emotions get in the way, he’s basically a human learning to be inhuman. Abstractly, all of this is interesting, and probably necessary to get away from the bloated decadence that the Bond films had become. But, as it turns out, some of that decadence was fun. For whatever reason, the 007 series has been trending away from fun since at least the Timothy Dalton days, and now, with Casino Royale, there’s virtually no fun left. Congratulations, I guess?

None of this is Daniel Craig’s fault. He’s got the dead-eyed ruthlessness of Bond down pat, and he’s easily the most robust and athletic Bond since Sean Connery. Craig steps into the role with no fuss, and he’s able to carry the emotional weight Bond must shoulder. (There may be no sadder moment in all of the 007 films than this movie’s shot of Bond eating alone in an elegant dining room after his companion has been called away.) Craig looks at ease in the famous tux, and he looks at ease chasing a car on foot, his heavy arms swinging (though he does this maybe one or two times too many). If there are future Bond films that focus more on escapist fun, Craig has the physique and the attitude. But this only feels like a Bond film in fits and starts.

The cartoonishness is gone — there’s no supervillain this time, just some guy trying to win a bunch of money at poker so he can finance terrorism. There are no superweapons, no Q with the fancy gadgets (well, John Cleese as “R” had replaced Q; hopefully we’ll see him again). This is a realistic spy caper, presumably going back to the Ian Fleming books. And there’s some suave entertainment to be had from watching Bond stare down the bad guy across the poker table. But perhaps the Bond movies had their day, and that day was the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Connery and Roger Moore didn’t dream of taking the movies seriously. (It probably doesn’t help that the Austin Powers series taught a generation to laugh at Bond, not with him.) When you strip the 007 films down for action and “realism,” you lose the soul of those old beloved Bond movies — they might as well be Jason Bourne movies.

Well, the Bourne movies already grabbed Franka Potente, who would’ve made a great funky Bond girl, and the first xXx used Asia Argento (ditto). So what we’re left with, apparently, is the rather wishy-washy Eva Green as an accountant who hangs around to make sure Bond doesn’t blow all of MI6’s money at the poker table. Bond falls in love with her because she’s the one person he can’t figure out. Well, he’s young, he’ll learn. Eva Green looks good in smoky black eyeshadow, but she’s a slip of a girl — how does she go to bed with Bond and not break? — and vastly unmemorable even as eye candy. As in the past few Bond films, Judi Dench’s M remains the one woman supremely unimpressed by Bond and therefore the movies’ true heroine.

One sequence near the beginning, with the amazing Sebastien Foucan leading Bond on a merry chase across various cranes, delivers the old-style thrills. The rest of it is brutal punching and shooting, with a genital-torture scene tossed in for variety. We get it: Being a double-oh agent is rough work. But if that’s all the 007 franchise has left to tell us, maybe it needs a reboot less than a Viking funeral. Casino Royale may bring Bond back, but it leaves behind a lot of what made Bond Bond — the bigness, the outrageousness, the fun. And without those things, there’s really no point to this franchise.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

November 3, 2006

Borat made me laugh harder and longer than any comedy since the sunnier days of There’s Something About Mary, The Big Lebowski, and the South Park movie. Those movies, you will note, were all pre-9/11; Borat may be the first true post-9/11 farce, a gleeful monument of anti-American contempt, both scorning and in love with our national mood of truculent ignorance. When the crude but essentially innocent Kazakh TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) wanders into various low-rent American rituals, the bigots and sexists stand and unfold themselves with an air of pride. Most of Borat’s scenarios are genuine and unscripted — Baron Cohen’s character interacts with actual people having actual reactions to what he says and does. The results aren’t pretty. But, as another great comedian once opined, comedy is not pretty.

Accompanied by portly assistant Azamat (Ken Davitian), who’s sort of Sancho Panza to Borat’s don Quixote, Borat ventures from backwards Kazakhstan to New York in search of “cultural learnings” to bring back to his people. He finds very little there except a yearning for Pamela Anderson, whose bouncy form he spots on Baywatch. Thus, over Azamat’s objections, the pair leave New York for California, passing through a variety of redneck hot spots seemingly handpicked by Baron Cohen for the sheer quantity of wrongness they can yield. Borat shows up at a rodeo, winning the crowd over by voicing his support of Bush’s “war of terror” but losing them with the Kazakhstan national anthem, sung to the tune of our own but with new lyrics citing Kazakhstan’s superior export of potassium.

To what extent is Borat — a mockumentary presuming to place a fake character among the unaware — presented in bad faith? Realistically, we know that much of what we see was meticulously pre-planned and probably set up by Baron Cohen’s producers. Ed Gonzalez of Slant has theorized that some of Borat’s targets, like the rodeo crowd or a Southern dinner-party group, seem to turn on him not because he’s finally hit their tipping point but because they’ve figured out they’re being duped. In that respect, Borat is at times a meta-comedy, getting its laughs from the idea of what’s happening. And occasionally, as with a gentleman at the rodeo who agrees with Borat that gays should be lynched, the movie strikes chilling gold.

Borat bumbles over to a group of black guys and asks for pointers to be more like them. Then he takes what he’s learned into a snobby white hotel and is rudely ejected. Borat hasn’t much respect for the pale or the male: in the most alarming sequence, Borat hitches a ride with a Winnebago of frat boys and listens mostly silently as they expound on how women and minorities should be slaves. Do these people forget there’s a camera on them, or do they just not care? Naively homophobic and anti-Semetic, Borat stumbles into situations wherein he interacts, with varying degrees of intimacy, with Jews and gays without knowing it. The point is clear: his culture has instilled fear and loathing of The Other (including Uzbekistan) into him, for no logical reason. And we’re meant to see that Borat isn’t much different from many Americans that way.

By far the most uproarious sequence — you’ll either hit the aisle running or hit the floor howling — has nothing much to do with Kazakh/American relations at all: naked Borat and naked Azamat in a hotel room, embroiled in a furious wrestling match over the honor of Pamela Anderson. I won’t spoil it further: like the best comedy bits, just when you think it can’t get any wilder, it does, and then it keeps going. Some will find it too protracted or grotesque; I had trouble breathing.

But Borat has more on its mind than bare-ass slapstick — it’s not Andy Kaufman’s Foreign Man meets Candid Camera. At its most cutting, it uses the guileless fool Borat to lull (or provoke) people into being their ugly real selves. It’ll go down as some sort of rude punk-rock snapshot of an America that quails at two men kissing (Borat favors pecking men on the cheek and lips in greeting) but cheers the notion of George W. Bush drinking the blood of “every man, woman and child in Iraq.” Nope, not pretty at all.