Archive for May 2007


May 25, 2007

Satoshi Kon’s mind-melting mystery tour Paprika wastes no time pushing us into its fluidly trippy dream logic. One of the heroes, Detective Toshimi, is having a nightmare about being caged at a circus, viewing a murder in a hallway, and God knows what else. His dream is being monitored and recorded by Dr. Chiba, who has another persona, Paprika, who can enter dreams. Lost yet?

Paprika, another philosophical anime from the director of Tokyo Godfathers and Perfect Blue, explicitly likens dreams to movies, and this movie is itself a dream of sorts. It’s a brew of several genres, with borrowings from Dreamscape, Until the End of the World, The Cell, and other anime. A literal parade of Japanese pop imagery marches through, absorbing anyone who comes close to it. Paprika plays like the end and the beginning of Japanese cinema: it contradicts itself and contains multitudes.

For some, this will inevitably equal confusion and frustration. Makers of anime do enjoy starting with a simple premise and complicating it beyond sense. The movie is full of tech jargon, mostly having to do with the DC-MINI, the contraption that allows psychiatrists like Dr. Chiba to enter and analyze a patient’s dream. But someone seems to be using the device to access people’s dreams to drive them mad. Or maybe, one character suggests, dreams are rebelling against the encroachment of technology. The techno-dorks in Paprika who created the device or understand it better than anyone are cases of arrested development, prone to jealousy and childishness. This may be a commentary on those other dream-weavers, moviemakers, forever playing with what Orson Welles famously called “the best train set.”

Really, the throughline isn’t hard to follow, and, despite Devin Faraci’s unfair slam over at CHUD, Paprika is no more incomprehensible than many a failed Hollywood narrative. This one is at least splintered and warped by design, and the design reveals itself bit by bit. The visuals veer between rhapsodic and nightmarish, though the reality-bound parts of the film are pleasingly subtle and realistic. Paprika herself is a fresh creation, a sort of Supergirl of the subconscious, morphing from humanoid to fairy to mermaid as the atmosphere dictates. The story decidedly couldn’t have been told in any other way, and probably in any other country.

With rare exceptions like Waking Life, why aren’t American animators taking this sort of imaginative leap? Well, as poor Ralph Bakshi found out in the ’80s, there’s not a terribly large market in the U.S. for adult-oriented animation. Our cartoons and our comic books (the superhero ones you see clogging the shelves of most comics shops, anyway) are mired in juvenilia, while Japan’s anime and manga tackle a wide range of subjects, for various ages and audiences. Japan gets Miyazaki and Paprika; we get Pixar and Shrek. Even a skilled and witty practitioner like Brad Bird is essentially only doing what others have done; he’s an entertainer, not a true visionary.

Imports like Paprika will suffice to close the gap. Japan alone seems to have the vision and the wallet to push the envelope of animation, and if this movie is any indication, it can be pushed pretty far.


May 25, 2007

Remember the character in A Scanner Darkly who thought aphids were crawling all over him? Bug is like a movie about that character and Ashley Judd in a motel room. And, much to the chagrin of those lured into theaters by Lionsgate’s wildly misleading ad campaign — which makes the film look like Slither or something — that’s pretty much all Bug is about. I knew going in that it was a psychological two-character drama (with three supporting players), so I wasn’t expecting a gore-and-latex-fest. What I didn’t know going in was how tedious an exercise it would prove to be.

Judd gives one of her tormented-white-trash performances as Agnes, a waitress in a lesbian bar, though herself heterosexual. Agnes is dreading the return of her abusive ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.) from prison. One afternoon about ten years ago, Agnes took her young son to the supermarket, he was kidnapped and never found, and she’s never gotten over it. She spends her nights snorting coke, counting her crumpled tips, and existing on the knife edge between loneliness and despair. In short, Agnes is a dream role for an actress hungry to leave mainstream fare far behind. Judd enacts Agnes’ misery skillfully enough, but the character hardly makes any sense.

Agnes’ coworker (Lynn Collins) brings a mysterious man into Agnes’ life — Peter (Michael Shannon), who seems good-hearted, if withdrawn. Shannon, perhaps best known of late as the zealous Marine who saved the cops’ lives in World Trade Center, has a creepy baby face that lends itself well to obsessive characters. So it’s not too surprising when Peter, a Gulf War vet, turns out to have a few screws loose. Like Rory Cochrane in A Scanner Darkly, Peter feels bugs on him — bugs no one else can see. Soon they’re not only on his skin, they’re under his skin, and then in his blood. Rather too quickly, Agnes believes Peter’s story, which metastasizes into full-blown conspiracy-theory paranoia enveloping everyone from Jim Jones to Timothy McVeigh (what, no Elvis?). The pair, soon flailing around in mutual hysteria, hole up in rooms literally wallpapered with tin foil.

William Friedkin directed Bug, and I have nothing much bad to say about the way he holds up his end of the deal. He delivers a tight, upsetting bit of work without falling into the quick-cut, shock-tactic habits of his inferiors. The fatal problem with Bug starts with the screenplay, adapted by Tracy Letts from his own stage play (Shannon originated his role onstage). This material badly wants to be searing and disturbing, but it’s all too obviously conceived as showboat material for actors, with little room for subtlety. Eventually, when Ashley Judd has to scream “I AM THE SUPER MOTHER BUG!”, it’s the sort of flashy theatrical moment that unavoidably becomes camp on the big screen. The actors work their tails off, but the material is essentially unsurprising and predetermined. It stays its psychotic course to the bitter, fiery end, which I suppose is some form of integrity, though not particularly edifying or entertaining.

For all its pretense, Bug plays like an overextended episode of the Showtime series Masters of Horror, and not one of the better ones, either. It deals in careless stereotypes — Crazy War Vet! Abused and Self-Abusing Southern Chick! — and brings real-world pain and atrocity, unearned, into its hermetic little duelling-monologue universe to beef it up. If not for the exertions of the actors, and if not for the welcome sight of William Friedkin weighing in with career-comeback direction, Bug probably wouldn’t be getting such a free ride from many critics. Is it more ambitious than most modern horror movies? Yes. Does ambition equal success? Don’t we all wish it did.

Shrek the Third

May 18, 2007

Shrek the Third, the latest summer-season event to gross $500 billion within two hours of its release (or whatever), follows the irascible ogre (Mike Myers) into the terrifying prospect of fatherhood. At first, Shrek balks: he just wants to live in his swamp hovel with his beloved ogre wife Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). But the movie is about rising to your destiny and heeding the scary call of adulthood, which in Shrek’s case must mean reproduction. The Shrek films have tried awfully hard to preach acceptance and progressive thought, but the happily child-free in the audience may feel a bit left out in the cold. According to this film’s schematic, you get married, you have babies, and you don’t question it.

That aside, Shrek the Third is about on par with its 2004 predecessor, leaving behind the overt fairy-tale parodies of the first film and bringing the hoary old characters to new witty life. For instance, here we have the kaffeeklatch of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel, voiced respectively by Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris, Cheri Oteri, and Maya Rudolph. Except for Sedaris, who has considerable comedy chops of her own, that’s a formidable grouping of Saturday Night Live vets, to put alongside Myers and Eddie Murphy (who returns as the voice of the irrepressible Donkey). When the quartet of fairy-tale heroines bands together with Fiona, the soundtrack kicks into Kill Bill’s “Battle Without Honor or Humanity,” one of many free-floating adult pop-culture references.

The frog king (voiced too briefly by John Cleese, whose Python colleague Eric Idle turns up as Merlin) is on his last frog legs, and the throne must be passed to someone. Certainly not Shrek, who is offered the gig but swiftly demurs. No, it seems there’s another heir out there, a high-school dweeb named Arthur (Justin Timberlake), unaware of his destiny. Meanwhile, the blond, handsome and slimy Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), doomed to humiliating dinner theater, seeks to claw his way into the respect he feels is rightfully his; he gathers a group of villainous malcontents and launches an attack on the vulnerable kingdom.

It’s a recent tradition for second sequels to be a bit busy; Spider-Man 3 threw in everything including the kitchen sink, and the same looks to be true of the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: At Franchise’s End. The third Shrek boasts a lot of diversions, including a body-switch between Donkey and the suave Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), but at 93 minutes it gets in and out fast while still leaving room for Myers to develop Shrek with layers of melancholy and doubt — at this point, with Austin Powers long played out, Shrek’s about the only bid for posterity he’s got. The animation gets sleeker with each entry — a shot of Prince Charming unleashing his hair in a Pantene-commercial moment subtly tells us how far computer imaging has come — and not many other $160 million blockbusters would make time for a rendition of “Live and Let Die” by grieving frogs. (The Shrek films have a history of musical hipness; Prince Charming rattles off a phrase that pays tribute to Bob Dylan.)

There’s the obligatory burp and fart humor for the kiddies, of course, but any film with the wherewithal to cast Ian McShane as Captain Hook has more going for it than flatulence. The Shrek franchise started out bumpy for me but has improved with each chapter, though I wonder how many more films this concept can hold. A trilogy is a nice neat number, though a $750 trillion opening weekend (or whatever) may make it hard for DreamWorks to leave well enough alone, and a fourth go-round has already been announced for 2010. The cynical suspicion arises that Shrek faces fatherhood so that his progeny can star in direct-to-DVD sequels without having to pay Mike Myers seven figures. Get married, have kids, make money for the corporation.

28 Weeks Later

May 11, 2007

You have to keep an open mind in this line of work. 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes remake bored me, but I enjoyed its sequel earlier this year. 2003’s 28 Days Later annoyed me, but 28 Weeks Later … well, I can’t say I “enjoyed” it, but it didn’t annoy me. The “rage” virus has decimated England, turning people into gnashing, sprinting “infected” who either kill or infect others. As before, the attacks are filmed with barely-scannable undercranking effects, sandblasting us with crazed fragments in which howling maniacs lunge at anything that moves, their gory hair flinging dark dots of blood into the air. These movies are hectic and grim, with practically no intentional humor — it’s all about kill or be killed. I remember when horror movies used to have more personality.

That said, 28 Weeks Later — directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto) from a script credited to him and three others — does try to provide a shade more humanity than its cold predecessor. In a prologue, Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting) plays a hapless man who, in a moment of terror, abandons his wife in a house overrun by “infected,” fleeing for his life. Their two children, fortunately, are out of the country on a school trip; the kids return to England about six months later, when the country has been cleared of the “infected” (who’ve all died of starvation). The U.S. Army is helping England to repopulate, though this proves to be about as efficacious as the U.S. helping Iraq to become a democracy. The kids are reunited with their father, who tells them a carefully worded version of the events that, presumably, killed their mother.

It’s not quite that easy, though, and before long there’s another outbreak. An Army doctor (Rose Byrne) wants to keep the kids safe, because there’s reason to believe they may be worth examining. The general takes one look at the outbreak, which has gotten completely out of control, and orders up a Code Red. This obliges the rooftop snipers to shoot everyone on the streets, the infected and the non-infected. One such sniper (Jeremy Renner) decides he’s had enough of Code Red and leaves his post to help the doctor and the kids escape before the district gets fire-bombed.

There is a hint of heroism and self-sacrifice here, unlike in 28 Days Later, where it was every man (or cipher) for himself. There are, of course, massive implausibilities and plot holes, as well as a surely accidental echo of a helicopter-vs.-monsters gag from Robert Rodriguez’ Grindhouse film Planet Terror. And this whole franchise remains a scrawny reiteration of George Romero’s The Crazies and David Cronenberg’s Rabid — I hope Romero, in particular, is getting a few bucks from Danny Boyle and Alex Garland (who directed and wrote the previous film, respectively, and executive-produced this one). The wider scope of the story here allows for some chilling views of an abandoned England, littered with corpses and maggoty pizza boxes. Jeremy Renner, who really should have a better career by now based on his haunting work in Dahmer, comes through with a likable portrait of a conflicted sniper, and the always-dependable Harold Perrineau Jr. shows up as Renner’s chopper-flying buddy.

Mostly what impressed me about 28 Weeks Later is that it doesn’t demonize the Robert Carlyle character; he takes the coward’s way out, true, but Carlyle plays the man’s self-torturing guilt for the rest of his time onscreen, even in scenes wherein you wouldn’t expect him to express anything other than rage at his situation.

This sequel takes its predecessor’s derivative, remorseless premise and deepens it a bit, though I can’t be alone in wondering why this, of all things, should be a franchise (28 Months Later has already been announced), and why British and American audiences apparently can’t get enough of infected lunatics vomiting blood onto their victims. I’m usually not weak of stomach, but, c’mon, whose idea of a good time is this?

Spider-Man 3

May 4, 2007

Forgiveness takes a while, so it’s fitting that Spider-Man 3 — whose theme is forgiveness — takes a while, too. Its title is accurate: it’s like three Spider-Man movies in one, overstuffed with characters and plotlines that make the point that, as dear old Aunt May says, revenge is a poison. Not content with that, director Sam Raimi gives us … singing and dancing. Much of it is jazz standards, and a scene with dweeby Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) getting his hepcat on in a jazz club so baldly belongs in another movie that, in an odd way, it fits perfectly into this one. I enjoyed the idea of the opening-weekend throngs having to listen to jazz, of all things, when what they came to see was Spider-Man duking it out with Sandman, Venom, and the new incarnation of the Green Goblin. Spider-Man 3 combines musical comedy with comic-book tragedy, a highly unstable mix that shakes out as a weirdly intoxicating potion.

As ever, Peter has massive personal problems in addition to the weight of being Spider-Man. His relationship with aspiring actress Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) remains poised on a knife-edge of insecurity (his) and jealousy (hers). His news-photographer gig at the Daily Bugle is endangered by a new hotshot named Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), whose model girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) has a crush on Spider-Man. His former best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) still thinks Peter killed Harry’s father (Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin from the first movie), and has suited up in Dad’s old duds to settle the score. Meanwhile, escaped convict Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) stumbles into a scientific experiment and becomes Sandman, a superhuman walking mass of sand, and a black symbiote from outer space attaches itself to Peter and eventually becomes a shiny new Spider-costume, which makes him cooler and more powerful but also more callous.

It’s a Spider-Man tradition to humanize the supervillains, and Thomas Haden Church puts a sad Karloff step in his walk; his Flint Marko is driven to steal money to restore his daughter to health, and he has a way of looking sorrowful even when punching a dog. (Theresa Russell, the last actress I’d ever have expected to see in a comic-book blockbuster, plays Marko’s ex-wife and, with only a few clichéd lines, makes Dunst and Howard look like callow ingenues.) Topher Grace’s unethical Eddie Brock is less nuanced, and James Franco’s Harry Osborn has done his Inigo Montoya bit once too often, but Sandman is a dynamic creation with and without CGI, and he’s involved in the most spectacular brawls with Spidey. Sam Raimi may have spent a king’s ransom on the movie, but he puts it on the screen — as in the superb Spider-Man 2, he recaptures and magnifies the thrill a kid feels when reading an action-packed comic book, specifically one from the ’60s or ’70s.

In a widely-hated section of the film, Peter bops down the street under the corruptive influence of the symbiote, hitting on all the ladies. Have the people who’ve heaped scorn on the movie’s moments of levity forgotten Spider-Man’s original wisecracking conception via his creator Stan Lee? (Lee has his obligatory cameo here, his most rib-nudging yet; he just about grins at the camera and brays “Hi, I’m Stan Lee.”) I thought it was amusing that Peter’s “dark side” manifested itself not as destructive id but as a dork’s fantasy of wowing the babes; it’s just another plate on this overly generous buffet table, and you can nibble from it or toss it in the trash.

If Spider-Man suffered a bit from rookie jitters (Raimi had never before been entrusted with a budget north of $100 million), and Spider-Man 2 was the ideal Spider-Man annual beautifully realized on film, Spider-Man 3 is Raimi’s place to clean out his desk. He probably knows he’s told enough Spidey tales, and, realizing he may never have such a huge audience again in his career, he decided to throw in everything he could in a what-the-hell spirit. Including jazz. The movie is cluttered and certainly not without flaw (some great gags, like J.K. Simmons’ hilariously splenetic J. Jonah Jameson attempting to tone down his anger at his wife’s behest, are forgotten about), but I followed and enjoyed its emotional throughline, where freakishly mutated men battle as much with their own souls and consciences as with each other.

It’s been a fine if bumpy ride with Raimi down this corridor of Marvel Comics history, even if I’d love to see him working on something cheap and scrappily funny again. Seeing old-school Raimi stalwarts as Bruce Campbell and Raimi’s brother Ted in these megabudget flicks has been entertaining, but it tends to remind us of how Raimi started out, and the sad improbability that he can go back again.