Archive for November 2007


November 23, 2007

The Spanish horror film [REC] gets a lot of mileage out of its shakycam you-are-there style. It’s been done before, of course, though not with this level of creepy artistry. [REC] follows a TV reporter named Angela (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pedro on a tag-along with a firefighter crew for a show called While You’re Asleep. At first, nothing much happens, and Angela is reduced to playing basketball with the firemen at the station. Then a call comes in. Angela and Pedro hustle along with the fire crew as they investigate odd goings-on at an apartment building. Strange noises. An old lady is hurt, or screaming, or doing something — it’s not clear to anyone what exactly’s happening.

It largely stays unclear. Or barely clear. The movie, co-directed by Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, wastes little time plunging Angela and Pedro (and Pedro = us) into gory chaos. The old lady is infected, and in horror movies infections seldom mean taking to one’s bed with herbal tea and Puffs Plus. No, they mean gnashing, homicidal rage, familiar from the 28 Days/Weeks Later films. The infection spreads. The TV crew, the firemen, a few police officers, and several tenants are sealed inside by the authorities — trapped in the building with … them.

Someday, if it hasn’t been done already, someone will make a parody of caught-on-the-fly POV horror movies, in which the cameraman puts down the damn camera and gets his ass out of there, and the movie lasts two minutes. As it is, [REC] clocks in at just over 70 minutes, and Pedro’s camerawork is realistically frazzled — we generally don’t question why he’s getting such great revealing shots of the threat, because he isn’t. These movies are the digicam-in-every-house equivalents of the old-dark-house chillers of the ’30s, wherein the terror emerged from the unseen, the fearfully imagined. The attack sequences pack a grisly punch because the movie doesn’t stop dead to examine them, as a standard-shot movie would. We catch the horror out of the corner of the camera’s eye.

It all hurtles along so fast and so mercilessly that we perhaps don’t, and can’t, call a time-out to wonder why Angela and Pedro somehow endure longer than trained firefighters and policemen. They wind up in a place we so seldom visit in horror movies any more — the attic. Remember when attics were scary? Balaguero and Plaza do. A teasingly oblique explanation for the chaos is offered, by way of one of those old-school reel-to-reel recorders I don’t think I’ve seen in a horror movie since Evil Dead. In part, Portugal’s to blame, and as a Portuguese-American I’m not sure whether to be flattered or offended on behalf of my people, but hell, I’ll be flattered.

[REC] has opened here and there around the globe — as I write this, it’s just recently debuted in the UK — but Americans probably shouldn’t expect to see it officially until at least October, when the US remake, Quarantine, comes out and the original might get a piggyback DVD release. (Avoid, if you can help it, the Quarantine trailer, which amazingly gives away both movies’ final shot!) It’s worth the effort to track it down, either online or on import DVD (it’s slated to hit Spanish shelves in May). At its best, [REC] is a stress test, with genuinely frightening and surreal use of grainy, fidgety camerawork and eerie night-vision. It’s a flab-free treatment of the old siege premise. It’s not quite enough to say that Quarantine has its work cut out for it; any other horror movie this year does, too.

I’m Not There

November 21, 2007

The enigmatic Bob Dylan is, and is not, the center of I’m Not There, the first film in five years by the experimental director Todd Haynes. This filmmaker likes to dab and dabble, trying on different hats, resisting classification and definition, so perhaps it was inevitable that Haynes would focus on a fellow artist whose hipster temperament mirrors his own. The movie ends up telling us more about Todd Haynes than about Bob Dylan, though still not much.

Individual shots and sequences are lovely; Haynes, with considerable assistance from cinematographer Edward Lachmann and editor Jay Rabinowitz, often finds just the right moody image or composition to match Dylan’s sound. It’s a sketchbook movie, though, with all the pacing problems that entails, and I kept waiting for the damn thing to be done. (I lost count of the times the movie kept on going after what should’ve been a perfect final shot.) I’m Not There is the sort of rarified art project I dearly wish I liked more — it’s exciting that a film like this can still get financed (albeit for pocket change), and that major stars like Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale agreed to be in it. The experience of the film, however, is as thornily remote as Dylan himself; we keep getting shuttled between various Dylans, various incarnations of the man throughout his career, and at two hours and fifteen minutes the experiment becomes wearisome.

Blanchett is getting all the accolades as the post-motorcycle-accident, going-electric-at-Newport Dylan, or essentially the Dylan we see in the classic documentary Don’t Look Back. This Dylan is a put-on artist, sick to death of being quizzed by the press about everything, as if he were some messiah. His response is to put forth a surly, almost philistine persona, denying whatever the press tosses at him. (If a reporter asked him during that time why his feet stayed on the ground, Dylan would’ve sneered “What is gravity anyway, man?”) Blanchett’s best moments here come when Dylan’s armor drops, as when Allen Ginsberg (David Cross, who does a more sedate Ginsberg than you’d expect) randomly idles outside Dylan’s limo and Dylan laughs like a little kid, or when he engages in high-speed frolicking with the Beatles in a bit seemingly inspired by A Hard Day’s Night.

Ultimately, Blanchett, like Bale and the other actors — Marcus Carl Franklin as a little boy calling himself Woody, Heath Ledger as an actor who once played Dylan in a movie (why he’s in this film, I don’t know, other than to sketch in Dylan trying to fathom domesticity), Richard Gere as a grizzled, ’70s-era Dylan — is merely part of Haynes’ design. I enjoy Haynes’ films intellectually, but they almost always leave me cold. (The exception was 1995’s Safe, which, with Julianne Moore’s help, took us terrifyingly inside a woman’s isolating illness.) For the most part, Haynes is too hip and uptown to make us care. I’m Not There is epic doodling, with quotes from Dylan cinema — obviously Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but also a nod or two to Dylan’s disastrous vanity project Renaldo and Clara. None of it adds up to much. Haynes doesn’t want it to, because Dylan wouldn’t want it to.

It’s possible to make a fractured portrait of a stubbornly unreachable artist — look at François Girard’s mesmerizing Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a vastly superior (and shorter) movie. The problem isn’t that Haynes doesn’t reveal anything about Dylan (that’s the whole point of the film); it’s that Haynes doesn’t offer much of anything to fill the void. If you’re not sold on the inscrutable genius of Bob Dylan, you may sit there and wonder why you’re watching this stuff. Every so often, too, we even catch Haynes snarking about the master — Bale’s Dylan figure, Jack Rollins, finds Jesus and preaches/sings to a tiny congregation in gray folding chairs. Say what you want about Dylan’s short-lived conversion, it merits a little more respect than this, well, Dylanesque sneer.

The movie looks and sounds so purely pleasurable in isolated moments that I thought, more than once, that Haynes would’ve better served Dylan by putting together a DVD of music videos. In a way, that’s what he’s done anyway, and perhaps the whole weird, scattershot thing might play better when you can skip-search to your favorite bits. But when a director more or less says that his movie is opaque and noncommittal because it’s supposed to be, I have to channel Dylan myself and call bullshit.

Smiley Face

November 16, 2007

Whether someone can remain stoned off her ass for the length of an entire day from a few bong hits and some pot cupcakes is debatable, but Anna Faris turns the situation into a tour de force of bliss, bafflement, and paranoia. Her character in Smiley Face, identified only as Jane F, might just rank up there with such legendary cinematic inebriates as Dudley Moore’s Arthur and Brad Pitt’s Floyd in True Romance. Faris and Jane deserve a better movie, though.

It sounds churlishly beside-the-point to complain that a stoner comedy like Smiley Face is amorphous and rambling. But what screenwriter Dylan Haggerty and director Gregg Araki (in a change of pace from his usual acid-house decadent-slacker fantasias) have forgotten about other stoner comedies is that the comedy lies in the stoners prevailing despite themselves. Cheech and Chong always achieved their goals, Jay and Silent Bob made it to Hollywood, Harold and Kumar finally tucked into their beloved White Castle burgers — we enjoy these movies because the doofuses and wastoids who aren’t supposed to succeed do. It’s no fun when Jane F’s big plan is defeated realistically by her own expiring brain cells.

A litter of complications are thrown into Jane’s path. She gets high and eats her creepy roommate’s cupcakes, not realizing they’re full of weed. She needs more weed in order to bake more cupcakes. She gets more weed but ends up owing her dealer money. She has an acting audition to get to, she has to make it to a Venice hemp festival to repay her dealer or he’ll swipe her cherished $999 bed, she has to hang out with a geek who has a crush on her so she can hit him up for cash, she somehow winds up with an original Karl Marx manuscript, she finds herself at a meat-packing plant. Early on, Jane says she majored in economics in college. Couldn’t some of her former brain power be put in service of getting her out of her multiple jams?

Anna Faris is radiantly daft; she keeps the movie going all by herself (and the self-consciously hip supporting cast — including Marion Ross, Danny Trejo, John Krasinski, Jane Lynch, and John Cho — aren’t given enough to do). I’m all in favor of an Anna Faris starring vehicle, but the other nice thing about the classic stoner movies was that they were stoner buddy movies. Couldn’t Faris have been paired with another young actress — maybe Emily Blunt from The Devil Wears Prada, someone of a different, prickly temperament to share her misadventures with? Jane’s journey seems awfully lonely, and it doesn’t end well for her. But Anna Faris is so likable, and makes Jane so dumb-ass likable, that we want to see her win. We want Jane to pull herself together and triumph on her terms. But Haggerty’s script is stubbornly unimaginative, even punitive: poor Jane ends up losing everything, even her bed, and picking garbage on the side of the freeway. Smiley Face comes close to being a moralistic fable — the Reefer Madness of the Aughts.

Faris is at least as funny and adorable as Katherine Heigl (who’s currently being groomed as the next Sandra Bullock), so I wonder why she hasn’t gotten her big break yet. Maybe she doesn’t want one. Maybe she’s more comfortable doing her Scary Movie thing every few years, and occasionally gracing films like Lost in Translation or May with her presence. She’s an original, an enthusiastic sprite with funky comic timing — probably she couldn’t be groomed as the next Bullock or Roberts even if she wanted to be. I hope she’s around for years to come, but left-handed flicks like Smiley Face, which depends heavily on her fizzy charisma but doesn’t provide her a worthy framework, aren’t likely to get her where she needs to be.


November 16, 2007

Shrieking with grief and purring with lust — or at least with desire for more offspring — Angelina Jolie is about the best reason to see Beowulf, aside from the eye-candy factor of the digital 3D. (I’ve seen it in 3D and 2D, and there’s really no contest; if you’re going to see this, get thee to a theater with a digital 3D set-up.) Grendel’s mother, the unearthly creature who gave birth to the beast who terrorized Hrothgar and his fellow mead-swillers, is one of the great evil characters in all of literature, a symbol of the cycle of rage put in perpetual spin by war. You kill Grendel, you now have his mother to deal with. It never ends. Jolie is the only actor in Beowulf who seems fulfilled, not constricted, by the elaborate motion-capture animation commanded by director Robert Zemeckis and his army of techs. She is perversely maternal, mockingly seductive, a succubus who’s spent centuries musing on the best ways to torment those sordid little humans.

Zemeckis and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary take considerable liberties with the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem. I don’t really care; leave that to the ardent Beowulf scholars. It’s very much a Beowulf for our time, a fable in which a warrior’s braggadocio rings hollow even to himself. In that respect it’s a tonic corrective to the militaristic spewing of 300. But, dear God, I wish Zemeckis would throw off his addiction to technology. His mo-cap Polar Express a few years back drew justified fire because of its Uncanny Valley creepiness factor, with its smoothly rendered, dead-looking human faces with soulless eyes. Beowulf is slicker; it irons out some of the problems, but by no means all. The gestures are stiffer than you’d like them to be, the expressions incongruous with tone of voice, though the animators do a decent job with Anthony Hopkins as the shambling King Hrothgar. It’s a stunning likeness, but why spend millions of dollars recreating Hopkins in pixels?

After a promising start, in which the hulking Grendel, driven mad by the loud revelry in Hrothgar’s mead hall, tears dozens of men limb from limb, the movie runs dry of freakish fantasia. That’s the original structure: Beowulf steps up to slay Grendel; he visits Grendel’s mother in her lair, then returns claiming to have killed her; he becomes king; years pass, and he falls in battle with a dragon. The result in the movie is a lot of scenes that could’ve been handled just as well as live-action. Your eyes keep telling you what you’re seeing isn’t real, and after a while they get tired of reminding you and just glaze over. To me, animation should be reserved for stories or characters that absolutely can’t be done any other way as effectively. By making everything shiny-unreal yet straining to be photorealistic, Zemeckis cancels out most of the dramatic force of the material. It’s at an aesthetic remove. If you caught me in the right mood I could justify it for about a minute by saying it’s an idealized story, so it’s told in a way that doesn’t just remove the blemishes, it never programs them in the first place. But I’m not in the right mood just now; this Beowulf can be awfully pretty, but it’s untouched by human hands. It’s the difference between an actual aquarium and an aquarium screensaver.

The freakishness is fun while it lasts. Crispin Glover’s Grendel, grovelling in his mother’s caverns and drooling out tortured Old English, is a tremendous creation of pathos and rage. Ironically, Glover is the least visually recognizable in terms of his screen avatar, yet his performance comes through loud and clear. And John Malkovich brings some of his fey sarcasm to the role of Unferth, who doubts Beowulf’s self-created legend. Elsewhere, Beowulf is short on inspiration and even imagination. Ray Winstone can’t make Beowulf much more than the impersonal slab of beef he’s rendered as — he has less personality even than Leonidas in the ridiculous 300. The very end is superb, though, with the old cycle of war threatening to start spinning yet again, amid imagery of fire and water. By then, however, I was more than ready to leave Zemeckis’ hermetic world and re-enter the real one, with cars and garbage and people whose faces move properly.

Southland Tales

November 14, 2007

southlandtalesIs it true that we learn more from mistakes than from successes? I don’t know. What I do know is that Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is a folly — the cinematic equivalent of a big mistake — but it’s a great folly, one that might redefine what we mean by failure at the movies.

If Kelly’s Donnie Darko was his London Calling, Southland Tales has to be his Sandinista! — a vast, sloppy, overarching experiment — only without Sandinista!‘s critical acclaim. Many reviewers, and I can’t really blame them, greeted Southland Tales with uncomprehending hostility and scorn. Here, after all, was not only an epic — it was only the second half of an epic, preceded by a trilogy of graphic novels collected as Southland Tales: The Prequel Saga. What you get in the film is the final three chapters, truncated by some twenty minutes from the version that was screened, ignominiously, at Cannes. What’s left is a semi-coherent poetic riff on the Bush administration, vaultingly ambitious and allusive (not to mention elusive), in which political satire consorts haphazardly with scatological humor (there’s a running thing about people who can’t piss or shit no matter how much they ingest).

Southland Tales overdoses on the minutiae of the world Kelly creates; he focuses on the backstory and the technological rules of this new, post-nuke universe (we’re told Abilene and El Paso took the hot one on July 5, 2005) to the exclusion of getting inside his characters, who mostly spout jargon or gibberish — much like George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, come to think of it. To that end, Southland Tales is a critique, intentional or not, of the incomprehensible mammoths we get every summer. Try to imagine going into The Phantom Menace without any prior awareness of the original Star Wars trilogy — that’s Southland Tales.

In recent years, when an idiosyncratic young director makes a modest little film that goes on to find a cult on video, that director’s sophomore effort tends to be twice as dense and lengthy as the debut; the director may think, “Well, I may never get this chance again — I’d better shoot for the moon, pack as much as I can into one movie.” Quentin Tarantino led with the minimalist Reservoir Dogs, then made the triptych Pulp Fiction; Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film was the tiny, effective three-character study Hard Eight, which he chased with the vast ensemble piece Boogie Nights.

Kelly’s follow-up to Donnie Darko compiles everything he wants to say about the deranging looking-glass of the Bush years. It is, on one level, a reductio ad absurdum of America’s overreaction to 9/11, handing unprecedented power to the president ostensibly to keep us safe but really to give up more freedom and privacy. As with most dystopian visions, the events in Southland Tales are, shall we say, exaggerated. We’re in World War 3 now, fighting five countries, though still not sure who actually set off the bombs. The oil is almost gone, so we have turned to a new fuel called Fluid Karma, which can also be used as a drug (shades of Dune and its multi-purpose spice) that allows people, once sufficiently addicted, to move backwards and forwards in time. The Democrats are no longer liberal enough, so a splinter group called the Neo-Marxists plot and kidnap and shout slogans. The characters are all pieces on a vast eschatological chessboard, pursuing their own agendas; many of the characters are doubles, or echoed in a screenplay written by a porn star, which may or may not be an actual prophecy.

Kelly starts with a political satire and then complicates it madly; the subplots cheerfully metastasize and comment on each other. Southland Tales does not lend itself to synopsis or even to discussion of its characters or the cast — the whole thing is a joke, an ungainly meta-narrative that seeks to immerse us in the insanity and illogic of our own reality just slightly removed. To get the most out of it, I would suggest simply rolling with it, grooving on the sheer fecund clottage of it, and not straining to parse the huge thing scene by scene. Southland Tales has been described as wild and nonsensical so many times that one might expect a rabid, hyperactive wildebeest of a movie, but most of it is actually rather becalmed and emo — slow, some would say. Kelly has mastered a particular mood of melancholy chaos, a sense of many lives blighted by forces they can’t hope to control. This mood was, of course, dominant throughout Donnie Darko, though it was easier to take because it was all filtered through Donnie. Southland Tales is essentially Donnie Darko without Donnie, without a central figure to pin one’s identification on.

Boxer Santoros (Dwayne Johnson), the amnesiac former football star turned action-movie star, probably comes closest to that central figure; other times, though, the focus shifts to the twin brothers Roland and Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott), the former a kidnapped Los Angeles cop, the latter used as his stand-in for a Neo-Marxist scheme. Are they really twin brothers, though? Who can say? There’s a reason the third autofill you get when you Google Southland Tales is “Southland Tales explanation.” The aforementioned porn star, Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), is in cahoots with one side or another, and she seems to be controlling Boxer’s life and his very identity. The narrative suggests Pynchon, Dick, and Vonnegut thrown into a blender, with a sprinkling of Saturday Night Live veterans, plus Justin Timberlake, in the generally acknowledged stand-out performance, as a scarred Iraq War veteran who narrates the film, injects his share and everyone else’s of Fluid Karma, and broods atop a gun turret. In a drug-induced fantasy that makes about as much sense as anything else in the film, Timberlake lip-synchs the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” while nurses dance around him.

The brilliance of Southland Tales is inextricable from its flaws, if indeed they are flaws. One could say it’s overlong and overstuffed and confusing, but if the film is intentionally those things — if Kelly has delivered the movie he wanted to make — who’s to say it’s a failure? All the things its detractors slammed it for not being — I’m not sure it was ever supposed to be those things. A folly like this demands to be viewed on its own one-off terms, demands to be assessed for what it is, not what it isn’t. And what it is, to me, is the first half of the first decade of the 21st century stirred up into a giant stew of speculative dread and loathing, wedded to techno-mystico jazz riffs of the sort that, it’s clear by now, Kelly can’t help returning to again and again. Really, if you want to understand Southland Tales, the graphic novels you should read aren’t The Prequel Saga but Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg; this movie is like a dour, sexless (for all the porno talk, hardly anyone gets it on except for two cars in a commercial) extrapolation of Chaykin’s vision of future America as a neon-sickened city that never blinks.

Maybe Southland Tales needed a wisecracking Reuben Flagg. Or maybe not. Maybe all it needs is time to build a cult of appreciative viewers. Like a lot of dystopian fiction, Southland Tales is really more about when it was made than about any putative future. It stands now, of course, as a demented alternate history, but it’s also a creative nervous breakdown in response to 9/11 and subsequent events. As such, it does not need to make sense; it does not need to have “relatable” characters or even an ending; it does not need to “entertain.” It’s Apocalypse Now for the Twitter generation, and either you go with it or you don’t.

The Life of Reilly

November 9, 2007

In the early ‘80s, Stephen King was talking to an interviewer and got on the subject of people famous for being famous. He cited Charles Nelson Reilly as an example. Why is he on my TV? What did he do to get there? Most people only know Reilly from his many appearances on game shows in the ‘70s, particularly Match Game. Some might also know him from his character Jose Chung on The X-Files and Millennium. But Reilly, who died in 2007, had a much fuller life than that. He was on Broadway in the ‘60s. He studied acting in the same class as Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook and Steve McQueen. He taught acting for years; among his students was Burt Reynolds. And from 2000 to 2004, he toured the country with a one-man autobiographical show called Save It for the Stage.

The Life of Reilly captures the final performance of that show. Reilly appears onstage with a variety of props clearly marked to look like stage props; he also seems to have saved a fair amount of memorabilia related to his career, such as a beaten-up newspaper clipping from 1977 in which a reader wrote in asking if Reilly was still alive. Reilly had a wicked sense of humor about that sort of thing. He had to. Born in the Bronx to a shrewish mother and a despairing, disappointed father (who had an opportunity to work with Walt Disney but was denied by his wife), Reilly had an awful childhood filled with imaginative play (dolls, puppets) and a “voice” in his head that kept telling him he was going to make it. Eventually he did; at the peak of his ubiquity, he estimated he appeared on TV about a hundred times a week.

The movie records Reilly’s show and intersperses some very brief vintage clips of him (the rights issues are perhaps the reason that the DVD can’t legally be sold, but is given away with a purchase of a t-shirt on the official website, Street interviews reveal random passersby who either haven’t heard of him (too young to remember Match Game) or vaguely remember him trading double entendres with Brett Somers. Why did Reilly stoop to game shows? Probably because he thought they were fun, and also because he worked too hard to get in the door to turn down anything. He also likely did it to spite the nameless network exec who told him, as Reilly recounts here, that “they don’t let queers on television.” If nothing else, Reilly put the lie to that.

The Life of Reilly gives us a sense of a full life of triumph and tragedy, an epic story told in 84 minutes by a master raconteur. The filmmakers, initially defeated when the film’s distributor New Yorker Films went bankrupt, have said that they hope to make an official DVD commercially available at some point. I hope so. The movie, and Reilly’s final performance, deserve to be seen by everyone — not just existing fans who don’t mind buying a t-shirt to see the film.

No Country for Old Men

November 9, 2007

Anyone reading No Country for Old Men as a thriller about good vs. evil is a little short of the mark, I think. To me, it’s a Zen koan about life and death. The koan issues forth from the lips of Cormac McCarthy, the grizzled master who won the Pulitzer this year for his post-apocalyptic fable The Road. McCarthy’s prior 2005 novel — named after a line in a Yeats poem — serves as the basis for this film, a sharp return to seriousness for Joel and Ethan Coen after some larking around. The Coens’ movies often feature desperate men committing crimes, and also important characters perishing offscreen. McCarthy’s book has both, so it’s as if he wrote it for the Coens. They have responded with a fully alert film of quiet and considerable power that is only incidentally about finding two million dollars of drug cash and trying to run away with it.

Such a circumstance befalls Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin), trying to pick off antelopes in the Texas desert when he spots a blood trail in the sand. It leads him to the money, along with much flyblown death. Llewellyn makes off with the suitcase of cash, sending his wife (Kelly Macdonald) off to her mama’s house and dodging the bad men who want the money back. One of them is the baddest of bad men, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who travels with a captive bolt pistol, the sort used to punch holes in the hard skulls of cattle. Chigurh has an unplaceable southwestern/Latin accent, as if he emerged from the Texas/Mexico border itself, sent by the very earth to monitor the troubles of humans and occasionally end them.

In what amounts to a supporting role elevated to the status of moral center, Tommy Lee Jones walks uneasily through the movie as Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff close to retirement. Ed Tom feels social entropy in his bones: he observes that, once you stop hearing “sir” and “ma’am,” that’s when you know it’s over. The sheriff wants to find Llewellyn, to save him from certain disaster, but Llewellyn doesn’t want to be found. Chigurh will find him regardless; he always does. Tommy Lee Jones lets his voice go soft and high, almost feminine. He’s like Lillian Gish in Night of the Hunter, taking arms against casual savagery in defense of innocents, but without her gumption. The older Ed Tom gets, the more he feels the inevitability of Chigurh’s triumph.

As you may have gathered, No Country for Old Men is artsier and deeper than most anything else the Coens have done, with the exception of the willfully cryptic Barton Fink and the masterpiece Miller’s Crossing. Here they bring all their monkish technique to bear: there’s hardly any music, but such sounds as an air tank lightly settling on pavement and a candy wrapper uncrinkling itself on a gas-station counter dominate the soundtrack. The action begins in sun-baked majesty but eventually retreats into shadowy motel rooms. The story is set in 1980 but, less a few details, could unfold in 1880. Chigurh keeps coming, an art-house Michael Myers, and Javier Bardem instills him with a diabolical calmness. He’s not a psycho, not a monster, not the Devil: he’s a much bigger figure, Death itself, and there’s not much life around to rise in resistance to him. Nor would life, in the end, trump him anyway. Bardem’s Chigurh is patient, never showing even a flicker of anger; he’s the most frightening thing I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.

The film left me feeling slightly fatigued and fragile, but wanting to see it again. The Coens, like McCarthy before them, use a thriller structure to cut to the heart of the big mysteries. What can life mean if it ends? Does it mean more or less? Chigurh sometimes offers people a coin toss to determine whether they end or go on. One person complies, not understanding the gravity of the offer; another refuses, perhaps on the grounds that life and death shouldn’t be a game for one man to decide. No Country for Old Men tracks various people chasing after money or security, the things that are supposed to keep us happy and ward off darkness, but which mean so little that the pursuit of these things doesn’t even guarantee you an onscreen death. This is the blackest film noir in years, and a great American movie.

Lions for Lambs

November 9, 2007

Is there a point to political films any more? Lions for Lambs, the latest Hollywood broadside against “the war on terror,” made me wonder. What exactly does a movie like this hope to accomplish? Inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets in protest? Sorry, that’s happened several times; it changed nothing, though it made a lot of people feel like they Did Something. (Full disclosure: I participated in one anti-war rally during the run-up to our Iraq adventure. It ended up being about as persuasive to those in power as the February 13, 2003 protest, which involved millions.) Inspiring scores of people to write letters to their congresspeople? What does Robert Redford, both as the director of Lions for Lambs and in character as a disappointed professor passing judgment on us apathetic masses, expect us to do about this massive death machine when those who set it in motion aren’t listening?

Working from a speechifying script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Redford breaks his lecture up into three segments. Redford’s professor calls a smart but underachieving student (Andrew Garfield) into his office, regaling him with the story of two former students (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) turned soldiers, who are now in Afghanistan to implement a new military strategy hyped by a slick Republican senator (Tom Cruise), who calls veteran journalist Meryl Streep into his office to hype the game plan and charismatically intimidate her into running it as a Good News on the War Front story. Fortunately, Redford’s got ace editor Joe Hutshing (who’s done fine work for Oliver Stone and Cameron Crowe) to stitch all this into a smoothly flowing narrative, even if it ends up flowing like water down a drain.

One can easily picture Lions for Lambs adapted for the stage, including the Afghanistan combat scenes, which, like the rest of the film, were shot in California. All you see of the country is snowy rubble at night; all you see of the Taliban fighters is shadows. This film, 85% of which consists of conversations in offices, cost $35 million, most of which, I assume, went to the three high-wattage leads; you or I could shoot roughly the same film with good local-theatre players for El Mariachi money. $35 million could buy some repairs in Iraq, or some better supplies for our troops. But I digress.

Tom Cruise, the reviled couch-hopper himself, comes through. We forget at our peril that he can tweak his win-win-win persona to paint dreadful portraits of cancerous masculinity; see his vile grandstanding in Magnolia. He plays his war-mongering senator without a wink, never tipping his hand. If the senator doesn’t believe passionately in what he’s telling the reporter, he sure knows how to sell it well, which amounts to the same thing in politics. Given the freedom of playing this liberal movie’s boogeyman, Cruise (who tends not to advertise his political affiliations but has contributed to Democratic campaigns) ends up being more interesting than anyone else on the screen. Even Streep, looking more than ever like Pauline Kael (who would’ve loved to loathe this film: three of her favorite targets in one movie), goes through the motions of exhaustion and disillusionment, at one point rubbing her hands over her face in the back of a taxi in one of those Acting Moments. Sadly, the soldiers are just there as chess pieces to make the film’s point that our government is a bunch of lambs sacrificing lions.

Lions for Lambs is the cinematic equivalent of the angry pamphlets of yesteryear — from a time when, as Redford would have it, there was a better class of youngster. (Cue Dana Carvey: “In my day…”) The real war in this movie is between the grizzled, committed Baby Boomers — Redford, Streep — and smug, unserious Generation Y, as personified by a carefree little frat boy. Not much of a fair fight. Redford forgets, of course, that it was largely Boomer politicians who voted us into this mess, on both sides of the aisle, and that it’s largely Generation Y who’s doing the actual fighting and dying. Boomers are running out of Greatest Generation folks to rebel against, so now they’re picking on the generations after theirs.

This isn’t a rallying point so much as a frustrated snort of impotence — as much a screed against citizens who fail to Do Something as against the administration. As a film, it’s scaled like a short, scrappy indie (it’s in and out in 88 minutes — concise work from the director who took the better part of three hours to adapt The Horse Whisperer) but plays the same bloated Hollywood strings — the reporter’s crisis of conscience, the soldiers bravely, painfully climbing to their feet to meet their fate like lions. Redford might like to see himself as a lion of cinema, but his movie (a non-starter at the box office — so much for star power) bleats like a lamb — sullenly, ineffectually, pointlessly.

American Gangster

November 2, 2007

The rather loftily titled American Gangster might be worth sitting through for the tete-a-tete between Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe near the end. Washington’s Frank Lucas, a smooth Harlem drug lord, and Crowe’s Richie Roberts, a straight-arrow cop who’s just busted Frank, face one another across a table, pushing a coffee cup back and forth as if playing chess. Which, indeed, is what they’ve been doing for the past two screen hours. Finally, Richie takes the cup and sips from it. Checkmate. The chat between the two men, veering from boastful to menacing yet conducted in mostly normal tones, is a triumph of acting and screenwriting (Steven Zaillian did the honors).

American Gangster, based on a true story, is solidly performed and occasionally intriguing, but it’s yet another strangely hollow offering from Ridley Scott (who’s getting toasts from the press all over again for the recent re-issue of Blade Runner). This director has always struck me as less a visionary than an opportunist: he comes from TV commercials and knows how to make pretty pictures, but his films have little thematic or emotional consistency. He’s a stylist who happens to have lucked into a few classics without ruining them — Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise — but whose portfolio is wildly uneven (have those who call him a genius ever seen Black Rain or G.I. Jane?). Scott doesn’t bring anything special out of this story, or to it. I kept having to remind myself Michael Mann didn’t direct it.

The antagonists are seen as icons: Frank is a ruthless gangster — a murderer, a blithe poisoner of his own people — but loves his mama and his brothers, and deludes himself that he helps the people of Harlem. (He hands out free turkeys during the holidays, like Al Capone with his soup kitchens.) Richie is the polar opposite, so agonizingly non-corrupt he turns in a million dollars of found drug money, knowing it’ll mark him as a pariah on the force. (Richie and his motley crew of helpers seem to be the only clean cops in the Jersey/New York area.) They’re both family men, though Richie has driven away his wife, while Frank marries a Puerto Rican beauty with whom he seems to have nothing in common. The women in the movie are an afterthought, as cavalierly treated as the naked chicks cutting Frank’s heroin.

I don’t know how Scott or Zaillian feel about these men, but the late-’60s and early-’70s milieu is effortlessly established (Scott’s true talent, I think, is hiring good art directors and set designers). With the time divided between Frank and Richie, and then divided further among the various people in their lives, there isn’t enough time for complex portraiture; essentially this is a high-class crime drama of the sort that might’ve been wrapped up in 44 minutes on Miami Vice. Few clichés are unturned, including the Scarface bit when the gangster’s dear old mama bawls him out. The great Ruby Dee, however, plays this cliché with considerable force, and Washington touchingly defers to her in each scene they share. I also enjoyed Josh Brolin, looking like Nick Nolte in Q&A, as a slimy cop, and Armand Assante (who actually was in Q&A) as a lordly Mafia don. The cast certainly isn’t the problem with American Gangster.

Scott has never really had much sense of spatial clarity; there’s a disgracefully shot and edited chase scene, and, for all the monkish attention to interiors, not much evocation of Harlem as a place, a community, a soul. So the irony of Frank claiming to help Harlem while destroying it with smack is underheated. Frank is seen as a suave outlaw existing above the human wreckage he creates; Richie, though a philanderer and a crank, is the perfect cop (and perfect ex-husband: in a bafflingly neutral scene, he simply gives up custody of his son — perhaps to get his ex-wife and son away from danger, though it isn’t made clear — and the audience feels nothing). American Gangster is an epic title for a long movie that feels a couple sizes too small. If you’re not going to say anything about these men besides the obvious, what’s the point?