Archive for May 2008

The Strangers

May 30, 2008

In The Strangers, a tightly wound home-invasion thriller, Liv Tyler acts with her neck. When boyfriend Scott Speedman leaves her alone in a house out in the boonies to go buy her some cigarettes, Tyler moves through the rooms in a distracted trance. She’s already a bit rattled because some unseen young woman came calling earlier, asking for “Tamara,” and left the couple with an ominous “I’ll see you later.” So Tyler is counting the minutes till Speedman returns, and suddenly there’s a series of booming knocks on the door. Every time the door gets pounded, the tendons in Tyler’s neck throb like cello strings.

Liv Tyler’s neck gives the best performance in The Strangers, a movie not designed to show off the virtuosity of actors so much as that of first-time writer-director Bryan Bertino. The movie is profoundly meat-and-potatoes bordering on minimalist. Once Tyler and Speedman — hurting because he popped the question and she said no — arrive at his unoccupied childhood house for a romantic vacation that no longer seems plausible, it’s only a matter of time before the stalkers of the title descend on the house. There’s no subtext that I can determine; for a while I thought the events would push Speedman into defensive heroics and Tyler into grateful acceptance of him as her groom. But no. Like Funny Games (both versions), this film isn’t structured to bring its leads together.

Bertino employs every trick in the book, including a few I recently saw in the much more disturbing French horror film Inside: a threatening figure slowly emerging from a room’s shadows in the quiet dead of night, unannounced by any sting on the soundtrack; a well-meaning person finding out the hard way that, when entering the house of someone who’s been getting terrorized and has a weapon, you really should loudly herald yourself by name, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to carry a boom-box blaring John Philip Sousa, either. As it is, the only aural diversions in the movie are spookily crackle-and-pop old folk and country records, which kick in on the turntable whenever needed to boost tension, along with the musical stylings of tomandandy, the composing duo who seem to have embraced their fates as the new Tangerine Dream.

The three strangers — credited as Dollface, Pin-Up Girl, and The Man in the Mask — hide their features behind façades appropriate to their script names; the Man goes in for the disfigured-burlap look as seen in The Orphanage. The movie is derivative as hell, but Bertino shows a good deal of craft — if not as a writer, then as a director, a skillful carpenter (though not Carpenter) of nerve-punching moments. The Strangers is a decent calling card, a means for a young man (Bertino is 28) to prove he can deliver on a budget of peanuts ($9 million, chicken scratch these days) and a roster of speaking roles topping out at eight. It’s not quite the big-splash horror debut we’ve seen from so many others, but it could indicate that Bertino is capable of great bowel-emptying cinema if he hands off the Final Draft software to someone else next time.

The Strangers opens with one of those basso-profundo narrations (think John Larroquette in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) assuring us that The Brutal Events You Are About to Witness Are True, though savvy viewers will mentally replace the last two words with “Were Invented By Someone Who’s Seen the Same Horror Movies You Have.” For all that, I didn’t mind the movie, impersonal and familiar as it is; technically it’s both quirky and assured, it knows when to be quiet, and the final sequence, shot in the harsh glare of dawn, gives us a few haunting peeks out the windows at the oblivious weeds and dirt roads: Morning has broken, the nightmare is supposed to be over, but it isn’t. Bryan Bertino puts enough odd touches into The Strangers — bits and pieces that haunt us obliquely, such as our almost but not quite seeing the faces behind the masks — that I’m curious to see what he does for an encore.

The Machine Girl

May 23, 2008

“Violence doesn’t solve anything,” says heroine Ami (Minase Yashiro) near the start of the cartoonishly gory The Machine Girl. This, of course, comes after we’ve seen her in a flash-forward decimating a quartet of bullies with a machine gun attached to the stump of her left arm. Violence may not solve anything, but it sure as hell clears the brush.

A low-level Internet sensation among hardcore Asian-trash geeks due to its way-over-the-top YouTube trailer, The Machine Girl disappoints only insofar as it delivers exactly what it promises — no more, no less (the disappointment comes with the “no more”). It’s knowingly junky revengesploitation that could be paired with Doomsday for Grindhouse 2. The plot involves Ami’s brother and his dorky friend running afoul of the teenage scion of a Yakuza clan (fans of Kill Bill will recognize the clan’s name, solidifying the idea that this is really a Japanese flick intended for American fans of the Japanese flicks that influenced Tarantino — it got a brief run in New York and is now debuting on American DVD months before it even sees a Japanese release). After Ami goes to avenge her brother and gets her arm hacked off, she retreats to the garage run by her brother’s pal’s grieving parents, and they present her with the means to reduce her foes to chunks and mist.

Writer-director Noboru Iguchi treats the story as an excuse for exuberant splatterific hijinks — some achieved digitally, some (hilariously obviously) not. Despite some feints towards the aforementioned anti-violence message when the parents of Ami’s ninja victims rise up and spout the same enraged rhetoric she does, The Machine Girl can’t possibly be taken seriously, nor does it really want to be. The Yakuza leader’s hair is greased into curly little devil horns; his wife, who’s even more vicious than he is, forces a clumsy cook to snack on sushi garnished with his own fingers. Iguchi splits people into halves or thirds; he gives us ninjas in red track suits and a scene in which a woman stabbed through the back of the head spews blood, then bile, then her own intestines (a nod to Lucio Fulci, maybe).

Though bored at times by the repetitive artlessness of the gore — there’s a way to do this stuff with finesse; start with the Lone Wolf and Cub series — I was entertained by the movie’s sheer heedless hunger for the junk it’s chewing up and spitting out. At times it’s like an entire Japanese-schlock marathon compressed into 97 minutes. The version I caught was English-dubbed, so I can’t comment much on the acting, though Minase Yashiro makes a fierce and formidable icon of adorably petite bloodletting. She could anchor a Machine Girl franchise, and probably will.

Essentially, what we’ve got here is Takashi Miike by way of Robert Rodriguez, with all the problems and thrills that entails. For the likeminded, it’s a bottomless (if anti-nutritious) bag of Twizzlers; others should approach with caution.

War, Inc.

May 23, 2008

The adventures of the Bush administration have, it seems, driven John Cusack a little crazy, just as they drove Richard Kelly far enough around the bend to make his much-maligned epic Southland Tales. Perhaps these men have found a workable response, if not the only one, to current events: broad satire sprinkled heavily with glitzy disgust. War, Inc., written by Cusack along with Jeremy Pikser (Bulworth) and the postmodernist novelist Mark Leyner, doesn’t even pretend to buy into American warfare in the Middle East as remotely ennobling or democracy-inspiring. Tonally, this farce is all over the place, getting easy laughs from official doublespeak about new prosthetic limbs (“Just another breathtaking example of how American know-how alleviates the suffering it creates”) and then choking our laughter off. The business of war is serious even when it’s funny, and vice versa.

War, Inc. could almost be a default sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank, 1997’s witty, jet-black comedy about hit-man Martin Blank and his struggle to regain his humanity at his ten-year class reunion. Here, Cusack is Brand Hauser, a government assassin tasked to whack an oil baron who wants to run a pipeline through (fictional) Turaqistan and drink some of America’s milkshake. Brand is given a cover story: he’ll be organizing the arrival and media opportunities of rising Turaqi pop star Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff, sullying her squeaky-clean persona impressively). Plaguing Brand’s existence are this movie’s Minnie Driver, leftist reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), who wants the full story on what Brand is doing in Turaqistan, and this movie’s Joan Cusack, hard-bitten assistant Marsha Dillon (played by … Joan Cusack), who wants Brand to ice the target already so they can all go home.

Add in an appearance by Dan Aykroyd as the amiably venal vice-president and a Joe Strummer-esque score by David Robbins (brother of Cusack’s buddy Tim) and you really do have Martin Blank Goes to War, but as a die-hard fan of GPB, I didn’t care. Cusack’s morose intelligence holds everything together, and he has an agreeably combative rapport with Tomei and a gentler one with Duff, whose Yonica symbolizes how we’re trying to “democratize” the Middle East by Britneyizing and corporatizing it. The movie takes some cues from satires old (Dr. Strangelove) and more recent (Wag the Dog, especially in its barbs at the press for being so easily gulled by the government’s magic show), but its tempo and emphasis are all its own. Joshua Seftel, a documentarian making his narrative feature debut, channels Kubrick as well as Terry Gilliam in his cool fish-eyed-lens assessment of Turaqistan’s chaotic chessboard. By the time we see a tank with a banner on its tail, it’s no longer clear where monetary fantasia ends and war-torn reality begins.

War, Inc. is looser than GPB, and makes time for several extended scenes of various characters just sitting around getting to know each other, a welcome respite from what always threatens to become a cartoon. In a dazzlingly brutal dust-up between Brand and some local thugs, Cusack shows he hasn’t lost any of his kickboxing flair, nor his way of looking soulfully stricken when caught in the bloody act by a loved one. In these movies, Cusack is America, abashed by his talent for and background in violence, and eager to escape it — here, Brand constantly chugs hot sauce to burn himself out of awareness (he says he’s trained his tear ducts not to flow when he downs the stuff). People are always consuming in the movie — Yonica has her Popeye’s Chicken (a front for Brand’s shadowy liaison), a soldier chomps on freeze-dried coffee to amp himself up for crowd control. Critics will probably rush to smear War, Inc. as a rehash or irrelevant or even un-American, but it’s a good deal smarter and more satisfying than that — a punk-rock Strangelove riff on a mission very much unaccomplished.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

May 22, 2008

Of all the emotions fighting for dominance as the end credits rolled on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — satisfaction, joy, even a pang of bittersweet sadness — the one that won out, for me, was relief. They’d done it — “they,” of course, being Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford. They had brought Indy back to us, our Indy, and they hadn’t screwed it up. Better still, they’d involved him in a cracking good tale very much in the tradition of the previous three adventures. Underneath it all is the hunger of all three to prove they can still pack a punch, draw back a curtain and make you gasp or laugh or both at once. Even as a die-hard Indy fan, I was nervously prepared for this outing to be lame and redundant. But I don’t quite understand the naysayers on this one: Crystal Skull delivers.

A bit saggier in the jowls but no less inquisitive, tenacious, or witheringly sarcastic in the face of big evil lugs, Ford’s Indy is still teaching and still running afoul of people who want ancient doo-dads. It’s 1957, when the Russians were the big bads, and they seem to think psychic powers will help them rule the world. One of their number, Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, camping and vamping deliciously), wants Indy to lead her and her minions to a crystal skull hidden amid the leaves, mummies and vicious ants of Peru. Along the way, Indy casts off a duplicitous partner (Ray Winstone), picks up a greaser sidekick named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf, who acquits himself with humor and grace despite the sneering of many fanboys), finds old colleague Harold Oxley (John Hurt), who appears to have been addled by his exposure to the skull, and reunites with his great lost love Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).

Part of what makes Crystal Skull work for a part of the audience is the weight of nostalgia, the long gap between it and the last film (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, from 1989) — on some level it’s a farewell-tour package where the members of the band put on one last spectacular arena show. At least I hope it’s a farewell — any more after this would probably be pushing it. How’s the action? Spielberg stages it with a seemingly long-forgotten instinct for the mechanics of momentum and release. Other than an expendable bit involving Mutt and some monkeys (I smell Lucas all over that one), the sequences — clipped together by Michael Kahn with his usual unearthly mix of smooth and sharp — join suspense and comedy in just the right old way. And seeing Indy delve once again into some godforsaken cobwebby place where less cautious others have perished and rotted just made me illogically blissful.

It occurs to me that Ford is often only as good as the co-stars who can bring out his snark and his vulnerability in equal measure. In recent years it’s mainly just been him up there, straining to keep some thinly written thriller or drama afloat. Here he works opposite the disdain of youth (LaBeouf), the hauteur of evil (Blanchett), the babbling of a cracked mystic (Hurt), and the fury of a woman scorned (Allen), though this last gentles into the familiar spiky rhythm of “Jones, you bastard, I love you! Now save us, you idiot!” The more detached reviewers can tell you exactly why David Koepp’s script is so blatantly contrived as to reteam Indy and Marion, but some of us have been waiting twenty-seven years to see these two together again, and if they had launched into a Bollywood song and dance it would not have blemished my gratitude one iota.

The movie plays and sounds like a vintage Indy film, though it looks subtly different, sometimes not so subtly. Douglas Slocombe, who shot the previous entries, was a sorcerer conjuring deep shades of tan and red and blue. The images popped. Here, Spielberg replaces the long-retired Slocombe with his cinematographer since Schindler’s List, Janusz Kaminski, whose palette is a bit more washed-out. But I grew to accept this: Indy is grayer, we all are, and so is the film, which seems to truly launch — after a slam-bang opening capped with Indy silhouetted against a mushroom cloud, an image so ballsy-iconic I loved it as much as many will loathe it — with a saddening moment when Indy takes stock of the people he’s lost. So when Indy maneuvers around the long-dead in their crypts this time, he may see more in them now than he’s comfortable with. Crystal Skull tips its fedora warily to the march of time — I can’t adequately express how jarring it is to hear rock ‘n’ roll in an Indy film, as it’s meant to be. But that doesn’t mean we’re not still transported and rejuvenated by the journey. By the last scene, with Harrison Ford looking goofily happy in his bow tie, some of us can’t help grinning right along with him. That’s entertainment.

Speed Racer

May 9, 2008

Who says relations between the U.S. and Japan aren’t solid? Anime is trying to look more and more like live-action Hollywood films (see the Appleseed movies), and live-action Hollywood films are trying to look more and more like anime (see just about any summer movie). Speed Racer arrives as a go-between, the missing link. Its distributor, Warner Bros., has a way of putting out a movie every decade that doesn’t look like any other movie ever made up until then: A Clockwork Orange in the ‘70s, Blade Runner in the ‘80s, Natural Born Killers in the ‘90s, and now Speed Racer.

It comes to us courtesy of Andy and Larry Wachowski, who gave us the dark dystopia of the Matrix trilogy and wrote/produced the dark dystopia V for Vendetta. Their follow-up, to the bafflement of those expecting Babies and Kittens Get Killed by Robots: In IMAX 3D, is this colorful, whistle-clean, family-friendly … wait, did I say only “colorful”? I mean a nuclear explosion in a Crayola factory. The colors in Speed Racer are ferociously bright and saturated; they don’t appear in nature, but then nothing else in the movie does, either. Essentially, for all the surface differences, the Wachowskis are still working the same side of the street: Speed Racer, like the Matrix films, exists in a hermetic computer-painted world controlled by Evil Overlords, and Only One Hero can prevail.

Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) races for his family business; his Pops (John Goodman) builds racing cars, his big brother Rex (Scott Porter) was once the world’s greatest racer before a fatal crash took him out. Speed wants to go on racing for Pops, Mom (Susan Sarandon), and her amazing cinnamon pancakes, but an oily racing magnate (Roger Allam, looking like a bizarre cross between Al Gore and Christopher Hitchens) wants Speed on board. We hear altogether too much about how racing affects stocks; the Wachowskis’ “duh” message this time is that it’s bad for corporations to squash art, which would sound better in a film that wasn’t bankrolled by Time/Warner to the tune of $100 million.

I’d say that Sarandon wanted to enact the movie’s housewife-mom role, which is so retro-simplistic it almost isn’t sexist, because she wanted to be in a movie her kids could see, except that her kids are 19 and 16, respectively — they’re ready for Rocky Horror by now. What was Christina Ricci’s excuse? She plays Trixie, who has loved Speed Racer since they met as children, and I guess it’s fun to see the former Miss Goth America being relentlessly, unironically cheerful. She’s ready for her own Rocky Horror by now, though it looks increasingly unlikely we’ll get it. Of the cast, only John Goodman stubbornly insists on rooting his scenes in something emotionally valid. About Speed’s kid brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), who shovels candy into his face whenever possible and hangs out with the monkey Chim-Chim, the less said the better, though their shared anime fantasy surprised a laugh out of me.

The Wachowskis want to have goofball fun here, and I’m sure they did, but what matters is whether the fun filters down to the rest of us. Gorgeous as Speed Racer is, the neon-gasm style gets monotonous, and the scenes away from the racing track are dreary even though the Wachowskis sprain themselves to make them look interesting. Kids might enjoy Speed Racer, but only on DVD, where they can cut to the chase(s); I can only add to the growing list of reports of restless, bored kids in the theater around me. The Wachowskis haven’t made Speed Racer for kids — they’ve made it for the kids they used to be. After The Matrix turned them into avatars of cool, they’ve done a 180 and made something entirely and intentionally square. They’ve certainly done worse — Speed Racer isn’t nearly as tedious as The Matrix Revolutions, the entirety of which looked like it was filmed inside Dick Cheney’s colon. But I don’t think this film will catch the zeitgeist the way The Matrix did; Iron Man has stolen its thunder. Such is the fate that awaits all hipsters: there’s always someone cooler.

Iron Man

May 2, 2008

The summer-movie season kicks into high gear with Iron Man, the latest expensive blockbuster based on a comic-book superhero. The fan press has given it a warm embrace and tongue kisses, and they’re not the only ones; as I type this, Iron Man enjoys a 94% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and has been voted #159 in the Top 250 movies by users of the Internet Movie Database. It’s supposed to be fun, and it is, in spots. But for all its fizz and pizzazz, it left me in a terrible mood. The film glorifies the wit and lifestyle of a slick war profiteer — Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a brilliant inventor of “smart” missiles — then attends dutifully to his moral re-awakening, yet still says that superior firepower gets the dirty job done.

Downey has gotten his share of the praise, and he deserves it. His Stark is the tech wonk as rock star, swanning around important functions with scotch in hand and women on his radar. (They can’t resist him.) Downey has fast, supple interplay with formidable actors like Terrence Howard (as Jim Rhodes, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who follows Stark around like a puppy) and Jeff Bridges (as Stark’s duplicitous business partner Obadiah Stane — subtle name). But once Stark and Stane lock themselves into their respective combat armor, so do Downey and Bridges. These two protean actors become Iron Man and Iron Monger, bashing each other through buses, and poor Bridges has to deliver lines like “Nothing’s going to get in my way! Least of all you!”

Iron Man works best when it snarks at Stark and his technology fetish — the sequence dealing with Stark’s first shaky attempts at flight with his hand and foot repulsors, while an oversolicitous robot stands by waiting to douse him with a fire extinguisher, is reliably crowd-pleasing. But this hero’s origin has its roots in grim current events (much like the initial Iron Man outing in 1963, wherein Stark’s armor was forged in Vietnam). At the start, Stark is in Afghanistan, blithely showing off his new Jericho missile to the assembled American military. He gets captured by the usual gang of swarthy mountain-dwelling guerrillas, and he gets videotaped in a scene carrying unwelcome reminders of Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg. With the help of a sympathetic co-captive, Stark builds a rudimentary Iron Man suit and blasts and burns his way free.

Upon his return, a changed Stark exclaims “I saw Americans die.” He doesn’t say anything about the men who died at his hands — being forced to use his own destructive technology, being forced to become a killer and to see the dead close-up, is not something the movie has time to explore. Iron Man is as thoughtless as it is weightless. Director Jon Favreau (who brings no particular style or vision to the party) and his four credited writers are too wowed by the high-tech bang to question the morality of making and selling weapons — the problem is that they wind up in the wrong hands because of corrupt businessmen, and if you drop those businessmen through a roof from several thousand feet up, that problem’s solved. Iron Man pumps itself up by exploiting real, ongoing misery without even pretending to deal with it. It’s a tricky balancing act, and Favreau isn’t up to it.

All of this is inherent in the original Cold War-era material, of course, but why drag it into 2008? Because Iron Man is “cool”? The bullying fanboy idea of “cool” is growing wearisome and is threatening to kill movies. And it’s a very strange time politically to insist on the triumphalism of full metal American righteousness. War, Inc., John Cusack’s satire on the munitions industry, is getting a limited release later this month (opposite Indiana Jones, yet) on its way to DVD. Iron Man is getting the ninth widest release in box-office history. Tell me again how liberal Hollywood is.

Gwyneth Paltrow hasn’t been around much lately, and she still isn’t around much here, playing Stark’s smitten assistant Pepper Potts without the sense to take off her heels when running from peril. She and Downey use their quiet pockets of the film together to re-enact James Stewart and Barbara Bel Geddes in Vertigo — the devoted woman suppressing her love for the obsessive man. I enjoyed their rapport while knowing, depressed, that their characters would eventually be reduced to Damsel in Distress and Knight in Shining (Lethal) Armor. These superhero movies play better for me when they don’t knock fine actors down to their level. In the months to come we’ll witness Christian Bale disappearing into his cowl again, Heath Ledger cackling and blowing people away, and Edward Norton grimacing as he steps aside for CGI. That’s about what happens to good actors in all these movies. Robert Downey Jr. smirks and winks, his helmet clangs down, and it could be anybody under there.