Archive for September 2008

Slacker Uprising

September 24, 2008

What, you may ask, is the point of a movie about Michael Moore trying to get out the vote back in 2004? Didn’t his side lose? What would such a movie offer besides a feeling of impotence — a feeling that, despite the enthusiasm and best efforts of so many people, the bastards got in again? Slacker Uprising, Moore’s new film, which he has made available for free download at a variety of online outlets, is a bit more than that.

In the weeks before the 2004 election, Moore tours the battleground states, hitting more than sixty cities in a crusade to get the fabled disaffected youth off their couches and into booths. Everywhere he goes, no matter how conservative a place would seem to outsiders, he gets a rock-star welcome, standing-Os, women asking him to sign their boobs. It’s a college tour, of course, so a lot of the crowds are predisposed to be in his corner; Moore isn’t appearing at NASCAR races or NRA rallies. But the point is made: anyplace you go, you’ll find hidebound old rubes and you’ll find smart young people. Moore goes to the smart young people to exhort them to get their asses in gear.

Slacker Uprising sort of takes the form of a concert film like The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, the Amnesty International-sponsored charity event studded with comedians and musicians. Moore brings in folks like Steve Earle, Eddie Vedder, Tom Morello, REM, Joan Baez, Viggo Mortensen, and Roseanne Barr (who, in the film’s possible highlight, delivers a gloriously pissy routine dripping with irony). A lot of the time, these performers are surprise guests, so it’s not as if Moore lures his crowds with the promise of hearing Eddie Vedder cover Cat Stevens. But the focus always swings back to Moore, the right’s favorite baseball-cap-wearing punching bag, as he gets the audience riled up with call-and-response. (I don’t remember his being this aggressive a speaker when I saw him at a local college in 2003; but then, we’re not a battleground state and it wasn’t election time.)

Make no mistake: Slacker Uprising — previously titled Captain Mike Across America, in case you were wondering what happened to that project — will not win over Moore-haters. As he himself says, it’s one for the fans. (Now that I think about it, it’s a bit like Kevin Smith’s three-and-counting An Evening With… DVDs.) If you’re on the fence about him as an onscreen persona, if you don’t disagree with his general message but find him a self-aggrandizing bloviator, you should probably give this one a pass. But I can’t deny there’s something heartening about seeing thousands of people responding so happily to Moore’s sane, actually unremarkable themes. Moore really only looks like a radical in oppressive times. He’s not saying anything that anyone with a brain and a conscience can’t get behind on some level: Hey, Americans deserve health care! Say, shouldn’t we make sure that putting our soldiers in harm’s way is absolutely necessary before we start a war? Hell, why is that small percent of people getting all the money you’re not making?

You could look at Slacker Uprising as the record of a failure: The slackers rose up, and Bush still won. But not by much. And, as we’re told at the end, a record 21 million young voters turned out. Kerry only lost by a hair, and he was the most boring candidate the Dems have had since Dukakis. Obama gives young Democrats something to vote for instead of just vote-the-shrub-out motivation, and a lot of kids who were 14 last time turned 18 this year. If that sounds like an Obama endorsement, so be it. Enough is enough. A good chunk of the country said that last time. Maybe this time there’ll be a bigger chunk. [Post-election update: There was.]

Lakeview Terrace

September 21, 2008

For the most part, Samuel L. Jackson exudes not only hipness and badassery but rationality. He says something, and it rings with sharp authority. So when he plays someone mean and irrational, he can be frightening indeed — if the script supports him. It doesn’t in Lakeview Terrace, an ugly thriller unredeemed by any insight or depth. Even its paltry ironies feel secondhand, and I don’t think it earns the right to play with racial/racist emotions the way it does.

Jackson is Abel Turner, a sportively vicious L.A. cop who makes life miserable for his new neighbors in a posh suburb, who happen to be a mixed-race couple, Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington). Abel hates them — particularly Chris — pretty much on sight, for reasons eventually made clear in a clumsy speech. Deranged by twenty-eight years on the force and by his wife’s death — and its (to him) suspicious circumstances — Abel is a rigid, single-minded psycho with a badge, a cross between Denzel Washington in Training Day and Ray Liotta in Unlawful Entry. If he messes with you, what are you gonna do, call the police? For a while, Jackson’s devastating contempt for the weak white man and his too-good-for-a-black-man wife carries Lakeview Terrace. But only for a while.

On the surface, this is yet another troublemaker courtesy of director Neil LaBute, who started out strafing art-house audiences with corrosive autopsies of hollow yuppies (In the Company of Men, etc.) and came a cropper two years ago with the legendarily laughable Wicker Man remake. If LaBute’s Wicker Man said that we shouldn’t trust women with power, Lakeview Terrace (which he did not write) comes dangerously close to saying that we shouldn’t trust black men with power, either. (John McCain must be cheerful about the film’s timing.) In truth, the only person in the movie obsessed with race is Abel, whose mind swims with resentments real and imagined. Chris and Lisa make out in their pool in full view of Abel and his two children, which is bad, but then Abel extrapolates that into the corruptive influence of the liberal, valueless universe they come from. His biblical name is likely not incidental.

All right, it’s a tense situation that allows Jackson to be menacing with impunity (though only as far as a PG-13 rating will allow). It’s raw red meat for him to chew on, but it’s also rancid meat. People have made much of the similarities to Unlawful Entry, but the more useful comparison is to 2002’s underrated Changing Lanes, in which Jackson and Ben Affleck had a fierce battle of wills that came out of their finely-drawn characters and didn’t lead to a climax involving gunfire and wildfires. Jackson was more subdued there, his rage more credible. Here, Abel only acts human whenever he wants to manipulate Chris back into his confidence; he remains a caustic mastermind throughout, and I couldn’t figure out why Chris and Lisa show up at a party at Abel’s house late in the game when what they should be doing is looking at the real-estate ads. (And if a drug-addled punk Abel roughs up mid-film is astute enough to get Internal Affairs on Abel’s ass, what’s stopping the college-educated couple from doing so?)

This is as stupid, hollow, and irresponsible a movie as any I’ve seen, and I’ve seen Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS. Put a gun in a black man’s hand and a badge on his chest and he’ll abuse the power, just as in Training Day. I suppose it’s nice that Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson feel we’ve come along far enough as a society that they, prominent black actors, can play hateful villains and not have to be Sidney Poitier in every movie. But what’s the difference between these characters they’ve played and the pop-eyed animalistic Negros in the Klan-glorifying Birth of a Nation 93 years ago? Style? The spectre of the angry, powerful black man has unhinged this country for centuries, it bids fair to influence the upcoming election as well, and here’s Sony Screen Gems merrily churning a cheap thriller out of it. Lakeview Terrace made me mad, and not in the way it intended to.


September 19, 2008

Robert B. Parker has been publishing novels for 35 years, and yet only one has made it to the big screen. The tough but gallant detective Spenser, of course, is Parker’s best-known creation, and Robert Urich got a three-year TV gig out of it; Tom Selleck has appeared in five-and-counting TV movies as Parker’s Jesse Stone; and Helen Hunt got Parker to create Sunny Randall for her to play in a movie series, which never materialized. So Appaloosa, the first in Parker’s Everett Hitch trilogy¹ of westerns, turned out to be Parker’s first story to see the light of a projector. He should be happy; the movie is pretty much exactly the book writ large. Parker wrote it in short, plain-spoken chapters, and the film follows suit.

As Virgil Cole, a wandering keeper of the peace in the southwest of 1882, Ed Harris puckers his lips and squints his eyes and speaks in a level, unimpressed voice when challenged. Harris, who also directed and co-wrote the adaptation (with Robert Knott), wears black sepulchral coats and a black hat with the wide brim straight across his forehead; he looks a bit like William Walker, the freebooter he played in Alex Cox’s gonzo Walker (1987). Walker was a hyper-controlled man given to sudden spasms of violence, and Virgil is, too. Teased a little too much by a woman of his recent acquaintance — Allie French (Renee Zellweger) — Virgil works off his discomfiture on a harmless drunk, beating him senseless. Fortunately, Virgil’s right-hand man Everett (Viggo Mortensen in a taciturn yet highly charismatic performance) is around to watch over him. As Everett explains after the beating, when you hire Virgil, you hire his particular brand of crazy.

The wind-battered town of Appaloosa is under the thumb of Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a saturnine rancher who may be Parker’s nod to Stephen King’s omnipresent Randall Flagg. (In his younger Creepshow days, Ed Harris might’ve made a fine Stu Redman.) Bragg has already killed the marshal and two deputies; the town’s hapless politicos call in Virgil and Everett, granting Virgil absolute authority, which he more or less doesn’t abuse, other than the unwarranted beating. A lesser movie might have omitted Virgil’s meltdown — it doesn’t really move the plot forward — but Harris understands that it tells us a bit about Virgil, and it creates some dread later on, when Virgil really has something to be upset about.

Harris takes his time. Appaloosa is well-paced, finding a balance between the slowpoke rhythm of the Old West and the demands of no-frills storytelling. With the mighty Dean Semler (who shot Dances with Wolves) framing the wide compositions, the movie plumbs the gorgeously desolate landscapes for a strange mix of pictorial splendor and ghostly barrenness. When we first see Appaloosa from a distance, it looks like a sad cluster of wooden boxes out in the middle of God knows what. This is where people live, if it can be called that; and when Virgil and Allie become sweet on each other, and she starts planning for the house they’ll share in town, Everett holds his tongue but almost visibly wonders what the hell kind of life Virgil expects to lead here.

The movie has caught some static because, on the surface, it posits tension between the Virgil/Everett bromance and the Virgil/Allie domesticity. Walter Chaw, in his typically impatient review at Film Freak Central, caricatured the dynamic as “bros before hos.” But Allie isn’t a ho — she’s a frightened young woman in a time and place that haven’t much use or respect for women, and, as unenlightened as anyone else in 1882, she’s looking for a strong man to protect her. Virgil has been riding for years, putting down bad men and moving on, and we sense he’s ready to put down roots somewhere; the younger Everett isn’t quite ready yet, and in the denouement he carries out a plan that he’s probably been nursing all along. It’s time for Virgil to retire and for someone else to carry a gun.

There’s considerable pleasure in Appaloosa‘s respect for the undramatic. It doesn’t go where you’d expect, and the gunfights, with their flat firecracker sound, are over almost as soon as they start. Robert B. Parker has always had a gift for understatement, fleshing out male friendships without strain and telling stories about stoic heroism without too much macho bushwah. Parker’s gumshoe tales are obviously influenced by Hammett and Chandler; after Gunman’s Rhapsody, Parker’s pass at the Tombstone legend, he created Virgil and Everett and seemed to sidle into the realm of Louis L’Amour and Elmer Kenton. They’re solid stories before they’re anything else, with depth and subtext you can take or leave, and Harris brings it all to the film intact.

There used to be a time when making a western was the most commercial and surefire studio pleaser a filmmaker could muster. These days, anyone foolhardy enough to want to helm a horse opera faces studio hesitance and audience apathy. Every so often, somebody tries one anyway. Appaloosa, eschewing cheap thrills and attentive to character nuance, looks like an art film now. Five or six decades ago it would’ve been the stuff of a John Ford or Anthony Mann money-printer. Times do change.

¹Actually a quartet; the late Parker’s fourth book in what might’ve been an ongoing series, Blue-Eyed Devil, will be published posthumously in May 2010.

Burn After Reading

September 14, 2008

Burn_After_Reading__01In the universe of Joel and Ethan Coen, people will do the stupidest and most dangerous things, often for money. “And for what?” asked police officer Marge Gunderson at the end of the Coens’ Fargo. “For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that?” That role won Frances McDormand a well-deserved Oscar, and here she is again in the Coens’ latest, Burn After Reading, as Marge’s polar opposite, Linda Litzke, who works at a gym and needs four cosmetic surgeries to tighten up her aging flesh. When a disc seemingly containing sensitive CIA information falls into her lap, Linda of course wants to parlay it into her nip-and-tuck fund.

Burn After Reading is a beautifully inhuman spy farce in which nobody amounts to anything more than their loopy desires. Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) wants to date as many women as he can; his married status doesn’t trouble him overmuch. It’s not about the sex, primarily; he loves the process. Recently ousted CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) wants to write his memoirs. Linda’s gym coworker Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) doesn’t seem to have anything between his ears other than a willingness to go along with whatever seems fun at the time. All these characters, and others, circle around the movie’s McGuffin, the disc, courtesy of Osborne’s hard drive.

It hardly matters that this candle isn’t worth the chase, nor that the events don’t resolve neatly; to the Coens, that’s part of the chaotic fun. The movie, like so many other Coen projects, fixates on the two prime film noir motivators, greed and paranoia. Those things also powered the Coens’ two Oscar-winners, 1996’s Fargo and 2007’s No Country for Old Men; the Coens find few things funnier than the hapless attempts of average dummies to make the big score and hold onto it. The characters are loosely sketched by their quirks — Harry’s preoccupation with wood flooring; Linda’s relentless effort to stay upbeat — and their obsessions. The actors, as always, respond gratefully to the opportunity to speak laser-sharp Coen dialogue and enact plot twists that tip from the absurd to the casually bloody.

Burn After Reading may strike some as trivial coming after the Coens’ serious-as-cancer No Country for Old Men. It’s nothing new, though; the brothers have always mixed it up, and each new film takes its place in one of the most unique portfolios in recent cinema. (No Country, after all, could be taken as a very, very deadpan black comedy.) Carter Burwell, the regular Coen composer whose music was largely absent from No Country, returns with a vengeance here, sealing each scene with a mock-climactic chord. By now, the Coens don’t need to call attention to their immaculate style or their nods to other films (there’s even a twisted reversal on a scene from Blue Velvet); the mechanisms snap together naturally. Everyone runs around, pursuing or being pursued; even the most seemingly expendable bits — a bitterly drunk Osborne crooning at a Princeton party; Harry’s trip to Home Depot — pay off later. And then there’s the great J.K. Simmons as a CIA bigwig, dyspeptically assessing the whole mess from his desk and issuing a sort of capsule review of the film he’s in. His scenes are, perhaps, unnecessary, but I wouldn’t trade them — or anything else in this darkly playful film — for anything.

Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

September 8, 2008

Bangkok Dangerous is as dark and blue as the inside of a gun. It’s a hit-man thriller of the Existential Crisis variety, in which an assassin (Nicolas Cage) is starting to feel sick of what he does so well. Complicating things are a venal but essentially loyal sidekick (Shahkrit Yamnarm), whom the assassin takes under his wing for training, and a sweet young deaf-mute pharmacist (Charlie Yeung) who makes the assassin — who calls himself Joe — weak in the knees. Also, Joe is finding it increasingly difficult to pull the plug on his emotions and his victims. To paraphrase a line from Grosse Pointe Blank, either he’s fallen in love or he’s developed a newfound respect for life.

The movie, remade by the Hong Kong twin brothers Danny and Oxide Pang from their own 1999 thriller, is on some level banal and plotless. But the Pangs, along with cinematographer Decha Srimantra, give us a gloomy mood piece about being utterly alone in a city of nine million. The Bangkok of this movie, as filtered through Joe’s eyes, is full of crime and people on the make, a densely packed steampot of sin. The only oasis is a glowing white pharmacy and the conveniently nonverbal angel within. (In the original film, it was the assassin who was deaf-mute.) Why Nicolas Cage doesn’t do more romantic movies is a puzzlement; he’s got the soul for it. Joe is a beast until he meets the beauty, whereupon he opens up.

I won’t soon forget Cage’s delicate work in the scene wherein Joe the amoral monster takes his sweetie out to dinner, attempting to grab a semblance of normality while it lasts. The conversation is limited to how hot the food is, countered by the pharmacist’s offer of leaves to balm Joe’s tongue, but Cage’s yearning eyes do the talking for both of them. Later in the date, Joe gets to feed a banana to a baby elephant, and rather than giving us an insert of the cute animal, the Pangs keep their camera on Joe, who seems to become five years old for a few seconds. The plot device is all too threadbare — this innocent young woman is supposed to re-introduce Joe to his humanity. Been there, seen that. But it’s not the notes, it’s how Cage plays them.

Other than a gory moment involving a boat propeller, the violence is subdued, even classy. It’s not meant to look cool, though — people won’t be watching the intricate stunts and gun-fu over and over on the DVD, since there aren’t any. Joe kills for a living; it is what it is. “Bad man?” asks Joe’s sidekick about the latest target. “Bad for someone,” Joe shrugs. As in Grosse Pointe Blank, we mostly don’t know what the doomed men have done to earn a price on their heads, at least not until the last job, the one that gives the assassin pause. Bangkok Dangerous isn’t anything great or original; it’s a riff, and it’s dependent almost entirely on Nicolas Cage and the way he has of making Joe look pained even when he’s smiling (in a few shots he looks eerily like Andy Kaufman). Cage has been making choices in recent years (hello, The Wicker Man) that don’t always make sense to the rest of us. I always get the feeling, though, that whatever film he does satisfies some need or curiosity he has at the time; it’s not just for the paycheck. And this one finishes on a surprisingly downbeat, non-Hollywood note. I’m a Cage fan: your mileage may vary. But whatever its narrative predictability, Bangkok Dangerous proves there’s still reason to stay interested in Cage, and in whatever he gets interested in next.

Sukeban Boy

September 4, 2008

Ah, the Japanese. So stately, so repressed, so secretly perverse. The same country that gave us Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi has also given us Miike, Tsukamoto, and now Noboru Iguchi, who gained internet notoriety earlier this year with the ferociously over-the-top The Machine Girl. Prior to that, though, Iguchi squeezed out the amiable turd known as Sukeban Boy.

This is the sort of movie in which two schoolgirls, one of whom is actually a boy (yeah, more on that in a bit), have the following exchange: “Do you really love me?” “Yes, I do. But I can only express my love through fighting you. Now we can fight naked, fair and square.” Sukeban Boy, based on a Go Nagai manga (which also inspired some anime), looks to these eyes like either a prankish piss-take on the Japanese “pinky violence” subgenre or a no-budget example of it — I don’t really feel qualified to make the call. It luxuriates in the spectacle of breasts, especially breasts with deadly force; and if you’ve seen The Machine Girl, you know a phrase like “breasts with deadly force” makes a dizzy sort of sense in the context of Noboru Iguchi.

Porn starlet (and Iguchi regular) Asami is the girlish boy Suke Banj (or Sukeban), who beats himself up trying to render his features more masculine. He gets in trouble at school all the time, so his twisted father (who has some sort of polymorphous-perverse incestuous fixation on him) makes him dress like a girl and go to an all-girls school. There Sukeban must confront various girl gangs as well as a budding lesbian schoolgirl (Emiru Momose) who’s never met a girl quite like Sukeban before. There’s enough genderfuck here for five movies, and Iguchi ups the ante with various bodily mutations — breasts or leg stumps that fire bullets, syringes full of potent fluid that can make boys grow breasts and girls grow dicks, and so forth. In the universe of Sukeban Boy, sexual and gender identity is cartoonishly fluid; it’s all part of the movie’s anything-for-a-gag spirit.

Just north of an hour long, the movie doesn’t risk overstaying its slapdash welcome, as The Machine Girl almost did through the sheer repetition of its arterial showers. Sukeban Boy isn’t nearly as violent, and it has the amateur-hour feel of a fan film, but Iguchi — who has a background in porn as well as horror — clearly has an appetite for excess, and such touches as two topless schoolgirls getting into a slap-fight with their breasts or our hero(ine) triumphing over an adversary with a well-timed fart indicate a director who’s going to have fun if it kills us. To hell with dignity and honor; to Iguchi, the human vessel itself is a toy, a joke, a launching pad for gore or embarrassment (there’s a seemingly endless sequence with several schoolgirls in various degrees of undress squealing “I’m so humiliated! I’m dying of shame! Don’t look at me!”).

As if we could look away. On one level, Iguchi is simply the latest schlock director to discover that sex and violence make a pretty damn lucrative combo platter. Underneath it, though, is something weirder and perhaps deeper that I can’t quite pin down yet (I’d love to see some of his other efforts). That Iguchi employs Tsukamoto-style body-mod consciousness for sophomoric laughs doesn’t invalidate what he’s doing; it just makes it that much more subversive.

Babylon A.D.

September 1, 2008

There’s not much I can do about Babylon A.D. except to advise you not to see it until there’s an uncut DVD, if even then. Anyone who cares about this Euro-scented, nonsensical movie has heard by now that it’s a mess, and that the blame should not be laid at the feet of star Vin Diesel or director Matthieu Kassovitz. Regardless, the version that’s in theaters is the version that the meddling studio, 20th Century-Fox, expects you to pay to see. As it stands, watching it is like trying to take in a late-night double feature of The Fifth Element and Children of Men while nodding off every ten minutes.

The film begins promisingly: disgruntled mercenary Toorop (Diesel) slouching through a rainy gun marketplace and clobbering some poor sap who sold him a bum weapon. We’re in The Future, Sometime, and Toorop gets tapped to escort mysterious young woman Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) to America along with her protector, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh). Why? Aurora is carrying something in her body; it could be the salvation or the doom of mankind. Based (loosely, I suspect) on a French sci-fi novel, the film takes the trio all over the globe without seeming to move. Bad men are after them, commanded by someone named the High Priestess, played by Charlotte Rampling, who has played high priestesses one way or another throughout her career and finally gets to be one officially. Her scene with Gerard Depardieu, though brief and conducted via video screens, will be good news for fans of art-house fare; it seems impossible, though, that this is indeed the first film in which both have appeared.

Word around the campfire is that Fox ordered Babylon A.D. trimmed by fifteen minutes to avoid an R rating. Who recut it, Stevie Wonder? The action sequences set a new standard for incoherence — at no point do we understand or even clearly see what’s happening, a disappointment for Michelle Yeoh fans looking forward to watching her show her stuff. It would take a committee of devout logicians to make sense of what’s left of the plot; much more than fifteen minutes seem to be missing, since the film proceeds in an almost non-sequitur fashion. (And people say David Lynch movies are confusing?) The annoyed director has complained in the press about what the studio did to his baby, though his name is still on the film and, one assumes, his paycheck.

The suspicion arises that Babylon A.D. was never going to make much sense or to be much good. Matthieu Kassovitz is on record, but I’d like to hear from his credited cowriters, Eric Besnard and Joseph Simas, or from one of the many executive producers. I’d like to read the panicked memos written when the film reportedly went well north of its budget and its schedule. I’d like to see the international cut, which supposedly runs 101 minutes. Mostly, I’d like my 90 minutes back.