Archive for October 2008

My Name Is Bruce

October 31, 2008

If you’ve seen Bruce Campbell at a — Wait a minute. Do you know who Bruce Campbell is? No? Then skip this movie and this review. Noobs to the left, primitive screwheads to the right. I’m talkin’ to the primitive screwheads, so go listen to a Jonas Brothers CD or something, and let the rest of us talk about Bruce’s new movie.

Anyway, if you’ve seen Bruce Campbell at a signing or Q&A event, you’re familiar with his sarcastic, no-bullshit attitude towards his career and his fans. Someone in the audience will sputter a query Bruce has heard a thousand times (“Will there be an Evil Dead 4, Mr. Campbell, sir?”), Campbell will roll his eyes and sneer something like “I dunno, Sparky, go ask Sam, okay? Gee, I’ve never been asked that before,” and the fans will whoop and guffaw. They expect no less from the man. And if you have seen Bruce Campbell in such a setting, your odds of enjoying the Chin’s second directorial outing, My Name Is Bruce, are much better. Really, though, anyone who digs Campbell and his particular I’m-a-B-movie-asshole-and-damn-proud-of-it persona should find something in the flick to like.

In this meta-comedy, Campbell plays Bruce Campbell, an alcoholic dickwad living in a trailer, suffering through a divorce, and showing up on the sets of direct-to-video shit in order to make alimony payments. (The actual Bruce Campbell is married with kids, and his career’s going pretty well at the moment, thanks for asking — he’s got a nice gig on the surprise hit show Burn Notice.) Campbell is playing a farcical nightmare version of himself, and having a ball doing it. You get to see him abusing dumb-ass fanboys, which is always good for a laugh, but he also mercilessly takes the piss out of his own place in geek-fandom.

It’s this funhouse-mirror Bruce who gets drawn into a supernatural adventure not far from his trailer. Some teenagers have awakened Guan-Di, a Chinese god guarding a mine shaft where Chinese workers once died; three-quarters of the teens are summarily dispatched, and the lone survivor — Jeff (the feminine-looking Taylor Sharpe), a die-hard Bruce fan — escapes and kidnaps Bruce, convinced that only he has the stuff to rid the tiny town of Goldlick of the wrathful god. Thinking that the whole thing is a birthday surprise via his agent (Ted Raimi, in one of three roles), Bruce agrees to play “the hero” — until he discovers that Guan-Di is quite real, at which point he fills the seat of his pants.

Like Campbell’s previous effort behind the camera (The Man with the Screaming Brain), My Name Is Bruce is an amiably goofy affair, filled with slapstick and politically incorrect humor (the scripter is Mark Verheiden, a longtime writer for Dark Horse comics, whose film company produced the movie). Loaded with in-jokes (for instance, Bruce’s ex-wife is played by original Evil Dead actress Ellen Sandweiss), it’s a movie for the fans, which explains why some critics have greeted it with a shrug. Aside from the in-joke casting, most of the onscreen faces are relatively new to film, the stand-out being Grace Thorsen as a comely townie Bruce has his eye on.

Campbell, with these films, seems to want to recreate and keep alive the filmmaking conditions that built his career: go in, get it done fast and cheap, have fun. He tours with the films he directs, gladhands the public, takes whatever gigs come his way (including the mock-cool Old Spice campaign he did a couple years back). He has never particularly wanted to hit it big in Hollywood, because he’s fine where he is; he’s an industry unto himself. Though, like any low-budget flick, it’s obviously the result of blood, sweat and more blood, My Name Is Bruce wants you to believe that Campbell just sort of farted and out came this movie. It’s light, unpretentious as hell, and as caustically amusing as the man himself.

Book Review: Cinema Sewer

October 30, 2008

Robin Bougie is a very, very, very sick and twisted man. And thank the gods of filth-film fetishism for that. Actually, I’ve never met Bougie; for all I know, he gets his taxes done on time, goes to church twice a week, and cries at Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies. I have a feeling, though, that he’d rather be considered very, very, very sick and twisted. The creator of Cinema Sewer — the zine and then the book (published a year ago today) — would probably have it no other way.

Comprising the best of the zine’s first twelve issues, along with a surfeit of new stuff, Cinema Sewer is about as disreputable a movie book as they come. It’s like holding a stack of inky, sordid photocopied zines in your lap, between slick, attractive covers. (Maybe too attractive, I think; a book like this really should look like something you find in a supermarket bathroom.) Bougie not only enthusiastically reviews porn, he draws scenes from it. The aesthetic is a bit like the old Loompanics catalogs that were later collected in trade paperbacks, with radical, disturbing essays illustrated by artists who clearly didn’t care about making it cute. Aside from the index and the interviews, wherein the subjects are allowed Courier font, there’s hardly a dot of machine-printed text anywhere in Cinema Sewer — it’s all hand-printed, in rigorously ruled all-caps. This may look like a slim volume, but it’s a dense read — perfect for (of course) shithouse perusal.

In case it isn’t clear by now, I dig what Bougie is doing here. He covers ferociously wrong shit, stuff that would give even Michael J. Weldon pause, and often finds insightful things to say in its defense. At times, especially in the porn coverage, it’s as if we’re getting a sharp, unapologetic direct line to Bougie’s id. (You haven’t lived until you’ve read him rhapsodizing about the remote possibility of Thora Birch starring in a porno.) “Look,” he says (in effect), “this stuff fascinates me. It’s fuck-ugly, but I can’t leave it alone.” It isn’t just rude-boy wanking, though: Bougie’s lengthy piece on Linda Lovelace goes through various attitudes and moods about the infamous porn queen (who later repudiated her triple-X efforts) before finally settling on compassion. Two pornos by the recently deceased Gerard Damiano (who directed Lovelace’s opus Deep Throat) are reviewed here, as well as other vintage stroke flicks either famous or justifiably obscure.

Bougie was born in 1973, and therefore wasn’t around the first time for most of the stuff he loves. He’s also Canadian, so he’s doubly estranged from the mostly-American material in this volume (he samples some Japanese fetish porn too, and even he seems a bit nonplussed by its sheer what-the-fuckery). Yet he has the passion of someone who spent years ruining his eyeballs with this stuff in 42nd-Street fleapits back in the day. What I like about Bougie and his no-bullshit, this-is-what-I-watch approach is that it leaves absolutely no room for pretension or condescension; it cuts to the chase with starkly rendered ejaculations and frequent cameos by a cartoon Bougie sweating and eye-popping his way through various rants (as when he flips off his fellow moviegoers). Bougie implicates himself in his own tastes more fearlessly than just about any film critic out there; in a way, the book and the zine are his ongoing trash-culture autobiography.

Cinema Sewer comes on like some Peter Bagge idiot projectile-vomiting turds of wisdom about best-forgotten crap, but that’s by design; it’s actually a good deal more thoughtful than that, and, I suspect, more carefully pieced together — the pages may look DIY and junky, but considerable craft and planning have gone into making them look that way. Whenever the blue-hairs and red-staters harrumph about the latest supposedly youth-corrupting pop-cultural confection, I have to chuckle and say “This? This is what you think is going to bring America down? Do you even know what kind of legitimately deranged shit is out there and has been out there for decades?” Well, Robin Bougie, a 35-year-old Canadian, sure as hell knows, and has devoted himself to telling us all about it. Hell, anyone so cheerfully eager to point a Klieg light at American culture’s fat, semen-crusted underbelly is performing a goddamn public service.

Michael J. Weldon’s Psychotronic Books

October 28, 2008

When Michael J. Weldon’s Psychotronic Video magazine folded in 2006, I took it like a death of a friend I’d only heard from intermittently in recent years but still held great fondness for. Infrequent though it had become, it still came home with me whenever it eventually hit the stands — the few stands that still carried it. The death of Psychotronic Video felt like the end of an era, much as the demise of Famous Monsters of Filmland had.

Maybe you didn’t realize it — I didn’t until too late — but October 12, 2008 marked the 25th anniversary of the publication of Weldon’s magnum opus The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. This monolith of cult, exploitation, classic, mondo, and just plain cool films became the gold standard by which all other such compilations would be judged — the schlock-cinema equivalent of The Trouser Press Record Guide, left atop coffee tables in slacker dens everywhere for friends to lose themselves in. Other movie books handled the mainstream stuff, the Mighty Films of Cinema, the ones you felt duty-bound to watch at least once. Weldon, with the help of Ballantine Books, legitimized the low, the weird, the obscure, the greasers and sluts and punks of celluloid. He made it okay for budding movie buffs to bundle in some Eurotrash sexploitation and teenagers-with-mutations flicks along with our Kurosawa and Bergman.

Hilariously, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia occasionally made a half-hearted effort to include mainstream hits — Weldon’s disinterested review of Star Wars misspelled Ben Kenobi’s name “Ben Kanoby” (this was corrected in a later printing), showing us exactly how much Weldon sweated the details when it came to that phenomenon. My favorite example of Weldon’s trying to find some point of interest in a scholar-approved work of cinematic art is the book’s review of Fellini’s 8 1/2; it reads in its entirety, “Barbara Steele is Gloria Morin.” That’s all he has to say about it because that’s all that matters to him: Barbara Steele is in it. Weldon was also not shy about preferring a director’s earlier, lesser-known stuff to the later hits: “It’s good,” Weldon wrote about John Carpenter’s Halloween, “but Assault on Precinct 13 is even better.” (Often, Weldon — as much of a rock-music wonk as he is a movie geek — sounds like one of those rock snobs who say “The Wall is good, but Animals is Floyd’s true unsung masterpiece.”)

Thirteen years and a sheaf of Psychotronic Video issues later, Weldon put together his sequel, The Psychotronic Video Guide. The new volume, which picked up where the first left off (no reviews of anything that had been covered back in ’83), was by its nature more exhaustive, since it included every little video Weldon had been sent to cover in the magazine along with whatever gems or turkeys he’d stumbled across on his own. This time, the covers sported blurbs from the likes of John Waters and Quentin Tarantino, the latter of whom had prospered by taking the psychotronic aesthetic to the masses. (Weldon has said that Tarantino once visited Weldon’s shop and gave him a duped videotape of the then-not-yet-released Reservoir Dogs.)

By 1996, psychotronic had long since gone mainstream, or mainstream had gone psychotronic; the biggest indicator of the sea change was probably the box-office triumph and quintuple-Oscar victory of a film about a psycho who eats people and a sicko who carves off women’s skin and wears it. To this day, psychotronic continues to reign: Heath Ledger’s Joker is nothing if not a psychotronic avatar, the sort of perverse, rugose monstrosity that never would’ve been allowed anywhere near a major motion picture — let alone one that turned into the year’s gigantic breadwinner — twenty-five years ago.

Weldon noted the cultural shift in his intro to Psychotronic Video Guide, even though it didn’t quite redound to his benefit. Tarantino’s imprimatur didn’t keep Psychotronic Video‘s advertisers from flaking out, or independently owned shops that carried the mag from closing their doors. Psychotronic Video folded roughly a year before Weldon’s ultimate godchild, the Tarantino/Rodriguez psychotronic fetish object Grindhouse, hit theaters. But Weldon, you see, not only worshipped grindhouse before grindhouse was cool — he made grindhouse cool.

By recent accounts, Weldon and his wife are still running their Psychotronic shop on Chincoteague Island off the coast of Virginia. One still hears from him once in a while, on the radio or podcasts or in interviews. But he should be writing, he should be read. Or, failing that, he should at least be remembered and revered. A note on the back of Psychotronic Encyclopedia reads, “Warning: The author of this book has been watching these movies obsessively since the age of 6. He is now unfit for conventional employment.” Well, conventional employment’s loss was our gain. I ache for a third volume of psychotronic angel-dust — maybe you do, too. (It’s been twelve years, almost as long as the gap between the first two books.) But for now, we can simply raise a toast to the original gray brick’s 25th birthday, perhaps take it off the shelf and swim around in it all over again, and give props to the man who was there before everyone else, without whom there wouldn’t have been a Grindhouse or a Tarantino or a Film Threat or perhaps even a Hollywood Bitchslap. Michael J. Weldon, for those about to schlock, we salute you.

Saw V

October 26, 2008

The Saw franchise has become a weekend-before-Halloween tradition; ironically, though, it has ceased to be a horror series. Each new installment tells us more about John Kramer (Tobin Bell), the Jigsaw Killer (or “Jigsaw” for short), further diluting his mystique and piling on more justifications for what he and his accomplices do. If there’s a Saw VI, I fully expect it to delve into Jigsaw’s tragic childhood, perhaps tossing in a cute kitten or two. All that’s left is the moralistic Rube Goldberg diabolism that by now has become as dead as Jigsaw himself (he expired at the end of Saw III).

Unless this is your first Saw movie (and God help you if it is — completely inaccessible to the new viewer, these sequels fit inside each other like gory matryoshka dolls), the following is not a spoiler: The new Jigsaw, anointed while the original Jigsaw was alive and now continuing his work, is detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). Why did this cop decide to throw in with Jigsaw? Saw V provides the answer, though not much else. Meanwhile, another cop, Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), suspects Hoffman of his crimes, though anyone with the IQ of potato sticks could figure that out based on the available evidence.

Fully half the short movie is occupied with one cop stalking the other; it’s a damn internal-affairs drama, for Christ’s sake. The other half involves five people trapped in yet another Jigsaw game, seemingly unconnected to the cop-vs.-cop plot thread at all. All five have abused their city connections in order to do Bad Stuff. They’re told to work together to escape alive, but they don’t heed that advice, and in any case there’s no thematic reason for their fates or their decisions — there’s no method to this madness, and hardly any madness, either. The trap scenes are there to provide gore and shocks, but they feel tacked on.

Are we supposed to wait for this series to be finished so that we can witness the full ingenious splendor of its convoluted game-playing? The sequels have increasingly taken to raising large questions that go arrogantly unanswered, expecting us, of course, to attend the next session, which will answer the previous film’s questions but then dangle others, and on and on into infinity, or until the movies stop making money. Here, for instance, Jigsaw’s ex-wife (Betsy Russell) receives a mysterious box bequeathed to her by Jigsaw; she opens it and sees what’s inside, but we don’t. What’s in the box? Come back next Halloween for Saw VI and find out. Great, but will there be something remotely scary in that one? Some characterization — perhaps even some humor? At this stage in the game, that would be the only shocking thing the franchise could offer.

See also: SawSaw IISaw IIISaw IV

Synecdoche, New York

October 24, 2008

An early exchange between theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his bored artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) represents one possible way into Synecdoche, New York. He talks about the 560 lighting setups in his latest play, and says “I don’t know why I make it so complicated.” She says “Because that’s what you do.”

That’s also what Charlie Kaufman does. His previous scripts (if you’re reading this, you probably know them) were intricate head games. So is this one, Kaufman’s directorial debut. This writer divides critics and serious moviegoers the way the Coens used to; some call him brilliant, others dismiss him as a solipsist in thrall to his own cleverness. In truth, Kaufman can’t be that up himself if even some other people dig what he does, and not all of those people are poseurs trying to be hipper-than-thou. Kaufman’s subject is creation as destruction, or vice versa. Even if you’re not a screenwriter making stubbornly un-Hollywood films, there’s always something in Kaufman’s work to hook into.

On the simplest level, without all the complications, Synecdoche, New York is about the compulsion to do something major, something to be remembered by, before you die. Towards this end, some people have kids; some go into sports; some climb into a tower and shoot people; Caden wants to mount the ultimate theater piece, a massive work that says everything about life — because that’s what he does. Of course, he turns it into a gargantuan simulacrum of his own life, hiring an actor to play him, and then hiring an actor to play the actor who plays him, and so on. In one of the better meta-jokes, an actress is needed to play Hazel (Samantha Morton), the theater’s receptionist and Caden’s on-again off-again lover, so he hires Tammy (Emily Watson) — possibly Kaufman’s goof on every critic who’s had trouble distinguishing Samantha Morton from Emily Watson. (Including me, at times.)

After years and years of rehearsals, one of the actors finally asks Caden, “When do we get an audience?” A fair question. Caden’s project doesn’t seem conceived for an audience. Neither does Kaufman’s, or at least not a mass audience; Synecdoche‘s widest release was 119 theaters, and it grossed $3 million against a $21 million cost. Eventually, though, people will find their way to Kaufman’s simulacrum. Too weighty to be codified as a “cult film,” Synecdoche could be called The Portable Charlie Kaufman — his magnum opus, with equal attention paid to integrity of art and integrity of stool samples. If your life is devoted to communicating what’s in your head, life will always bring you back down to earth, with undignified diseases and reminders that you’re going to end up as maggot food like everyone else, so if you want a shot at any kind of immortality you’d better look at Caden as your A-number-one cautionary tale.

Is Caden’s perpetually unrealized project a metaphor for writer’s block, or more generally any thwarted desire in life? God knows Caden can’t get no satisfaction anywhere else. His wife Adele takes off to Germany with their daughter Olive, who grows up rapidly offscreen; seemingly overnight she’s years older. Synecdoche plays fast and loose with chronology, right from the first scene, as if time weren’t just passing Caden by but actively fleeing from him. Caden is alternately chastened and soothed by the many women in his life, and this is where Kaufman deserves a feather in his cap for making a film with juicy roles for Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Samantha Morton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, and Robin Weigert (vivid in a late scene as the adult Olive).

Synecdoche is full of bizarre misunderstandings as well as enough surreal bits of business (Caden sitting in a German alley weeping while holding a big pink box with a nose drawn on it) to power five movies. Kaufman has always struck me as a profoundly generous writer, packing his scripts with far more than can be caught upon a single viewing. This Roark-esque chunk of storytelling architecture, which at one point depicts a warehouse inside a warehouse, takes as its landscape the many-chambered human brain in all its squalor and splendor, its debilitating illogic and cruel logic. Like Caden’s project, it’s about everything — or, at least, it’s about what you allow it to be about (the impatient, or non-fans of Kaufman’s other mindscapes, will say it’s about nothing).

Caden’s project has grown beyond him, which can be the best thing to happen to an anal-retentive creator or the worst, or both at once. Eventually he gives up control to a late-inning character (Dianne Wiest) who ends up giving him orders through an earpiece, including but not limited to how to wipe after taking a dump. He has, in effect, become a supporting character in his own story after failing at playing God for decades. It’s then that he realizes that, according to the film’s (perhaps too explicitly stated) summation, everyone is the main character of his/her own story, and also supporting characters or even just nameless extras in everyone else’s story.

Either you swim around happily in the world according to Kaufman or you don’t. I did. Every scene is pitched at the highest level and acted accordingly (Keener, as always, is a standout, and Hoffman carries the whole unwieldy vision on his strong, beefy shoulders — he does amazing things physically throughout). Kaufman makes a smooth transition to the God spot of filmmaking, helped enormously by ace cinematographer Frederick Elmes, who’s worked with Lynch (on Blue Velvet, no less), Jarmusch, Ang Lee, and Todd Solondz and so knows his way around difficult independent films. (Hilariously, Elmes’ follow-up to Synecdoche was Bride Wars, which, well, y’know, Elmes has to eat.) Synecdoche, like Lynch’s Inland Empire, is a big, thick tone poem (an epic tone poem?) that hops between so many classifications — comedy, tragedy, fantasy, horror, realism, surrealism — it ultimately forges its own genre, or sui generis. You’d probably have to go back to Fellini’s to find anything remotely like it, though the end result is undiluted, original Kaufman.

On a petty, personal note (why not? especially with this film) I should hate this movie. I first came across the word “synecdoche” in a book about art terms, and was instantly taken with it; I thought it would make a great title for something, and filed it away for possible use for … something. When I heard about Synecdoche, New York — the title is a pun on Schenectady, Caden’s stomping grounds — I had two reactions: Damn, if someone was going to snag that title, it was going to be Charlie Kaufman; and damn, if anyone deserves to snag that title, it’s Charlie Kaufman.

This review is necessarily shabby and incomplete, written as it is after only one viewing. I let it stand as it is, and will reserve future screenings for myself only, for my own selfish pleasure. I will resist, if possible, the temptation to go back and revise my words here to reflect anything else I’ve picked up from subsequent journeys to Synecdoche. Anyway, I’ve chewed it enough; what it means, or doesn’t mean, should really be between you and you.

Let the Right One In

October 24, 2008

If the teenage vampire romance Twilight had been handed to the late great Krzysztof Kieslowski and he’d been told he could do anything he wanted with the basic premise, the result might’ve been something like Let the Right One In. Though this film is from Sweden, not Poland, it shares with Kieslowski’s Decalogue a certain gritty, working-class beauty; disruptive humanity in the dead center of a stark white landscape. The compositions are wintry-immaculate, the sound design amplifies leather boots crushing wet snow. The 43-year-old director Tomas Alfredson has made a gorgeously bleak film, though never at the expense of the story. Quite literally, Sweden in winter in 1982 seems the only possible setting for this tale, which is why the forthcoming American remake sounds absurdly pointless. No American multiplex movie would be allowed to breathe this much, to work its dark magic in silence and ambiguity.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old with a bone-straight bowl haircut, lives in a housing project with his distant mother. Next door, a girl, Eli (Lina Leandersson) has moved in, along with an older man, Håkan (Per Ragnar), who could be her father or could be something else. Whatever he is or has been to her, we soon discover what he is now: a procurer of fresh blood to keep Eli alive. The solemn-faced Eli is a vampire, with the usual unearthly powers and aversion to sunlight. Oskar is drawn to her, and his innocence appeals to her.

I was reminded not only of Kieslowski but of Philip Ridley’s 1990 cult film The Reflecting Skin, in which a boy’s fearful fixation on a local lady he takes to be a vampire is part of a surreal fable about loss of innocence. Here, though, we see that Oskar is really not as innocent as all that, and Eli is not as dangerous as we assume. Oskar is being bullied at school; he has a lot of pent-up, impotent rage. He fantasizes about getting his tormentors where he wants them, helpless at the point of a knife. Eli kills people, but only out of necessity. Alfredson, working from a screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also wrote the source novel), is able to construct a strange and absolutely original relationship between these two that takes off from a horror premise.

Alfredson’s control is generally so pure and strong that I regret a couple of discordant moments, such as a probably-unintentionally funny scene involving a bunch of dismayed cats and a supporting character’s fiery fate. For a moment or two, the film feels demoted to a standard horror flick with standard horror tricks. But for the most part, Let the Right One In deals in subtle chills, including a revelation about Eli much clearer to readers of the novel than it probably will be to many viewers. This love story goes beyond everything normal, which may be why we can relate to it. We may not buy the sparkly love between Bella and Edward in Twilight, but we believe in Oskar and Eli.

Schlock can be fun and even transporting, but these days — particularly in the arena of horror — Hollywood seems incapable of giving us anything but schlock, and it’s usually sad, flaccid schlock without the transgressive charge it used to have in the days of grindhouse and drive-ins. But when a filmmaker takes horror seriously, as a launching pad for a human story that couldn’t be told as effectively in any other genre, we horror fans are reminded why we fell in love with horror in the first place. Let the Right One In reacquaints us with real, classical horror, and it’s about damn time.


October 18, 2008

What will history make of President George W. Bush? Oliver Stone, as he keeps reminding interviewers, is a dramatist, not a historian, and his film W. tells of a man who gained the world but lost his soul. The movie, as you may have heard, is surprisingly gentle and even-handed towards its subject; as with Stone’s underrated 1995 Nixon, the director gazes upon a disgraced president and sees a weak man driven by family dysfunction (the two films make natural bookend pieces). No Bush fan myself, I was frequently moved by the spectacle of Stone’s Dubya, who might have been a happier and certainly less troublesome man had he not been born a Bush.

W. is being marketed as an irreverent comedy, but the laughs, if any, are sparse and hollow. At times, the movie is suffused with melancholic regret. That’s not to say there isn’t humor in Josh Brolin’s dead-on incarnation of Bush from his frat-house days to the end of his first term (the movie ends well before things start really sucking for Bush). Brolin gets Bush’s sidewise approach to speech, his crabbed, hunched movements — Bush sees things simply, and his hands constantly shape the air to describe the world in either-or, Manichean terms (he isn’t nonverbal, he’s postverbal). Often stuffing sandwiches (or the famous pretzels) into his face, Brolin’s Bush is almost childlike, or at least a case of arrested development, a kid still wanting to get Poppy’s blessing and swipe some of the limelight from Jeb.

It’s well-documented that Bush was a layabout and a drunk well into his adult years, flitting from job to job, until finally he got Jesus and quit booze. Stone doesn’t make much of Bush’s conversion, but he doesn’t ridicule it either. A scene with preacher Earle Hudd (Stacy Keach), a composite character, praying with Bush is tender and intimate; years later, when Hudd is a more prosperous TV evangelist, Stone tosses in a close-up of his tacky belt buckle emblazoned with a cross, but for the most part Stone presents Bush’s faith without judgment, as something that saved his life and many other addicts’ lives. It’s when policy is pursued based on that faith that things get sticky.

Now that the Godfather films are ancient history, Stone is the master of darkly electrifying scenes of powerful talking heads. W. draws back the curtain and finds Bush surrounded by advisers trying their damnedest to realize the president’s dream of finishing what his father started. Saddam Hussein must fall; it’s a point of honor for Bush, his chance to wreathe the family name in glory. Saddam falls, but the Bush legacy falls with him. Perhaps Saddam was more valuable to Bush as a motivator than as a game trophy. The plotting is less sinister than matter-of-fact: the war must be sold to the American people, and Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss, underplaying nicely) sees Bush’s daddy issues, sees the global chessboard with all that oil for the taking, and makes his move.

Bush infamously acts from the gut, and so does the movie. W., a rushed production, didn’t have the lead time and doesn’t have the screen time to dig into Bush’s psyche the way Nixon did with America’s previous executive failure. There’s not as much to dig for, anyway; it’s all pretty much on the surface, pretty much Psych 101. But the film does take a generation’s most despised president and turn him into a man, a human with a loving wife (Elizabeth Banks’ Laura Bush provides a pocket of warmth and grace) and devoted little dogs. And it transforms him from a figure of scorn to a figure of pity, a trapped man who, when asked to identify his mistakes, can’t name any because he doesn’t know where to begin.


October 12, 2008

The camera in Quarantine will probably become the envy of budding filmmakers everywhere. Drop it on the floor? It keeps working. Bludgeon a psychotically infected attacker to death with it? It keeps working. Since Quarantine is also a POV horror movie like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, the effect is that you’re head-butting that infected person to death. The scene makes even such classic stalker-POV movies as Halloween look almost passive. We also get to sit for a minute or so as the cameraman wipes gore off the lens (or off our eyes).

Quarantine is a remake of a Spanish horror flick called [REC], which opened in its native country almost a year ago and was never picked up for U.S. distribution, perhaps because Sony bought the remake rights and didn’t want to compete with the original. [REC] remains unavailable on American DVD at this writing, so you’ll have to trust me when I say that the material worked better in Español. Largely it’s because, to these American eyes, none of the faces in [REC] were familiar, so the movie’s conceit that we were watching real people in a horrific situation held water — not that we literally believed it, but we were able to enter into the imaginative contract a little easier.

In Quarantine we have rising young actress Jennifer Carpenter, known from Dexter and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and support from Hostel’s Jay Hernandez and other recognizable actors. For horror fans, who will know a lot of the cast, the illusion never takes hold. The premise remains the same: A TV reporter (Carpenter) and her cameraman (Steve Harris) are doing a story on the local fire department (“local” here meaning L.A.), accompanying a firefighting crew to a tenement where strange things are happening. An old lady screaming in her apartment turns out to be more dangerous than endangered, and her murderous infection spreads throughout the building while the government locks everyone inside.

It’s only timing, I suppose, that gives us two movies in as many weeks concerning mysteriously afflicted people brutalizing one another under quarantine, last week’s Blindness being the other. “Don’t trust the government,” these movies say, a message many Americans are particularly amenable to just now. (“Don’t trust banks either,” says the upcoming movie The International, the trailer for which I saw before Quarantine. I have to imagine that movie will clean up.) But most horror movies do sneer at authority, which can’t save you from the monsters. The problem is, George Romero’s zombie movies said it a lot better.

Quarantine has its moments — I enjoyed seeing veteran stuntwoman Jeannie Epper (profiled in the documentary Double Dare) as the rabid old woman who kicks things off — but it’s a rote reproduction of a more effective film; it doesn’t find anything new in the material, and the performances become irritatingly shrill. The explanation for the events, too, is curiously muted; the tape recorder in the original film that provided most of the exposition has been rendered unplayable here, which raises the question of why the filmmakers bothered to include it. Or why they bothered with the film at all. I guess it’s nice of Sony to bankroll an English-language version of [REC] for those who hate subtitles, but that’s all it’s good for.

(See also [REC])


October 6, 2008

In Jose Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness, a woman who is being raped turns her head and vomits, and nobody else in the crowded room — seven other women are being raped, too — notices, because the room already stinks worse than the vomit. This is one of the more savage sequences in the middle of the book, an allegory about citizens abruptly, inexplicably struck blind; they are quarantined in an abandoned hospital, and many of them rapidly slide into inhumanity and foulness, while a scattered few struggle to uphold some measure of compassion and dignity. Saramago’s lengthy sentences roll out on endless train-tracks of commas, giving the story a godlike matter-of-factness: whether ugly or otherwise, events cannot be stopped.

The much-maligned film version, whose script (by Don McKellar, who also plays a car thief) sticks very close to the novel, is a grim though not unbearably explicit piece of work. Of the rapes, for instance, we see blessedly little, though we hear the helpless cries and bestial grunts. Director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) cloaks things in darkness or washes out the frame to reflect the nature of the “white sickness” — the characters’ vision doesn’t go black, it goes milky white. Only one person, the wife (Julianne Moore, excellent in a role that finally gives her something meaty to play again) of an opthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo), has retained her sight; she accompanies him to quarantine, claiming she, too, has gone blind.

In one ward of the hospital is this ordinary woman, forced by circumstance to use her sighted advantage for good; in another ward, lorded over by Gael García Bernal as an amoral thug, is a man blind from birth (Maury Chaykin) who uses his advantage — among the newly blind, he at least knows how to negotiate lack of sight — for evil. It’s Mother Abagail and Randall Flagg all over again, and those allergic to allegory should probably steer clear of Blindness. We’re not meant to probe the plot literally, or to be discomfited that the heroine is a rich white woman and the chief villain is a scummy little Hispanic bartender (an eventuality of Hollywood casting, and it enables a richly depraved performance from García Bernal).

Blindness isn’t the pointless wallow its detractors would have you believe. It has a stark beauty, even when focusing on hallways festooned with human waste. That a film this disquieting and uncompromisingly depressive somehow got a 1,600-screen release in America is a little astounding. Meirelles and McKellar, loyal caretakers of Saramago’s vision, have delivered it with integrity and even a certain grace, and the cast (including Alice Braga as a prostitute and Danny Glover as the archetypical Wise Old Man) give it their all. The adventurous should give the movie — and absolutely the book — a shot; both are art disguised as horror, or perhaps vice versa. But if it’s not your thing, I’m not about to tell you it should be.

Rachel Getting Married

October 3, 2008

Jonathan Demme has never really seemed comfortable making thrillers or mainstream Hollywood fare. He’s at ease with mess, chaos, ensemble. He doesn’t like to judge; he enjoys showing people in all their flawed and beautiful humanity. Rachel Getting Married is a return home for Demme, an excuse to hang out with smart, interesting people and hear music and laugh and cry and have a full experience.

If there’s a villain here, it’s whatever demon of need and pain is inside Kym (Anne Hathaway), who’s been an addict since her teens and is getting out of rehab — nine months clean — to be in the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Hathaway stretches hard for this role, letting her face slacken or tighten with each offense to Kym’s intelligence. The film, written by Jenny Lumet, suggests that it’s doubly hard for people who live inside their heads — distracted by ceaseless internal chatter — to recover from addiction. Kym is quick-witted and has had every conceivable advantage (her family is clearly well-off), but that did nothing to stop her self-loathing spiral. Knowing she’s throwing herself away only makes it worse, or perhaps more perversely pleasurable. Hathaway makes Kym an intimidatingly traumatized figure: Very little you could say to her would put her at rest.

The movie isn’t called Kym Getting Out of Rehab, though (actually, its working title was the Linklater-esque Dancing with Shiva), and Demme refuses to let the proceedings settle into banal Lifetime territory. Vibrant life is everywhere you look in the frame; cinematographer Declan Quinn works the camera as if he were another guest at the wedding. Musicians on Demme’s iPod, like Robyn Hitchcock (Storefront Hitchcock) and Sister Carol East (Something Wild), turn up to perform. People of various races and walks of life sit down together happily. The only notes of discord are between Kym and those who know her best — her sister, her mostly affable dad (Bill Irwin), her busy mother (Debra Winger).

Rachel’s groom-to-be, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), is sane and centered and warm; we see why he fulfills her needs. Even characters never named who barely have speaking parts add to the fabric of community, the large family gathering at Dad’s spacious Connecticut house to celebrate in an inclusive Indian style. A past tragedy provides the thorny subtext, though, to the movie’s credit, we don’t hear about it in a melodramatic reveal at the end — Demme and Lumet get it out of the way early, which seems an adult choice. Someone should be there on Rachel’s wedding day but isn’t. The old conflict animates old resentments and heartache, though not in neatly predictable ways. Rachel Getting Married respects the intractable bits of life and says that some things take a long, long time to get over, if indeed they can ever be gotten over. But it also says that you might as well live, be with people, try to be good to them. It’s a lovely movie, with abundant charm and no fear of suffering. Jonathan Demme has made many well-crafted — sometimes brilliantly crafted — concessions to Hollywood demands. But here he sits down at the table again, and just uncritically watches and listens to those around him, and invites us to join him.