Archive for May 2009

Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes

May 30, 2009

Past a certain point, what you are looking at when you look at the rows and rows of boxes in the 48-minute documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes is fear. Maybe, well, fear and desire. The desire is for knowledge. The fear is, perhaps, of walking onto a film set on day one without knowing everything there is to know about the film’s subject.

In 2001, documentarian Jon Ronson was invited to the Kubrick estate to browse through the thousands of boxes, filled with research, memos, keepsakes, and sundry other items dating from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick never threw away anything (except for outtakes from his films, which he ordered incinerated). In a 2004 article for the Guardian titled “Citizen Kubrick,” Ronson writes about opening one box and discovering “an extremely lifelike and completely disgusting disembodied head of a young Vietnamese girl, the veins in her neck protruding horribly, her eyes staring out, her lips slightly open, her tongue just visible.” This is, I think, from the unused ending of Full Metal Jacket, wherein the Marines play soccer with the female sniper’s head. We don’t see this head in Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes — I was a little disappointed.

We see a great many other things. Fan letters to Kubrick were immaculately filed according to geographical origin; crank letters were separated from the rest. Ronson tracks down one such “crank,” frustrated playwright Vincent Tilsley, who wrote to express his disappointment with 2001. Today Tilsley is a psychotherapist. What would he have to say about the highly OCD mind laid bare by the acres of dusty boxes? Ronson tells us that as the gap between Kubrick’s films grew wider (four years between 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, four between Clockwork and Barry Lyndon, five between Barry Lyndon and The Shining, seven between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, twelve between FMJ and Eyes Wide Shut), the amount of sheer stuff grew more vast. Partly, we’re told, this was due to Kubrick’s increasing difficulty finding a story he wanted to tell. (Several years of research went into his unmade Holocaust project Wartime Lies, and Kubrick accumulated massive data on Napoleon for that unmade film.)

Partly, I have to assume, Kubrick was a control freak who felt the pressure of his own reputation as, to paraphrase David Denby, a lordly ditherer. Kubrick couldn’t just go out and crank out a flick on the fly. I think his first couple of features (Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss, neither of which pleased him) inoculated him against fast, cheap efforts, and I think his experience on Spartacus forever doomed him to need — demand — absolute control over everything, from the years of research (the hundreds of photos snapped of London streets for Eyes Wide Shut, when there’s maybe ten minutes’ worth of exterior footage in the entire film, all of it shot on a studio lot) to the micromanagement of newspaper ads (this ad is a few millimeters smaller than it’s supposed to be; let’s get on the phone and find out why).

The comedic highlight here is a painstaking memo from 1968 asking an assistant to determine the barometric pressure in London on such and such a date, and whether said barometric pressure is normal for the season. Why did Kubrick want to know this? Nobody remembers. The equally amusing subtext of Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes deals with a bunch of devoted (if sometimes baffled) Brits skittering back and forth catering to the whims of a transplanted New York Jew. The vague implication is that Kubrick moved to England because he could sense that the English genetically know how to placate royalty. King Kubrick’s earthly leavings are pored through by Ronson (also British) like an archaeologist peering into a pharaoh’s tomb. Ronson even uncovers some footage of Kubrick on the set of Full Metal Jacket (shot by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian); the maestro complains about the crew taking too many tea breaks, and we see various extras coated with lime for the famous “The dead know only one thing” zoom shot.

The dead may only know one thing, but the insatiably curious Kubrick wanted to know everything before he could only know one thing. My suspicion is that, as Kubrick got older, he didn’t do research so that he could make movies; he made movies (or ended up not making them) so that he could do research. The proof is in all those boxes. Kubrick is my favorite director, and although his assistant Tony Frewin says in the film that Kubrick couldn’t make movies any other way, I look at all that stuff and I see a lot of wasted potential, wasted time.

Kubrick now only knows one thing, and we will never have more than fourteen of his feature films to savor. It’s undeniably fascinating to look inside a few of the cardboard cells in the massive brain that became his archives. But being left with a warehouse of almost-films and memorabilia is somewhat cold comfort.


May 29, 2009

This review might kill or infect someone, so I have to be careful. In Pontypool, the English language itself is a courier for rabid undeath. People all over the snowy Ontario community come down with some sort of verbal virus, which makes them repeat certain words over and over, leading to madness and then flailing cannibalism. Are they zombies? The word seems imprecise. The film’s director, Bruce McDonald, refers to them as “conversationalists.”

The movie is based on Tony Burgess’ 1997 novel Pontypool Changes Everything, a gorgeously composed experiment in wordplay. (Often, it’s as if the very book itself is being assaulted from within by its own language, and the reader experiences a heady form of disorientation.) It’s also highly subjective and episodic and as such impossible to adapt. So Burgess pulled one of the characters, radio DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), and put him at the center of a minimalist story in which he and a few others are trapped in a church basement (where Grant’s station is set up) during the “conversationalist” outbreak in Pontypool.

McHattie, an always-intriguing character actor, carries Pontypool with grace and ease. Grant, a saturnine DJ whose motto is “Take no prisoners,” likes to rant on the air and stir things up; he’s been fired from one gig and is starting over again at this literal bottom-drawer station, with the help of manager Sydney (Lisa Houle) and local-hero intern Laurel (Georgina Reilly). Odd reports start filtering into the news segments, and before long the infection has found its way inside the station. The plague finds its root in Grant’s very livelihood, which he and the others must renounce or work around if they hope to survive.

Pontypool, ironically, takes its cue from the lulling rhythms of McHattie’s speech. It is, if you will, a thinking person’s zombie movie, which in practice means the gore level is low and the dialogue level (up to a certain point) is high. It’s never boring, though; McHattie and Lisa Houle have an amusingly confrontational rapport, and as the outside threat ramps up, the tension builds realistically. A solution is proposed, but who knows if it will work?

Pontypool sort of loses focus towards the end, as if the screenwriting software had succumbed to the virus. But it’s still an entertaining cerebral chiller wherein language both loses and gains meaning — a true horror film for those who care about words. 4

Terminator Salvation

May 25, 2009

Shane Hurlbut should be proud of his work on Terminator Salvation. Hurlbut, you may or may not recall, was the cinematographer who so displeased star Christian Bale on the set of this latest Terminator film that Bale unleashed an instantly infamous firestorm of invective upon him. Pissing Bale off was worth it, though: the lighting is crisp and organic in a way that few apocalyptic epics (which tend to the blanched and bleak) are anymore. And the director, McG (given name: Joseph McGinty Nichol), stages the action cleanly if not always credibly. Terminator Salvation is an example of high craft in the service of an oppressively dull story.

I’m of the mind that when James Cameron (who directed the first two classic Terminator entries) left the franchise, he took the fun with him. Cameron never seemed to be taking the saga’s doomsday fetish all that seriously — he laid out each set piece with a mischievous cackle. The cackle, and the crackle, have been what’s missing from the series — in 2003’s Terminator: Rise of the Machines and now here. Bale’s John Connor, destined to save what’s left of humanity by leading the resistance against the killer machines, is dour and exhausted; the weight of not only the world but the very future itself lies heavy on his shoulders. We almost forget that this is the same character who, in the person of the prankish Edward Furlong in T2, taught the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) how to smile and give high-fives.

We don’t see even a flicker of that personality in the gloomy adult John. And I feel like saying, Y’know, it’s okay for a dystopian hero to crack a smile every few weeks, or at the very least act as though he has some of the humanity he’s fated to protect. (The more I think back on 1995’s Tank Girl, the more I appreciate it for being perhaps the only post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie that manages to be colorful and perky.) The other humans aren’t all that well fleshed out, either (reminder: Cameron managed to get us to care about his people — this isn’t solely the province of art-house flicks), which is near-fatal in a story that purports to probe the difference between man and machine when the movie introduces a character (Sam Worthington) who’s both.

After The Dark Knight and razor-intense performances in indies like The Machinist and Harsh Times, I would dearly love to see Christian Bale kick back in a movie, relax, wear a Hawaiian shirt or something, hit on girls and laugh a lot. A typical Matthew McConaughey role. Temple-throbbing rage may come a little too easily to Bale (as Shane Hurlbut can attest). Schwarzenegger in his Terminator films was funnier than Bale is here. And Bale has zero rapport with anyone onscreen, as if he had the same irascible, don’t-get-in-my-eyeline relationship with everyone on the set as he did with the cinematographer. If it’s anyone’s movie, it’s probably Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese, who will grow up to be Michael Biehn’s character in the first Terminator and go back to 1984 to sire John Connor himself. Yelchin, who’s twenty but still looks sixteen, plays Reese with a useful mix of hard-bitten experience and youthful fear. Reese will, alas, grow up to be as humorless as John Connor, but James Cameron sensibly didn’t ask Reese to anchor The Terminator.

And what is McG, director of the irrepressible Charlie’s Angels movies (I persist in enjoying them immensely; the rest of you will catch up one day), doing at the helm of a clanking gloomcookie like Terminator Salvation? Vestiges of the old McG, a new master of bubbly, fresh-air, gleefully ridiculous action sequences, pop up here and there, mostly in scenes involving robot motorcycles zipping down the highway, swerving around explosions and debris. They’re great fun. Elsewhere it’s the same old shoot-and-bash that Cameron pushed to the limit eighteen years ago and then wisely abandoned. I’m pretty sure of two things: there really shouldn’t be any more Terminator films; and if there are, McG should likewise move on.

Angels & Demons

May 18, 2009

It must be terrific fun to be a symbologist. When you’re not writing dry books only three people ever read, you’re skipping around the globe on someone else’s dime, racing to solve mysteries, hanging out with fetching European women, and making everyone around you look like slack-jawed yokels as you decode things based on arcane pictographs only you and your three readers have even heard of. Of course, people are always trying to kill you, and if I were you I wouldn’t go into an airtight archive where the oxygen is controlled by electricity unless I was damn sure they’re not going to be cutting the power randomly all over the city.

In Angels & Demons, Tom Hanks’ Robert Langdon does all of this and more. Hanks has a better haircut than he did in his previous Langdon opus The Da Vinci Code, and he has more to do — in cinematic terms, anyway. The whole plot unfolds over the course of one hectic evening; four cardinals have been snatched from the Vatican and hidden all over Vatican City, and one of them will be killed each hour until midnight, at which time an anti-matter bomb will go kaboom and take out Vatican City “and some of Rome as well.” Whew! Hanks is in good shape this time out, and he sure needs to be. Langdon is a good swimmer with good breath control, the latter of which will help him not once but twice.

Like The Da Vinci Code, which in Dan Brown’s bibliography came second but in film chronology came first, Angels & Demons is a lot of religioso hugger-mugger involving vast conspiracies, powerful old men left to die laborious deaths, and a skulking assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who kills pretty much everyone he looks at. We’re to understand that the Catholic Church is under siege by members of the Illuminati as revenge for what the Church did to them centuries ago. The kidnapped cardinals and the anti-matter bomb come into the picture just as the Pope has given up the ghost, but did he expire of natural causes or could it be … murder?

The ticking-clock plot gives Angels & Demons more urgency and muscular structure than The Da Vinci Code, which comprised mostly scenes of Tom Hanks sitting around reading things and then sitting around telling skeptical people about what he’d read. The Da Vinci Code, which took as a given that Jesus Christ wasn’t actually the son of God, had only its ready-made controversy going for it, but there’s not very much in Angels & Demons that Catholics will be buzzing about over coffee after Mass. Indeed, the Catholics are in Trouble, and Langdon keeps swinging into action to save them. That he’s not a believer makes his quest more credible — cardinals or not, these men are people and don’t deserve to be crucified upside down in a fish tank full of Illuminati lobsters, or whatever.

Ron Howard, returning to the director’s chair of this franchise, keeps things moving and gives Hanks some room to be likable. Howard still can’t really do action; the aforementioned scene in the airtight Vatican archive is pretty slack, and we assume Langdon’s companion in the room has died until we see him outside later catching a grateful smoke. The last half hour or so hip-wades into too much exposition, and I’m still not sure exactly what role Ewan McGregor’s earnest priest plays in it all. (I mean, I know, but am not sure how all the pieces fit.) But it’s fun to watch Tom Hanks hoof it all over Vatican City for two hours, trying to save some cardinal from being licked to death by Illuminati puppies, or whatever, and since there’s going to be at least one more of these things, it’s good to know this second one wasn’t a complete waste.

Big Man Japan

May 15, 2009

There are various degrees and volumes of madness. Big Man Japan is calmly, quietly insane. The brainchild of comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, who directed, co-scripted, and stars, Big Man Japan is a deadpan semi-mockumentary account of Masaru Daisatô (Matsumoto), a scruffy loner who defends Japan from giant monsters. How? Well, when needed, he drives to a remote place, where he undergoes a ritual and receives transformative electricity into his frail body. He balloons into a giant tattooed warrior with an Eraserhead hairdo and a steel club. The beasts he deals with are goofy and surreal. The filmmaking style is the exact opposite of goofy and surreal.

Like a Jim Jarmusch film, Big Man Japan is funnier the more mundane and sedate it is. Daisatô in his human form sits around his cluttered apartment or at a park and mutters about his humdrum life. Turning into the massive defender of his country offers him no joy, no escapist catharsis. As Big Man Japan, he lumbers around with the same bored expression. He didn’t choose his profession, he was born into it; his father was also a Big Man Japan, and his father’s father. They enjoyed the job more than Daisatô does; the public hates and fears Daisatô because of the damage he causes while vanquishing monsters.

Part satire of “Salaryman,” part sideswipe at America (particularly at the climax when an Ultraman-type group arrives to help Daisatô save the day), Big Man Japan maintains the same deadpan during the giant-monster sequences. At one point, Daisatô gets into a quiet debate with a Stink Monster, who endures the attentions of another horny monster. The giants stand amid the tall buildings of Japan and exchange cranky words, instead of the usual declamations of “I WILL DEFEAT YOU!” Daisatô is more threatened by his ex-wife, who only lets him see their daughter twice a year, or by his agent, who keeps talking him into getting tattooed with sponsor logos.

The movie’s shambling, matter-of-fact approach to pulpy material is funny, as is its steadfast avoidance of visual hype. Daisatô has a job to do, and he does it joylessly and grudgingly. Who knew fighting giant monsters could be so depressing? Perhaps this is one fork in the road of horror’s future: austere comedies that take the uncanny for granted.

Star Trek (2009)

May 10, 2009

new-star-trek-poster_lIn Star Trek, the new reboot of Gene Roddenberry’s 43-year-old franchise, the young Starfleet cadet James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) is pretty much an asshole. His father died heroically in space a few minutes after Kirk was born, and he has spent his formative years rebelling against the great man’s memory. Kirk, of course, has the potential to go far beyond his dad’s glory, but he’s throwing it away on barroom brawls and fast cars. Chris Pine doesn’t look or sound much like William Shatner, who so memorably personified Kirk, but he does nail Shatner’s dynamic — the rashness, the itchy pants, the impatience with caution. Pine’s Kirk may well grow up into Shatner’s Kirk.

As goes Kirk, so goes the movie: This Star Trek, despite some klutzy exposition needed to relaunch the franchise for a new generation, is a full-blooded and busy adventure, a promising restart. Director J.J. Abrams wasn’t much of an action filmmaker in his only previous theatrical effort, Mission Impossible III, and he still isn’t; the camera whirls too much, the action isn’t solidly rooted visually. Yet the set pieces work because we care about the people involved. Karl Urban, for instance, delivers a pitch-perfect Bones McCoy, and he and Pine get an amusingly antagonistic rhythm going. There’s no hero worship for this Kirk — pretty much nobody aboard the Enterprise suffers this young fool gladly, not even the tightly controlled Spock (Zachary Quinto), who almost kills him in a fit of rage.

That’s Kirk for you: he can even piss off a Vulcan. Spock, however, has other things on his mind, mainly a time-travelling Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) who blames Spock — the years-later, Leonard Nimoy incarnation — for destroying Romulus, even if unintentionally. How’s that for guilt? You’re just getting started in Starfleet, and you’re already damned for something you won’t do until you’re past retirement age. Nimoy himself appears on some sort of ice planet for this info-dump; time-hopping stuff usually makes my brain tired, but Nimoy delivers it gracefully. (I can see why Shatner, to his vocal chagrin, wasn’t invited aboard this adventure — imagine Chris Pine’s Kirk driven to despair upon meeting his future self as a tubby self-parody.)

The filmmakers have built deftly on Roddenberry’s archetypes, allowing for the new cast’s idiosyncracies — I particularly enjoyed Simon Pegg’s scrappy Scotty and Zoe Saldana’s unflappable Uhura. The late Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture) is supposed to be in there somewhere — Abrams offered the lifelong Trek fan a bit role — but I was having too much fun to look for him. I’ve never been a Trekkie; I’ve never disliked the franchise, but it never moved me the way it moved so many others (I was born too late for the original series). But this movie packs the simple punch of the best Trek films (generally the even-numbered ones), and I won’t mind revisiting this crew every few years. By the end, the characters are unshackled from decades of continuity and are free to chart their own course. The more fanatical and rigid Trekkies will probably detest it for that very reason, but this series needed some new blood and new faces; you can’t boldly go where no one has gone before if you’re afraid of contradicting some half-forgotten episode from 1967. The Enterprise has my full permission — as if it needed it — to go wherever it wants to go from here.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

May 3, 2009

x_men_origins_wolverineX-Men Origins: Wolverine is the sort of thing I would’ve loved when I was thirteen. Unfortunately, that was 25 years ago. Back then, the claw-fisted mutant Wolverine was my favorite comic-book character. Now my favorite comic-book character is probably Harvey Pekar. Things change. Anyway, at thirteen I would’ve been so thrilled to see Wolverine in his own movie that I would’ve forgiven a lot. I might not, however, have responded well to the news that Wolverine’s actual name is … Jimmy. Apologies to readers named Jimmy; it’s a fine name for anyone else, but Wolverine is not a Jimmy. He was always either Wolverine or Logan, the only other name he knew. If he was revealed as Jimmy in any comic published after 1992 or so, I didn’t want to know about it.

We also learn that Wolverine — excuse me, Jimmy — is at least 170 years old. What did he do all those years? Apparently fighting in every American war, even though he’s Canadian, and very little else. This enables director Gavin Hood to re-enact scenes from Glory, Atonement, Saving Private Ryan, and Full Metal Jacket, only fought by Jimmy and his equally powerful brother Victor (Liev Schrieber), who has fangs and fingernails sharp enough to shred a car hood. In Watchmen, the presence of the godlike Dr. Manhattan won the Vietnam War for us; presumably we would’ve won in the Marvel universe too, if not for Victor’s increasing instability (for a second or two, Hood gets to remake Casualties of War).

X-Men Origins: Jimmy has a simple plot that’s hell to synopsize for the uninitiated. The gist of it is that Jimmy and Victor used to work for a government-spook operation under the shady William Stryker (Danny Huston). Jimmy got sick of it and left. Victor stayed. Jimmy fell in love. That didn’t end well. Victor apparently goes rogue and starts killing all the other mutants in the operation. Stryker asks Jimmy to go kill him, and arranges for Jimmy to get an adamantium skeleton. Adamantium is an indestructible metal alloy. Captain America’s shield is also made out of it. The script isn’t. Jimmy gets loose and talks to various mutants and discovers various double-crosses. At one point, Jimmy’s newly modified claws carve through a defenseless bathroom sink. Sinks cost a lot of money to replace. This is what I was thinking about.

At some point after this movie — this is also what I was thinking about — Jimmy somehow gets a fabulous makeover that shapes his hair into points. This was how he appeared, more or less, in the three previous X-Men films, but here he has a floppier mop that isn’t even appropriate for the era (late ‘60s, early ‘70s), and — you know what? The 13-year-old me would not have been thinking about hair after coming home from a Wolverine movie. But this is not a Wolverine movie; this is a Jimmy movie. And not a particularly well-crafted one; at times, the special effects look like something out of a movie the 13-year-old me would’ve seen back then. Hugh Jackman tries to wring the last drop out of his only franchise — it’s not as if his other movies have set the world on fire, despite his charisma and talent — but the script gives him nothing to work with. Even his big emotional arc-changing moment is later withdrawn. The filmmakers should’ve adapted the Chris Claremont/Frank Miller miniseries Wolverine, from 1982. The 13-year-old me loved it, and the Wolverine we met there was far more complex and wounded than the Jimmy we meet here.

The Limits of Control

May 1, 2009

The title of Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control may, like anything else in the film, have multiple meanings. I’ve seen a reading summing up the movie as the main character’s dream, where control is arbitrary. Here’s my take. A thriller director is all about control — control of his effects, control of the audience’s emotions. This is an anti-thriller, though still rigorously controlled. The audience, too, wants control — they want to stay ahead of the narrative, they want certain tropes observed and followed. There are, however, limits to that control, and most critics have run head-first into them.

The Limits of Control, it must be said, is beautifully made. Once I gave up my own control — once I stopped willing the movie to be what I wanted it to be (whatever that might have been; this wasn’t my first Jarmusch, I knew what I was in for) — I went with the smooth, unhurried flow of it, the trancelike repetitions and rituals. The unnamed protagonist (Isaach De Bankolé), we gather, is some sort of hired syndicate man. He arrives in Spain and goes from place to place, meeting various contacts at outdoor cafe tables. They always say what I guess is a code phrase: “You don’t speak any Spanish, right?” They go off on tangents involving various disciplines — music, art, film, science. They trade matchboxes with him, give him instructions regarding the next contact, and leave. He takes a piece of paper out of the matchbox, reads the inscrutable code, eats the paper, and washes it down with a sip of espresso.

The man stays in various rooms, doing tai chi or lying sleeplessly on his bed. A frequently nude woman (Paz de la Huerta) seems to be following him around; she wants sex with him, but he says no, not while he’s working. He also wanders around various museums, looking at art that seems relevant to the current stage of his mission. Along the way, he meets guest stars Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Gael García Bernal. Finally he reaches the well-fortified heart of darkness, occupied by a bad-tempered Bill Murray, as appropriate a Kurtz for Jarmusch’s slow, deadpan journey as anyone.

Every frame is immaculate. Whatever else the film may be, it’s not ineptly directed. Jarmusch goes all the way into his mode of minimalist Euro-cool. Yet there’s an undertone of sadness; it’s not a hip, unfeeling film. The man comes from nowhere and does not allow himself the comfort of sex or even normal interaction. His sit-downs with his contacts are always one-sided; they hold forth and then leave him. The closest the man comes to being animated is when he visits an after-hours flamenco cafe. Even there, a phrase about death and hubris recurs.

People have been impatiently unkind to The Limits of Control, as if they were somehow expecting something else from the man who’s supervised some of the quietest, most deadpan genre-killers ever made. We’re at the 72-minute mark before anything remotely thriller-ish happens — as in any sense of onscreen peril — and the moment is swept away and never spoken of again. I suppose it’s been marketed foolishly; even the DVD cover promises “a stylish and sexy new thriller” that “simmers with heat and suspense.” Well, how else are they going to sell this thing? “Packed with existential ennui! Nothing happens for over an hour! A must-see!” At least Nathan Lee’s back-cover blurb is honest: “The ultimate Jim Jarmusch movie!” It does feel like something he’s been working towards, entering a genre and consciously leaving out the conventionally diverting bits. Even the poky Dead Man and Ghost Dog had occasional spasms of violence to keep the popcorn-chewers awake.

I’d say the movie is best read as the concluding panel of the trilogy begun by those earlier films. Each has an iconic figure of few words who walks gracefully among the brutal and corrupt. The Limits of Control is a Zen gangster film, a mandala that scatters itself at the end. Its very quietude and uneventfulness force you into the moment every moment, and if you don’t want to be there, don’t blame the messenger.