Archive for July 2009

Orphan

July 27, 2009

There’s one bit in Orphan that packs a genuine shiver of dark discovery; it involves a black light from a fish tank. Everything else depends on an improbably ingenious and diabolical person among dummies. Kate (Vera Farmiga) has two children, but when she went for number three, it was stillborn, and this made Kate alcoholic and unhappy. After Kate gets fired from teaching music at Yale and goes on the wagon, she and her wimpy husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) decide to adopt an older child. They settle on Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a suspiciously gifted and mature nine-year-old. For a while, Esther is the picture of perfect polite kidhood, though when nobody’s around she has a habit of letting her face go slack and murderous. She also has ribbons around her wrists and neck that she won’t let anyone touch.

Orphan is competently directed junk, with a script that abandons logic at every turn and dialogue that even some snarky teenage girls seated behind me could predict out loud before it was delivered. (Usually I resent noisemakers in movie theaters, but these girls actually added some entertainment to the afternoon.) It begins with a thoroughly nasty it-was-only-a-dream sequence and pretty much stays that icky — not in terms of bloodshed but in terms of the weird undertone of every scene. Esther is apparently an orphan from Russia, and the movie gets some mileage out of that — her accent, her archaic wardrobe. Those damn Russkies are sending their psycho girls over here to disrupt our families! Was this script written in the ‘80s or something?

One nice touch is that Kate and John are shown to be hungrily sexual with each other; an interrupted bout in the kitchen is realistically klutzy and all the more erotic for it. This detail, though, turns out to be there solely so that we can see Esther’s moon-faced disapproval. Esther seems to have a thing for her new daddy. Kate begins to suspect there’s more to Esther than she lets on, but nobody takes Kate seriously, and her two children, including a beautiful little hearing-impaired girl, already know what a menace Esther actually is. Essentially, we spend much of the movie waiting for trusting, stupid John to figure things out, and it feels like a very long sit.

Farmiga and Sarsgaard (the latter stuck in a pretty thankless role, especially his penultimate drunk scene) work hard to ground the film in something real; Farmiga’s occasional exhalations of stress or frustration have more character than what has actually been written for her. It’s hard to judge Isabelle Fuhrman’s work here, since Esther barely makes sense even when all is revealed — especially when all is revealed. The eleven-year-old actress does what’s needed, I guess, though her part in Sarsgaard’s aforementioned drunk scene must hit some new low in bad taste, regardless of what we learn about Esther.

The direction by Jaume Collet-Serra (the House of Wax remake) is wintry and somber, with some gorgeous shots of snow blanketing the land around the parents’ large home. But the third act gives itself over to camp — Kate’s final line to Esther belongs in a Charles Busch play — yet the director keeps the tone deadly serious. The teenage girls behind me got into the spirit of the thing, or what the thing should’ve been, and giggled happily throughout the climax, particularly when the adorable little deaf girl toddled over with a gun, fired it, and got launched backwards into a snowdrift. Could Orphan be the next inadvertent ironic cult movie, playing at midnight screenings for sarcastic participatory audiences who start singing “If I Had a Hammer” when a nun gets bludgeoned by one, or yelling “Asshole!” whenever John pooh-poohs Kate’s suspicions? It could very well be the next Rocky Horror or The Room — let it begin here.

Blood: The Last Vampire (2009)

July 19, 2009

Let’s talk about the blood in Blood: The Last Vampire. It never looks like blood. It’s not the usual ketchup squirting; it’s been rendered in a computer, and it looks like a mist of dark globs floating in the air like fat houseflies. This same computer, which must’ve been a Commodore VIC-20 someone picked up on eBay, also renders vampiric beasts known as “chiropterans,” which must be code for “looks really fake.” I prefer the fake-looking practical effects of the past, which at least had a certain charm. When an effect is fake and coldly computer-generated, you just picture a bunch of nerds sitting at their monitors chugging Mountain Dew and trying like hell to get the effects done on a budget of $1.98.

The movie, long in development (though not long enough), is a live-action reworking of a stylish and far more cinematic anime from 2000. That earlier film jumped in and got the job done in 48 minutes. This new one pads it out to feature length, adding scenes and entire subplots that have nothing to do with the Blood mythology and certainly don’t add anything of interest. The basic premise is the same: Saya (played here by South Korean actress Gianna Jun) is a half-human, half-vampire who must destroy the chiropterans. The action unfolds on a U.S. naval base in Tokyo during the Vietnam War. Saya, who is hundreds of years old but looks like a teenager, infiltrates a school on the naval base to see if there are any chiropterans there.

Blood’s original creator Hiroyuki Kitakubo was inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the anime plays like a pilot episode for a show (the material later spawned the TV series Blood+, which got pretty deep into the mythology). The movie version appears to have been made by people who watched the first ten minutes of the anime and then decided to take the story in the most clichéd direction imaginable. An American girl has been added — Alice, played by Allison Miller, who’s sort of Kristen Stewart Lite, and Kristen Stewart is lite enough as it is. Allison’s dad is a general on the base, and she keeps getting into vampire trouble that Saya keeps having to bail her out of. The first major fight scene, which pits Saya against dozens of vampires, is completely unwatchable because it’s shot so obliquely and edited so frantically to attempt to hide Gianna Jun’s, to put it generously, inexperience at fighting.

The fights go on forever without even beginning to work up any excitement, and there are many scenes of people standing around in rooms trading solemnly ridiculous dialogue. Really, is there supposed to be any entertainment value in this thing, or is it meant to be a ponderously stupid endurance test? The material obviously worked better as an anime, but if they were going to go live-action, they either needed to spend more money or go all the way into bargain-basement cheese. If you make a giant bat-like creature in a computer and it still looks like crap, you might as well just put a guy in a suit; it’d look like crap at half the price. Anyway, it all leads up to a fight between Saya and her evil white-clad mother, and that goes on forever, with the combatants being thrown through buildings and poor Alice dropped from a great height into shallow water, which she somehow survives, and there’s a laughably pretentious final line that calls back to Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and … My companion, an anime fan, said it best: “The only thing they got right was the first ten minutes. The rest is just bullshit.”

Ten Years Later: Eyes Wide Shut

July 16, 2009

It’s common assumption these days that 1999 was a formidable year for movies. The summer of ’99 was equally hefty. There was a new Austin Powers, a new Spike Lee joint, a South Park movie, the surprise hits American Pie, The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project, and, oh yeah, the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. Out of all these movies, though, the one I was jonesing for the most was made by a dead man. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut arrived on the heels of months of hype, rumor, speculation, and all-around buzz. It was also, of course, posthumous: Kubrick had permanently excused himself from the editing room on March 7, 1999. It was an ugly shock for someone like me, who’d anointed Kubrick his favorite director. So the imminent release of what had turned out to be the master’s swan song, on July 16, 1999, was now bittersweet.

The pre-release news was not encouraging. To secure an R rating, Warner Brothers stuck CGI people all over the orgy scene to obscure the background libertines doing the Humpty Dance. There were questions, beyond this obvious digital bowdlerization, whether the cut that was about to open on 2,411 screens nationwide reflected Kubrick’s true, final intentions. Advance word was shaky. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice opined that the film “feels like a rough draft at best” and that “the ponderous Temple of Doom orgy, crassly matched location inserts, overreliance on cross-cutting, and atrocious mixing (most obvious in the orgy’s dreadful dubbing and oscillating hubbub level) all suggest the movie was quite far from completion when its notoriously perfectionist author passed away.”

Regardless, I was there, first show, opening day. The first theater I tried was the local Flagship Cinemas, a relatively new location which had opened its doors just in time to host the May 19 premiere of Star Wars Episode I. I would soon boycott this theater in disgust for about a year: it had ruined a print of the South Park film and would go on to project The Blair Witch Project in a squashed aspect ratio instead of its intended TV-square ratio. Those two fuck-ups were bad, but it was Eyes Wide Shut — Kubrick’s final film! his first in 12 years! I’ve only been waiting for this for years! Come the fuck on! — that really landed Flagship on my shit list. Somewhere around the scene where Tom Cruise’s character goes to the costume shop, the print was suddenly running upside down and backward. For a few awful seconds, I tried to justify this as intentional: Ah, Kubrick, that great perverse prankster! And then rationality set in. A manager came in and offered free passes, but wasn’t sure when the print would be fixed. I said fuckit and went to a competing local theater, which showed the entire film right side up and forwards, for which small competence, at this point, I was grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exiting the theater, a little dazed and unsure of my responses, I ran into some friends who were waiting to get into the next show. They of course asked how it was. I didn’t have a good glib answer for them — I usually don’t, right after seeing a film, but especially not right after this one. I think I said something like “I liked it…not sure if you will…” Because I’d heard the audience around me, and I knew the film had gradually lost many or most of them. They were expecting a super-erotic thriller starring then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. What they got was, well, Eyes Wide Shut. If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably seen the film, and you know what it actually is.

It didn’t take long for the rest of America to find out what it was. After a decent $21 million opening weekend at #1 (your other choices on July 16 were Lake Placid and The Wood, if you’ve forgotten), Eyes Wide Shut began its nosedive. It fell off 53% in its second weekend — coming in fourth behind The Haunting (!), Inspector Gadget (!!), and American Pie (which had been out three weeks) — and by week four had fallen completely out of the top ten. At a reported budget of $65 million, Kubrick’s final gift to cinema finished with a domestic gross of $55 million, with an additional $106 million from the rest of the world (which, maybe not coincidentally, got to see the unobscured orgy scene). It was the first Tom Cruise film since 1992′s Far and Away not to pass the $100 million mark in America. That, of course, was Cruise’s previous film with Nicole Kidman; there would be no others.

The critics didn’t help. Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars. Todd McCarthy of Variety deemed it “a riveting, thematically probing, richly atmospheric and just occasionally troublesome work.” Many others on the film beat weren’t so generous. Our own roster here on the site was decidedly mixed. Still, Eyes Wide Shut has ended up — probably with the help of retrospective evaluation — with a 78% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Appreciation in hindsight, though, didn’t give the film a leg up at the box office against such thematically probing works as the Haunting remake.

Eventually the film’s rep started to improve. People found their way to it on video, or gave it a second chance there. (A movie like this might play better at home, where you can always pause to hit the bathroom or the fridge.) The unimpressive DVD, its orgy-thrusting still digitally blocked to protect the innocent, was later replaced with a shiny new Blu-ray that banished the unwelcome party guests. (After years of Warner’s waffling that their policy was not to release unrated or NC-17 cuts of their films, they finally caved and let American home viewers see what the rest of the world had been enjoying on DVD, and guess what? The universe somehow did not die screaming.) Interesting, if sometimes batshit, interpretations and appreciations of Eyes Wide Shut dot the internet. Did you know that Eyes Wide Shut spoke uncomfortable truths about the Illuminati, and that Kubrick was probably assassinated as a result? I didn’t. I still don’t.

Today, as I write and edit this, is the tenth anniversary of the day Kubrick’s last film hit theaters. Ten years to the day since I sat in Flagship Cinemas, all jazzed for what I was about to watch, and left in disgust after an hour due to projectionist ineptitude. (I could almost hear Kubrick — who routinely sent spies out to check the light levels and sound systems of the theaters playing his films — spinning in his fresh grave.) Despite the temporary frustration, it was a magical day. It was my equivalent of what May 19 was for so many Star Warsfans.

Though, of course, the reputation of Episode I has dimmed more than somewhat in the intervening decade, with even many Star Wars die-hards allowing that the entire prequel trilogy was misbegotten; while Eyes Wide Shut, away from the hype and buzz and unrealistic expectations (something all Kubrick films since at least 2001 had suffered from), emerges as a difficult but worthy coda, of a piece with the man’s other work.

And the final word spoken in the final shot of Kubrick’s final film, communicating not only hope for the story’s troubled couple but for humanity in general, is “Fuck.” I loved that at the time, on July 16, 1999. I still do.

Brüno

July 12, 2009

It’s doubtful that even the most freewheeling gay porn could be as fawningly, lovingly devoted to the male member as Brüno is. The organ, hardly ever seen in mainstream multiplex films, is ready for its close-up, and it gets one here in an image I could hardly believe I was seeing on the local big screen. In case actual penises aren’t enough, we also see any number of latex simulacra. For Brüno — a flamboyantly gay fashion-show host, and one of the comic creations of Sacha Baron Cohen (who brought you Borat) — life is all about the phallus, and there’s something innocent about his pursuit of it. Like Borat, he has no concept of anything outside his pleasure zone and drive for fame (which amount to the same thing).

The latest Baron Cohen attempt to strafe American sensibilities by holding a funhouse mirror up to us, Brüno is hit or miss for its first half or so but picks up steam as it goes along. Brüno has been fired from his Austrian TV show, and he comes to Los Angeles, accompanied by his adoring “assistant’s assistant” Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), in search of fame, or at least fame by proxy. His first whack at a celebrity-driven “reality show” is haplessly appalling, so for the rest of the movie Brüno seeks celebrity of his own. Baron Cohen, insinuating himself into the syndicated junk culture, gives Brüno a hungry twinkle — he’s a drama queen without much drama, since he’s pretty oblivious to the social engineering that gets in his way.

As in Borat, most of the real people encountering Baron Cohen — no doubt aware they’re on camera — try very hard to accommodate him. I didn’t buy that Brüno, in the film’s second half when he’s trying to “go straight,” gains access to a swingers’ club, much less gets permission to bring a camera in while the swingers are having actual sex (with the naughty bits blotted out). The scene is obviously staged, especially when a terrified Brüno finds himself in a bedroom with a particularly aggressive dominatrix (played by porn actress Michelle McLaren). A lot of the other stuff seems disconcertingly real, such as Brüno’s hunting trip with three scraggly good ol’ boys. His encounter with a “gay converter” is more sad than funny, as encounters with these tragic repressed gay men trying desperately to be straight always are.

Baron Cohen stays fearlessly in character, though an equal portion of credit should go to Gustaf Hammarsten, who makes something tenderly human out of the lovestruck, obsequious Lutz. Brüno is clearly the gayest film since 300, but it’s also shrewd about the lust for fame (the studio should’ve left in the bit with Brüno trying to get Michael Jackson’s number off LaToya Jackson’s cell phone). Brüno only tries to “go straight” because he thinks it’s the only way to become famous, and it’s a hoot to see him throw himself into traditionally hetero-alpha-male activities; it all leads to the movie’s masterstroke, “Straight Dave’s Man-Slamming Maxout,” which leaves its beer-chugging spectators looking hilariously crestfallen. Brüno doesn’t have much to say about American homophobes other than that they’re entertainingly nonplussed when confronted with a flamingly nelly stereotype — though we wonder how entertainingly they’d react if there were no cameras around.

Margaret Cho: Beautiful

July 3, 2009

As a Margaret Cho fan from way back, I sympathize with efilmcritic.com’s Eric D. Snider, who gave three stars (out of five) to Cho’s 2005 concert film Assassin. At that point, Cho had become more of a knee-jerk Republican-basher than the personal comedian she’d started out as, and while I’m always up for GOP-grilling, it didn’t make me laugh so much as just nod in agreement. If we’re listening to you, Margaret, we know this stuff already; make with the funny.

Fortunately, Beautiful — Cho’s first concert film in four years — goes lighter on the liberal call-and-response, though she does kick off by saying “I fuckin’ hate Sarah Palin.” But then she winds up admitting, “I kinda wanna fuck her.” Most of the show takes its cue from that; this is probably Cho’s dirtiest collection of material since 2002′s Notorious C.H.O. She started the decade with the superb, eye-opening I’m the One That I Want, in which she exuberantly fessed up to her sexual misadventures, and now finishes the ’00s with a tribute to the folly and beauty of the sexual animal.

My guess is that being neck-deep in the Bush era for most of the decade gave Cho a lot of temporary agita and an urgent need to vent. (And it did make many like-minded listeners feel less alone, but the comedy got lost in the comfort.) In this concert, filmed in Long Beach about a week before the 2008 election, Cho seems more relaxed, more relieved. She seems pretty confident that Obama will get in; sadly, she also seems to assume that Prop 8 will get slapped down. In any event, without years of Bush ahead of her, Cho feels more free to get down and dirty. Even a bit about hypocritical Republican politicians who troll for sex on the down low becomes an occasion for more raunch. And, having seen this film, I now think Sacha Baron Cohen needs to hand his Brüno trophy for air-simulating fellatio over to Cho.

The major disappointment here is the shortage of Cho-imitates-her-mom bits; there are a couple of brief bits, but it’s as if Cho didn’t want her mom to get any more pissed off at her than she already was (over Cho’s tattoos). But Beautiful is generally so generously filthy that there really isn’t much room for Cho to bring her mom into the bacchanal. Gay sex, straight sex, the difference between gay penises and hetero penises — there’s very little ground she doesn’t cover, including her dabbling in “G-shots” and anal bleaching and her love of ass-eating. And she wants us to know it’s all good, it’s all beautiful. By the end, there’s only one place left to go, and it’s into song — a grand finale called “Eat Me Out,” belted out with brio, with the camera tracking back dramatically as she hits the final hilarious, triumphant note on “vaginaaaaaa.”

Once again, Cho has gotten in touch with her inner slut (a term she no longer uses here, perhaps because of its negative connotations) and reported back to us from the frontline of her pussy. The main thing to note here is that, if you’re like Eric Snider and me and felt let down by Cho’s previous two Dubya-haunted, preaching-to-the-choir concert films, it’s now safe to go back into the water — this one delivers.


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