Archive for June 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire

June 26, 2010

In their first cinematic go-round, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, intrepid journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) didn’t actually meet until about halfway through the film. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, they don’t come face-to-face until the movie’s almost over. They “see” each other twice before then: Lisbeth watches Mikael enter her home via remote camera, and Mikael watches an incriminating disc of Lisbeth being raped by her “guardian” in the previous film. Both show Lisbeth being violated — her privacy, her body.

Grim as a funeral on a rainy Monday, The Girl Who Played with Fire finds Lisbeth wanted for three murders she didn’t commit. Mikael believes she’s innocent, and spends the movie tracking down suspects. The system, of course, is ready to throw away the key on Lisbeth — she has a checkered psychiatric history, and her bed partners include women as well as men. The late Stieg Larsson, who wrote the bestsellers these movies are drawn from, wanted to indict Swedish society’s misogyny and homophobia. In Lisbeth he found the perfect afflicted heroine, too fierce to be a mere victim but too damaged to stay out of trouble.

Lisbeth passes much of the movie in hiding, staying at an unregistered apartment and tapping away on her laptop. Mikael makes a lot of phone calls. Despite that — and its stately pace — the movie is not boring. There’s a nicely erotic encounter between Lisbeth and an old flame (Yasmine Garbi), and a crisply staged fight between a boxer and a big white-haired bruiser that packs more excitement and tension than most of the summer blockbusters have to offer. At their heart, though — and this feels more pronounced here than in Dragon Tattoo — these movies are high-flown pulp; this one comes complete with revelations about Lisbeth’s family that feel imported from soap opera, where everyone seems connected not entirely plausibly. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t being shocked with a Taser disable someone even if they can’t feel pain?

Ah, well. Dragon Tattoo was so good (and the next one, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is said to return to those heights) that disappointment in its sequel is probably inevitable. Partly, as noted above, it’s because the movie is missing the first film’s chief source of charm — the uneasy rapport between the decent Mikael and the spiky Lisbeth. Both actors keep their halves of the film afloat — Noomi Rapace scores again with her tough-vulnerable portrait of Lisbeth — but the movie works less as a cracking mystery than as a screed against scummy men, and an excuse to rub Lisbeth’s face in more dirt. If you share my fondness for the characters, that affection may pull you through this glumly compelling but unpleasant film. You may wish for more scenes like the tender meeting between Lisbeth and her ailing old former legal protector; the snarly young woman gently feeds the old man and even smiles at him. You may want a movie that gives this heroine — and this actress — more reasons to smile and fewer reasons not to.

Dead Hooker in a Trunk

June 23, 2010

Occasionally you get someone who starts out in the realm of no-budget grindhouse-type fare but is too good for it. David Cronenberg was one. His young fellow Canadians Jen and Sylvia Soska, twin sisters whose gory calling card is Dead Hooker in a Trunk, may be two others.

The Soska Sisters started Dead Hooker in a Trunk as the kind of fake trailer that appeared in Grindhouse — specifically one that didn’t, but won the Grindhouse trailer contest, Jason Eisener’s terrific Hobo with a Shotgun. The story does indeed involve a car trunk containing one (1) dead hooker. But the end result is driftier and trippier than your typical wannabe-grindhouse fare. The movie is surprisingly meditative and becalmed at times; at other times, of course, blood splatters and intestines are pulled out and played with.

At all times, the movie feels uncompromising. I’m sure the Soska Sisters could regale you all day with anecdotes about shots and scenes they wanted to get but didn’t have the budget for, but what’s on the screen feels unmediated, exactly what they set out to put there. There’s an essential female playfulness throughout. Some unimaginative studio head might have said “Why the hell are you playing Vancouver mope rock under a torture scene?”, but it works chillingly well. Tonally, the film is of a piece, part Gregg Araki, part Sarah Jacobson, Ginger Snaps meets Very Bad Things, morosely defiant but with a streak of generosity that belies the Soska Sisters’ too-sick-for-you pose. Like their hero Eli Roth, they come on like nihilists but have a strong sense of fairness and kindness.

The sisters also star onscreen as polar-opposite sibs Geek (Jen) and Badass (Sylvia). With Geek’s dorkily religious friend Goody Two Shoes (CJ Wallis) and Badass’ band-fronting buddy Junkie (Rikki Gagne) in tow, they discover the titular corpse and spend much of the movie figuring out what to do with it. There’s also a hoodie-wearing serial killer going around knocking off prostitutes, and a drug dealer who picks the wrong time to open his door, and a character called Cowboy Pimp. Most often the violence is realistic, with one large exception involving a character who loses and regains an arm but never seems much the worse for wear. Stuff like that gives the impression that the Soska Sisters will disregard realism when they want to. If it gets in the way of whatever cool scene they want to put together, fuck it.

Dead Hooker in a Trunk isn’t especially plot-centered; it shuffles between weird quietude and riot-grrl thrill kills. Past a certain point, you’re watching a riff, but there’s no irony in it, and I don’t think the Soska Sisters share the “whatever” attitude of some of their characters. Goody Two Shoes may be a dweeb and Geek may be self-destructively trusting of authority, but they’re the movie’s moral center. (Yes, Dead Hooker in a Trunk has a moral center.) The stunts, supervised and performed by more professionals than you’d usually see in a film of this scale, give the action a feral lift. When people get punched and roughed up, it looks like it hurts. A flashback showing exactly how the dead hooker got that way, and who made her dead, has Bizet’s “Carmen Suite No. 2 — Habanera” running blithely underneath it, a loping aural beauty in contrast to the ugly percussion of baseball bat against skull. Oftentimes indie filmmakers will lay classical music under ultraviolence for that easy Kubrick flavor, but it feels different here, sadder.

To return to my earlier point: I think the Soska Sisters will ultimately prove to be better than this material. Not that the material isn’t fun. But I note an artistic sensibility that will, with the proper financial nurturing, expand beyond the grindhouse. They obviously love gore-horror and action and girls who kick ass. And that may be what they genuinely want to do for a while; they’re still young and in love with the heady thrill of getting to film all the violently cool stuff they grew up smitten with. But when and if they want to do something else — and I’m definitely not talking about rom-coms here — I don’t see anything getting in their way.

Jonah Hex

June 19, 2010

I’ve said this about a few other movies, but it especially applies here: Jonah Hex may be the most bizarre film to open on almost 3,000 screens in this country in a very long while. Here is an anti-hero, the titular Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin), an ex-Confederate soldier with a scar that wrenches his face into a permanent sneer. Visually — at least in the comic books that inspired the movie — Jonah is even more hardcore than Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, who at least could choose to sneer. The movie adds some supernatural stuff not in the comics: Jonah can bring dead men back to life for a few minutes to interrogate them. Only the idiosyncratic Warner Brothers would give us a wide-release summer movie that turns out to be an acid western.

Jonah Hex flies by; it has to, at just eighty minutes, including end credits. The consensus among my critical brothers and sisters is that the result is a choppy mess, but as a spaghetti-western fan I hooked into the gnarled, cynical mood of the piece. Post-war, Jonah is a bounty hunter with no particular use for the north or the south. He betrayed his regiment, led by the psychotic Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who murdered Jonah’s Indian wife and son in retaliation. Turnbull, it appears, faked his death and has been keeping busy wreaking havoc and developing some sort of proto-nuclear cannonballs. It’s 1876, so a lot of towns are celebrating the country’s first centennial and making themselves easy targets for Turnbull’s wrath.

In the comics, Jonah was a callous stranger, tough as jerky, who nonetheless had a soft spot for the oppressed. During the war, he reached a point where he couldn’t see the sense in risking his life so that some men could remain slaves. The movie touches lightly on this; the Crow Indians save Jonah’s life, and a black man provides Jonah with nifty new weapons. Jonah doesn’t have a lot of use for white men in general — which links the movie to some of the more political spaghetti westerns, like Sergio Corbucci’s Django. Jonah’s soft spot extends to a plucky saloon whore, Lilah (Megan Fox), perhaps the only woman who can look at him without flinching (she’s certainly the only woman in the movie with a speaking role, and the fake southern accent does Fox some good, takes her out of that breathy Valley Girl cadence she can easily fall into).

Brolin more or less puts across Jonah’s grudging heroism. When the movie goes for the usual summer kaboom, Brolin and everyone else get lost in it, but what mattered to me were the legitimately odd sequences in which Jonah talks to dead men or has trippy flashbacks or even hallucinations of himself fighting Turnbull. And the really painful revelation about Jonah’s scar isn’t that Turnbull inflicted it by branding his face — it’s that Jonah himself inflicted it trying to burn off the brand. Brolin wears all the pain heavily, but not so heavily as to weigh down the essential fun of watching a hard-ass gun down scoundrels in a western setting on the big screen. If you’ve seen a lot of that at the multiplex lately, I want to know which multiplex you’ve been going to. Whatever else it is or isn’t, Jonah Hex is utterly unique out there.

The greatest orgasm face ever.

June 18, 2010

“I was cured, all right.”

Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated

June 13, 2010

George A. Romero’s zombie classic Night of the Living Dead has seldom been left alone in the 42 years since its release. It has been parodied; it has been remade (twice, once in 3D); it has been colorized; it has been subjected to a wisecracking overdubbed soundtrack á la What’s Up, Tiger Lily; it has had scenes taken out and inane new scenes added by original cowriter John Russo. It’s hard to think of another film that has inspired so much riffing, probably because it’s in the public domain. Well, Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated is the latest riff. “Curator” Mike Schneider has corralled over a hundred animators, whose wildly disparate work illustrates the original film’s soundtrack and dialogue.

How does this experiment work for viewers who don’t already have Romero’s original committed to memory? Funny you should ask; my viewing companion, who hadn’t seen the Romero film but enjoys animation, commented that “it’s interesting to try to figure out what’s going on.” ‘Tis true; some of the animation and artwork are pretty abstract. And for me, who’s seen the original umpty-ump times? I dug it on the same level that I dug the aforementioned overdub, only in reverse. It’s a visual jam project, clearly a labor of love, one that Romero himself would probably approve of (at least moreso than the colorized version — and all the work here is appropriately in black and white).

NOTLD:R is an ideal midnight movie for film geeks who don’t mind the animators occasionally taking some liberties or tweaking the material. Sock puppets, Barbie dolls, cat-and-mouse cartoons, Second Life captures, rotoscoping; at one point, little stick figures superimposed over the original footage help board up windows or produce a keyring referenced in the dialogue. At certain points it’s also like flipping through a sketchbook devoted to a hundred different takes on the hero Ben (Duane Jones), the hysterical Barbara (Judith O’Dea), and all the other characters.

It’s a testament to the power of Romero’s film that it lured so many talents to contribute (for free) and that the stark simplicity of the story still comes through. This, after all, is the movie that launched an entire subgenre, the zombie flick as we know it today, and was a landmark in independent film. In a way, NOTLD:R confirms and re-establishes the scrappy DIY spirit of the original — it’s a bunch of people working for nothing, united by dedication to the material. And, paradoxically, the cruder the artwork or animation is, the better it works; a slick patina of rendering wouldn’t work for this low-budget, one-location film. By the time a lumpy claymation Ben fights a lumpy claymation Harry (Karl Hardman), and the iconic image of the zombie girl killing her mother is re-enacted mostly with Barbie dolls, this experiment’s charm is hard to deny.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

June 11, 2010

Joan Rivers is not a happy woman, from the evidence in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. She is driven — almost demonically driven — insecure, filled with anger. In other words, she’s a comedian.

Comedians are like rock stars in a lot of ways, but particularly in regards to longevity. Some burn out early (Mitch Hedberg, Greg Giraldo, Bill Hicks). And some hang in there well into their seventies, eighties, nineties. Joan Rivers turned 75 during the filming of this documentary. As I write this, she is 77. Jerry Lee Lewis is 75. I think Rivers might have more to talk about with Jerry Lee Lewis than with Jerry Lewis, who is 84, and who once infamously said that women aren’t funny. Anyway, why focus on age? Partly because Rivers herself can’t escape it. She hears, as one associate puts it, the ticking of the clock. She has five decades in show business, and she vehemently refuses to slow down or retire. She practically defines herself by how many dates are filled in on her gig schedule.

Rivers holds grudges and holds onto past traumas. She co-wrote and appeared in a play, Fun City, in 1972, and it got poisonous reviews on Broadway and closed in six days. So when she prepares her new stage show, Joan Rivers: A Work In Progress By A Life In Progress, she opens it in London. If it doesn’t fly there, she will refuse to take it to New York. It gets lukewarm reviews. She kills it. She can’t bear to go through a Fun City experience all over again. Roger Ebert wrote that Rivers “doesn’t know fear.” I think that’s true onstage; I think that’s the only place she doesn’t know fear. Offstage she knows it all too well.

Several times in the documentary, we hear Rivers announcing that she will do anything. Anything. Any demeaning commercial, any flyover hicksville gig. She did not voice the vagina character Vajoana (which looked and sounded like her) on the Comedy Central cartoon Drawn Together, but perhaps only because she wasn’t asked to. “I’ve been a cunt all my life,” she might have said; “I might as well play one.”

Searching for a suspenseful narrative arc after Rivers torpedoes her own play, the film latches onto Rivers’ appearance on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice along with her daughter Melissa. Melissa got “fired” off the show and left amid much acrimony. Incensed, Rivers stayed on and ended up winning the competition. She sees this as a triumph, a life-saver, a way to stay in the game. From what I can tell, it doesn’t seem to have affected her career one way or the other. People will still want her for what she can do, or they won’t. Melissa, in the film, seems to be developing the same scowling mask as her mother. Neither of them seems happy, flitting from gig to gig, Joan badgering Melissa about her smoking and Melissa countering that she’s cut down.

They both, I presume, live in the shadow of Melissa’s father and Joan’s husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who married Joan in 1965 and took his own life twenty-two years later. This came on the heels of the failure of Rivers’ The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, from which she was fired after several months, and which went on without her for about another year. Three months later, Edgar was dead; and the very fact of Rivers doing a talk show on a rival network cost her her relationship with her mentor, Johnny Carson, who never spoke to her again, and who, Rivers insinuates, made it impossible for Rivers to get any work on NBC until Celebrity Apprentice in 2009. Since Carson left The Tonight Show in 1992 and died in 2005, this seems unlikely, but what do I know?

This is a woman who’s taken any number of private and public punches and keeps on going. The portrait here is neither flattering nor unsympathetic. The structure and style reminded me a little of Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D List — it feels like an 83-minute pilot for a Joan Rivers reality show, in which Joan, like Kathy, roves around endlessly looking for work, which really amounts to looking for love and reinforcement.


June 6, 2010

Like a lot of David Cronenberg’s early work, Splice isn’t science fiction so much as science poetry. I’ll warn you up front that I couldn’t possibly care less about whatever technical snafus or plot illogic the movie may or may not have. It hit me hard and deep. It’s a work of sick beauty. Splice concerns itself with a half-human, half-animal genetic hybrid created by two scientists who are also a couple, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley). Those character names should clue you in that the movie aims more for the pathos of The Bride of Frankenstein than for the action and shock beats of most sci-fi monster mashes. We begin by identifying with Clive and Elsa. It isn’t long before we start identifying with their creation, named “Dren,” who seems like an innocent, girlish creature pulled this way and that by instincts she — and her creators — can’t begin to comprehend.

You notice I use “who” and “she” rather than “that” and “it.” We come to see Dren as a person, albeit a strange one, and when she’s referred to by one scientist or another as “it” — including by Clive and Elsa at certain points — we experience it as an offense. Dren is capable of feeling and thought. She doesn’t speak, but communicates with Scrabble tiles that she is bored with life in the barn where her creators have stashed her away from the world. At first she imprints emotionally on Elsa, then on Clive. Meanwhile, Clive and Elsa argue over her as if she were … a specimen? A pet? Their child? The distinctions blur.

Splice was directed by Vincenzo Natali, who made an indie splash in 1997 with the math-flavored thriller Cube. No less a viewer than David Cronenberg himself called it “as ruthlessly beautiful and compelling as a geometrical theorem.” Well, Splice more closely resembles a genetic theorem, and it’s not just about the genes played with in a lab. Parenting, Splice says, is itself genetic experimentation. Elsa, we learn, had a rough childhood at the hands of a crazy mom who made her sleep in a bare shoebox of a room and denied her any toys. As Dren matures — an accelerated process that eventually makes way for a computer-enhanced Delphine Chanéac, a 31-year-old French actress/model who deals a superb wordless performance — Elsa goes from warmly maternal to coldly maternal. In one of many saddening sequences, Elsa won’t let Dren have a cat she’s befriended; then Elsa relents, and Dren shows her what she thinks of that.

Clive, meanwhile, journeys from wanting to kill Dren to wanting to indulge her lust for him. The scene in question is bizarre and wildly funny, and makes some sort of biological sense: the weird, mutant pheromones she’s throwing off must be extreme, and Dren’s instinct, like any fast-maturing organism who will probably die soon, is to reproduce. Splice is a profoundly strange family-triangle drama that touches a lot of heretofore undiscovered nerves — I felt that this was what the Cronenberg of Shivers and Rabid might’ve done if his DNA were spliced with that of the David Lynch of Eraserhead. Dren has two predecessors, sluglike mounds of flesh named Ginger and Fred, who interact amorously (and, like so much else in the film, absurdly beautifully) until nature changes their dynamic. Katherine Hepburn reportedly once said of the real Ginger and Fred, “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.” Vincenzo Natali and Delphine Chanéac give a pulpy premise class and sex appeal, respectively. Though of a very unusual kind.

I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale

June 1, 2010

Number of movies John Cazale appeared in: five. Number of those movies that earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture: five. Number of those movies that won: three. Number of Oscar nominations John Cazale earned for his work: zero.

Few people on the street know John Cazale by name. If you show them a photo of him alongside fellow cast members in The Godfather, they know he’s Fredo. Nobody forgets Fredo. There are several clips of Cazale as Fredo in I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, and a couple of those clips made my eyes well up all over again. That amazing scene in Part II:

Fredo: I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!
Michael: That’s the way Pop wanted it.
Fredo: It ain’t the way I wanted it! I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says… like dumb… I’m smart and I want respect!

Not to mention the wordless scene at their mother’s funeral, when Michael shows up, and Fredo looks up, puts out his cigarette, and hugs his kid brother as if he were a lifeline. Jesus Christ, that’s why I love the Godfather movies. Not for Michael, who turns into a cold cod and a prick. Not for Tom Hagen. But for poor, sweet, stupid, stupid Fredo, who wants to be a man of respect like his Pop, but ends up lording it over some rinky-dink nightclub.

John Cazale was born to play roles like that. His strength was in finding the truth in weakness. In this 40-minute documentary, there’s a parade of great actors — those who worked with him, and those who might’ve been old enough to catch his films on cable back in the day — who genuflect before the cracked glory of John Cazale. Pacino. De Niro. Streep. Hackman. Dreyfuss. And the kids: Steve Buscemi. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sam Rockwell. (All of whom have taken a page or two from the Cazale playbook. I’m surprised the director, Richard Shepard, didn’t get Paul Giamatti, who may be the closest thing to Cazale we have today.)

The doc itself is point-and-shoot, talking-heads, nicely chosen clips (with some rare photos and footage — I hope we get more of that footage as extras on the eventual DVD). It’s essentially an extended version of the Oscar-night tributes they sometimes make room for (like this year’s John Hughes toast). Things I didn’t know about John Cazale: his dad was a coal salesman; he met Pacino while they were both struggling young actors working as delivery boys; the “Wyoming” thing in Dog Day Afternoon was his improv; he did everything slowly and meticulously (friend Robyn Goodman tells a good story about him coming over to calibrate her new TV). Things I still don’t know about John Cazale: everything and nothing. Watch him at work and you feel you learn as much as you need to know about him.

I’ll say it: you cannot call yourself a lover of movies until you have seen all five John Cazale film performances. And you don’t even have to love Deer Hunter — lots of people don’t — just watch it for Cazale (and Walken). I was electrified all over again by his shifty, implosive Sal in Dog Day Afternoon; saddened by his gaunt appearance in The Deer Hunter (you feel real warmth between him and De Niro, and the whole “This is this” scene where De Niro refuses Cazale the use of his spare boots feels kind of false because of it¹); intrigued by his hangdog assistant in The Conversation, which I haven’t watched in too many years; annoyed and moved and heartbroken by goddamn Fredo. In Nick Tosches’ epic Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, the writer pegs the supremely indifferent Vegas god Dean Martin as a menefreghista, a man with menefreghismo, the quality of not giving a fuck. Fredo was the opposite of a menefreghista, and so was Cazale.

Cazale acted in five movies and a lot of plays in between. He met and fell madly in love with Meryl Streep, and she him. She and De Niro moved heaven and earth to ensure that Cazale, by then dying of lung cancer and uninsurable, could be in The Deer Hunter and be in close proximity to Streep. Al Pacino testifies that, as much as he holds Streep’s acting in profound regard, when he thinks of her, he thinks of how devotedly she stayed by the side of his dying friend John Cazale right to the end.

What would John Cazale have done if he’d lived past the age of 42? He would be turning 75 this August. Pacino turned 70 in April. De Niro hits 66 in August. Streep crosses the big six-oh in a few weeks, as I write this. Would Cazale have kept up the high quality? (Some — okay, many — would argue Pacino and De Niro haven’t.) He was essentially a character actor, not a star. That was the beauty of him: he was happiest, and brightest, when giving his fellow actors a hand up. He would come in for a scene, rock the fucking house, and disappear again. He appears in a flashback in Godfather III, and he haunts the entire flawed movie: Coppola knew he needed Cazale one more time, to bless the event. The story is about a soul-sick Michael trying to buy his way to respectability, and you don’t have the story without knowing intuitively how Michael felt about Fredo and his role in Fredo’s fate. And you don’t have that without Cazale.

Anyway, I’m thinking Cazale might’ve had a hard time of it in the ’80s, when Hollywood trended away from the kind of movies in which Cazale thrived. The ’80s were about strength and balls and Sly and Top Gun and Axel Foley. Cazale might have gone sideways, though, to appear in films by indie artists like Jarmusch or Lynch or Spike Lee (hell, Richard Edson in Do the Right Thing was completely a young-Cazale role; back in the early ’70s Cazale would’ve played the shit out of Vito opposite circa-Mean Streets De Niro as Pino). Those who grew up worshipping Cazale might’ve put him in their films, the way Steve Buscemi cast Seymour Cassel in his directorial debut Trees Lounge. I can see Tarantino wanting to give Cazale the Tarantino Comeback Role; I can see Coppola working with him again (what is Vincent Gallo in Tetro but a randier, scruffier Cazale?); I can maybe even see him playing Paul Child opposite Streep’s Julia Child in Julie & Julia.

But he died 32 years ago. And we’ll never know.

¹Really, what that scene feels like more than anything is an actors’-workshop exercise. “John, you forgot your boots. Bob, you don’t want him to borrow yours because he’s always forgetting stuff. Make it into a scene.” De Niro’s character comes off like a dick, and you end up siding with Cazale. I have a lot more to say about this problematic but, I think, great film, but I’ll save it for a proper review.