Archive for October 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

October 24, 2010

The secret of the Paranormal Activity films, visually, is their dead-eyed perspective. In the first film, much of the spooky stuff unfolded in front of a static camcorder. In Paranormal Activity 2, we spend a lot of time looking at surveillance-camera footage. This is the opposite of shaky-cam; it’s from-beyond-the-grave-cam. The unmoving camera just stares, blankly and without editorializing, and waits for something to happen. The point of view is chillingly remote, indifferent to the characters’ fear and suffering; everything is merely recorded. In a way, this blanched footage harks back to the beginnings of American horror cinema, from the silents to the early ‘30s, when directors like Tod Browning just let scenes play out in stoic set-ups and gather quiet dread.

Put the two films together and you have a pretty good fit; they proceed from and amplify each other. Paranormal Activity 2 isn’t much as its own movie; it essentially pulls out the same bag of tricks — the thumps in the night, the invisible forces pulling people out of the room. When the movie is feeling particularly boisterous, a bunch of kitchen-cabinet doors open at once. The filmmakers go a long, long way solely on the audience’s queasy anticipation of what’s to come. Some will say the way is too long; at the Saturday-night screening I attended, there was a bit of is-something-going-to-happen-sometime-soon grumbling, and a little kid sitting near me — an Ebert in training — commented loudly, “When is the movie going to start?”

To avoid spoilers, some of the following will read as inaccurate, or at least incomplete, to those who’ve seen the film. Paranormal Activity 2 follows a different couple in a different house; they have a baby son, and the father has a teenage daughter from a previous marriage. Things start happening, slowly at first, and in small doses. The automatic pool cleaner keeps ending up outside the pool overnight. The family dog senses something. So does the Mexican housekeeper, who performs smudging rituals to evict “bad spirits” until the skeptical father fires her. The father, who owns a Burger King franchise, has a lot of money; the house is spacious and impersonal. Both films, actually, pack a “When Bad Paranormal Things Happen to Well-Off People” subtext; any family that can afford a pool that size must have done something to deserve the visitations of a demon.

The teenage girl thinks it’s cool that the house apparently has a ghost, until things get uncool and it’s clear that the entity is a good deal more malicious. The movie is a bit front-loaded with ominous mood — perhaps the first 45 minutes or so — and then, when there finally is paranormal activity, things feel rushed. A desperate decision is made, tying the sequel in with the original, and finishing off with a triple sting. Right now, the two films operate as a smooth unit — someday the whole thing might play well viewed in one big gulp via seamless branching on a Blu-ray. But viewing Paranormal Activity 2 a year apart feels unavoidably like more of the same. I sincerely hope Paramount doesn’t milk this thing for more sequels, but since this film made back twice its cost solely on the Thursday-night midnight showing, get ready for another few years of nocturnal bumps, closing doors, low-frequency rumbles, and night-vision commercials of audiences shitting their pants at the latest sequel.

Jackass 3D

October 16, 2010

This certainly has been the year of transgressive cinema, what with The Human Centipede, Enter the Void, and more and more Americans finding their way to the still-unreleased-in-America A Serbian Film. To that list we can add Jackass 3D, which peppers 3,000 screens nationwide with more things you can’t unsee, stunts no sane person would try, and less-than-precious bodily fluids.

I have a soft spot for Johnny Knoxville and his few, his happy few, his band of morons. Every time Knoxville has announced a new Jackass movie, he’s made a point of assuring us that everyone’s back — Steve-O, Bam Margera, Wee Man, the whole sick crew. That’s because the group dynamic — affectionately vicious, spurring each other on to greater, stupider offenses to good taste and health — is at least as important as the fuckheaded stuff they do; that’s what separates them from the wannabe-jackasses who post their testicle-bashing and medicine-ball-to-the-face bits all over YouTube. Renegade filmmaker Spike Jonze has been a part of the Jackass saga for a reason; he sees the surreal performance-art aspect of it, the long (if perverse) history behind it. At their best, the Jackass crew are like Hunter S. Thompson staging Project Mayhem at Delta House, or the Vienna Aktionists retooled for the skater culture.

James Cameron recently called Piranha 3D onto the carpet for cheapening his beloved format, and I shudder to think what he’d say about Jackass 3D (maybe he’d just laugh his ass off). In truth, the extra dimension only serves to create a mood of bemused dread: what kind of foul shit (literally) are they going to send spurting into the audience? The foul shit, when it comes, may fly in three dimensions but ultimately hits the fourth wall, the camera lens. I suppose some of those shots could’ve been CGI’ed up to send gobs of rancid offal right into our faces, but I’m sort of glad they weren’t — not because I’m squeamish but because it would’ve violated the group’s this-isn’t-faked credo and ethos.

There’s been a lot of press, connected to the recent news about gay kids being bullied, over whether “That’s so gay” is homophobic or just lazy. I seek only accurate language when I say that Jackass 3D, at times, is so gay. It always has been, really; as in Fight Club, there’s something unmistakably homoerotic about nearly-naked men sharing physical extremes (This! Is! Spaaarta!), and the guys don’t shy away from it — they giggle and give in, to paraphrase Robert Altman, and I’m certain this is the only time Altman will be name-checked in a review of a Jackass movie. Anyway, penises flop around, asses are exposed and manhandled and bitten by a hog, sweat is collected in a glass and chugged down — sounds like a festive night at the Anvil.

My heart went out to poor Lance Bangs, a music-video director and documentarian who has a great deal of trouble keeping his lunch down while filming some of the more unspeakable stunts; at one point he yaks onto his own camera, an image Knoxville recognizes as so spontaneously, iconically perfect he holds the camera aloft in a mix of disgust and pride. Every so often, a routine will transcend merely showing us something we’ve never seen before and inscribe itself onto the same coin as Buñuel or Günter Brus; the bit with the ass volcano springs immediately, violently, to mind. At another point, Knoxville turns himself into background art to foil the attentions of a bull, like a Looney Tunes character or a human trompe-l’œil. And the climax, featuring a porta-potty filled with dog shit and a Steve-O filled with dread (he doesn’t even have the solace, or the excuse, of being drunk for the occasion), is foreshadowed by blue paint-bombs going off inside other porta-potties, turning various Jackasses into visual references to another long-running performance-art collective, the Blue Man Group. Also, someone farts into a trumpet.

Many have said, and I concur, that the boys are getting too old for this shit. A man’s leg trembling after a donkey has kicked it symbolizes the pitfalls and limitations of this sort of entertainment. It may be time to pass the shit-smeared torch; a group has already grabbed for it, and — yes — they’re female (Google up “Rad Girls” if you’re not familiar). The end-credits mix of childhood photos and footage of Knoxville & company in the flower of youth seems to suggest a fond farewell. Adios, au revoir, auf wiener-pain.

The Social Network

October 3, 2010

There are twenty Erica Albrights on Facebook. At least three of them are fake, and at least one of them, I suspect, is an account created to promote The Social Network. Erica Albright, see, is the nonexistent-in-real-life college girl (played by Rooney Mara) who breaks what passes for Mark Zuckerberg’s heart in the movie’s opening scene. Erica Albright is, if you will, Zuckerberg’s Rosebud, the motivation for a bright kid to become a lonely billionaire. The Social Network, sharply written by Aaron Sorkin and directed at a blistering clip by David Fincher, is a good story well-told. But the accolades comparing it, as a cinematic achievement and not just in a thematic sense, to Citizen Kane are more than a little nuts.

Zuckerberg is played by Jesse Eisenberg, who pulls off something fairly tricky. Zuckerberg, in this film, shows very little emotion — he might be stirred to open disdain if sufficiently riled up. Eisenberg makes his face an impassive mask throughout, except when Zuckerberg is languishing in depositions, in which case he scowls the scowl of an entitled lad who can’t believe he’s being made to waste time niggling over legal issues with toads. I think he smiles maybe twice, when introduced to Napster creator and bad boy Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who wants in on this new hot thing Zuckerberg’s put together called The Facebook. “Drop the ‘the,” Sean advises in passing. “Just Facebook. It’s cleaner.”

Eisenberg and everyone else in The Social Network (I keep wanting to type The Social Contract, and indeed Zuckerberg might sympathize with Rousseau’s “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains”) speak at roughly the speed of light, the better to strafe the audience with Aaron Sorkin’s hot-lead dialogue. The script, I take it, has little more than a passing acquaintance with what actually happened between Zuckerberg and his Harvard cronies; the film is positioned as a larger thing than an accurate transcript. “Is this a parable?” asks Zuckerberg when Sean Parker talks about the man who created Victoria’s Secret and killed himself because it went huge after he sold it. Maybe Sean’s story isn’t, but the one about Zuckerberg most definitely is.

It boils down to the good old bromide “Money can’t buy you love.” If you don’t want to go as far back as Citizen Kane, you need only look to the Beatles — whose “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” plays importantly at the end. In other words, if you’re living paycheck to paycheck and didn’t go to Harvard and wonder if you can afford braces for your kid, don’t feel bad; at least you have friends, unlike that poor bastard who made it possible for millions of people worldwide to connect but, as the movie would have it, sits alone with his equivalent of Charles Foster Kane’s deathbed snow-globe, a lap-top that he keeps refreshing. It’s a neat way to top off the movie. A little too neat. The Social Network stomps the gas and rockets along; it can be entertaining as hell, but if it were to slow down you might ask inopportune questions like, Why are we watching rich kids fight over percentages, or Why does the movie look so deathly drab as if this were fucking King Lear or something, or Why is this even a movie? Zuckerberg is basically Richie Rich without a Gloria. Duly noted, but it’s not the zeitgeist tragedy everyone is selling it as. The film played well for me while it was playing — I wasn’t bored. But it’s far from the best movie I’ve seen this year — it isn’t even the best movie I’ve seen this week.

Let Me In

October 2, 2010

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Moretz are the best reasons to see Let Me In, the new American remake of Sweden’s 2008 Let the Right One In, though they’re not the only reasons. Their performances as Owen, a bullied, scared 12-year-old, and Abby, a strange girl who’s just moved next door to him, are delicate and beautifully calibrated. The movie itself — which drops the original film’s problematic cat-attack scene — has not one discordant note in it. In some ways, Let Me In feels more like a European art-house film than the original did. You expect a Swedish film to brood quietly and disregard American mainstream attention spans. You don’t expect a horror film playing in just over 2,000 theaters nationwide to follow suit. Am I saying that Let Me In trumps its predecessor? Let’s say each film has its strengths; the American remake stands honorably on its own and, to these American eyes, boasts better acting. They’re two excellent treatments of the same story. One just happens to be in English.

Director Matt Reeves did not begin his career auspiciously. His debut was not 2008’s Cloverfield, as I’m sure he’d like you to believe, but the all-but-forgotten 1996 David Schwimmer vehicle The Pallbearer. Among other foibles, the film did not play like the Graduate riff it was pitched as; it was ineffably glum and dark. Such was the reception of The Pallbearer that Reeves did not direct again for twelve years, when longtime buddy J.J. Abrams (with whom Reeves had created TV’s Felicity) handed him the keys to Cloverfield. I can say for certain now, thinking back on The Pallbearer through the prism of Let Me In, that Reeves has not only a talent but a taste for understated gloom.

The ads have spoiled it, so I’m not afraid to: Abby is not a normal girl. She travels with a much older man (Richard Jenkins), whom everyone takes to be her father, though she most likely has a few years on him. Abby is a vampire; she hungers for blood and nothing else — she can’t even hold down a bit of candy — and her stomach growls and revolts painfully when she hasn’t fed in a while. The older man is charged with getting blood for her, which usually means subduing some teenager, hanging him upside down, and cutting his jugular. (This effect is accomplished here more subtly, and thus more convincingly, than in the original.) Owen knows nothing of this; all he knows is that he’s glad of her attention — any positive attention — and he really likes her. Like, likes her likes her.

As in the original, this romance between a human and a vampire is much darker and more complex than anything in the Twilight saga. Does Abby feel any affection for Owen? Or is she simply eyeing him as a replacement for the increasingly ineffectual older man (who, we learn from a photo, joined her at an age close to Owen’s)? Kodi Smit-McPhee effortlessly puts across Owen’s fear at school (I also have to commend Dylan Minnette, who creates a realistically intimidating bully whose sadism is rooted in being bullied by his older brother), his sadness at turning invisible during his parents’ contentious divorce, his flickers of hope and happiness whenever he sees Abby. As for Chloë Moretz, she’s having a banner year (Diary of a Wimpy Kid and especially Kick-Ass), and her work here should write her a one-way ticket to whatever she wants. She isn’t around as much as Smit-McPhee, but Moretz makes her presence felt throughout the film; indeed, in her last two scenes we don’t see her face at all. What Moretz nails more than anything is the sense that Abby would like to be optimistic about her new friendship — would like to see it become something deeper than just a new delivery system for blood — but can’t quite bring herself to hope, because she’s seen too much, suffered too much. (Also, Abby’s ambiguous nature, much talked about in the original but reportedly dropped from the remake, is still there if you know to look for it, suggesting pain that goes beyond just being a vampire.)

If you love Let the Right One In and looked askance at the idea of a remake, I shared your skepticism, but Let Me In won me over. It doesn’t replace the original, which is still right there on the shelf. It retains the original’s quiet strengths and earns its wings as the vehicle by which American subtitle-phobes will watch this story. If you haven’t seen the original, that just means you have two treats in store.

Enter the Void

October 2, 2010

A lot of Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void unfolds through the eyes of its protagonist Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) — literally. The camera takes his point of view to the extent of blinking when he blinks. I, on the other hand, spent much of the two hour-and-18-minute running time not blinking. Enter the Void is not for the impatient (or those susceptible to motion sickness, since Noé’s vertiginous camera swirls around near-constantly during the last hour or so); it’s a massive, epic experiment that asks and presumes to answer the biggest of big questions — what happens after you die? Oscar, a low-level American drug dealer living in Tokyo with his exotic-dancer sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), is shot by police early on in the film, and most of the subsequent narrative follows his soul, or his spirit, or whatever, as it floats around Tokyo keeping tabs on the people he knew in life. There’s his scruffy friend Alex (Cyril Roy), who has a crush on Linda. There’s one of his buyers Vincent (Olly Alexander), whose mother has slept with Oscar on the sly. There’s his supplier Bruno (Ed Spear), said to have strange predilections involving ripe young buyers. We also travel with Oscar into his past, marred by his parents’ car accident when he and Linda were very young, and scarred by their resultant lack of development — Oscar has a definite mother/sister/breast fixation, and Linda herself likes to kiss Oscar in a decidedly unsisterly way.

If you’re going to make a lengthy meditation on life and afterlife, you might as well set it in the seamy sections of neon-drenched Tokyo, present a drug dealer and a stripper as your leads, and top it all off with gouts of state-of-the-art fractal eye-fucks. (I’d hardly expect a bold filmmaker to tell this story from the viewpoint of a film critic. Blink, watch a movie, blink, eat some pizza and surf the web, blink, write the review…) Enter the Void is a monster, often mesmerizing, sometimes trying. Noé, author of the polarizing and galvanizing I Stand Alone and Irreversible, sets the movie up as his grand statement, the dense volume his other work was leading up to. It attempts to nail down, in pure-cinema vocabulary, the highest of high mysteries — the eternal yin/yang connection between sex and death, eros and thanatos.

Nobody will remember this for the performances, although Paz de la Huerta’s furiously grieving Linda has a formidable freak-out, and the non-actor Cyril Roy makes something scuzzily amiable out of Alex. Nathaniel Brown, another non-actor, is blank in a way that works for the film, since Oscar’s experience is supposed to be ours (and we hardly ever see anything other than the back of his head anyway). The Oscar’s-POV style pulls us into his head, and even if we wouldn’t do what he does, or don’t share his particular psychological quirks, we’re with him by cinematic default. The look of the film is by turns grainy, razor-sharp, blurry, elegiac, normal, neon-strobe hell. Whatever team gets to master this beast for Blu-ray has their work cut out for them. Oh, and at one point we and Oscar go on a floating tour through the “Love Hotel,” where various couples go at it joyously or joylessly, their naughty bits glowing or giving off wafts of sexual energy visible, I suppose, only to voyeuristic spirits.

Enter the Void takes us up to the moment of death and beyond — convincingly, I guess; certainly nobody else has conducted an inquiry into these matters at such length and at such an intense pitch. The movie is metaphysically disorienting — you carry it with you after it’s over, because you’re still blinking, and you still feel as though you’re in Oscar’s headspace. Noé clearly expended an inhuman amount of effort and imagination and post-production elbow grease; if he announced that this would be his swan song, I wouldn’t be surprised — how do you follow up Enter the Void? The film will strike viewers as brilliant and profound, or vapid and pretentious, in roughly equal measure, much like Noé’s other work; it can stand alongside recent cult epics like Synecdoche, New York and Inception, and may even come within semen-spurting distance of Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski — poet-philosophers who brought their rigorous yet becalmed vision to bear on the essence of this trip we’re all on.

A gauntlet has been thrown here, I feel. Noé is not the first to try the individual tricks here, but the way he puts them all together, in service of something far larger than just a movie, is ferociously and uniquely his own. Whether you adore or loathe it, it takes a fearless, barrier-shattering behemoth like this film to kick a slumbering cinema up a step or two. Enter the Void is a real next-level achievement.