Archive for April 2012

The Raven

April 29, 2012

For many years now, Sylvester Stallone has talked about directing a film about Edgar Allan Poe. He wouldn’t star in it — last I heard, Robert Downey Jr. was the favorite — but a lot of onlookers have doubted heavily that the man who directed Stayin’ Alive could do justice to a complex figure like Poe. Well, The Raven has obligingly come along to make anything Stallone could come up with look austere and intellectual. The movie puts our embattled author — lord help his poor soul — at the center of a murder mystery wherein the killings mimic his stories. Even Stallone wouldn’t have had the hubris to have Poe riding a horse while firing a gun into the Baltimore fog, but this film does.

If you’re a Poe fan, you might enjoy such details as a reference to Poe’s ill-fated wife, the princely sum he was paid for his famous poem “The Raven” (nine dollars), and an explanation of why he said “Reynolds” on his deathbed; you might also enjoy seeing Poe’s nemesis Rufus Griswold, the critic who in real life lived to defame Poe after the latter’s death at age 40, unwillingly re-enacting “The Pit and the Pendulum.” But if you’re savvy enough to spot all these things, The Raven won’t be nearly enough to keep you awake. For one thing, serious Poe fans have read any number of Poe-as-detective stories and novels, and William Hjortsberg’s 1995 fiction Nevermore also concerned a murderer patterning his crimes after Poe’s work, though it was Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle, not Poe, on the killer’s trail. Now that would’ve made a much cooler film.

The Raven is coarse and stupid, pitched to the jocks in the audience despite all the chat about literature, with anachronistic profanities and turns of phrase, as when someone refers to himself as Poe’s “biggest fan.” The killer is disappointed that the drunk and disorderly Poe (John Cusack) has stopped writing tales of the grotesque and arabesque in favor of poetry and lit-crit, so he has kidnapped Poe’s sweetheart Emily (Alice Eve) and threatens to kill her unless Poe writes new stories about this ongoing case — in effect, becoming the killer’s collaborator. This premise sounds promising, but the execution is dullsville; it sorely needed a gothic sensibility like Tim Burton’s, but what it got was non-entity James McTeigue, who previously distinguished himself with V for Vendetta and Ninja Assassin. McTeigue has no apparent feeling for 19th-century America; a lot of it looks like cheap backlot or green-screen. This movie needs madness and delirium swirling around in it like fog, but all it has is fog.

If you’d told me twenty years ago that someday John Cusack would play Edgar Allan Poe, I’d have advised you to cut back on the nepenthe. But here he is, and he isn’t the problem with The Raven. He plays Poe as an arrogant elitist who knows how much he’s wasting his gifts and his life. He’s constantly broke and near-constantly drunk, though we see that he drinks to kill his pain. Cusack puts across the more objectionable bits of Poe’s personality, but as an actor he can’t help projecting decency and affability, so we perceive a tension between the mask Poe wears publicly and the wounded person underneath. Despite the dumb script he has to enact, Cusack seems to feel honored to play Poe, even in a lukewarm pastiche like this, and he commits himself.

If you like Cusack and Poe, my advice is to rent The Raven someday and tune everything else out. That includes the non-actress Alice Eve, who couldn’t convey gravity if you dropped her off a cliff, and the unimaginative score by Lucas Vidal, and the dull Heath Ledger clone Luke Evans as an inspector on the case, and the way one sequence evokes the terror of “The Masque of the Red Death” only to climax with some dude on horseback with a note. “The inventive or original mind,” wrote Poe in a glowing review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, “as frequently displays itself in novelty of tone as in novelty of matter.” The Raven displays neither.


April 21, 2012

It’s weird to see Bob Marley without that iconic thick head of dreadlocks, which he called “my identity.” Near the beginning and end of the epic documentary Marley, we do indeed see a closer-cropped Marley — in his youth, when he was covering American hits like “A Teenager in Love,” and close to death, when chemotherapy had ravaged his identity but not his spirit. The latter is a tragic sight, the former sort of comic. One revelation, for a casual Marley listener like me who hasn’t dipped into the zillion or so biographies written about him, is that Marley didn’t emerge fully-formed. Once upon a time he was Robert Marley, a kid trying to do something with “What’s New Pussycat”; like Richard Pryor, whom he resembled in those pre-dread days, he took a while to find his own voice. Once he did, the serenely ecstatic sound of it moved millions.

Marley is a family-approved documentary (Marley’s oldest son Ziggy is one of the executive producers), co-produced by Bob’s own label Tuff Gong, so if there were any truly troubling aspects of his personality — aside from some anecdotes about his competitive streak, expressed best in his full-tilt foot races against his toddlers — we don’t hear much about them. He comes through when he speaks for himself, most often subtitled for the benefit of Western ears that can’t decipher his light patois. By and large, many other heads do the talking for him. In the end, the songs explain him most eloquently. We hear bits of dozens of them, including the dorm-room standards “Could You Be Loved,” “Stir It Up,” “Jamming,” and “No Woman No Cry.”

If that last song is true, Marley must’ve cried a lot. As the film tells us, he fathered eleven children by seven women; only three were with his official wife Rita, who more or less looked the other way as Bob welcomed a wide variety of lovers, including one-time Miss World winner Cindy Breakspeare. (Even a German nurse who treated Marley near the end tells us there was “a spark” between them.) When asked if Marley was charming, one woman looks bemused and answers “D’you know Bob?” Actually, we don’t, not really. When a man who only died 31 years ago inspires biographies numbering in at least double digits, it speaks of a man who was a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Marley buys into the view of him as a humble Trenchtown kid who became the voice of the poor and disenfranchised not only in Jamaica but worldwide. (The film reaches a climax of sorts during footage of his 1980 performance at Zimbabwe’s Independence Day.)

A little bit is made of Marley’s mixed ancestry: he was the son of an Afro-Jamaican mother and a white Jamaican father. After visiting the father’s construction offices and being turned away, Marley wrote “Cornerstone” (“The stone that the builder refused/Will always be the head cornerstone”). We get a sense of a much more complex figure than the hagiography of the film is really equipped to deal with: even at two hours and twenty-four minutes, Marley feels like a well-rendered sketch, but still a sketch for all that. It’s smoothly drawn, though (and nice-looking: one of the cinematographers was Christopher Nolan regular Wally Pfister); director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) does manage to suggest the turmoil Marley rose out of and seemed to be a part of despite himself. Pressured to come down on one side or the other during a particularly fraught conflict between the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party, Marley demurred, only to be shot in 1978. Soon after, he came out at his scheduled One Love Peace Concert and showed off his scars to the crowd.

“Holy Wound of the Left Arm of my Bob, I adore thee…” Well, the movie doesn’t go quite that far. The more relevant comparison would be to Achilles, though it was Marley’s toe, not heel, that started giving him trouble in 1977, portending the malignant melanoma that would later infest his entire body. This was thought by those close to him to be more of a caucasian disease than a black one, so if you take that all the way, the white man in his very DNA killed him. The movie doesn’t do much with this irony, nor the added irony of Marley’s sojourn to a holistic clinic in Germany, which barely a generation earlier would’ve treated an ailing Jamaican far less gently. Marley recounts a short life that seemed to straddle worlds and eras, and perhaps the definitive portrait will never be filmed or written. Until it is, though, there’s always the music.

The Cabin in the Woods

April 15, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods destroys itself. You don’t see very many movies do that, especially movies that open on 2,800 screens. It shows you the machinery inside itself, and then blows up the machinery. It’s a horror movie about horror movies; it destroys horror movies, too. It’s a bit on the cold side, as a lot of clever films are. It’s a semester of horror tropes packed into 95 tight minutes, with sidebar snark about bureaucrats. It’s the work of two wise guys — writer-director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon — sitting in the back of the classroom, snorting disdainfully about the cheap stuff horror movies scare us with but also admitting that the cheap stuff is fun. The Cabin in the Woods has too much on its agenda to be truly scary (though it has its moments), but it’s the most fun I’ve had at a horror film since Trick ‘R Treat, which also toyed with horror clichés. It’s a big gift bag handed to horror fans with a cheerful invitation to root around inside.

Cabin starts out mysteriously, at an antiseptic facility manned by blasé techs. In the first of the movie’s really good jokes, we freeze-frame on a dull shot of two of the techs — played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as regular-guy mad scientists — and the movie’s title comes up, in huge, red, screen-filling letters. But where’s the cabin? Where are the woods? It seems designed to confuse the uninitiated. We get the cabin and the woods soon enough, as a quintet of college kids go off for a weekend. Goddard and Whedon sketch them in for us with quick, deft strokes — the jock (Chris Hemsworth), the virgin (Kristen Connolly), the party girl (Anna Hutchison), the stoner (Fran Kranz), the brain (Jesse Williams). They don’t know that they’re in a horror film or that they represent very familiar horror-film types.

That’s about all you should know going in; there are surprises beyond the obvious twist given away in the first five minutes. I can try to be oblique, though. Horror is chaos encroaching on order: when an idyllic summer afternoon drive becomes a nightmare, to quote the opening crawl from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or when the boogeyman comes, as in Halloween. In this movie, the horror is precise and controlled — the horror is order. And eventually, when true chaos arrives to scatter that order, horror fans everywhere will break into a wicked grin, and perhaps laughter. It’s as though the collective ghosts of horror past focused their wrath on the man-children and idiots who have held horror hostage for years with boring, derivative stories, remakes, sequels: this is the Whedon film that should be called The Avengers. And maybe it’s just me, but I thought David Julyan’s score kept threatening to turn into Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” otherwise known as the ooh-spooky pipe-organ music from 1962’s Phantom of the Opera and a hundred others.

Aside from how it plays roughly and relentlessly with what we expect from a horror film, does Cabin work as, well, a horror film, or is it a meta-essay like Funny Games? Goddard and Whedon aren’t into punishing the audience for what we came to see, what we want to see; that isn’t their game. They would, however, like us to think about why we come to see and want to see certain things in a horror film — why horror filmmakers work so hard to appease our base appetites for destruction. Their project goes deeper than a comparatively shallow exercise in deconstruction like the Scream franchise. That said, yes, the movie does work as an example of what it’s examining; it’s a bit like Alan Moore’s Watchmen that way, in that it looks under the hood while acknowledging that the rusty, oily engine still runs, otherwise why bother looking at it? People still stupidly isolate themselves and die violently, and that still works our nerves the same old way.

God Bless America

April 6, 2012

In his new black comedy God Bless America, writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait vents about some of the cultural detritus that annoys him — or, given the typical lead time for low-budget indie cinema, the stuff that annoyed him a few years ago. American Idol! Spoiled reality-show princesses! People who chat on their cell phones during a movie! People who take up two parking spaces! Fuck those people, amirite? At the risk of sounding like one of the trendoids Goldthwait despises, this is all so 2004 (at the very latest). The movie does gesture at more recent irritants like the Tea Party, but even that reaches back a few years, and the bit about the Fred Phelps-style protesters might’ve felt fresher if Kevin Smith’s Red State hadn’t scooped it. God Bless America isn’t a bad movie, but it’s a step back from the more daring material Goldthwait’s been doing, like 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad, or even his directing debut, 1992’s criminally underrated Shakes the Clown.

Joel Murray, Bill’s younger brother, is Frank, a sad sack who gets fired and learns that he may have a brain tumor. Even before that, though, Frank is fantasizing about storming into his cretinous neighbors’ apartment and blowing away their incessantly crying baby with a shotgun. He’s obviously unstable and ready to pop, and a night of channel-surfing through the various outrages on TV squeezes his mental pimple. Frank seems to fixate on a Will Hung-type contestant on an American Idol-like show as proof that America has become a nation of cruel, vapid bullies. While stalking an insufferable reality-show brat, Frank meets a teenager, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who’s as disaffected as he is. For a while, Roxy might be Frank’s imaginary friend, spurring him on to a killing spree, though that possibility ends when a cop sees her in Frank’s stolen car. Too bad, because that might’ve been an interesting touch.

We spend most of our time watching Frank and Roxy platonically hanging out in between killing annoying people. The killings are presented in such a deadpan, facile manner — these two don’t murder in the heat of rage, they just coolly execute the rude — that I kept thinking it was all in Frank’s head, especially since the pair go so long without getting caught despite carrying out most of their crimes in broad daylight in a bright yellow car. How literally are we meant to take the killing spree? Sometimes Goldthwait seems to intend Frank and Roxy as avatars of his and our own disgust, particularly when he gives Frank lengthy, vituperative speeches that sound like Goldthwait talking. It’s probably cathartic as hell for Goldthwait, but a lot of the targets, as I said, are made of very stale straw.

Here’s the problem: Aside from the fact that many of Goldthwait’s pet peeves aren’t exactly up-to-the-minute — which means God Bless America is dated now and will only get more so — only someone in the foulest mood would define an entire country by passing fads and fringe idiots. I kept waiting for Frank to exhibit some icky, troubling behavior (other than killing folks, of course) that would discomfit us for enjoying his crimes. Joel Murray occasionally lets his face go dangerously slack, looking like the stone psychos we see on TV after a mass murder, but mostly Frank’s presented as a regular schmoe who goes rogue. I hate to say it, but Observe and Report was a lot more disturbing — yes, a major-studio film starring Seth Rogen was edgier than a Bobcat Goldthwait film that begins with a man daydreaming about killing an infant. That’s partly because that film was subverting what the audience expected from a Seth Rogen flick and partly because Rogen’s rage was both organic and non-specific. And I guess it isn’t Goldthwait’s fault that the unbalanced-dude-with-grrl-sidekick thing was done so recently, and better, in Kick-Ass and Super.

I don’t hold Goldthwait’s past as a funny-voiced stand-up comedian and Police Academy regular against him. I think he’s one of the most original comedy directors we’ve got. He’s done bold stuff before, and I hope he gets a chance to do it again, but God Bless America feels like a project he got the money to make from some like-minded financiers — yeah, man, stick it to those American Idol judges! (The shot at a Simon Cowell-style judge seems kind of forlorn now that the actual Cowell’s been off the show for, what, two years now?) And by the time he got behind the camera, the anger had dissipated — that’s the problem with directing your own rage-fueled script you started writing years ago; it’s hard to sustain that level of bile for so long. So we don’t feel Frank’s fury, nor are we horrified by his actions. We don’t feel much of anything, and that’s not something I ever expected to say about a Goldthwait film.