Archive for August 2013

The World’s End

August 31, 2013

130823154838-worlds-end-movie-still-story-topOnce again, Edgar Wright has directed the brightest bit of fun in a lugubrious summer. The World’s End starts out as a rueful where-have-the-years-gone comedy in the mold of Grosse Pointe Blank (complete with killer soundtrack) and somehow morphs into a mid-period John Carpenter sci-fi film (complete with stock-still antagonists whose eyes and mouths glow like Christine’s headlights, bisecting the wide frame with blue lens flares). Both movies within this movie are fresh and convivial, though the structure borrows from Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, in which the distracted protagonists were oblivious to the scope of the problem for a comically long time. Here, the problem is people in the town of Newton Haven being replaced by robots who shed blue blood (aristocrats?) and lose their limbs a tad too readily to be the terminators they seem to want to be.

Gary King (Simon Pegg), an alcoholic ne’er-do-well approaching forty, yearns for the golden year of 1990 — the year he and his four best mates from school tried and, alas, failed to drink their way through twelve pubs in a night. Gary contrives to convene the old lads again — Andy (Nick Frost), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Peter (Eddie Marsan) — though they’ve all moved on and become respectable. Gary’s epic idea is to re-enact the pub crawl, and finish it this time. Eventually the lads give in, knowing that arguing with Gary is futile. At the fourth pub in the crawl, it becomes fairly evident that all is not what it seems.

It’s entirely possible that, like Grosse Pointe Blank, The World’s End will resonate most directly and viscerally for those who were Gary’s age or thereabouts at the dawn of the ’90s. The bold strut, early on, of Primal Scream’s “Loaded” (with its bite from Peter Fonda: “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! And we wanna get loaded!”) took me right back to college and assured me I was in good nostalgic hands. But the songs aren’t just Super Sounds of the ’90s; many of the tunes, like the one noted, express the film’s theme of pursuing freedom in the face of authority and conformity. Wright and Pegg, who again cowrote the script, tweak the other four fellows for putting their party days aside, but Gary emerges as the film’s saddest character, a freedom fighter in his own mind who in truth wears the thickest chains.

The movie casts Pegg and Frost against type: in their previous two efforts with Wright, Pegg was the uptight striver and Frost the dissolute screw-up, and here it’s the reverse. The scenes of Gary trying to reconnect with his resentful former best mate Andy play like a scrawnier Falstaff appealing in vain to the fond memories of Prince Hal. Gary is also the right age to have seen, memorized, and worn out the video of Withnail & I, though the film is sensibly never addressed here — we look at Gary and we know he sees himself as Withnail 2.0, sneering in the rain “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?,” though missing the tragic point of that famous scene. Pegg gives us a delusional anti-hero who develops into a deeply flawed hero and eventually, by movie’s end, a bona fide John Carpenter hero.

By turns, The World’s End is better-choreographed than most of what’s been passed off as action this summer; funnier than most comedies this season; and, at times, scarier than most horror films in the last few months — the scene involving Gary’s old flame Sam (Rosamund Pike) and a pair of twins is pretty creepy. It’s a full package of entertainment, genuflecting to the sci-fi of John Wyndham as well as to the cinema of John Carpenter (who adapted Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos). As in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright and Pegg love to mix their British and American pulp influences into one spiky drink. I wasn’t a huge fan of Hot Fuzz, feeling that Wright and Pegg were too smart to go on riffing on other creators’ work, but what they’ve done here feels personal, not so much derivative. There’s a sincere melancholy to it. You literally can’t go home again, nor, apparently, can you drink there the way you once did.

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The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book

August 30, 2013

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To acknowledge Robert Crumb’s 70th birthday today, I’m hauling the following 1998 review out of mothballs.

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Watching Deconstructing Harry recently, I realized that Woody Allen had come as close as anyone to putting the sensibility of R. Crumb onto the screen — certainly unintentionally, but the similarities are striking. All the Crumb trademarks are there in Allen’s film: the self-loathing so extreme it crosses the line into narcissism; the obsession with women as fetish objects; the compulsion to spew one’s demons out through one’s art; the indifference to the pain this spewing might cause others. The resemblance is even physical; with their milquetoast features and Coke-bottle glasses, they could be brothers.

Allen’s and Crumb’s career arcs intersect neatly — both men started out with cartoonish humor and gradually got deeper and darker — though I don’t believe that Crumb would be a Woody fan, or vice versa. (They’re too alike in the wrong ways.) But Allen, by virtue of writing, directing, and acting in movies (not to mention the Soon-Yi thing), is much more a household name than Crumb, who remains a titan among comics artists and fans but — even after the brilliant 1995 documentary about him — still isn’t nearly as recognized as he should be.

Many of you know Crumb even if you don’t know Crumb: He’s the one who did the “Keep On Truckin” logo you saw everywhere in the ’70s, and he created Fritz the Cat, appropriated in 1972 by Ralph Bakshi for the notorious X-rated animated feature of the same name. Both Fritz and the Truckin’ logo make appearances in The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book, a gorgeous new 250-page retrospective of the life and work of America’s greatest living cartoonist. (Not entirely accurate: born in Philadelphia, the disenchanted Crumb moved to France in 1991.)

Packaged by Kitchen Sink (a longtime underground-comix publisher) for Little, Brown, this collection serves as a crash course in Crumb’s work. (Only with a cartoonist as insanely prolific as Crumb could a 250-page book be a tiny sampling.) Editor/art director Peter Poplaski has done a respectful job, colorizing Crumb’s b&w pages in subtle hues that generally don’t drown his intricate cross-hatching. Despite its title, this is too nice a volume (and too pricey: $40) to leave on a coffee table at the mercy of nachos and soda-can condensation rings. The second description fits better: it’s an art book.

Aided by a sort of narration by Crumb (who contributes hand-written pages of autobiographical anecdotes), the book flips through 40 years of Crumb’s life as an artist, from his homemade comics done with brother Charles (one of the two we met in the documentary) to his psychedelic phase in the ’60s to his France sketchbooks. One theme remains constant: the need to escape reality, and then to define and mirror it, through fantasy — first cheerful and childlike, then progressively sexual and nihilistic. He’s done wonderful pieces on popular music through the ages and biographical strips about blues legends, but his scabrous, uncensored material about sex and women is what’s usually remembered.

Crumb has never been a friend to feminists. His attitude is quite well summed up in this rant from a 1970 strip: “Would you like me to stop venting my rage on paper? Is that what you’d like me to do, all you self-righteous, indignant females? All you poor persecuted downtrodden booshwah cunts? … Well, listen, you dumb-assed broads, I’m gonna draw what I fucking well please to draw, and if you don’t like it, FUCK YOU!!” This rant shows a fine writer at work (it’s almost poetic in its slow-burn rhythm); it also shows maybe not the best human being. His art resolves this duality — he’s an alchemist making gold out of venom.

Even though he’s been married for two decades to Aline Kominsky (herself a cartoonist who is, if anything, even more self-loathing than Crumb) and has a daughter with her, Crumb’s ambivalence about women is still obvious. The book highlights his infamous Devil Girl, the character that appeared in his infamous strip shown in Crumb (she loses her head and the “hero,” Flakey Foont, finds her more attractive without it). We see that strip here, plus a life-size sculpture of her, and I couldn’t help noticing her eerie resemblance to Aline.

Okay, if he’s sick and sexist, why is he important? I could say that his work offers an unblinking view of sickness and sexism from the inside, but that would diminish it (just as it would diminish Dostoyevsky). Crumb gives his id free rein, following any lead, no matter how dark or repulsive, no matter how bad it makes him look. This in itself doesn’t equal art, but Crumb’s work has the added benefit of being funny — often appallingly funny, but still. And he has a Swiftian eye for the telling satirical detail. He nails Joe Sixpacks as ruthlessly as he skewers upper-middle-class intellectuals. He drags everyone down into the shit, and he makes sure that he doesn’t get away clean, either. (He’s a little better-looking than his uglified self-portraits would indicate.)

Perhaps the best testament to Crumb’s power is this: When we got a copy of the book at our library, our custodian — a 60-year-old guy who usually favors only books about World War II and had almost certainly never heard of Crumb — sat in the break room with his nose buried in the book for an hour. Now, explicit sexual material only makes up about ten small panels and three full-page illustrations in the 250-page book. So it can’t just be the dirty stuff that kept him busy for an hour. I think the sex might have caught his eye, but he kept reading to see what other stuff this bizarre character had done. As The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book proves, Crumb has done a lot of other stuff indeed.

You’re Next

August 25, 2013

xsharni-vinson-youre-next.jpg.pagespeed.ic.96791YOdvaA lethal disease sometimes afflicts horror filmmakers. I call it “explainitis.” This disease has been known to erode mystique, decay plots, and dilute true terror. In the best home-invasion movie of recent years, The Strangers, the killers were asked “Why are you doing this to us?” Their response: “Because you were home.” That’s really all you need; any motive more explicit tends to drag shadowy demons into the withering sunlight of logic, and you might as well be watching Murder, She Wrote. (This is why David Lynch, who is not officially a “horror director,” has birthed some of the most frightening moments ever committed to film: he deals in mystery, dream logic. Nothing is scarier than the incomprehensible.)

You’re Next, a horror/siege thriller greeted in some quarters as if it were the second coming of Sam Peckinpah, has a raging case of explainitis. It trucks along efficiently until we have to stop and learn why this is all happening. We begin with a random couple murdered by people wearing animal masks. Then the story proper gets underway, as four thirtyish people, accompanied by their significant others, head to their wealthy parents’ house to celebrate their wedding anniversary. One of the parents is played by genre stalwart Barbara Crampton, making this the second thriller of the year (following Would You Rather, with Jeffrey Combs) in which a veteran of The Re-Animator presides over a dinner gathering that promptly turns brutal. Someone is outside with a crossbow. The whole family, except the unlucky one who happened to be at the window when the first arrow came through, convenes hurriedly in another room, and the cat-and-mouse game begins.

The family is dysfunctional, which means many scenes of bickering before the slaughter commences. One of their number, the Australian girlfriend of one of the sons, turns out to be quite competent at deflecting murderous intentions; Sharni Vinson, who plays her, is probably already being groomed as the next scream queen in a genre that’s been lacking one since Neve Campbell screamed her last, though if Vinson is lucky she’ll move on. She does a great deal of damage to the killers, who become oddly humanized through their pain and frustration. You’re Next flirts with being a meta-horror movie, which can be a way of making a routine slasher flick while making fun of routine slasher flicks. The engine, however, runs like a routine slasher flick.

For a small segment of the audience, the movie will play as a wink to fans of recent indie cinema: one of the sons is played by mumblecore director Joe Swanberg, while retro-horror director Ti West appears as the boyfriend of the family’s sole daughter. The film’s director, Adam Wingard, has collaborated with Swanberg on various projects and contributed, along with West and Swanberg, to the horror anthology V/H/S. None of this meant much to the uninitiated around me in the theater, many of whom were audibly exasperated with Wingard’s over-reliance on shaky-cam even when it isn’t called for (such as a simple shot of a family portrait on the wall). Wingard can set up a decent jump scare, even if none of them really made me jump. There’s some gratifyingly nasty dark comedy. It’s not a dud, but one way or another you’ve seen most of it before.

So is You’re Next really an artsy sheep in wolf’s clothing — i.e., a snide, deadpan send-up of home-invasion thrillers? It’s certainly not being marketed as such, which might explain my audience’s underwhelmed response to it. The motive, when it’s revealed, raises unfortunate questions and reduces the terror to a twisty gimmick that excludes our identification with the victims: Unless you’re one of these specific people, you’re not next — it’s not going to happen to you (not the way it does in this movie, anyway). The family’s patriarch is a retired national-defense worker, so I thought he might have been getting a political comeuppance, but no such luck. The movie is certainly more entertaining than The Purge from two months ago, though at least that film’s premise was more promising (even if it was squandered). If you combined the sci-fi elements of The Purge with the visceral violence and bleak humor (not to mention the crowd-pleasing Sharni Vinson character) of this film, you’d probably have a terrific siege thriller. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (either version) killed this genre and spat on its grave.

Kick-Ass 2

August 17, 2013

kick-ass-2-mindy-macreadyThe problem with being shocking is that you can only shock once. 2010’s Kick-Ass packed a fair amount of shock for those who hadn’t read the comic book it was based on. Here was a high-school boy, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who took to the streets in costume as the self-styled superhero Kick-Ass and found that fighting crime was grubbier and bloodier than it usually was in the comics. Here also was an eleven-year-old moppet, Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), who rattled off unprintables and drenched entire rooms with the arterial spray of gangsters. The whole affair was a winking satire of what the superhero genre had become, in comics and in the movies.

But, again, this sort of thing can only be fresh once. The Kick-Ass comic’s creators — writer Mark Millar, artist John Romita Jr. — turned out two sequels to the first series (Hit Girl and Kick-Ass 2), and are currently cranking out a third. The comics, trying to top the original story, have gotten progressively nastier. The movie Kick-Ass 2, based on elements drawn from the first two follow-ups, softens those elements considerably. Gone, for instance, is a scene in which Kick-Ass’ nemesis (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who went by Red Mist in the first film but has rechristened himself the Mother Fucker, guns down four little kids and goes on to rape Kick-Ass’ girlfriend. The movie, showing more satirical wit than Mark Millar did, short-circuits the rape before it begins, and no little kids are harmed. In some ways the movie is more ruthless: the Mother Fucker will not be back for Kick-Ass 3.

Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, Kick-Ass 2 does deliver spatially clean action set-pieces that build nicely and sometimes, as when a fearsome brute called Mother Russia deals with a pack of cops, outdo what John Romita Jr. drew. (The use of a lawnmower in particular made me happy.) The Kick-Ass movies have also succeeded in attracting eccentric stars for support: the first film had Nicolas Cage as Hit Girl’s doting superhero dad, and here we have Jim Carrey, obviously enjoying himself at the time despite his post-Sandy Hook misgivings later, as a superhero team leader named Colonel Stars and Stripes. Carrey satirizes this gravel-voiced born-again-Christian hero but doesn’t ridicule him — in his way, the Colonel is a man of honor trying to redeem his past as a mob enforcer. When Carrey leaves the movie, a substantial amount of energy goes with him.

The movie is most interesting when Hit Girl, now living with a cop guardian and trying very hard to be a nice girl named Mindy Macready, navigates the social pitfalls of high school (she’s fifteen now). Hit Girl has always been a bit softer onscreen than on the page, because Chloe Moretz projects the warmth and charisma denied her comic-book predecessor, and she’s fun to watch here when trying to cope with mean girls in the cafeteria. The least interesting character continues to be poor benighted Kick-Ass himself, who functions here only as a target for the Mother Fucker’s vengeful fury. He often gets lost in the crowd — many of the folks on the Colonel’s team, like Night Bitch (Lindy Booth) or the parents looking for their missing son, are far more intriguing. They do it, like Batman, out of pain; Kick-Ass didn’t.

The Kick-Ass franchise has been a reliable piggy-bank for Millar and Romita, though it might not look as bright on Universal’s books — Kick-Ass 2 doesn’t seem to be packing ‘em in on its first weekend, and might peter out much as the Mother Fucker does. The comics haven’t been particularly inspiring either — just more of the same foul language and slice ‘n’ dice and political correctness used as a piñata. Some things just shouldn’t be ongoing concerns, and perhaps the satirical world of Kick-Ass is one of them. The first Kick-Ass comic and the first Kick-Ass movie said that the concept of superheroes is absurd, an idealistic bubble that pops bloodily against the sharp edges of reality. Once you’ve said that, what can you say that isn’t merely saying it again louder?

Elysium

August 10, 2013

elysium8f-10-web“Late in the 21st century,” we’re told at the beginning of Elysium, “Earth is diseased, polluted, and vastly overpopulated.” Late? How about early in the 21st century? But Elysium’s director, Neill Blomkamp (District 9), has anticipated this objection: “This isn’t science fiction,” he has said. “This is today. This is now.” Okay, so “now” is 2154, and humanity has been divvied up into two categories. The rich and powerful live in Elysium, a shining Club Med in the stars, where well-fed but slim people relax in their pools and tuck themselves into a Med-Pod whenever illness comes knocking. The poor and powerless are stuck on Earth, slaving away as cogs in a military-industrial machine. Elysium is an unapologetic Occupy film on a grand scale, a 99%-vs.-1% heroic fable that I dearly wish was more satisfying. But the narrative proceeds in frustrating stops and starts, and it cribs from too many of its predecessors to stand alongside them honorably.

The hero is Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a former felon turned scut-worker on the grungy skillet of Earth. Accidentally dosed with a massive amount of radiation at work, Max does not, to our surprise, turn into a Marvel superhero; he’s given five days to live (during which time his meds will keep him stabilized enough to continue working until he drops). Max’s only hope is to make it somehow to Elysium and avail himself of a Med-Pod, but, to paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply walk into Elysium; spacecrafts attempting to enter Elysium airspace illegally tend to get shot down. So Max and some fellow malcontents hatch a plot to sheathe the weakened Max in an exoskeleton, kidnap a CEO (William Fichtner), and transfer data from his brain to Max’s. A lot of our time seems to sink into watching Max trying to begin to prepare to go to Elysium, when what we want is to see him up there already, junk-punching one-percenters.

Damon is fine if a bit colorless, and when Max has a change of heart prompted by the cute-as-a-button leukemia-stricken daughter of his childhood sweetie, it’s more or less all over for Max as an interesting character. The little cherub regales Max with the story of a meerkat helped out by climbing a hippo, and Max asks “What’s in it for the hippo?” I longed for an anti-hero along the lines of S.D. Bob “Snake” Plissken, who wouldn’t ask that because he knows there’s nothing in it for the hippo. Snake was heroic inadvertently; Max is heroic because he’s at the center of a $98 million movie.

There’s more going on with satellite characters like Spider (Wagner Moura), a hacker who helps Max fill his head with data, and Fichtner’s CEO, a man of such faultless calm that he informs his security robots during the kidnapping, “They are armed. I would like them dead.” There’s also Sharlto Copley, star of Blomkamp’s District 9, as a scurvy and insane mercenary whose South African accent jabs the air with hostility and, on rare occasions, achieves comprehensibility. “I always wanted a woff,” he shouts; cut to me in the audience going “Wait, what? Is that futuristic dialect? … Oh. Oh, he means wife.” As for second-billed Jodie Foster, who plays the ice-blooded Secretary of Defense of Elysium, she has a fine old time developing her own goofy accent and luxuriating in suavely callous evil. Her performance will inevitably be summed up as “bad” in some quarters, but those quarters need to get out more often. She’s a hoot.

Blomkamp’s District 9, one of the best of its year, spun an intriguing allegory out of aliens living among humans. The characters were fresh, the viewpoint fresher. We welcomed a new voice to science-fiction cinema. But Elysium has no particular voice. It’s too clotted with plot and strategy. As with the recent Antiviral, the premise outpaces the lumbering story — we may ask why we’re watching this story. What’s life like on Elysium? It looks nice, but we never get to know anyone other than the hissable main villains. We barely get to know anyone on Earth, either. The way Blomkamp uses a dying little girl to pile urgency onto Max’s mission is cheap, as if we wouldn’t care about a dying adult. Visualized but not thought through, the bifurcated future society in Elysium ends up saying nothing more than Blade Runner — with its blimps touting “the chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure” in off-world colonies — said with far more force and wit 31 summers ago.

The Canyons

August 2, 2013

20130802-230443.jpgOn paper, the director Paul Schrader and the writer Bret Easton Ellis seem like a match made in frozen hell. The work of both men is cold around the heart, exploring violence and neurasthenic sexual deviance. It’s possibly no coincidence that the tombstone achievements for this pair are Taxi Driver (Schrader’s script) and American Psycho (Ellis’ novel). They have now collaborated on a microbudget indie film, The Canyons, which has gained some notoriety from the off-camera antics of its star, Lindsay Lohan, and the travails she caused the production. LiLo, in truth, isn’t the movie’s problem; she often seems like the only committed, professional performer onscreen, especially next to porn star James Deen (né Bryan Sevilla), who plays her movie-producer boyfriend.

Ellis likes complicated love/sex triangles, and so the central couple, Tara (Lohan) and Christian (Deen), regularly engage in casual swinger sex with people they find on the internet. Both have old flames; Tara used to be in love with Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), a struggling wannabe actor who has a part in Christian’s upcoming horror movie shooting in New Mexico. Christian doesn’t mind if Tara has sex with someone in front of him, but if she lies to him about seeing someone behind his back, that infuriates him. He’s a control freak and also a manipulative jerk, to say the least.

Ellis usually writes this sort of thing with deadpan wit, but Schrader approaches the material in his standard dour, puritanical setting. The Canyons offers plenty of sex and nudity, filmed by Schrader in the so-cold-it’s-meant-to-be-hot mode familiar from American Gigolo, Cat People and Auto Focus. But sex for Ellis isn’t an occasion for desolation and shame; it’s all a power game. In brief, Ellis and Schrader bring out the worst in each other, and this production simply doesn’t have the money to achieve the heartless dry-ice, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-undead look it really needs. A lot of it seems to have been shot in someone’s borrowed upscale L.A. home. What violence there is unfolds elsewhere: You can film here, guys, but don’t get blood on the tiles.

There’s a great deal of spying and stalking and message-checking. People look at their phones instead of at their conversation partners whenever they can. A skipped heartbeat of dread develops when Tara gets texts from someone she doesn’t know, who offers cryptic information; Ellis got a lot of chilling mileage out of that trope in Imperial Bedrooms, his belated sequel to Less Than Zero. But the texts just lead to a character who’s treated contemptuously, as an afterthought. The Canyons packs little of the extremity and shock that mark Ellis and Schrader at their most indelible. It feels like, and in fact was, an on-the-cheap project they entered into in haste when an earlier film — the intriguing-sounding class-warfare thriller Bait — fell through. The movie was financed partly on Kickstarter, and everyone worked for peanuts. I see very little passion, though, very little animating emotion to explain why the film had to be made, why the story needed to be told.

James Deen, I think, has more screen time than Lohan does, and Schrader uses him as a found object the same way Steven Soderbergh used Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. Deen has porn-star swagger and an instinct toward domination — he moves comfortably, occupies other people’s space — but when he opens his mouth it’s strictly amateur hour. He doesn’t have a trained actor’s voice; he has the sound of, well, a performer in shot-on-videotape porno, flat and artificial. The other, lesser-known actors are competent but can’t do much with Ellis’ stylized, sometimes overexplicit dialogue. Lohan, meanwhile, throws off all sorts of morose, bitter energy that keeps us riveted to her but doesn’t always seem connected to the character she’s supposed to be playing. All of this happens in an off-Hollywood milieu that’s decently appointed but a little musty, more than a little depressing. Those hoping for something wild and crazy from the bad boys Ellis and Schrader, or even a good old hearty train wreck from Lohan a la her much-derided Liz and Dick from earlier this year, will look here in vain. A cult may form around it, but it’s bound to be a very tiny and cynical cult.