Posted tagged ‘5 stars’

The World’s Greatest Sinner

August 24, 2008

All independent filmmakers and cult-flick fans must bow down to the low-rent majesty that is Timothy Agoglia Carey’s The World’s Greatest Sinner. Shot on the cheap over the course of three years in the downmarket sections of L.A., the movie tracks the journey of Clarence Hilliard (Carey), an insurance salesman who bugs out and starts his own political-spiritual movement. Clarence promises his followers that they can become God, or “superhuman beings,” and soon takes to calling himself God Hilliard. He riles up the youth by spreading his message via spasmodic rockabilly (which made Lux Interior of the Cramps a fan of the film for life), flailing on his guitar and then yowling “Please, please, please, please…TAKE…MY…HAND!” as the crowd goes nuts. Maynard James Keenan, eat your heart out.

This beautifully overwrought and seamy DIY masterpiece (John Cassavetes famously said it packed “the brilliance of Eisenstein”) is, first and foremost, a glowing calling card for one of cinema’s true sui generis animals. Carey may be familiar to Stanley Kubrick fans for his indelible turns in The Killing and Paths of Glory; he was a notorious scene-stealer and general wild man who inspired awe and revulsion in his directors and co-stars in roughly equal measure. In The World’s Greatest Sinner he is front and center, the man, the force, dominating every frame and soaking the very celluloid with his passion and hipster strangeness. Laughing, weeping, bellowing, preaching, murmuring seductively to retired women and 14-year-old girls — no matter what Carey does, he does it to the max. I’ve long suspected that Nicolas Cage took a long look at Carey’s work before embarking on his own oddball career.

Cosmetically, TWGS is a rise-and-fall piece about a man’s hubris; at one point God Hilliard even sticks a pin in a host he nabbed from a church, leading to a great Carey rant: “BREAD! IT’S JUST BREAD! MOTHER! YOUR PRAYERS WERE FOR NOTHING!” What saves this from being a Jack T. Chick tract on film, though, is Carey’s sardonic and defiantly off-kilter cascade of ideas and genuine command of mood and tone, despite the movie’s lurching from goofball comedy to despairing tragedy. The scenes of God Hilliard conferring with his trusted assistants (one of whom is Satan) in shadowy rooms scoop The Godfather by a neat decade. Though the movie has been both reviled and lionized for its oddness, it’s pretty mainstream compared to some of Carey’s unrealized projects, like Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena, his intended follow-up to TWGS. The movie uses standard shots and narrative beats, but sneaks its anarchy in through a side door.

Scored by a young Frank Zappa (who later churlishly called Carey’s labor of love “the world’s worst movie”) and partially shot by future cult director Ray Dennis Steckler, TWGS may well be the epitome of psychotronic filmmaking. Since Carey died in 1994, his son Romeo has curated his memory and work, and the movie is available directly from Romeo’s website ( on videocassette. Believe me, it’s worth dusting off your VCR to catch an incomparable actor in full effect (he wrote, directed, produced, and distributed the thing himself). I used to think that Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter was the greatest example of an actor-turned-director who only directed one film. But Timothy Carey sure gives Laughton a run for his money.

The Dark Knight

July 19, 2008

The first misconception about The Dark Knight is that it’s a superhero movie. It’s not a superhero movie, or a crime drama either. It’s a horror movie — an epic one, and a great one. Madness and mutilation are on the menu, as well as disturbing ideas about the nature of humans. In the corrupt Gotham City as presented by cowriter-director Christopher Nolan, Batman (Christian Bale) might actually be making things worse. He operates outside the law, giving rise to loutish copycats with guns and makeshift Batman garb. He takes it upon himself to represent order, giving rise to a cackling agent of chaos known as the Joker, who wants to fiddle — or giggle — while Gotham burns.

The second misconception is that the late Heath Ledger gives a great swan-song performance as the Joker. I didn’t see Heath Ledger anywhere in this movie; there is only the Joker, unexplained, unreachable, unstoppable. The Joker is perhaps the most frightening character seen onscreen since Anthony Hopkins hissed at Jodie Foster behind Plexiglas. If it would amuse him to kill you or disfigure you, he will. If it would please him to take Gotham’s avatar of white-knightism, the incorruptible district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and sculpt him into a hideously ironic distortion of Harvey’s public image, he’ll do that too. The horror of the movie is that only a select few build nobility on a foundation of trauma; the rest fall away into hatred and psychosis.

The third misconception is that this is a Batman movie. It is, sort of, but only incidentally. As usual, Batman gets upstaged by his more colorful foes, though the glowing eyes in his cowl when he activates his new sonar device are a neat touch. It’s really an ensemble piece, with people all over Gotham — good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman/Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Batman’s tech guru Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Harvey’s girlfriend (and Bruce’s ex) Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) — getting drawn into the vortex created by the Joker’s insistence on Batman’s revealing his identity and Batman’s hesitance to do so.

The Dark Knight is beautifully shot (by Wally Pfister) and edited to within a millimeter of its life in order to come in at a manageable two hours and thirty-two minutes (which fly by). It feels rushed, especially towards the end; I look forward to an extended cut on Blu-ray. Nolan’s films seldom have any flab on them, but this one could’ve used a bit more breathing room. I would’ve liked more of crime-family head Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts, suavely amoral in what will undoubtedly be his most-watched performance ever), and a little more going on between Harvey and Rachel so as to prepare better for where Harvey’s character arc goes. And I would’ve enjoyed the action sequences more if they were conceived and composed with more clarity. Back when action films demanded practical stuntwork by men and women who were risking their lives, directors made damn sure you could see what was going on. With CGI, everything’s too easy, too manipulable in post-production.

Still, this is a remarkable achievement in suspense and mood. The near-mythical clash between Batman (whose darkness and rage are forever held just barely in check) and the Joker (who happily lets his darkness and rage off the leash — if they were ever on a leash) dominates the film in a way it didn’t, quite, in Tim Burton’s mordantly amusing Batman (1989). Burton used the midnight-blue world of Batman to express himself (you could hear him telling Batman, “See, to them you’re just a freak — like me”); Nolan uses it to make points about our psychological DNA. Bizarre and pulpy as it may seem on the outside, The Dark Knight speaks uncomfortable truths about why we are what we are, as many classic horror films do. It’s a contest between evil men who fiercely show their ravaged faces to the world and a good man whose face is unscarred but hidden anyway.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

July 13, 2008

In Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Guillermo del Toro lets his freak flag fly. The Mexican fantasist behind such sui generis dark fairy tales as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (and also the first Hellboy film) clearly spent his childhood devouring every issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland he could get his mitts on, and he’s still spending his childhood that way. Hellboy II is densely packed with creatures huge, small and human-sized, particularly in an episode when Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his teammates from the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense have a look around some sort of troll bazaar tucked away under the Brooklyn Bridge. So many unspeakable and indescribable beasts lurch, waggle, and slither within the frame — often in the background — that the effect is less horrifying than celebratory. “I’m home,” del Toro might be saying.

Slight bad news first: Hellboy II suffers — a little — from del Toro’s shoot-the-works spirit, just as his friend Peter Jackson got lost in his Skull Island playpen. There’s always a lot going on, though the plot is comic-book simple; del Toro and cowriter Mike Mignola (who created Hellboy for Dark Horse Comics) garnish this dish so heavily that the palate becomes overwhelmed and even a little jaded. Like Jackson, even so fecund a magician as del Toro just can’t keep topping himself, and it must be said that the subtitular Golden Army, which figures in the overstuffed climax, feels like something out of a Mummy film. Whenever del Toro gets behind the wheel of a pop apocalypse like this one, cinematic gigantism takes over, not always to the movie’s benefit.

But still. Del Toro makes plenty of room for beauty and pathos, without which a monster mash is merely an advanced arts-and-crafts show. Hellboy is still smitten with Liz (Selma Blair), who commands fire and wishes the big red lug would clean up once in a while. It’s a clichéd conflict, but it also gets to the heart of their unstable relationship: bad enough he’s a stogie-chomping alpha male — he’s also a demon. Against all odds in this creature-infested summer blockbuster, Perlman and Blair do honest, hurtful work together. Hellboy’s teammate, the amphibian Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), also gets weak in the knees over a dame — in this case, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), of a dying race of elves, whose twin brother Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) wants to squash all the humans and make the earth safe for inhumans again.

The multiplex hasn’t exactly been safe for humans lately; WALL•E told us we were becoming bloated simpletons, and Hellboy II considers us inelegant little monkeys whose reaction to the extraordinary is fear and loathing. But I can’t say these movies don’t have a point: we do suck in a lot of ways. Yet our complicated response to movie monsters, a mix of dread and pity which redeems us, has powered dark fantasy film since its birth. At least twice, del Toro tips his hat to Universal monsters, with Boris Karloff intoning “We belong dead” on a TV and perhaps echoing Hellboy’s thoughts at a self-hating moment, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon mirroring Abe’s predicament as a fish-man in thrall to a princess. Awkward as the plotting is, the movie is too stubbornly weird, too deeply in love with freakishness, to be waved off.

The production values are sky-high here, and del Toro scored a coup when he recruited Danny Elfman to compose the music this time; Elfman fills the soundscape with basso-profundo drama, knockabout comedy, and even a bit of Godzilla larking when Hellboy faces off against a giant Forest God, the last of its kind. Prince Nuada almost derails Hellboy by reminding him that this creature Hellboy wants to destroy is unique, much like Hellboy and his friends, and Hellboy has to make a choice: the monster or humanity? It’s nowhere near an easy choice, and the bizarre and conflicting feelings this sequence — not to mention the rest of the film — raises is worthy of a fantasist at the top of his game. I sort of let the story — the official excuse for why we’re really there — go by in a blur; the meat of it is in the shedding of a single tear by monsters who didn’t think themselves capable of it. At its best, Hellboy II conjures with delicate and very human magic.


July 7, 2008

A powerful being who does more harm than good isn’t funny — it’s scary. Scarier still, at least to some citizens of this great land, is a powerful black being. (Remember that in the fall, when what Jon Stewart calls “Baracknophobia” swings into high gear.) Still, Hancock, starring Will Smith as a drunken, surly übermensch who costs Los Angeles more in property damage than the bank robberies he’s wantonly trying to stop, doesn’t get much into race — at first. Hancock isn’t hated because he’s a black superman — he’s hated, like Jack Smurch in James Thurber’s satirical story “The Greatest Man in the World,” because he has remarkable gifts and yet is still a dickhead. (He’s like Mike Tyson without the clammy psychosexual unease.) At the same time, he’s every racist’s worst stereotypical nightmare — an embodiment of what crackers think blacks will do with a little power (get drunk, bust shit up, sleep on park benches).

It’s good — isn’t it? — that Will Smith, probably Hollywood’s most valuable African-American player, feels comfortable enough to take on a role like Hancock. (Much as I admire him as a filmmaker, I shudder to think what Spike Lee will have to say about it.) Smith invests Hancock with enough of his offhand charisma to put us on his side no matter how much damage he wreaks. Hancock isn’t evil; he’s just lost, the only superhuman on earth (as far as he knows), and he’d rather be left alone to drain bottles and forget how weird his life is. He muscles through the movie under a cloud of sarcasm: at this point he’s so bored by criminals he just plants himself in their back seat during a police pursuit, waiting for them to be stupid so he can make this outing somewhat worth his while.

Teaming Will Smith the alcoholic Superman with Jason Bateman was a stroke of casting genius. Bateman is Ray, a struggling worker bee in public relations, whose life Hancock saves; Ray pays him back by offering to improve Hancock’s image. Ray’s young son (Jae Head) idolizes Hancock; his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) doesn’t — she can hardly stand to be in the same room with him, it seems. Theron summons up some power in her sparring with Smith, who makes Hancock baffled and intrigued — who is this woman who seems to have as much contempt for him as he does for most humans? Scurrying around all this, trying to make everyone happy, Bateman draws on his quick-witted Michael Bluth groundedness and keeps the movie founded on humanity. (It’s also a treat for Arrested Development fans to see him reunited with Theron, his girlfriend in the “Mr. F” storyline.)

Directed by the perpetually underrated Peter Berg, Hancock delivers the comic-book thrills with a twist — the movie may have scooped what the Iron Man sequels probably intend, making Tony Stark an erratic drunk useless as a hero. (It also scoops the Watchmen movie with its sequence of Hancock jailed among all the criminals he put behind bars.) The script’s iconoclastic take on powerful immortals took me back to Alan Moore’s Miracleman, of all things, wherein the god met a goddess, making his mortal wife feel like a weak bag of meat. The film leaves us with a lot to chew on vis-à-vis race and power, especially when Hancock learns more about his past (shrouded in amnesia) — it’s not the usual toothless riff on Richard Pryor’s “Supern—–” routine. Some have voiced issues with the third act, but that’s where I felt it got really interesting. Though not based on an existing comic book, Hancock is like a graphic novel that perhaps leads to a regular series — at least I hope it does, either onscreen or on the comics racks. It’s certainly the most complexly ornery superhero flick we’re likely to get this summer.


June 28, 2008

Even a robot can become human by watching old movies. Specifically old musicals in which people dance and hold hands. WALL•E, a determined little trash compactor on wheels, diverts himself all day finding bits of debris left behind by the humans who departed Earth 700 years ago. But really all he wants is someone’s hand to hold. WALL•E is a thoroughly charming and intensely moving film about loneliness and devolution, and how both conditions can be corrected. I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece; what I do know is that it is perfection. The movie has a strong simplicity that rivals, and sometimes equals, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. It’s E.T. for the iPod generation.

WALL•E’s routine is broken one day by the arrival of EVE, a sleek robot who looks like a first-wave iMac crossed with an owl. EVE zips around the barren planet, scanning for signs of organic life. WALL•E shows her a plant, which he’d found still miraculously alive inside a refrigerator. (Between this movie and the fourth Indiana Jones film, wherein Indy rode out a nuclear bomb blast inside a fridge, it certainly is the season for this heretofore unheroic appliance.) Her directive is to take the plant back to the massive spaceship Axiom, where bloated humans suck up liquid meals and are catered to by machines. By then, though, WALL•E has already fallen hard for EVE. She nearly kills him a few times, of course, but eventually she calms down and is intrigued by this skittish, humming little packrat.

Directed by longtime Pixar animator Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), WALL•E gets a lot of mileage from slapstick but is just as capable of almost indescribable beauty. Consider the sequence in which WALL•E and EVE float in outer space. He’s propelled by a fire extinguisher; she zooms around on her own power. Earlier, in WALL•E’s cramped hidey-hole, they try to dance along to the musical playing on WALL•E’s videotape but can only manage a clunking, floor-shaking parody. Here in weightless space, their dance becomes a pursuit-and-retreat mating ritual, and when they face each other on opposite ends of the wide frame it’s like the old scene with lovers running towards each other across a field. Stanton suffuses the movie with love of movies, and love as seen in movies. It’s a true all-around valentine.

Some have called the satire of oblivious, hapless consumers — and the corporation that dictates their lifestyles — a bit heavy-handed. I didn’t find myself noticing it much; I imprinted on lonely little WALL•E early on and never lost his emotional thread. Once he sees EVE, nothing will keep him from her. This faceless robot, with camera eyes that tilt upward in despair or wistful hope, is the most expressive character we’re likely to see at the multiplex this summer. Veteran sound man Ben Burtt is the voice of WALL•E, ringing endless joyous or crestfallen variations on one or two words; he’s matched beautifully by Elissa Knight, who as EVE manages to invest a word like “Directive” with volumes of regret and apology. I can see why some people will prefer the first third and grow weary of the more conventional hijinks aboard the Axiom; perhaps it’s because WALL•E and EVE are so magically right together that one wouldn’t mind turning the entire 97 minutes over to them cooing and bleeping at each other.

Movies by their very nature are manipulative. WALL•E comes honestly by the tears it earns, not just in the sad moments but in the moments of bliss. Past a certain point I’m not really qualified to review the film as an adult, since I quite readily regressed to about six years old through most of it. I can tell you that the six-year-old laughed and cried and was with WALL•E every step (or roll) of the way. But the adult also found things to love. Among other things, WALL•E is a testament to the human ability to improve and transcend: even 700 years after Earth became too toxic to sustain life, there’s still hope. And if you’re a stinky little trash compactor on wheels who just wants to hold someone’s hand, there’s hope for you, too. WALL•E is the most generous and romantic vision to hit mainstream movies in a very long time.