Saturday, May 16, 2009

Backfilling: "Escape from Alcatraz"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

In many ways, the most interesting thing about Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz is how quiet and atmospheric the damn thing is. Oh sure, it’s not without some theatrical flair (Clint Eastwood arrives at “The Rock” in the middle of a thunderstorm, and as he arrives in his cell, the guard’s “Welcome to Alcatraz” is followed by a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning from outside), but it is mainly a process piece, a step-by-step, nuts-and-bolts examination of exactly how this was done. The story is told in short, punchy, workmanlike scenes, punctuated by moments of brutality both expected (his fights with a taunting fellow inmate) and unexpected (a wince-inducing scene with a fire hose).

As usual, Siegel’s direction is a model of ruthless efficiency; this is a guy who knows how do get the job done and get on with it. Which is not to say he’s not above some neat tricks, or that he doesn’t shake things up with some moments of bone-dry wit. But he’s a good old-fashioned picture maker who knows when to get the hell out of his story’s way—particularly in the remarkable closing section, which trusts its own suspense enough to dispense with the expected music cues and play (as Rafifi did before it and Mission: Impossible after) in near-silence. That sequence is Siegel in a nutshell: he doesn’t overcook it, just puts it on a slow boil.

In Theaters: "The Brothers Bloom"

Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom is a delightfully nimble little movie, zipping and bobbing and weaving along for 113 deliciously enjoyable minutes and going down with the ease of an ice cream sundae. It is Johnson’s follow-up to the marvelous Brick, and is about as much of a 180-degree turn as you could ask for; there’s a touch of hardboiled dialogue (“Eat your waffles, fat man”), but it is nonetheless astonishing to see a filmmaker switch so deftly from a bleak neo-noir thriller to a sunny, joyous romp like this.

We meet confidence men Stephen and Bloom as young orphans, in an inspired (if Magnolia-ccentric) opening sequence that lays out how they came into the con game. We catch up with them twenty years later, still playing the same roles; Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is the mastermind, the planner, while Bloom (Adrien Brody) acts the roles but is perpetually unhappy and looking for a way out. They’ve been joined by a third—demolition artist “Bang Bang’ (Rinko Kikuchi, from Babel). Stephen convinces Bloom to come in on one last big job (will there ever be a con or heist movie about the first big job?), in which the mark is Penelope Stamp (the radiant Rachel Weisz), a beautiful and ridiculously rich New Jersey shut-in.

It sounds like a pat set-up, but Johnson’s script is wickedly smart and comes at the story from all sorts of sideways angles, which keeps the audience on its toes. Most interestingly, it provides Johnson countless opportunities for broad laughs; I expected funny lines (and even the throwaways—“Is this a ’78 Caddy? Controversial choice.”—are good), but as a director, Johnson shows off a terrific knack for visual comedy. He always frames his shots for the maximum comedic effect (there are as many great background gags as in a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker movie), and the fast cuts are perfectly timed; in the scene, for example, where Penelope explains to Bloom that she “collects hobbies” and he asks if any of them are interesting, we start laughing in the pause before the montage of her playing ping-pong and juggling and break-dancing, primarily because we’re so in tune with the film, and then we laugh again at the montage itself.

But he doesn’t just play for laughs, either. There are occasional twinges of lush romanticism (as in the lovely scene where Penelope and Bloom dance to “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”), and the script takes the brother dynamic seriously (sometimes heartbreakingly so). Johnson also has a lot of fun with the conventions of the caper movie—his long con is air-tight, if a little too drawn out, which becomes a bit of a problem in the third act.

Indeed, it is a disappointment to report that The Brothers Bloom doesn’t end quite as strongly as it begins. An important scene of confession between Bloom and Penelope ends before we have a chance to gauge her reaction—Johnson (or his editor) make the crucial mistake of presuming that we’re more interested in what he’s feeling than in what she is. Shortly thereafter, it careens into the expected series of plot twists and double-crosses, and while they’re certainly executed gracefully, they’re expected all the same. And they have the same result as these sorts of piled-on turns often do: we stop being emotionally invested in the story, because it’s all turning out to be a put-on anyway. That said, once the twists are done, the final sequence has a genuine (and unexpected) bit of genuine and effective emotion.

Weisz is absolutely warm and winning in what amounts to the leading role; she swings effortlessly from giddy enthusiasm to heartbreaking pathos (her deliberate reaction early in the film to Brody telling her she looks nice is a perfect little moment, an indulgence that this viewer was thankful for). Brody is an actor that I’ve never been particularly enamored of (he’s never bad, but he’s always just kind of there); his work here is good and occasionally inspired. Ruffalo is terrific; this is a perfect vehicle for his rakish, loopy charm, and he has a great time chewing on some whiz-bang dialogue (“I don’t like to simplistically vilify an entire country, but Mexico’s a horrible place”). Kikuchi says, I believe, one word of English (and not much more than that in any language), but she has a marvelous presence, and her skill for pantomime is legitimately reminiscent of Chaplin or Harpo Marx.

The tight close-ups and flashy dolleys of Steve Yedlin’s photography keep things moving nicely, as does Gabriel Wrye’s smooth editing and Nathan Johnson’s brassy score. But ultimately, it’s Johnson’s show. This is his coming-out party as a director, exciting proof that Brick was no fluke. He’s a born filmmaker—even if he hasn’t quite figured out how to avoid the traps of this picture’s genre.

"The Brothers Bloom" is currently playing in limited release.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Trailer: "Nine"

Let's be clear: I don't think we've seen a good musical film in a long, long time-- that includes the wretch-inducing Moulin Rouge and the highly overrated Chicago, which was the last film by Nine director Rob Marshall. But this trailer looks really interesting--it's kind of thrilling, the idea of a musical based on 8 1/2 intrigues me, the texture of the film (at least as presented here) is fascinating, and Jesus, what a good cast. Daniel Day-Lewis and Marion Cotillard and Nicole Kidman and Penelope Cruz and Judy Dench and Sophia Loren, and holy shit, is there a chance we're going to see Kate Hudson in a good film again? The mind boggles.

Oh, No Way I'm Seeing That: "Dance Flick"

Welcome to “Oh, No Way I’m Seeing That,” a regular feature in which we’ll take a look at a trailer for an upcoming film, and then examine exactly why there’s absolutely no way I’ll be seeing the advertised film. In this edition: The latest Wayans Brothers abortion, “Dance Flick.”

They’re not even hiding it—the voice-over instructs us that Dance Flick is from the auspices of the Wayans Brothers, “the masterminds behind White Chicks, Little Man, and Scary Movie.” Masterminds? Seriously? What’s remarkable is that there was a time where the Wayans Brothers were responsible for things that weren’t soul-suckingly bad (like “In Living Color” and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka), but audiences stupid enough to see something as asinine as Dance Flick aren’t old enough to remember back when the Wayans name didn’t equal a film that made you want to stab your fucking eyes out with a pair of gardening shears.

And yes, I realize that the first of the Scary Movie films wasn’t that bad. But it is still a force of evil, because two of its six (six!) writers were Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the functionally retarded writer/directors of Disaster Movie, Epic Movie, and Date Movie. So kudos to the image-savvy Wayans Brothers, for calling their opus Dance Flick instead of Dance Movie, so as to separate themselves. Smart move, guys! But their movie is still gonna blow.

Keep in mind, they usually put the best jokes into the trailer—you know, the ones that make you want to see the movie. So here, we have, um… that thing where she kicks people. And the head spin that goes through the floor. And the part where the guy punches the girl out! That’s funny. Oh, and they apparently send up Flashdance, a movie that’s twenty-six years old. Timely!

But I will say this: it is an honest trailer. They do, indeed, mention that these are the people responsible for White Chicks and Little Man. If you go see Dance Flick with that knowledge in place, well, to hell with you, you got what you deserved.

And although she’s not in this version of the trailer… Amy Sedaris. How could you?

Cassavetes: "Husbands"

John Cassavetes is a filmmaker I know quite a bit about, considering how little of his work I’ve seen. His seminal 1959 indie Shadows was on my viewing list in the run-up to what became a three-day stint at NYU film school (long story, don’t ask) back in 2001; I caught his second film, Faces, at a Museum of Modern Art screening last year. But at a rate of one film every seven years, it’ll take me quite a while to work my way through his filmography, so I figured I’d ramp it up (particularly considering how my interest in him amped up after reading the excellent biography Accidental Genius a while back).

So I’m going to take on the rest of the Cassavetes oeuvre over the next few weeks, starting with the third “real” Cassavetes movie (he made a pair of studio pictures, Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting, between Shadows and Faces, but they’re considered by most to be compromised and diluted, and besides that, they’re hard to track down). After the sleeper success of Faces, Cassavetes made Husbands, a free-wheeling, two-hour-plus midlife-crisis drama, heavy on improvisation and naturalism. He also put himself in a major role for the first time (his success as an actor in hits like Rosemary’s Baby and The Dirty Dozen had made him a bankable asset), co-starring with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara as a trio of successful suburban professionals who go on a multi-day binge of drinking and bad behavior in New York City and London following the death of a close friend.

Husbands is, in many ways, a quintessential Cassavetes film; it’s incredibly indulgent, but it also traffics in a purely observational, semi-detached, frequently spontaneous style that is still a little surprising. For every scene that doesn’t work, that drags and wanders (like the long, dull sequence where they sit around with a group of strangers in a New York bar and sing songs), there is another (like the scene where Cassavetes tries to pick up a girl at a London casino) that is so real and believable, it is extraordinary. Yes, that bathroom scene is borderline insufferable, but I’d gladly sit through it again to get to the moment where Gazzara grins and says proudly, “Look what I did to that phone booth,” or to Cassavetes’ response when that girl asks him, late in the film, “Do you like me?”

There’s a simplicity to the raw, unvarnished truth of that scene that makes you understand, with absolute clarity, why he was so revolutionary, and why his name is still spoken in reverential tones by indie filmmakers. Few directors have ever been so overstated yet understated, so decadent yet restrained. His films are frustrating. But there are these amazing things inside them, and the final sequence of Husbands is, in its own way, kind of shattering. This film, like many of his others, offers much—to those who have the patience for it.

Backfilling: "Boxcar Bertha"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

Martin Scorsese is probably my favorite living filmmaker, but somehow I’d never gotten around to Boxcar Bertha, the low-budget Roger Corman quickie/Bonnie and Clyde riff he made in 1972, between Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets. It is certainly lacking the furious momentum of those more personal early films; a jailhouse brawl, for example, has none of the kinetic energy of a similar scene in Mean Streets (comparatively, this one plays like it’s in slow motion).

So Boxcar Bertha isn’t essential Scorsese. But it’s still interesting; you can see him sweating the little details, like the contrast between the pre- and post-title fonts and the old-school opening credit sequence. The borrowing from Bonnie doesn’t feel as exploitive as it probably was, since Scorsese certainly studied (and was inspired by) the same run-and-gun thirties and forties B-pictures as Arthur Penn and screenwriters Benton and Newman. He sprinkles in plenty of atmosphere and some inspired touches, and ably showcases Barbara Hershey’s earthy beauty and David Carradine’s sideways charm. The gunplay of the final sequence is also impressive—this is one of his earliest pure action sequences, and it is a good one. Bertha is pretty low in the Scorsese canon, quality-wise, but there are enough flashes of what was to come to keep interested viewers on their toes.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Backfilling: "The Palm Beach Story"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

The Palm Beach Story is second-tier Preston Sturges; it doesn’t approach the madcap heights of The Lady Eve, Hail the Conquering Hero, or (my personal favorite, strangely) Christmas In July. But second-tier Sturges is still better than first-tier just-about-anyone-else. It’s full of quotable lines (“That’s one of the tragedies of this life: that the men who are in most need of beating up are always enormous”) and clever tricks (it plunges you right in with one of the most insanely inventive title sequences I’ve seen in a war-era comedy) and wonderful performances, from not the so-called “Sturges stock company” but the breezy, effortlessly sexy Claudette Colbert and the dryly funny Rudy Valee.

 Valee is so likable, in fact, that the ending is troublesome; as in the similarly-titled Philadelphia Story, you like the “other man” (Valee in this film, Stewart in that one) so much that you don’t actually feel bad for him, and don’t want her to go back to her handsome lunk of a husband. That complaint aside (and it is a personal one; when I shared it with my wife after Philadelphia Story, she sighed and announced, “Yes, but it’s Cary Grant,” which is a legitimate point), The Palm Beach Story is an awfully good screwball comedy—it ticks along like a good watch (even if it does get a little out of Sturges’ control during that section on the train).

On DVD: "Sukiyaki Western Django"

Sukiyaki Western Django is an oddball hybrid of martial arts and spaghetti western from director Takashi Miike (Audition). It’s an off-balance, peculiar movie, but it’s also a lot of fun—full of ingenious visual gags, clever bits of business, terrific fight sequences, and striking photography (particularly in its opening sequence, which has the bold saturation of an early color picture).

Its problem is that it doesn’t really hang together as a coherent narrative—it’s more of a sketch revue of hot visuals and cool ideas. It doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense, but then again, those Leone westerns weren’t always a model of storytelling skill either—they were more about inconography and visual acumen. To that end, Sukiyaki Western Django is a worthy homage.

(Side note: I like the guy’s films as much as anybody else, but when are we going to band together as a people and refuse to let Quentin Tarantino do any more acting? I’m just asking.)

 “Sukiyaki Western Django” is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On DVD: "Chungking Express"

Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express is a movie I saw once (on VHS, no less), loved, and hadn’t seen since, so I was particularly keen to check out its new Blu-ray release, courtesy of the good folks at Criterion. First and foremost, it looks simply smashing on Blu; Criterion’s transfer beautifully captures the simultaneously lush and off-the-cuff handheld photography of Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-Keung.

The film is rich, evocative, and often very funny; I remain fascinated with its peculiar structure, which follows one would-be love story for 42 minutes and then unexpectedly switches to another one for the last hour. The first mixes good-old fashioned longing with a slam-bang crime story, while the second is more grounded in personal, human comedy (with a touch of stalking thrown in).

There’s so much to like—the quirky characters, the charming performances, the various food metaphors, and the unexpectedly steamy love scene (accompanied by “What a Difference a Day Makes”)—that it’s easy to overlook what doesn’t; it does drag a bit in that second hour, and I hope you like “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas, because you’re going to hear it a lot. But it’s such an easygoing little treat that you allow it some indulgences, and that lovely, bittersweet ending is just perfect.

“Chunking Express” is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

On DVD: "Powder Blue"

On one of his audio commentary tracks, Steven Soderbergh talks about his reluctance to use nudity in his films—particularly with well-known actors—because “the minute they take their clothes off, it becomes a documentary.” I thought of that quote often while watching Powder Blue, which is essentially a documentary about Jessica Biel finally getting naked in a movie. Oh sure, there are other things happening in it, and her role has enough big “acting” moments to justify that old saw about only doing nudity “if the role requires it,” but the film itself isn’t terribly interesting and her performance is passable at best. Let’s face facts: people are going to rent or buy Powder Blue because they’ve heard Jessica Biel takes her clothes off in it, and she does; it’s one of those carefully prepared reveals, teased but not delivered until well into the second half of the picture, much like in Striptease (a documentary about Demi Moore getting naked).

The film that surrounds her au naturel performance is one of those several-unconnected-people-in-the-big-city-that-unexpectedly-intersect affairs that was already trite and overdone when Crash won that inexplicable Oscar in 2006; since then, we’ve had a rash of forgettable loops around that same track. I’m not sure if Forest Whitaker, who produces and co-stars here, turned down a role in Crash and now regrets it, but he seems to have a dangerous attraction to its knock-offs; he has also appeared in The Air I Breathe, American Gun, and Even Money, each one worse than the last. Memo to independent filmmakers; there’s nothing you can do with this sub-genre that Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t do better, so let’s try something else.

Biel plays Rose-Johnny, an exotic dancer and single mom whose boy is in the hospital with a coma that he’s probably not coming out of. Ray Liotta (in a subtle, nuanced character turn) is Jack, an ex-con just out of the joint after a 25-year stretch (I guess his relationship to Biel is supposed to be some kind of a gradually-revealed secret, but anyone who can’t piece it together from their first scene needs to see more movies). Eddie Redmayne’s Qwerty Doolittle (yep, that’s the character’s name) is a lonely and sickly young mortician with no social skills. And Whitaker plays Charlie, a suicidal widower so wracked with guilt, he tools around town trying to get someone to kill him.

Writer/director Timothy Lihn Bui’s script is wildly uneven—there are some fine scenes (particularly those involving Liotta), and others so awkward and obvious you want to remove them yourself. Chief among them is the awful scene where Rose-Johnny and Qwerty “connect” with each other; the actors do their best, but it’s horribly written, and the maudlin score makes it unintentionally comic. Their subsequent relationship is equally hard to swallow, and the (mercifully brief) “happy in love” section is unfortunate, to say the least. The script’s other major issue is that Whitaker’s story never connects with the others in any meaningful way (even when his cutaways are shoehorned into the overwrought climax that fumbles into the TV movie ending); without that final, crucial step of the “unexpectedly connected in the big city” story template, it just looks like Bui threw together separate stories that were too short to play on their own.

His direction is frequently flashy—often to the detriment of the film’s reality. Biel works in one of those hyper-stylized strip clubs that really only exist in movies, where the elaborately choreographed routines are beautifully lit (sometimes with the help of the customers, even!) and the dollar bills rain down in a perfectly-composed shower. He doesn’t provide much help to his actors, either. Whitaker is a good actor (he’s got an Oscar to prove that), but he has often proven that he needs a director strong enough to keep him from going over the top; his mugging here (as in the scene when he discovers his car has been stolen) is pretty bad. Liotta brings some real depth and soul to his deliberate performance, but Redmayne’s character is a complete cipher.

Biel’s performance sometimes works in the individual moments (especially when she’s working with Liotta, whose skill seems to pull her up to his level), but there’s no sense of an overarching character. She doesn’t have much of one to play anyway—it’s basically a series of emotional high points strung together, an acting reel with a plot around it. She cries about her father and screams about her son, then screams about her father and cries about her son, and the tears and snot flow, and she’s trying very hard (which is part of the problem), but she’s just not very good overall.

The supporting work is equally all over the place. Patrick Swayze’s strip club manager is a thin character with bad lines, poorly performed. Kris Kristofferson has a nice presence (as he usually does), though he’s saddled with some pretty tin-eared dialogue. But the always-welcome Lisa Kudrow provides a low-key, lived-in performance; hers are among the best scenes in the film.

One can’t help but feel for Jessica Biel; Powder Blue was supposed to be a bid for consideration as a serious actress, and here it’s gone the straight-to-DVD route. But that’s about right for the quality of the film; while it has some sharp scenes and worthwhile performances (particularly Liotta’s and Kudrow’s), the weak script can’t prop up the picture’s tired construct. 

"Powder Blue" hits DVD on Tuesday, May 26th.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Backfilling: "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)

Welcome to “Backfilling,” a regular feature in which I see classic and esteemed movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

John Frankenheimer’s paranoia-thriller-cum-political satire The Manchurian Candidate is, first and foremost, a great movie to just look at; Lionel Lindon’s black and white photography is clean, crisp, and gorgeous (I have a real affection for studio black-and-white pictures from the 1960s—directors like Stanley Kubrick, Richard Brooks, and Mike Nichols were making a deliberate choice when they shot Dr. Strangelove, In Cold Blood, and Virginia Woolf without color, and their cinematographers are really playing with the photography and the moods it can evoke). There is a scene around the one-quarter mark that is just magnificently shot (see image above)—Angela Lansbury’s senator husband is interrupting a press conference to scream about Communism, and Frankenheimer and Lindon show him in the background screaming and the video feed of him in the foreground, with Lansbury watching the television approvingly.

So much of the film’s modern reputation is centered on its parallels with the Kennedy assassination (particularly due to the debunked rumor that Sinatra’s production company pulled it from distribution after JFK was shot) that it’s surprising to see how many ballsy shots it takes at McCarthyism (“I think if John Eislen were a paid Soviet agent,” one character notes of the film’s McCarthyesque senator, “he couldn’t do more harm to this country than he’s doing now”). It’s also surprising to see how many liberties Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake took with the material (this is always the danger with seeing the reimagining first); that narrative was a little more active and less contemplative, neither better nor worse, merely different.

There’s much to recommend in The Manchurian Candidate, but it is a film whose reputation is a little better than the film itself; the score is bombastic, some of the supporting performances (particularly James Edwards as Cpt. Allen Melvin) are overwrought, Laurence Harvey is a bit too inert, and a long middle scene with he and Frank Sinatra drinking and babbling kind of stops the movie cold.

But overall, Frankenheimer brings the film off. It’s slyly funny (particularly Harvey’s hero’s welcome—and Lansbury’s exploitation of it—near the beginning of the film) and genuinely creepy, and he coaxes a terrific performance out of Sinatra, who creates a compelling portrait of a guy who goes to the brink of madness and back; his big reveal with Harvey (“All right, now let’s start unlocking a few doors) is a mighty good scene. And so is the ending, which is a real jaw-dropper.

The Fourth Row Center Depressing Summer Movie Preview

So I’ve got IMDB’s predictions for the top 15 summer movies (in terms of box office) in front of me, and good God is it a thing of sadness. I’ve come to terms with the fact that the summer movies get worst every year; as Hollywood becomes more and more terrified of spending a dime on a movie that they can’t guarantee a huge audience for, leaning exponentially more on sequels and remakes and “reboots,” the months of May through August have become the place where creativity goes to die; the dearth of new ideas in the balmy multiplex is enough to make one take a stack of DVDs and hibernate in an air conditioned apartment until late September.

But seriously, I’m only interested in seeing two of their top 10, and two more of the top 15. Let’s take a look at their predictions, shall we?

1. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. IMDB predicts Michael Bay’s latest orgy of nonsensical explosions will gross $400 million, and I’ve lost enough faith in the taste of mainstream American to go along with that prediction. Tranformers was 2007’s worst movie, a big, dumb, loud movie with nary a thought in its big, dumb, loud head. When I’ve expressed my total disinterest in seeing its follow-up (seriously, you couldn’t get me there at gunpoint), people have exclaimed, “Yes, but have you seen the trailer?” I have. But the problem with Michael Bay movies is that they’re all like watching a two-and-a-half hour trailer (you can pull any random 120 seconds from his films, slap a title on the end, and you’re done), and the commercials for them have as much depth and intelligence as the film itself (which is to say, not much). Enjoy your awful movie, America; me, I’m holding out for the Go-Bots movie.
2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I just can’t get into these films; people I trust tell me the books are great, but for the most part, the Harry Potter films I’ve seen have been a turgid chore to sit through; of the three I’ve seen, the only one that engaged me was Prisoner of Azkaban, and I’m pretty sure that had more to do with Alfonso Cuarón's skill as a director than anything else.
3. Star Trek. Okay, this is one of the ones I’ll see, but only because it’s getting such great reviews; as far as I’m concerned, the Trek series ran out of gas a long, long time ago. But again, better to resurrect a dead franchise than take a chance on something fresh and new.
4. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. The first one was fine, I guess; never bothered to see the second, can’t say I’m amped about the third. I will say this: if, as they predict, it makes more money than the new Pixar movie, then we should all give up.
5. Up. This one, I’m absolutely on board for. At this point, Pixar could make just about any movie they want and I’d pony up for a ticket.
6. X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Am I the only one who remembers when Brett Ratner came in and fucked up the X-Men movies a couple of years ago? Did that sour anyone else on seeing another X-Men movie, ever?
7. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Never saw the original. You know why? Because Stiller has become unreliable, and director Shawn Levy’s filmography includes Cheaper by the Dozen, Just Married, Big Fat Liar, and that horrible abortion of a Pink Panther remake. Well, good news! He’s back for the sequel!
8. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. For those of you who aren’t getting your 80s-toys-turned-80s-cartoon-turned-bad-action-movie fix from the goddamned Transformers movie. And director Stephen Sommers is a real bellwether of quality cinema: his resumé includes Van Helsing, Deep Rising, and the first two (blech) Mummy movies. Here’s one to skip at all costs.
9. Angels & Demons. I didn’t see The Da Vinci Code either—as much as I like Ron Howard and Tom Hanks (in the right projects, anyway), the indifferent buzz never motivated me to get in front of this one. I would imagine the same for its sequel.
10. Terminator Salvation. Seriously, this series should have died after T2. Terminator 3 stunk, no one is watching the TV show, and now we have another unnecessary sequel, guided by the sure hand of renowned auteur McG, who directed the Charlie’s Angels movies and a bad Matthew McConaughey football drama. Nice catch, Warner Brothers! (Sidebar: the ads for this film also engage in one of my pet peeves: above-title billing for people I’ve never heard of. Who the fuck is Sam Worthington?)

Let’s stop for a quick tally: of their predicted top ten, eight are sequels (and that’s if you don’t count G.I. Joe, which is basically a sequel to Transformers). Originality is dead! On we go.

11. Public Enemies. Okay, here’s a movie I can get legitimately amped about. Michael Mann doing a cat-and-mouse gangster movie with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in some old-timey suits? Yeah, mark me down for yes.
12. Bruno. Yeah, I’m in for one here as well. As far as I’m concerned, Sasha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles can kick one of these bad boys out ever two or three years for as long as they’d like.
13. G-Force. I don’t even know what the hell this is, but the poster’s got guinea pigs dressed like the men in black and IMDB’s description is comparing it to Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Alvin and the Chipmunks so yeah, pass.
14. The Proposal. Aren’t we done with Sandra Bullock yet? So here, she’s like this awful shrew boss, right? And Ryan Reynolds is her assistant, and he hates her, okay? But then like, okay, she’s Canadian, so they like, have to get married or else she get deported and lose her job, right? OMG YOU GUYS WOULDN’T IT BE CRAZY IF THEY TOTALLY FELL IN LOVE FOR REALZ.
15. The Ugly Truth. According to this movie, the ugly truth is that women only want relationships and men only want sex. According to me, the ugly truth is that I won’t be seeing a Katherine Heigl movie that doesn’t have Judd Apatow’s name on it. This one, however, was directed by the guy who did Monster-In-Law. So yeah, good luck with that.

I don’t want to sound like some kind of indie snob who’s all about art for art’s sake. There are some big summer movies I’m actually looking forward to (Funny People, Inglorious Basterds, The Hangover, Drag Me To Hell, Year One, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), and yes, I’m fully aware that the last one in that list is a remake. Plus, it’s looking like we’ll see some good counterprogramming in the art houses (Whatever Works, Big Fan, Away We Go, (500) Days of Summer, Taking Woodstock, and the brilliant Moon). But in terms of the movies that we’ll be hearing about, that people will be seeing, and that we’re supposed to get all worked up over—ugh. It’s gonna be a long, dull summer.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A proper introduction (or what the hell is this thing?)

Because of the way this blog began--as the vehicle for my daily reports for DVD Talk during the Tribeca Film Festival--I never did any kind of a formal introduction or mission statement or statement nailed to a church door or anything of that nature. It was just intended to be used for my Tribeca correspondence, and then summarily discarded. But I really liked the layout and the ease of updating, and besides, I don't write up everything I see for publication on DVD Talk, but I do need to write up everything I see, because practice makes perfect.

So here we are. I'll try to accomplish a few different goals with this blog. First and foremost, I'll cross-post all of the reviews I write for DVD Talk (the ones from before I started the blog are listed in the links to the left). I'll also post tidbits and links and trailers for films that I'm excited about (and, perhaps, some that I'm not so excited about). I will, occasionally, rant and rail about some stupid film-related thing or another.

But the most important (to me) thing that I'm trying to do here is something I've been working on for a while: back-filling my film knowledge. As many films as I've seen, there are still some embarassing holes in my expertise. There are a tremendous number of individual titles that I'll be checking out in the upcoming months (starting with The Manchurian Candidate tomorrow); I'll also work through a few film series of my own choosing, including:
  • Cassavettes
  • The "lesser" Altmans
  • Bob Dylan's interesting cinematic failures
  • Orson Welles: He did some other stuff besides Citizen Kane
  • The rise and fall of Bogdanovich
  • The Harold Lloyd comedies
And so on. So that's the plan. Thanks for reading; I'm going to try to post every day, just because I should be writing something every day.

On DVD: "B.T.K."

One of these days, someone is going to make a great movie—like Zodiac great—about Dennis Rader, the mild-mannered compliance worker and churchgoer who terrorized a Midwestern community for thirty years under the guise of serial killer “B.T.K.” Michael Feifer’s B.T.K. is not that film. Sadly, you can tell from its very first moments, when we’re issued the following disclaimer: “The following is a Fictional Story based on a Real Character.” What, because the real story isn’t compelling enough? Not scary enough? Or (more likely) because it’s not worth the trouble to get it right?

I’ve got a particular and personal interest in the Rader case—I was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, and grew up during his dormant years. The case was unsolved but never forgotten; the fact that this boogeyman had never been caught kept interest alive and people on edge, particularly when he resurfaced and resumed communication with police and media in 2004. After he popped back up, the city was terrified—alarm sales went up, women were afraid to be home alone, and everyone knew somebody who had a story about how they were sure, just sure, that they had barely escaped the long-hibernating killer.

The story of how the Wichita police finally, at long last, got Rader to make a mistake and reveal himself is just plain thrilling—seek out the excellent book Bind Torture Kill, by a quartet of Wichita journalists, and tell me I’m wrong. Their narrative is a true page-turner, and its elements of suspense, mystery, and real terror would make for a great film. But it keeps getting screwed up. The closest anyone has come to telling it properly was the quickie made-for-TV account, The Hunt for the BTK Killer, which boasts a couple of good performances but does too much compression of characters and streamlining of action. But that film is certainly better than the cheapo, repugnant 2005 effort BTK Killer (also released on DVD by Lionsgate), which heavily fictionalized Rader’s crimes, as if they weren’t horrifying enough on their own.

Feifer’s B.T.K. is certainly better (and better-made) than that film, but that isn’t saying much. His central conceit is that Rader was killing right up until his arrest, which is borne out by no facts: the bulk of the BTK murders were committed in the 1970s, the final one in 1991. This is purely guesswork, but I would imagine the recreation of his 1970s crimes were beyond the film’s meager budget (hell, they can’t even afford police cars—when the cops are coming for Rader, we see his wife standing on the porch while sirens and screeching wheels are heard, but not seen). But there’s that disclaimer, so who cares if it’s wildly inaccurate? Or completely implausible? Feifer’s script has Rader stalking and killing women he has harassed and cited as a Park City compliance officer—women who have complained about him to their friends and his superiors. Say what you will about Rader’s stupid mistakes before his capture, but he would have never been sloppy enough to kill someone who could be traced back to him that easily.

The same could be said of the film’s opening sequence, where he calls out for an escort from a hotel in Missouri (pure fiction). Aside, again, from the paper trail that would lead any rookie cop to his door, transforming Rader to just another hooker-killing psycho drains him of exactly what made him terrifying: the randomness of his at-home attacks. The casting of stuntman-turned-horror-icon Kane Hodder is another misstep; part of what was so creepy about Rader was his doughy, schmuck-next-door appearance, so the casting of a big, muscle-bound brute with a bulging, scary neck undercuts all of that (miscast though he is, Hodder does turn in a fairly decent performance—the only one in the film).

Feifer’s changes might not matter if the story had been altered into something scarier. But it’s not scary, not at all; it’s merely depressing, and discussion of its many problems threatens to become an inventory. Countless scenes end arbitrarily, fading out seemingly just because they’ve run out of dialogue. A sequence in which Rader’s attempted abduction of a young woman (into the back of his city van, no less) is interrupted by a convenient visit from friendly “Pastor Joe” is so amateurishly staged, it is drained of all suspense—you’re embarrassed for the director. Another scene, in which he interrupts a young couple at home while the girl’s parents are out of town (“Ricky, you broke my mom’s vase!”) actually manages to turn the sick, complex killer into another boring slayer of horny teens (like Jason, whom Hodder has played on multiple occasions). The story goes so far afield in its third act that they actually have Rader try to kill a cop (I think—the scene is so clumsily blocked and cut that it’s hard to tell). And its final, “twist” ending is pure bullshit nonsense.

But special note must be made of the performances that surround Hodder’s competent work, from the Dragnet-style cops to the hoary townfolk to the worst of the worst, the actresses who play his wife and daughters. They’re horrible throughout the film, but particularly late in the picture, after the police have revealed Rader’s true identity; I can tell you, without hyperbole, that this is one of the worst scenes you’ll ever see in any movie, as the women start screaming hoary Lifetime-movie clichés at each other, screeching and blubbering all the while. “Married to a man thirty years, and come to find out he’s a serial killer!” blubbers wife “Sharon” (name changed). “No matter what he has done, he’s still your father. You owe him!” she commands her daughters. “He always treated us disrespectfully!” one objects. “In fact, I never liked him! He never supported me! He never once helped me with my homework! And he never once asked me about my life!” It takes a special kind of bad screenwriting to turn the fascinating story of a real-life monster into an episode of Dr. Phil. It’s sad, but not unexpected by that point in this singularly unexceptional film.

Since writer/director/producer Feifer insisted on fictionalizing a terrifying true story, the question must then be asked: Does this new story work on its own? The clear answer is no, it does not. Aside from Hodder’s cult of fans, viewers will only buy or rent B.T.K. because it is based on a true story—but it’s not. In some ways, that exploitation (using the name of B.T.K. without bothering to tell the real, chilling story of his crimes) is an even crasser form of profiteering than making a horror film about him in the first place.

"B.T.K." is available on DVD Tuesday, May 12.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

In Theaters: "Tyson"

In many ways, the most shocking footage in James Toback’s documentary portrait Tyson are the archival interviews of Mike Tyson when he was coming up. “Jesus,” I muttered to myself. “He was so young.” That’s important to keep in mind, when lamenting the spectacular rise and fall of this larger-than-life hero; he was just ridiculously young when the world knelt at his feet. It’s no excuse for his mistakes, and he takes full responsibility for them in this painfully candid and honest film. But it is a factor. In the end, he sums up his journey thus far with brevity and precision: “Old too soon, smart too late.” So it is.

Director Toback (The Pick-Up Artist, Black & White), who has known Tyson since the young champ was 19, has never been an easy filmmaker to pin down; his filmography is littered with fascinating failures (it also includes Two Girls and A Guy and Harvard Man), films that basically don’t work but are overflowing with fascinating asides and admirably stripped-down performances. But in many ways, Tyson has more in common with his 1971 memoir Jim (which he wrote after living with football great Jim Brown) than any of his previous films; then as now, we have the true story of an athlete of tremendous power and unthinkable fame.

Tyson is the only interview subject in the film, a wise choice by Toback. Because we’re only talking to him, the entire film has the air of a confession—a man who has decided to set the record straight as best he can, and as honestly as he can. It may rob the film of a conventional documentary-style objectivity (the section, for example, on his rape conviction is tricky), but ultimately, it’s not that kind of a doc anyway; it’s a character sketch, and as such, it’s an increasingly well-drawn one.

The most revealing moments are those in which Tyson confesses his own weakness, from the childhood fears that pushed him to learn to fight (and stayed with him through his initial bouts) to the fears that haunt him to this day (“I’m totally confident, but I’m afraid of everything”). His tribute to “Cus” D’Amato, the legendary trainer who took Tyson under his wing, is unexpectedly moving—“this guy changed my life,” he says. “He broke me down and rebuilt me.” It’s almost uncomfortable to watch this tough, feared man nearly come to tears as he remembers his mentor and friend; recalling D’Amato’s death in 1985, Tyson says, “To me, it was like I lost my whole life.” He’s also admirably plain-spoken about his soap opera marriage to actress Robin Givens. Noting that some have simplified their brief and tumultuous relationship into easy labels (abuser/gold digger, bad guy/bad girl), he shrugs and simply notes, “We were just kids… just kids.”

Surprisingly, the film’s revelations about his work inside the ring are often just as honest and (frequently) self-deprecating. He reveals that he was suffering from gonorrhea during his 1986 title bout against Trevor Berbick, explains exactly how he took that surprising fall to the canvas against Buster Douglas in 1990, and narrates the vivid section on the first Tyson/Holyfield bout in 1996—his voice-over becomes a kind of internal monologue to match the clips from the fight. Here and in other moments, Toback’s use of archival footage is effective and restrained; it is well-used (particularly in a stylized and thrilling montage of his string of late-80s victory), but he doesn’t lean on it too heavily.

Toback’s direction is occasionally misguided; the chopped-up split screen interview montages are a little too showy (they’re thankfully toned down after the opening and used sparingly thereafter), and the periodic interludes in which Tyson’s voice-over explains his thoughts on love and desire, which are heard over B-roll of the former champ walking contemplatively on a beach, are full of unfortunate imagery; they’re weak and cliché, like a bad TV commercial for an e-dating service. And as admirably frank as Tyson is, he still has some delusional moments—his offhand comment about how a $20-30 million settlement was “some small amount of money” confirms that, as grounded as he may now seem, he’s still in this whole other reality.

Still, there are tremendous scenes here. His immediate post-fight interview after his final, sad bout (against Kevin McBride) is so open and upfront, it’s like a raw nerve; he says, “I don’t got the fighting guts anymore… I’m not an animal anymore,” and he clearly means it. Now 42, he says he never thought it’d live to be forty, and proclaims “it’s a miracle” that he’s still here. In Tyson’s powerful closing moments, we are impressed by this portrait of a difficult and talented man, finally at peace. Maybe.

"Tyson" is currently playing in limited release.

Outraged Over "Outrage"

Hey Clearview's Chelsea Theater, if you're gonna be the only place in NYC to show Kirby Dick's brilliant documentary Outrage, how's about showing it right? I'll grant that maybe the video exhibition might not be your fault--maybe Magnolia didn't make any prints. It's certainly plausible. But how's about springing for a video projector worth a fuck? The resolution was horrifying-- you could barely read the credits, and the whole thing was vaguely not-quite-in-focus. On top of that, it wasn't even configured to the screen properly-- they didn't adjust the throw, so they projected the 4x3 image into the middle of the 16x9 screen, but then the 16x9 image of the movie was letterboxed into the center of that 4x3 video projection. In other words, we were looking at a rectangle inside a square inside a rectangle.

When I saw Outrage at Tribeca, I'm pretty sure it was being video-projected as well. I say "pretty sure" because it wasn't blantantly, painfully obvious like it was at Clearview's Chelsea. If we're gonna pay $12.50 a pop to see a movie, the picture quality should be better than if I downloaded it and watched it at home.


Trailer: Woody Allen's "Whatever Works"

I've been looking forward to Woody Allen's collaboration with Larry David, Whatever Works, for a while; it was the fancy opening night movie that I couldn't get into at Tribeca. The trailer's out now, and while it doesn't look to be the kind of fresh, new Allen we got in Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it still looks to be fairly entertaining (and David does look to be a perfect Allen protagonist):