Saturday, February 20, 2010

On DVD: "The House of the Devil"

Homage isn’t enough, and Ti West knows it. His film The House of the Devil, which is slowly accumulating a fierce cult following, is a purposeful and skillful throwback to the horror films of the early 1980s, and it gets the look and feel of those pictures just right—from the specific color saturation to the lighting to the costumes and props, it looks like it’s been hidden away in a vault for thirty years.

But that alone doesn’t make it a good movie. What West understands (and what the makers of other less-successful tributes like Black Dynamite don’t) is that recreating production style and quoting old genres is enough to last the length an internet clip or a comedy sketch, but if you’re going to sustain a feature-length narrative, a film has to work on its own terms, within that framework. Yes, it’s cool that House of the Devil looks like something you would’ve taped off Cinemax at four in the morning in 1983. But it also would have been the best horror movie of 1983.

The plot is classic babysitter-in-peril, crossed with a healthy dose of Rosemary’s Baby, and like the better horror films of the period (such as the original Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre), it’s a bit of a slow-burn—less kill, kill, kill than build, build, build. The performances, from gifted unknowns Jocelin Donahue and Greta Gerwig to cult standbys Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, and Dee Wallace, are just right (i.e, natural but not showy). Writer/director West doesn’t get carried away with the 80s camp; the only potentially cutesy scene, of our heroine dancing around the house while rocking out to the Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another,” is played with such a likability and wonderful energy that it transcends kitsch.

All that is just the run-up to the intense, brutal pay-off—bloody, tight, and frightening, this is an ending that doesn’t fuck around. The House of the Devil is skillful and scary, and (like the Grindhouse movies), it’s not only an affectionate tribute, but a worthwhile addition to the canon it loves.

"The House of the Devil" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Cassavetes: "Opening Night"

Hey, remember when I was working my way through all the Cassavetes movies? Yeah, I’m gonna finish that now.

There’s a scene in Opening Night where Gena Rowlands stares at herself in a mirror, for a very long time. As she does, she begins to see herself, really see herself, but also to see the girl—the young autograph seeker who she met a few nights before, right before the girl was killed in a car accident. You could say things have been strange for her since then.

Cassavetes barely managed to release Opening Night in 1977. His previous film, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, had flopped and tapped out his film-to-film self-distribution funds; it was, in many respects, re-discovered in the early 1990s, after its director’s untimely death. As Bookie was a uniquely personal riff on the gangster movie, Opening Night is his take on an even moldier genre, the backstage story. But Cassavetes brings an actor’s grace and insight to the tale, which captures the matter-of-fact nature of those impossibly close and personal inter-company relationships.

Rowlands is (no surprise) marvelous; the character of Myrtle Gordon a more glamorous but no less damaged version of Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence. An early scene, in which her director (Ben Gazzara) and co-star (Cassavetes) attempt to rehearse a stage slap, is as potent and concise an examination of actorly neurosis as I can recall; her desperate visit to that co-star’s door late in the film is a heartbreaking moment of truth laid bare.

Opening Night shares the flaws of most of the director’s filmography—it’s too damned long (144 minutes), there are scenes that don’t work (like her visit to a spiritualist), and the score is just intolerable. We also spend too much time looking at the stage, even for a film about theatrical types, though the sequence of a performance going completely off the rails is compulsively watchable, and the seemingly uncinematic conclusion (we really do spend the last twenty minutes or so watching a play) somehow works. It’s got its problems, as all of his films do. But it’s kind of perfect just as it is.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Today's New in Theaters- 2/19/10

Shutter Island: A new Scorsese is always a cause for celebration, and there's much to admire about his spooky adaptation of Dennis Lahane's novel. But it's mid-level Marty--sharp and entertaining, and beautifully made, but never transcending its B-movie roots in the way his best works so often do.

The Ghost Writer: It's a little strange, considering how much Roman Polanski has been in the news lately, how his most recent effort is sort of sneaking into theaters. I understand, of course (no one wants to seem like they're getting free pub off an old rape charge), and maybe it will make more noise when it breaks wide, but I didn't even realize until today that it was out. Point is, review forthcoming; for whatever it's worth, the Voice mostly likes it.

The Good Guy: I saw this one clear back at last yer's Tribeca Film Festival and remain befuddled by it; it starts so badly, but then goes some genuinely interesting places in its back half. Not one to run out to the theaters for, by any stretch, but maybe one to earmark for the Netflix queue.

In Theaters: "The Wolfman"

Joe Johnston’s new take on The Wolfman wants to be Coppola’s Dracula so bad, it can taste it. It’s a modern, CG-tempered take on a classic Universal horror tale; it’s impeccably designed in true Gothic fashion, yet splattered with blood and gore a-plenty; and it stars an actor’s actor (Oldman there, Benicio del Toro here), a lovely young up-and-comer (Ryder there, Emily Blunt here), and Anthony Hopkins. There’s not a Keanu in sight, but that’s about the only advantage this picture holds over its predecessor. In execution, it’s more like Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (also penned by this film’s co-writer, Andrew Kevin Walker)—it’s got the look down pat, but there’s not much happening script-wise.

From its opening sequences, something seems off—the timing is wrong, and it feels like large chunks of the scenes are missing, replaced by bad dialogue buttons. Example? Del Toro: “I didn’t know you hunt monsters.” Other guy: “Sometimes monsters hunt you.” (Yeah? And?) I’m as much an Emily Blunt fan as the next guy, but she and Del Toro can’t do a thing with their tepid romance (it actually includes a scene where he teaches her how to skip rocks; that kind of nonsense went out in roughly 1948). And for all the impressiveness of Rick Baker’s make-up effects—and seriously, he’s the go-to guy for them—they mesh uneasily with the weightless, cartoony CGI of the monster in motion.

There’s things that work. The asylum sequence is wonderfully delirious (it’s like we’ve suddenly switched over to a batshit crazy, but infinitely more entertaining, picture), as is the topper scene with the roomful of doctors. This may be another Hopkins paycheck role, but it’s fun to watch him hiss his campy lines at Del Toro (“You’ve done terrrrrrible thingssssss,” he snarls at one point). And there are some arresting visuals, particularly an overhead shot of blood-stained fingers plinking the ivory keys of a piano. But the whole thing is turgid (it feels way longer than its 102 minutes), and ultimately forgettable; it’s out of your brain by the time you hit fresh air.

"The Wolfman" is currently playing in wide release.

In Theaters: "Shutter Island"

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island opens with a shot of a ferry boat emerging from a thick, soupy Massachusetts fog, emerging from the dense haze like Lawrence materializing from the horizon. As with much of his best work, Scorsese’s latest is imbued with his lust for film; he gets drunk off movies, then sits us down and pours us a shot. That kicky energy disappeared for the first half of the previous decade, as he made well-crafted entertainments like Gangs of New York and The Aviator that threatened a metamorphosis into a respectable classicist in the order of his heroes Powell and Pressburger. Then came The Departed, a crackerjack thriller filled with shocking jolts and dirty jokes, a reminder of how much fun we could have a well-made pop picture.

Shutter Island does not top that film, and doesn’t seem to want to. It’s Scorsese having a go at genre filmmaking, adapting Dennis Lahane’s novel into a jittery suspense flick with some grimy Freudian twists. The time is 1954, and Leonard DiCaprio (making his fourth consecutive appearance in a Scorsese picture) plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. marshal sent to the titular isle, which houses a chillingly atmospheric hospital for the criminally insane. As the ferry floats in, they’re told that the dock is “the only way on… or off,” and you can almost hear Scorsese cackling off-screen. Some filmmakers wait their whole careers for an excuse to use a line like that.

Teddy is joined by a new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo); they’re on the island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a female patient (Emily Mortimer), who seems to have improbably vanished into thin air. Compounding the befuddling circumstances of her escape is the institution’s refusal to provide much of anything in the way of assistance or information, and the institution’s guru, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is particularly obstructive. But he’s not the only one hiding things—we slowly realize that our hero is more than a little troubled, and that he may not have landed on the island altogether accidentally. On their way in to the facility, Teddy grimaces at the rules and regulations and jokes, “You act like insanity is catching.” Boy, is it ever.

More than that I will not say; one of the pleasures of Laeta Kalogridis’ screenplay is how slowly it peels away the considerable information within, but keeps us off our footing anyway. Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley says so much, but reveals tantalizingly little, and the script functions in much the same fashion, looking us straight in the eye while tossing disturbing visual motifs into our peripheral vision. It’s one of Scorsese’s best-looking films, full of vivid, arresting dream imagery and tightly coiled, blood-splashed compositions, lit hot from the top by the great Robert Richardson and assembled with snappy zeal by his brilliant editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The filmmaker does some of his most purely visual storytelling here, particularly in the cutaways and head trips that propel the story forward and push it into quiet surrealism.

The ads are pushing the horror elements, and that’s probably wise promotion but not the most accurate representation of the finished product—it’s a talkier film than you might think, and there’s not a lot in the way of big scares. But it does have a nice, dread-soaked feel, and one long sequence (Teddy working his way through a box of matches as he slips through the creepy “Ward C”) that crawls around under your skin for a while.

DiCaprio does the weathered, trouble hero well here, while Ruffalo is a reliable sidekick and Kingsley and Max von Sydow are ominously appropriate villains. Patricia Clarkson and Ted Levine contribute fine character turns, but Shutter Island really is the director’s show, and while he’s clearly having a good time (his roving camera has as many spins and twists as the story), it isn’t quite as sharp as you walk in hoping it will be. In the Scorsese canon, it operates at about Cape Fear level, and that’s still pretty damn good—sometimes his films transcend their B-movie roots (resulting in something more than a gangster film, more than a cop movie, more than a boxing picture), and sometimes they don’t, but hey, there’s still some terrific moments and grin-worthy shout-outs to Shock Corridor and Val Lewton. Yes, there are scenes he doesn’t bring off and beats he lets run on for too long. But it’s all so compelling and exquisitely told, and Scorsese, more than any other filmmaker working today, knows how to put an audience right into the palm of his hand. And that third act is pure dynamite.

"Shutter Island" opens in wide release on Friday, February 19th.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Loose Ends: Ebert, Scorsese, and Choices

- The thing that you should know about Roger Ebert and I is that we have some history. I started watching him and Siskel on their first PBS show, Sneak Previews, when I was like six years old (freak!); I discovered his writing when I was really cultivating my love for film around the time I turned 13. I bought his yearly book of new and classic reviews for the first time that year (1988), and I've bought it every single year since--those volumes take up more than a full shelf of my library, in addition to several of his other books, including Ebert's Little Movie Glossary, which includes an entry I submitted, "the Leno Device" (examined on this page, though they, unlike Ebert, don't give me the credit).

I tell you all of this to try and explain why I, like many other folks, was so profoundly moved by the new Esquire profile that's been making the rounds over the last few days. It's a superbly written, fascinating look at what his life is now, since cancer and a series of surgeries left him without the ability to speak, eat, or drink--but with the full power of his tremendous mind and superb writing. It made me tear up like four times, so yeah, give it a look.

- I frequently disagree with Jim Emerson, the blogger and editor-in-chief of Ebert's website (we just don't have the same taste in movies), but boy do I love this piece he posted this week. "When you see a movie today," he writes, "you are simultaneously choosing not to see thousands of others. So, how do you set your priorities?" The long and short of it is, with so many films available to our generation, how on earth do you get through all the stuff you want to see? Where do you even start? It's a question I ask damn near every day; if you'll forgive the potential TMI, I'm a bit of a list-maker, and that's why I can tell you that I've got a list of "to watch" movies that comes up just under 2500 titles. They're organized into eight lists. I am not a crazy person.

-Have I mentioned how excited I am about Shutter Island, the first new narrative Scorsese picture since The Departed? (Seeing it at midnight tonight; look for my review in the wee small hours of the morning). In the meantime, check out this outstanding profile in the Times.

- I really, truly loved Forgetting Sarah Marshall (for my money, it's the best of the Apatow flicks that the man didn't direct himself), so I'm amped about the spin-off movie (yep, that sounds about as weird as I thought it would), Get Him To The Greek. The part of my brain that gets all OCD about continuity is bothered by the fact that Russell Brand is playing his character from Marshall while Jonah Hill is not, but I'll get over it; this thing's got potential.

Coming tommorow-- the aforementioned Shutter Island review, and (hopefully) some late thoughts on The Wolfman.

Oh, No Way I'm Seeing That: "Killers"

Welcome to “Oh, No Way I’m Seeing That,” a regular feature in which we take a look at a trailer for an upcoming film, and then examine exactly why there’s absolutely no way we’ll be seeing the advertised film. In this edition: Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl action/comedy "Killers":

First things first: On the list of things that a Talking Heads song should accompany, the trailer for an Ashton Kutcher/Katherine Heigl collaboration should not appear. That group was about breaking ground and inventive new sounds; these two are like celebrity robots, people we’re assured are worth our attention despite all evidence to the contrary, and this story has been done so many times, it’s not even the only version to come out this year.

Second thing: It’s directed by Robert Luketic, who directed… let’s see here… ah. Monster-In-Law and The Ugly Truth.

Third thing: There is no third thing. You’re not seriously considering seeing this, are you?

In Theaters: "The Good Guy"

The Good Guy tries to do the damndest thing, and almost pulls it off: it starts off clumsily, and the first act has all kinds of problems, but it takes a turn that made me think that most of the things I didn’t like about its opening section were done on purpose. That’s a risky gamble; I was so thoroughly unimpressed by the junk I was watching in that first half hour that I contemplated sneaking out and trying to catch something else.

Follow me here: our hero Tommy is an investment banker (good timing, huh?) who narrates the story of his sad betrayal and heartbreak in a cliché-ridden voice-over. He’s played by an actor named Scott Porter, who comes off as the kind of vapid, dull, vaguely handsome void who frequently plays leading man in a movie like this for no good reason. His line readings are wooden, and Alexis Bledel, as his girlfriend Beth, isn’t nearly as natural with her dialogue as you’d think she’d be after seven years of Gilmore Girls. When we meet them, they’re already a few weeks into a blandly vanilla relationship; their scenes are sickeningly, cloyingly sweet.

Tommy has taken a bit of a shine to the new guy at “Morgan Brothers,” a nice-guy former military man named Daniel (Bryan Greenberg). Daniel is smart but singularly unskilled at relating with either clients or the opposite sex; Tommy makes it his mission to solve both problems, advising him on how to dress for success and play the dating game. But along the way, Daniel develops a crush on Beth, and she may be inclined to reciprocate.

So there’s the situation, and while all of this is being set up, the strangest thing happens. Once The Good Guy settles in, it starts to engage us—the story is compelling, the characters get some dimension, and we get interested in what’s going to happen. Much of that is thanks to Greenberg’s skillful work; he gets a firm grip on Daniel’s social awkwardness and plays it without overplaying it. He also works well with Bledel, who seems much more at ease in their scenes. And writer/director Julio DePietro has a valuable gift: this is the rare male-penned screenplay where the girl-talk scenes are stronger than the guy-talk ones. Some of our best writers don’t write women well (how ya doin’, Mamet?), so this is not something to be undervalued. These scenes are also greatly enhanced by the strong casting of Beth’s friends—particularly the wonderful Anna Chlumsky, whose similarly charming performance in In The Loop has made her one to watch this year.

But wait a minute, what about all those bad scenes in the first act? Well, DePietro’s story takes a sharp left turn; I won’t reveal it, except to note that it’s clumsily foreshadowed in an offhand comment Beth makes about a book. But it is a good twist—so good, in fact, that it calls into question many of my complaints. Suddenly, things that didn’t work make sense. Was it all part of a brilliant storytelling strategy?

Maybe, maybe not. First of all, a movie has to play both as a whole and moment-to-moment; some members of the audience might not figure out what he’s up to because they won’t stick around past those inelegant opening scenes. And some of the movie’s troubles can’t be explained away; loaded or not, much of the dialogue is clunky and sign-posty, and there’s no reason for Andrew McCarthy (given the too-obvious moniker of “Cash”) to be as bad as he is as Tommy’s boss. This is stunt-casting gone awry; McCarthy isn’t ready for a Mickey Rourke-style indie comeback, because unlike Rourke, McCarthy was a bad actor even when he was getting good roles.

Still, The Good Guy is a good-looking movie (it makes fine use of its NYC locations), and I can’t deny that I admired much of it. There are real laughs and winning performances, and scenes where there are all kinds of interesting things happening. But boy does it take some patience to get to the good stuff.

"The Good Guy" opens Friday, February 19 in limited release.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Kael of the Week: Film vs. Theatre

I found myself at the theatre (that is, at a live theatrical production) not once, but twice in the last week (almost thrice, but apparently everybody else in New York decided that a Sunday matinee was a nice fit for Valentine’s Day), and got to thinking about the ongoing argument I had with one of my college professors, J. David Blatt, about whether film or theatre was the greater art form. And then this passage popped up in the Kael book I’m working my way through:

“No doubt movies attract us from earliest childhood because they excite us and work on us, and perhaps movies came to the fore in the sixties because, unlike books but like rock music, movies could be experienced tribally, yet they also provide aesthetic experiences of a sensual complexity that it’s merely priggish to deny. People bred on TV and weaned on movies often feel sensually starved at a play—and they experience that starvation as boredom. When they are used to movies, live theater no longer works for them on a fantasy level. There aren’t enough elements going on for them in a play; they miss the constant flow of imagery, the quick shifts in place, the sudden rush of feeling. They miss all the compensatory elements which can sustain them during even a bad movie.

“There’s a reason for that ‘Wow!” which often seems all that a person can say after coming out of a movie house. So many images, sounds, and awakened memories may contribute to the film’s effect on us that often we can’t sort out what we think about the way we’ve been moved. We’re not even sure sometimes if we like it, but we certainly felt it. I think many people experience a sense of danger as part of the attraction of movies—they’re going to be swept up in they know not what. Unstable people, people with a record of nervous disorders, leap to see a hyped-up Gothic, such as The Exorcist, knowing they may flip out on it. That, maybe, is the extreme of what we all sometimes want from the movies—sensations we can’t control, an excitement that is a great high.”

From the introduction to Reeling

I hasten to add that I’d hate this to read like I didn’t have a great time at those plays—quite the contrary. But, my own theatrical dabblings notwithstanding, I’m still a movie lover first and foremost.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On DVD: "Black Dynamite"

Scott Sanders' Black Dynamite is a broad blaxpoitation parody that knows all the words and none of the music. There are laughs in it, to be sure, some of them robust. But it is primarily a triumph of photography and design, and the script that they serve is undercooked and weak--a one-joke premise that wears mighty thin by the time the film's brief-but-somehow-flabby 90 minutes come to an end.

Michael Jai White stars as the title character, a former CIA commando who is called back into action on the mean streets when his brother is killed and he gets word that drug dealers are selling smack to orphans. White, a muscley smooth talker with a killer Afro and matching mustache, mostly plays it straight, much to his credit (he only fails when he plays it too broad, as in the scene where he finds out about those orphans). Most of the other supporting players are too clearly in the joke, winking at the audience at mugging wildly, forgetting the main rule of successful parody (established most memorably in Airplane!), which is to take the role absolutely seriously, no matter how ridiculous your surroundings. Byron Minns, for example, plays Bullhorn, a rhyming club-owner clearly modeled on Rudy Ray Moore (specifically on his role in Disco Godfather, a film literally quoted at one point early in this one). But Minns plays him with a big grin, laughing at his own jokes, and it's the wrong approach entirely--part of the charm of the Moore films is how seriously he takes himself, as if he's really a credible action hero and the serious message of a picture like Disco Godfather isn't completely laughable.

To be fair, some of the gags--especially those that come early on--do work, like the car chase that ends with the fiery crash of a car that doesn't match up, or a montage of Black Dynamite and his crew cleaning up the streets with the help of hilariously mismatched stock footage. But there are also plenty of would-be comic set pieces that just lie there, like a meeting of pimps and hustlers (including a brief and uninspired appearance by Arsenio Hall) and a sex scene played out in cartoons and astrology symbols. In these moments, and in the opening scenes, Sanders and his screenwriters don't do the hard work of writing comedy--they're so impressed with their own cleverness that they forget to put in the punch lines.

Through much of the film, though, the design elements do most of the heavy lifting. Black Dynamite looks just right, as if it were an honest-to-goodness blaxpoitation picture that's been sitting in a vault for thirty-plus years. Cinematographer Shawn Maurer doesn't go the Grindhouse route, aging the film in post-production; instead, he shoots on a Super-16 color reversal stock, creating a high-contrast, richly saturated image, well-augmented by excellent imitations of the clunky camerawork and awkward framing that became part of the template. Sanders and his writers do manage the nail the tin-eared expositional dialogue (currently heard in the soap-opera minstrel shows of Tyler Perry), and the sound mixers even manage to replicate the slightly-hollow sound quality of those old dialogue scenes. Adrian Younge's original score is spot-on as well, full of funny trills and "Dynamite!" vocal hits. Ruth E. Carter's costume design couldn't be better, and the sets are a hoot (particularly the wonderfully chintzy White House interiors of the closing sequence).

However, the karate scenes are played too straight and look too good (at least compared to the oeuvre of the aforementioned Rudy Ray Moore); an early kung-fu training scene lands some laughs from its stilted choreography and poorly-timed editing, but that's abandoned later, for no good reason. Sanders makes another key error in utilizing some obvious CG (for a man on fire) and green-screen (when Dynamite parachutes out of a chopper); it looks and feels wrong, wrong, wrong, blowing the carefully replicated vintage aesthetic.

Black Dynamite mocks blaxpoitation pictures with affection, and make no mistake, they're easy to sneer at. Those filmmakers were often making it up as they went along, doing their best with ridiculously low budgets and limited resources. But part of the reason that so many of them have survived and influenced filmmakers today was that their energy was undeniable. Little to none of that energy is evident in this send-up, which lurches from scene to scene and often leaves its cast standing around in period costumes on period sets, waiting for something funny to happen. It works in places as a parody, but also has the misfortune of following the Grindhouse films to the marketplace--which worked both as spoofs and as their own enjoyable entertainments. In Black Dynamite, not much happens once they've wrung the easy laughs out of the premise.

If I'm a little hard on Black Dynamite, it's mostly out of disappointment--I was genuinely excited to see if after taking in its brilliant trailer last year. The trouble is, you'll get about as much out of the film as you will from that trailer (the clothes, the cars, the action, the flawless recreation of period low-budget filmmaking), but it's 88 minutes shorter and it's free.

"Black Dynamite" is out today on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

On DVD: "Good Hair"

The subject of follicle prejudice in the African-American community is a fascinating one that's been rather shortchanged in mainstream entertainment; the last time I remember it really boiling to the surface is in the brutally honest "Straight and Nappy" production number in Spike Lee's 1988 effort School Daze. In the comic documentary Good Hair, which stars Chris Rock and is directed by his longtime collaborator Jeff Stilson (Rock is also credited as co-writer and co-producer), the hair concerns of his very young daughters prompt the comic to examine the stigmas of "good" and "bad" hair, and the multi-billion dollar industry that surrounds that divide.

The format is that of a documentary/comic essay, somewhat akin to last year's Bill Maher film Religulous (which itself seemed styled after the free-form docs of Michael Moore). Rock travels across the country and around the world, interviewing celebrities, chatting up folks in barber shops and hair salons, and visiting the centerpiece of the black hair business: The Bronner Bros. Hair Show & Battle in Atlanta.

Rock and Stilson's tangential style may not be terribly disciplined, but Good Hair is loose, free-wheeling, and very funny. Some of the comic set pieces--like a sodium hydroxide demonstration with a chemist, or his attempts to sell "black hair" to shopkeepers in the Crenshaw district--are reminiscent of taped sketches on his HBO series, and have some laughs. But the funniest pieces of the film are his off-the-cuff interactions with the people he encounters on along the way. He is, first and foremost, great with the interview subjects (both the celebs and the men and women on the street). Poet Maya Angelou turns out to be a surprisingly game interview, while the array of female actors and musicians are remarkably candid and funny about their hair travails; actors Tracie Thoms (Death Proof), Nia Long, and Raven-Symone are particularly frank and insightful, as is "video vixen" (that's how she's supered) Melyssa Ford.

But Rock is just as engaged in the spirited discussions of the barber shops and beauty salons, whether asking black men some blunt questions about "weave intimacy" or keeping a straight face as a stylist explains to him that it's perfectly reasonable for a woman to spend a thousand dollars on a weave "so their hair can look natural." (!) There are some serious questions raised, directly and indirectly, and this is perhaps where the film really comes up short--one can understand the desire to keep the film from becoming a polemic, and Rock is an entertainer first, with a primary responsibility of making a funny, enjoyable film. While one jaw-dropping early proclamation (that black people, while 12% of the population, spend 80% of the hair care dollars) passes without much examination, Rock does pause to delve into the issue of ownership--who is making money from black people for black products? (For the most part, it's not black people.)

The razzle-dazzle hair styling competition at the Bronner Bros. Extravaganza (which includes hairdressers hanging upside down or styling hair in water-filled tanks) provides the baggy structure for the film, with Rock meeting the four contestants early in the film, checking in with them occasionally, and covering the competition at the end. Some critics have complained that the movie spends too much time with this thread, though one can certainly understand Rock and Stilson embracing "the battle" as an easy climax for their shambling narrative--and some of Rock's commentary is priceless ("Now we know why Jason didn't need to rehearse; you don't have to choreograph hot women with no clothes on"). Good Hair isn't exactly a tight, focused documentary, and in some places, it raises more questions than it seems to have the time (or patience) to answer. But it does entertain, and the fact that those questions aren't wrapped up in a snug little package doesn't negate the value of opening up a frank and honest discussion.

"Good Hair" is available today on DVD.

Monday, February 15, 2010

On DVD: "The Informant!"

The ads for Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! trumpeted it as the work of "the director of Ocean's 11, 12, and 13." The audiences who know Soderbergh purely as the razzle-dazzle sleight-of-hand artist who crafted those pictures (superior entertainments though they may have been) will likely be puzzled and perhaps bored by this film, which isn't in that same style at all; if it resembles anything in the director's admirably diverse filmography, it's his underseen (and even less appreciated) 1996 micro-budget indie, Schizopolis. (This is, I'm certain, an angle that the marketing folks at Warner Brothers were wise to ignore.) Don't get me wrong, The Informant! isn't nearly as flat-out weird as the earlier film, which Soderbergh shot with fun for friends when during his mid-90s dry spell--the new film has an explainable story and make some semblance of sense (I don't present this as a knock on Schizopolis, which clearly isn't interested in either notion). But this film--this expensive, well-promoted, big studio Matt Damon vehicle--feels like the first time since then that we've gotten a real peek at the director's sense of humor.

The film tells the true story of Mark Whitacre (Damon), a rising executive at agri-industry corporation ADM who suddenly turned whistle-blower, alerting the FBI to an international price-fixing conspiracy while putting his job and comfortable lifestyle in jeopardy. Whitacre's tale, first told in a book by Kurt Eichenwald, sounds at first blush like a retread of Michael Mann's The Insider, and the book was a fairly straight-forward piece of reportage in that mode. Leave it to Soderbergh (and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns) to decide it was a comedy.

What it is, however, is a very specific kind of comedy, one that's hard to pinpoint (and presumably even harder to create). It's not character comedy, not exactly, and it certainly isn't set-up/punchline or sitcom or slapstick (though the ads seized on a couple of Damon's Inspector Clouseau moments as a marketing hook). More than anything, the movie's tone is funny--it's got an oddball sensibility, a peculiar way of looking at things, an absurd, cockeyed view of Whitacre and the quicksand he marches proudly into.

Accurately or not, Whitacre is presented as a dim bulb, Homer Simpson in a Porsche and business suit, and Burns' smartest and funniest device is an idea so simple yet so clever that I can't believe no one has thought of it before: the notion of a first-person narrator who isn't terribly bright. (The only other example I could come up with was Chris Klein's portions of the voice-over in Election). Whitacre's narration is set up to function as these things do--to explain what is taken for granted, to fill in the blanks, to move the story along--but the guy clearly has problems focusing, and his voice-overs turn into tangential, stream-of-consciousness meanderings. "What do they pay Kirk? What does a guy like that get?" he wonders after one exchange. "Is it Porsche or Porsch-uh? I should know that," he asks himself during a leisurely drive.

These interruptions and non-sequiturs, which also include transgressions on polar bears, ties, German translations, TV ideas, and the signing of form letters, are always good for an easy laugh (and indeed, it may be a well they visit a couple of times too often). But they also function as an ingenious window into what's really going on in his head (and the question "What was he thinking?" is one that is not unreasonable to ask, on several occasions). This is why Marvin Hamlisch's score is such a masterstroke. Some critics have complained about the music's jazzy, upbeat incongruity; they're missing the point entirely. Just as the rambling, disorganized voice-overs put us in Whitacre's head, so does that square, goofy music--we all have our own theme music rattling around in our brains as we go through our day, and a guy as button-up and white-bread as Whitacre would have exactly this kind of vanilla whirlygig bouncing around his noggin, and then of course it would transform into shiny, brassy spy music once he goes mole.

That music also seems to represent Soderbergh's joyful recreation of a particular 1970s aesthetic (clearly his favorite period in American film, and one that he's paid at least subtle tribute to in most of his films). His opening credit sequence, which matches up Hamlisch's throwback music with tight close-ups of a briefcase being packed with low-tech surveillance and recording devices, is like something out of Three Days of the Condor or The Conversation (and the retro vibe is only heightened by his use of what appears to be the Laugh-In font for the titles).

He also lucks out with the casting of Damon, who may not have been the most obvious choice to play Whitacre, but certainly turns out to be a smart one. His performance, complimented by bad hair, a cheeseball mustache, and thirty extra pounds, is an inspired comic creation--he's absolutely full of shit, but totally confident in his own sense of right and wrong, which is more or less inexorably tied to his own sense of self-preservation. It's an unfailingly funny performance, but you can't catch Damon trying to be funny, and the deeper he gets, the more fun he is to watch. Melanie Lynskey is wonderful as his wife; given the opportunity to go for broad caricature, she plays it straight, and the film is richer for it. Scott Bakula does beleaguered well as Whitacre's primary FBI contact. Soderbergh rounds out the cast with a rogue's gallery of stand-ups and comic actors (including Joel McHale, Rick Overton, Paul F. Thompkins, Patton Oswalt, Bob Zany, Tony Hale, and--to this fan's delight--the Smothers Brothers), a choice that helps keep picture clicking along at a good clip.

I'll admit that I've got a blind spot for Soderbergh--for my money, he's not only one of the two or three most skilled filmmakers working today, but one of our most prolific (within one year, he released this film, The Girlfriend Experience, and the mammoth, two-part Che). Few directors give me as much sheer pleasure while watching their films; part of the joy of his movies is how he works the angles, finding unique twists on potentially familiar material, subverting angles to create something new and his own. The Informant! doesn't rank with his finest work--it never quite catches fire the way his best stuff does, and it is missing the infectious energy that makes Out of Sight or the Ocean's pictures such a hoot. The pace is a little spotty, and he has occasional difficulty holding on to the film's odd, sideways tone. But consider what a boilerplate movie this could have been, what a standard, dull assemblage of cliché scenes and overworked intrigue a lesser director would have slapped together. The more you reflect on the kind of forgettable chestnut The Informant! could have been, the more you appreciate how Soderbergh decided to shake the snow globe instead.

"The Informant!" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, Feburary 23rd. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

On DVD: "Paranormal Activity"

Paranormal Activity is one of those movies where the off-screen story is so compelling, you’re tempted to give the film itself a pass, quality be damned. Writer/director Oren Peli devised his horror story to be shot in his home, primarily with two actors, and made it for something like 15 grand. It attracted enough festival attention for a pick-up by Paramount, who mounted an ingenious ad campaign that boosted the picture to a $100 million-plus gross.

That Cinderella success story is reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, and the films are not dissimilar stylistically. Like that 1999 smash, Paranormal Activity works within the “found footage” construct, beginning with a solemn on-screen note that “Paramount Pictures would like to thank the families of Micah Sloat & Katie Featherstone and the San Diego Police Department.” Micah and Katie are a young, attractive couple living in northern California; they’re unmarried but cohabitating, and Micah jokes that they’re “engaged to be engaged” (Katie seems to find that joke far less funny than he does). We meet them on either sides of Micah’s new video camera; he shoots her arriving home, and from their conversation, we piece together that he made the purchase in order to videotape their bedroom at night, where some weird things have been happening while they sleep.

Featherstone and Sloat make for a believable couple—they wear their relationship comfortably and naturally. Their extemporaneous dialogue (they worked mostly from an outline) feels captured, not “improvised” (the way that some of the less artful dialogue in Blair Witch did)—for better or worse, much of the first act really is like watching someone’s home movies. But the film is a slow burn; Peli understands the basic emotional truth about horror movies that eludes so many of today’s hacks, which is that set-up, characterization, conflict, and humor are as essential a part of the toolbox as scares and gore. Peli and his fine actors use their charisma and likability to draw us in; consequently, we’re more interested in what’s happening to them.

As promised, Mica’s camera starts capturing some nocturnal oddities—strange noises, lights flicking, objects moving, doors closing. Katie insists that they consult a psychic (Mark Fredrichs), who helps Katie piece together the notion that a paranormal presence that has haunted her since childhood has followed her to their new home. Micah doesn’t understand what it wants. The reply is chilling: “What it probably wants is Katie.” (He follows that with a less-than-comforting “You’re gonna be fine.”) The psychic advises them to reach out to a demonologist, but Micah’s not hearing it; on the other hand, he’s entirely open to the notion of bringing home a Ouija board, the kind of “reaching out” and “opening up” that the psychic explicitly advises against. And then things start to get really out of hand.

Throughout the film, but particularly in its high-strung third act, Peli traffics in good, old-fashioned scares, based in tension and suspense (what we don’t see is, in many cases, far more terrifying than what we do). But it’s not all a jump-out-and-say-boo show; the picture’s clever construction shows the psychological toll that the presence is taking on their lives. The blissful cheeriness of their early relationship starkly contrasts the bitter helplessness of their later interactions—we’re not just getting empty scares, but (as in real horror classics like Rosemary’s Baby) the psychological discomfort of watching the way this thing tears at them.

The picture is, to be sure, far from perfect—those opening scenes, important though they may be, do drag, and there’s no sense of the characters’ lives aside from this. Do they work? Go to school? Late in the film, Katie chastises Micah for bothering her when she’s “trying to study,” but from the looks of what we see on-screen, they appear to spend their days waiting around to go to bed again. And it seems like they should have more options towards the end of the film than they do (the psychic’s brief return feels like a storytelling convenience rather than an honest reaction). Those are the complaints. They don’t really matter. Paranormal Activity is a compelling picture, pulling us in tightly with it skillful faux-naturalism. We believe this story, and we are drawn into it exponentially more than in a standard horror narrative.

I’m not usually a fan of horror films, but this one genuinely got under my skin. Skillful and intelligent, Paranormal Activity lives up to its considerable hype (at least for this viewer)—it’s a taut, nerve-jangling thriller, and that closing scene is one scary sonofabitch.

"Paranormal Activity" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.