The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, November 23, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Night of the Living Dead 3D

Full review behind the jump

Night of the Living Dead 3D

: Jeff Broadstreet
: Screenplay by Robert Valding, based on the film written by George A. Romero and John A. Russo
: Jeff Broadstreet
: Brianna Brown, Joshua DesRoches, Sid Haig, Greg Travis, Johanna Black, Adam Chambers, Ken Ward, Alynia Phillips, Max Williams, Cristin Michele

It was a fluke – when the Walter Reade Organization, distributors of the landmark 1968 horror film
Night of the Living Dead, struck new prints in order to change the original title (from the less chilling, more literary Night of Anubis), they inadvertently left off a copyright notice. From the moment George A. Romero’s Pittsburgh-based commercial production company decided they wanted to make a low-budget feature, many twists of fate contributed to the resulting picture, which single-handedly changed the direction of both the horror genre and the independent film movement (and has been an inspiration to yours truly). But this accident involving the copyright notice, followed up by years of legal battles, has concluded with the film effectively in the public domain. It can be downloaded from the Internet for free, any company with the means to burn a DVD can distribute their own version; and, most crucially, anyone with ambition can adapt, sequel-ize or re-make it to their heart’s content.

In my opinion – because the story is so lean, so tailor-made for limited filmmaking resources – it would be a crackerjack idea for a film school to turn
Night of the Living Dead into a sort of master class project. Students could analyze the working parts of the original, divide up tasks, and then find their own little farmhouse in the woods to riff on the story about the awakened dead devouring the flesh of the living. And I say this with the full confidence that it wouldn’t take long for a group of film students with no experience to produce a feature that would be far more polished and compelling than Night of the Living Dead 3D, a dismal, ramshackle update that is only impressive in how it manages to take such extraordinary source material and do just about everything possible wrong with it.

This about sums up the level of the movie’s incompetence: there’s a scene where a couple (Max Williams, Cristin Michele) are having sex in a barn. I can’t tell, during this scene, if they are videotaping themselves having sex with an expensive high-definition digital camera, and the scene was just too poorly-written and shot to make this clear, or if the filmmakers went through the entire editing process without ever noticing one of their own cameras sitting in full view on a hay bale. There may yet be a third, stupider explanation that’s not occurring to me. And if you’re curious about the effect 3-D filmmaking has on the nude female form, the muddy presentation will leave you scarcely more enlightened.

The story of this iteration kicks off in roughly the same melody but with teeth-gnashingly modern affectations. “Maybe we’re being ‘Punked’” one character opines upon finding a gravesite seemingly abandoned mid-funeral. Har de har har. From there on the movie revisits the necessary forks in the road – an attack in the graveyard that sends young Barbara (Brianna Brown) a-flight, followed by refuge in a farmhouse where a zombie horde grows and lays siege while people inside debate how to survive.

Actually, debate is not an annoying enough way to describe it – these people bicker. And carp. And whine. And reel off the most ceaseless, banal disagreements you can imagine in a movie that’s only 80 minutes long with credits. Forget the undead threat beating down the doors, even the death of loved ones is but a brief hiccup on the way to the next gallingly snide rejoinder for these people.

I think some of it is meant to be funny. Why screenwriter Robert Valding looked at Night of the Living Dead and decided that what it needed was more jokes is beyond me. Valding is also the editor and a digital effects artist on this little homebrew, he demonstrates similarly remedial understanding of cinema in those tasks.

The movie does attempt to strike out its own territory as the story develops further. One element of this, exploring how the moment someone dies is not necessarily the exact moment they become a zombie, I actually found thought-provoking, and I am willing to give credit where due.

Then there’s a new character named Gerald Tovar, Jr., who runs the town mortuary. He’s played by Sid Haig, a veteran character actor who has earned some cult recognition from Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses and its sequel The Devil’s Rejects. His savvy, his ability to inject urgency into thin air, to describe events as if he actually witnessed and lived through them, to just plain speak dialogue and sound like a human being, is near jarring when set against the rest of the cast. They all look dazed, like they just woke up from having dental work done and now must pose for a modeling shoot.

The trouble with Haig’s character is that he both attempts to explain the phenomenon of the dead rising, and his role in the climax reduces their scope. Part of the dread of the original was that the story we were watching was but a microcosm for a whole world turning into Hell, and that the why of it didn’t matter.

It’s not my wish to continually hammer this movie for not living up to the impossible standard of its nomenclature, but it just keeps putting it out there. The residents of the farmhouse where Barbara holes up (hippie-dippie pot farmers this time around, har de har har) are actually watching the original on television when the attacks come, and learn no lessons from having such a valuable instructional text around.

The groundbreaking blood-and-guts aesthetic of the original Night was a shocking riposte to the rubber-masked creature features of the drive-in 1950’s, they wanted their realistic treatments of the grisly premise to be its own gimmick. Yet here the makeup and gore is juvenile, and the thrills are presented in 3-D, a schlocky gimmick born of the 50’s that stubbornly refuses to die. It usually pops up in the horror world, in Jaws 3-D or the third Friday the 13th picture, and never succeeds in being more than an ineffectual tease. There’s repeated allusions in this version to the foul aroma of the ghouls – it makes me wonder if producer/director Jeff Broadstreet also intended to release the film in Smell-O-Vision.

One can imagine the opportunities for 3D in a movie about walking, grabbing, biting corpses. So when you experience this movie, you’ll feel doubly-insulted that it has seemingly no idea what to do with said opportunities, and even if it did, the shoddiness with which the effects are executed diffuses whatever jolt they may have had to begin with. Everything about this movie, from the lighting to the sets to the zombies themselves, comes across as artificial, poorly-imagined, and (that fatal irony) flat. Night of the Living Dead may have been low-budget, but Night of the Living Dead 3D is just cheap.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006


"Our mandate was bad taste. If anybody had a joke in the worst taste, it had a better chance of getting into the film, because nothing was in worse taste than that war itself."

-Robert Altman on
M*A*S*H, his first success as a filmmaker, and its release at the height of the Vietnam War

Altman is dead. Long live Altman.

There may never be another filmmaker who could be as great as Altman was while simultaneously making so many bad movies. He was stubborn, infuriating, low, anarchic, and beautiful. But when he was great there was no one behind a camera that could capture so much humanity in front of it. They say the only true cynics are the ones who used to be romantics – I think that Robert Altman never stopped loving the movies, and he never stopped loving people. And that’s why there is so much bitter, ferocious beauty in his best work.

In the 70’s alone he directed
M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, and over a half-dozen other features. But that was the 70’s, possibly the greatest decade in American cinema. There was practically a masterpiece a month down at the neighborhood theatre. And while the rebels and film school snots of that era burned out or sold out, he kept right on being cranky Altman; through flops and fallow years, just kept on making films. He was a filmmaker – no pretension, no calculation, no pandering. He just made films, and kept on making them.

The Dangerous Woman came for Altman, and I bet as they walked off the stage together, they had a fascinating conversation.

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The Ring's destroyed, now Jackson must overcome The One Ego

I was talking with my longtime friend and Hollywood peer Irish yesterday and the conversation went to the weekend box office grosses. Irish hoped that Sony, the parent company of Casino Royale backers MGM and Columbia, wouldn’t lose faith in the James Bond franchise because it came in #2 over the weekend to Happy Feet. And if you paid strict attention to the numbers, there would be no need to worry – it had a high per-screen average, the second biggest opening in the history of the franchise (not inflation-adjusted, mind you, but still a good number), and stellar international grosses. It’s a success on all fronts.

But I could see where Irish was coming from, because you’d be amazed how much of Hollywood boils down to the childish and easily-bruised egos of the big kahunas around town. It’s just possible that someone would be silly enough to let that “#2” domestic gross rank turn them sour on the whole thing.

20th Century Fox might have accidentally made the smartest move by any distributor this year when it radically-reduced the number of screens it opened
Borat on. At the time it was because they didn’t think enough people “got” what the project was about, and they were afraid of taking a bath on a 2,000-screen release. Instead, opening in 800 screens guaranteed two things: 1) playing to packed houses, which always improves the experience of a comedy, and 2) people waiting in lines for sold-out shows. Like all those news stories about people taking a week off work to lean up against a wall outside Best Buy for a PS3, lines create the impression of a hit – and in this business, impressions are everything.

So you had incredible word of mouth and sold-out screenings to buttress that word-of-mouth, plus (and this is no small thing), the product lived up to its billing. Suddenly you have a cultural event. And, really, there was no purpose to opening
Borat on 2,000 screens to begin with. The number of screens you can crowd your way onto is, again, often about ego, since not every movie benefits from the multiplex saturation release pattern. Why play to a half-empty house on a poor screen just to feel like you’ve got a bigger dick? Because this is Hollywood.

That’s why I’m not at all surprised by
this grim announcement about Peter Jackson and his crew of maniac geniuses getting booted off The Hobbit. This project has seemed like the biggest no-brainer in the history of no-brainers – re-unite the Lord of the Rings crew and mint another billion dollars. There’s rights issues that have to be ironed out between New Line and MGM, but surely everyone can see that there’s enough money to be made for all, right?

Well it turns out that the spat isn’t even about that, it’s about the ongoing lawsuit between Jackson’s company and New Line over the profit accounting on
The Fellowship of the Ring. See, here’s the secret of Hollywood, how they keep making money when they’re doing everything they can to not pay for movies anymore – when something becomes a hit they just don’t share. They throw up a dizzying fog of gross participation deals, overhead charges, cross-collateralization schemes, advertising recoupment, and other column-shifting hoodoo, and all of a sudden they can claim that Good Will Hunting, a movie that cost under $20M to make and grossed over $220M worldwide, is, say, $30M in the hole. And yet, mysteriously, these studios aren’t going bankrupt left and right from none of their movies ever making a profit.

I have no inside knowledge about this case – I’m reading the letter from Jackson just as you are. As a fan I’ll say he’s earned credibility from me, and his explanation that New Line is trying to lean on him to settle the lawsuit is plausible and in character for this town. What it tells me is that, somewhere in New Line, or maybe even higher up in the Time Warner Empire, some petty, very insecure person was offended that the director of
Lord of the Rings would want an impartial judge to have a look at the books and see everyone got their fair sure. So offended that he’d throw not one, but two guaranteed blockbusters out the window with a whelpish protest of “You can’t MAKE me!

I will say, though, not to take this as final in any way. Hollywood is almost as skilled as Washington at altering reality and then convincing people that what they used to believe never existed in the first place. If there’s sufficient hue and cry, not to mention if MGM asserts its rights on the project, I still see a window for Jackson to return. But in order to move the fight to the next round, he had to either knuckle under to New Line or show he’s willing to walk away. I respect him for taking the latter road, but I hope it eventually pays off in him actually getting to make these movies.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Full review behind the jump

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

: Larry Charles
: Story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips, Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer, based on the character “Borat” created by Sacha Baron Cohen
: Sacha Baron Cohen, Jay Roach
: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell

The trouble with Borat is that he loves America not wisely, but too well. He is a galling ignoramus, both sexist and anti-Semitic to ludicrous extremes, and yet is one heck of a genial and friendly guy. He projects to us that he is merely the helpless product of his culture, and assumes that his attitudes are based on the best science and reason, and that he is sure the wonderful people he meets in America will share his feelings. His jaw-droppingly funny “movie-film”
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is partially about the fine line he walks with these assumptions, and those cringing moments where he turns out to be right.

In what frequently amounts to an act of guerilla sociology posing as a documentary, Borat Sagdiyev, a character created by British comic Sacha Baron Cohen for his TV series
Da Ali G Show, is sent by the breakaway former Soviet republic he calls his humble home to learn about American culture. He takes to the assignment with relish, and Cohen (who movie audiences met earlier this year playing villainous French racer Jean Girard in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) serves up a finely-balanced variety show within the format.

Not all of it is a trap for Americans to reveal the stupid that lurks within, although those are the scenes that have produced the most breathless analysis and commentary (and the lawsuits). It is part man-on-the-street prank, part gross-out farce, and most of all a showcase for a brilliantly conceived and performed character that exploits, with ruthless accuracy, our patronizing image of third-world-ers as backwards but optimistic naïfs enamored of the idealized America we flatter ourselves that we present. We’ve been Innocents Abroad, and
Borat is how the Abroad strikes back.

We begin in Borat’s village, where his sister is an award-winning prostitute and he’s a TV presenter covering local events like “The Running of the Jew”. With his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian, game enough to go as far as Cohen’s humor sends him) in tow, a small crew departs for the “U.S. and A.” on a vague mission to study its culture. That’s about as much storyline as the movie has to hang its progression of incidents on, although Borat does develop a keen interest in heading west so that he might “make sexy time” with Pamela Anderson. The former Baywatch beauty shows that in addition to her other famous assets, she has an impressive sense of humor about herself.

In between we have encounters that are scatological, others more old-fashioned slapstick, some that demonstrate the power of one wrong preposition to change the entire philosophical conceit of a phrase. Cohen, who is Cambridge-educated and, for the record, Jewish, demonstrates a Swiss Army Knife mastery of all the uses of humor – among them to disarm, to illuminate, to provoke, to expose, to ridicule, and, often gloriously, to offend.

What makes the film so compelling, beyond its ability to inspire either a cringe or a belly laugh every other minute, is the way it wraps us up in the almost unbearable tension inherent in politeness. In Borat, Cohen has an ideal tool to study just how much an average person will accept with a smile. The film is not nearly so universally mocking as you might expect, and many of the Americans Borat encounters prove to be patient, helpful and encouraging nearly to a fault. It’s often about deeply-held biases – the ones we in the audience hold that color where we expect a scene to go and the ones people on screen feel safe to reveal around Borat.

And then there are his own biases, and the way others are too terrified of confrontation to tell even him, the most gregarious bigot they’re ever likely to meet, that they are offensive. The rare exceptions seem downright heroic, like the driving instructor who not only shows a firm hand in keeping his student safe on the road, but also has the headspace available to enlighten him about how women have the right to not only drive, but choose whom they have sex with, and how that’s good for society.

It’s those fine distinctions that fascinate – how is it possible to look past a guest at a Southern dinner party bringing a bag of his own feces to the table, and even explain to him in painstaking detail the operations of a toilet and toiler paper, but it’s too much when he invites a black prostitute (Luenell) to join them? In fairness, Luenell is not actually a prostitute – like many encounters in the film it is not quite as accidental as presented, and this article offers a fairly comprehensive rundown about how most of the highlights of the film were set up.

Cohen is modern in that he knows where the envelope is and how to push it, but you can tell he’s also a classicist when it comes to humor – one with a rich respect for his forbearers. Fans of comedy team Laurel & Hardy will notice Azamat actually quoting an oft-repeated line of Hardy’s at a perfectly appropriate moment, and Cohen clearly knows that it in comedy it almost never fails to show a tall skinny guy and a short fat guy fighting. In spite of that, I can pretty much guarantee you’ve never seen a fight like this.

As with any such scattershot comedy you’re not looking for cleanliness of structure but a unity of ideas and a high hit-to-miss ratio. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan has both of those in spades – it’s almost appallingly clever, and I say that because its hot-button marksmanship inspires such high-minded examination, or huffing indignation, by people who end up not seeing at all just how damned funny it is. And before they realize it they have become part of the joke.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Best. Movie star. Ever.

Bullets or Ballots is a crime picture from the gangster factory that was Warner Brothers in the 1930’s. As happened more than once in those days, Edward G. Robinson was the star and Humphrey Bogart was the contract heavy – his name wouldn’t start lighting up marquees until the 40’s, and when he faced off with Robinson in that decade, in 1948’s potboiler Key Largo, Bogie would finally get to come out on top.

But in this picture, Robinson plays a hard-punching police detective who fakes a fall from grace in order to infiltrate the rackets, which include such unsavory activities as delaying produce trains and installing pinball machines near schools. Without bootleg gin to run they were quaint, those 30’s gangsters. Bogart plays “Bugs” Fenner, the boss’s right-hand, an ambitious triggerman who’s not won over by Robinson’s supposed turn to the dark side.

There’s this amazing little scene where Bogart has shot someone he wasn’t supposed to, which is going to bring major heat down on his boss, played by Barton MacLane. MacLane confronts him – the camera’s at one of those low proto-noir angles and the two of them are standing over a desk lamp that whites all the sinister angles on their faces – he unleashes a dressing-down tirade that starts with “
Now you listen to me, you ten-cent thug…” and gets meaner from there. And the whole time he’s huffing and puffing, Bogart’s just…staring at him. He sucks on a cigarette and stares at his boss, like he’s a very squashable bug, or an annoyance obstructing his view of the wallpaper.

If Tom Cruise could stare like that we’d all have converted to Scientology out of sheer pants-wetting fear by now. You realize in that moment that “Bugs” Fenner is not going to stay number two for long – not because he could run things better, but because he’ll get to hurt more people and that interests him. Bogart could be a cold motherfucker.

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MOVIE REVIEW - Marie Antoinette

Full review behind the jump

Marie Antoinette

: Sofia Coppola
: Sofia Coppola, based on the book Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser
: Ross Katz, Sofia Coppola
: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rose Byrne, Rip Torn, Steve Coogan, Asia Argento, Danny Huston, Marianne Faithfull, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson

There’s a myth, or at least a very convenient excuse, that people don’t want to see movies where the main character makes “wrong” decisions. I think this is hooey – you can only have a really interesting story with imperfect characters and dramatic choices that defy black-or-white moralizing. I don’t demand characters do the “right” thing, but I hope that they will do a believable thing; that is to say, the filmmakers have placed them in a setting and provided for us enough detail that the emotional course they plot does not ring false against their nature as we understand it.

I was wary of
Marie Antoinette going in for any number of reasons – the unexpected (and not totally successful) casting choices, the challenge of meshing an American pop soundtrack with a pivotal moment in the history of Europe, a heroine most famous for her frivolousness and violent end, and especially the potential for a letdown after writer/director Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning Lost in Translation.

With those doubts stacked against it, I can still honestly say that
Marie Antoinette is a rather remarkable movie. Often flawed, but clear about its intentions. It’s more of a diary than a history, extremely focused and intimate with a girl shielded utterly from ordinary life, revered as an icon, imprisoned in an endless orgy of luxury, ritual and gossip that viewed her as a womb whose eccentricities were to be tolerated, then finally made the public face for the catastrophic collapse of an institution she had no power over.

It does not judge how she decides to carry out such an existence, but by always searching honestly for her emotional state, presents a nuanced and eye-opening portrait of a life scrambling to define itself in a confounding system, very much like the early sections of
The Last Emperor or Zhang Yimou’s psychosexual soap opera Raise the Red Lantern. Those are both masterful pictures and this one isn’t, but I’m still grateful to have been surprised by its many qualities.

Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is a princess of Austria who is essentially given to France as a token, a peace offering. She has never had to want for comfort and shows little knowledge about affairs of state, her concerns are those of other fifteen-year-old girls: her friends, her clothes, her cute dog. All these are literally stripped from her – in a specially-built tent on the border she’s undressed in order to enter to pass into her new homeland with nothing of the old.

As bride to heir Louis (Jason Schwartzman), her primary functions are to look magnificent enough to inspire the populace, and produce a healthy baby boy. It is not much of a turn-on to have your marriage bed blessed by a cardinal, or to have a King (Rip Torn), surrounded by dozens of noblemen, tuck you in on your wedding night by pounding the floor with a staff and bellowing “Good luck! Good work!

Her young husband is not much interested in her – he seems to have withdrawn long ago into a quiet place inside himself, where he hopes that if he hunts well, speaks politely and cleans his plate, people will leave him alone. He likes keys – making them, reading about them, talking about them. They are far more interesting than the frustrated, still-flowered wife laying next to him. It is a queer position for young Marie when her mother (Marianne Faithfull) is writing letters about the dire consequences for two nations if the girl cannot inspire her spouse’s passion.

The palace of Versailles is a citadel of extravagance, and that she understands and takes to with zeal. She consumes desserts of the most heavenly design. She buys many, many beautiful shoes. Her quarters are all bright and powdery, as if every corner has been dusted with fine sugar. Filming in the actual palace, augmented by K.K. Barrett’s production design, makes the movie sumptuous for the eyes. Barrett’s a veteran of Lost in Translation, as is the great cinematographer Lance Acord, one of the best working today at using handheld cameras to find emotional immediacy in a scene without producing nausea.

Coppola’s treatment of 18th-Century French politics is of a bureaucracy of privilege that measures its greatness by its own convolutions. There are dozens of ladies to help Marie dress in the morning, and a fiercely-exercised etiquette over whom in the chamber holds the rank to hand the future Queen her bloomers. She cannot be spoken to until she speaks to someone, and controversy erupts when she will not speak to Madame du Berry (Asia Argento), a courtesan from the streets who has captured the King’s fancy and bulls her way through both protocol and taste. It causes severe strain among the nobles at court to reconcile the wrongness of du Berry’s presence with the wrongness of Marie to shun someone the King likes.

The oncoming revolution is suspenseful in as much as the occupants of Versailles persist in their obliviousness of it. Marie does not understand how money works. When she thinks a certain type of tree would be pretty on the grounds and is told it will take the saplings several years to grow into the fullness she envisions, she asks why full-grown ones cannot be brought in. Pity the landscaper who must say he will see what he can do. When told that funds for her pet projects are running out, she simply says she will ask husband for more. News that the people of France are starving is a thing to be sad about, but in a sort of distant way. Much as Louis XVI, on ascending the throne, can do little for the state except listen to his advisors and feign wise consideration before nodding, Marie has no sense for why a failed economy was within her power to cause. In many ways her naïveté nonetheless made her right – the problem was there long before her.

Dunst is capable in many moments, especially when overwhelmed by the stakes of her sex life, and her relief and joy when a daughter is finally born is infectious. In the end she fails to find a real identity for Marie, Schwartzman does better at achieving a consistency over the whole film, his persistent remoteness is as frustrating as it is fascinating.

You wish Marie didn’t throw so many parties, or gamble so much, or spend so much time on her hairdos. I wish that there was a little less Bow Wow Wow on the soundtrack. But I will say that in the course of Marie Antoinette I always believed the choice. The frozen image of Marie as a vainglorious and disdainful emblem of the French Monarchy is not overturned here, but thawed and enriched, as Coppola intended. That’s the success of the film.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Screenwriters take heed-

The scripts that you write are about emotions FIRST. It is not how you will PITCH it, it is not how the marketing gnomes will SELL it, but it must be how you WRITE it or else you’re on a slow boat to Hacksville. I just re-watched Back to the Future, I’m prepping a lecture on it for tomorrow’s screenwriting class, and it reminded me that while the fiendishly-constructed plot is about time travel, the STORY is grounded in the feelings of a teenage boy who just wants what every teenage boy wants: A) to get a hot girl alone in a cool car, B) play his guitar at the school dance, and C) not be so fracking embarrassed by his family. And by the end, he’s achieved all three, except that the hot girl was his mom, he had to play Chuck Berry at the dance, and he made his family cool by threatening the fabric of space and time.

The plot is the mechanism by which we get to enjoy the exercise of those feelings. Everything short of that is just a carnival ride.

was not a movie about a boat that sank. It was a love story – however hackneyed, however awful the dialogue, it worked on audiences because the disaster in all its size was positioned behind the love story to underline and expand the EMOTION. In an opera you know they must love each other a lot because the music’s so loud. Die Hard is about a husband and wife so fractured they have to blow up a damned building to get over their egos and remember why they love each other.

Plot is difficult. Really difficult, and distracting, because there’s just so much weaving and welding and hammering you have to do to make all the pieces fit. By contrast emotion seems absurdly easy. But then ask yourself – how many days of your life have you been honest with every one of your feelings from rise to sleep? How much of that do you have to tap into as a writer? What will it do to your sanity to go there, to really do it right?

Let’s not forget, most of us took up this trade because the real world and real feelings were too tricksy to face, and we wanted to go create our own world and have it be SO MUCH BETTER. Not so easy now, is it?


Reward yourself. Have a cookie.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006


Full review behind the jump

The Marine

: John Bonito
: Story by Michell Gallagher, Screenplay by Michell Gallagher and Alan McElroy
: Joel Simon
: John Cena, Robert Patrick, Kelly Carlson, Anthony Ray Parker, Abigail Bianca, Jerome Ehlers, Manu Bennett, Damon Gibson, Drew Powell

It was a strange epiphany, but I still remember it with perfect clarity. Moviegoing made the evolutionary leap from passive hobby to active, lifelong passion for me at 14, when I watched the crummy Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle
Death Warrant and got righteously angry over its unwillingness to provide the unashamed kicking action I had rented it for. Hey, we don’t always get to choose these moments for maximum posterity value, but for the first time I expressed a genuine pang; I asserted the right to excellence for my money, and engaged my attention to what reaction a movie provoked in me and why.

I don’t know if it’s the reason why to this day I have an unhealthy desire to watch B-grade butt-stomping action pictures like
The Marine, but it is the reason why even for them I have expectations. Expectations tempered to the genre, but expectations nonetheless. I want to see a simple storyline, some colorful bad guys, and a few lively scenes of bloody-knuckling, and I’d like all the participants involved to show the least bit of enthusiasm and imagination rather than acting like we should be grateful they deigned to show up. I’m looking in your direction, Mr. Seagal.

With the scorecard thus weighted, let me say that in
The Marine the storyline is certainly simple, almost too much so, that the bad guys are admittedly colorful, albeit ridiculous in usually the wrong way, and the action is indistinct and far below what one would expect from the project’s pedigree. This picture is part of a strategic campaign by Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment to groom more of their top-tier stunt-grapplers into screen stars in The Rock’s pec-tastic wake; it features John Cena, who looks sort of like what might happen if Mark Wahlberg was exposed to gamma radiation then got angry. Cena’s job is to fight well and fill out a T-shirt; the latter he does particularly well, he’s so muscled it looks like even his cheekbones have biceps.

As to the former point, I think he’s fighting well, but the camera is pushed in so close and the editing so cock-eyed that we don’t get too much of a read on it. The talent of pro wrestlers is to handle complex choreography and sell the impact of every haymaker. Why rob him of the opportunity to really let that talent shine? Unlike The Rock, who has a genuinely shining screen charisma that surprises me anew every time I see it, we are not here to see Cena emote; he tries to channel every life event through a clenched jaw. I can live with that if he has the opportunity to demonstrate what makes him a main event draw in his field, but rookie director John Bonito’s commercial roots, favoring pizzazz over clarity, lets him down.

Cena’s character has a manly name, John Triton, and a manly job, a Marine serving in Iraq. We meet him near what is labeled an “Al Qaeda training camp outside Tikrit”, where a gang of swarthy unshaven ne’er-do-wells are rolling tape on their planned execution of an American hostage. To picture this scene properly, add the marionette strings from Team America: World Police and you’ve got the right tone whether they intended it that way or not.

Triton saves the day but is busted out for defying orders – if you think about it, I’m surprised the Marine Corps cooperated with this picture, since not only did they provide Cena a hilariously ill-fitting dress uniform for the title sequence, but they are depicted as booting one of their finest on some tetchy technicality.

The bulky hero finds adjusting to civilian life hard, he wants a job right away because he doesn’t know what he’d do around the house all day without one. His wife (Kelly Carlson), wearing white lacy underthings, gives him a look that screams “Hello!”, but he’s curiously unable to get the message.

She talks him into a little road trip, which is where they have a chance encounter with high stakes burglar Rome (Robert Patrick). Rome has just stolen a feast of diamonds in psychotically sloppy fashion, when he coos to his moll (Abigail Bianca) “we got away clean”, he honestly seems to think that being witnessed in broad daylight riddling a police car with automatic weapons fire counts as getting away clean. Rome is an oddball in all kinds of ways, I actually appreciated the snaky relish with which Patrick attacks the part. He’s game for every kook gesture, even as he’s required to make a groaning joke acknowledgement of his most famous role.

Rome takes Triton’s pretty wife hostage, and Triton puts his one-man-vengeance-crew game face on. There’s a lot of trudging through swamps, a lot of eccentric interludes where Rome’s gang bicker and act out, and eventually a whole lot of explosions. You know you’ve had a pip of a day when you are in three separate buildings that explode, and dive in slow motion out of two of them, and drive into one in a burning semi truck. Triton’s ear drums are apparently as muscular as the rest of him.

I credit the movie for being willing to push certain elements to silly extremes, Triton’s wife is so uncooperative and snide a hostage it’s a wonder they don’t trade her in, and given how thick these crooks are I find it hard to believe they could ever pull off the simplest of jobs together. People are being punched or bludgeoned in the face near constantly but none of them show the slightest bruise or scuff. That’s like wrestling, at least.

It’s not enough for me recommend The Marine, even at the low success threshold I have for this genre. Vince McMahon of the WWE is quite a showman, he’s the only CEO in America who literally makes his employees kiss his hindquarters on live TV every week, but he’s probably not the only one who would enjoy it. I think he’s got the right idea trying to breed new B-picture stars – they don’t have to be too good and he’ll still achieve his goal. But better than this, please.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - The Departed

Full review behind the jump

The Departed

: Martin Scorsese
: William Monahan, based on the film Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau and Siu Fai Mak, written by Siu Fai Mak and Felix Chong
: Martin Scorsese, Brad Pitt, Brad Grey, Graham King
: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Anderson, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Corrigan, James Badge Dale

The circle is complete now. Cop becomes crook, crook becomes cop, and the two perform their death dance. And Martin Scorsese, the prodigy of the rebel 70’s who put the
Mean Streets on screen has fully merged with Martin Scorsese, craftsman and elder statesman of a Hollywood he transformed. It’s too early to judge if The Departed, his epic remake of Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs trilogy, is his best film, but it is perhaps as complete and coherent a summary expression of “Scorsese cinema” that could be in a single movie, and that is an awesome thing.

It has the flair, color, and fascination with the tortured male psyche that first catapulted him into prominence. But it’s also sage and reflective, the result of a wizened eye peering deeper into a story than its younger self could have seen, and consciously understanding the emotional damage of its characters. It’s even a bit sloppy here, a bit familiar there, the symptoms of a relentless perfectionist tinkerer letting movies escape into the public unripened. That we know the Scorsese soundtrack so well by now –
Gimme Shelter has become his unofficial theme song for the dread of coming violence, and it re-surfaces here – is part of the fabric of this movie, both a point against its freshness and a point for its director’s impact on the use of popular music in film.

What it does do is tell one corker of a story, one whose screw can’t seem to stop turning as revelation tops betrayal tops reversal of fortune. I can’t remember the last time I felt more uncertain of where I was headed, while simultaneously being aware that the storytellers’ grip was confident, the road ahead clear to them. There’s even a vein of impishness hiding inside all the other tones of the film – it’s delighting about what it’s going to spring on us next. Perhaps it’s taken this long for Scorsese to finally, truly, enjoy himself.

The plot is like a funhouse hall of cracked mirrors – every gesture has its distorted echo somewhere. Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a rookie cop with brains, a temper and a family tree full of the poor and criminal. It’s the sort of biography that might belong to a young man who could lose his badge, go to prison on an assault charge, then end up back in his old neighborhood hustling drugs and picking fights. And that’s exactly what undercover bureau chief Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) suggests he do, so he can infiltrate the gang of Boston underworld boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).

Costello is an animal in the truest definition – driven by appetite and instinct, no regard for anyone in his way, but knowledgeable about how to survive, and not without charisma. He looks like someone who is only occasionally conscious of what he is doing, so urgent are his primal behaviors. Occasionally he’ll doodle amazing things on placemats, then destroy them or throw them away, like his dominant side can’t comprehend what they represent and hates them for that. Nicholson has a high old time creating the character of Costello, a grinning sociopath always sauntering into rooms wearing evidence that he was doing something nasty somewhere else.

But he’s clever enough to have enthralled a young neighborhood kid named Colin Sullivan, taken him under his wing, and then encouraged him as a grown-up (played by Matt Damon) towards a sterling career in the police department. There he will gravitate towards the organized crime division and see that it is successful at everything except arresting Frank Costello.

Each side thus has a mole who spends most of the time being the thing that they hate. How much blood is it okay for Costigan to shed? How many nibbles can Sullivan’s squad take at Costello’s operation while avoiding the primary target? In a marvelous twist, both end up seeing the same psychiatrist (Vera Farmiga) – Sullivan romantically, Costigan as part of his parole agreement. Each must portray to her a complex lie that threatens to become the truth – at one point she tells Costigan “Your vulnerability is really freaking me out right now. Is it real?” He realizes that the only answer he has is “I don’t know.

In an even more marvelous twist, the two moles soon find that their primary task is to smoke out the other. DiCaprio and Damon are two of the most talented stars of their generation, and each has the space to fill out the people they portray – Costigan the do-gooder drowning in his own masochism, Sullivan the coward who believes that he can make everything okay if people will just trust that he’s smarter than they are.

This movie is about Boston, and the Irish, and fathers and sons, both real and adoptive. And yet here is our “good” father figure, Queenan, sending young Costigan to Costello, and yes, feeling sorrowful about it, but not letting him stop. It is a titanic achievement by screenwriter William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) to tie threads of loyalty into such Gordian knots, to keep the audience at constant imbalance, and all throughout to demonstrate the kind of doggerel wit that we haven’t heard since, well, Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

The supporting cast thrives with it. Hard-faced British character actor Ray Winstone makes a fine loyal thug to Costello in the role of Mr. French. Alec Baldwin ratchets macho insensitivity up to dizzying heights as FBI agent Ellerby, and his ability to verbally challenge your manhood is only surpassed by Queenan’s right-hand man Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). To say Dignam’s default mode is to make you as angry as you’ve ever been at a human is to imply that he has another mode – he doesn’t, and yet in many ways he is the most honest, dedicated, even heroic character in the film. Wahlberg talks like a master pugilist, pummeling every soft spot your ego has, and every other spot for good measure, it’s a career-best performance that deserves award consideration.

Sometimes the camera will lurch towards a vintage Scorsese gesture like one of his rapid close-ups. But it often cuts away before the flourish really takes hold, you can almost sense the elder filmmaker deciding to sit back and appreciate the twisted tale he gets to share with us. To laugh about it, even. Only the Scorsese of today could have made The Departed the triumph that it is, but only the reputation forged by Scorsese the younger could have brought Hollywood’s finest, young and old, together to understand and support his vision. This is one of the year’s best films.

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