Monday, February 22, 2010

U-Turn (1997)

Oliver Stone has made a career out of dramatizing real events and almost never stops just to tell a story. Even Any Given Sunday and Wall Street are meant to expose our cultural institutions. I really enjoy his presidential trilogy (JFK, Nixon, W.), whereas his Vietnam trilogy is a bit hit or miss, with Platoon, a bona fide masterpiece and Best Picture winner, leaving nowhere to go but down in subsequent efforts Born on the 4th of July (it reeks of apple pie and cheese and I find it nearly impossible to watch Tom Cruise in anything but Magnolia these days) and Heaven and Earth (which I remember being painfully dull in my first and only viewing some ten years ago). It's the odd man out films in his oeuvre that I find easiest to love but they also are easy to overlook in context of the other more outspoken cinematic history lessons he's known for delivering. These are the rare character driven films that are just there to tell a solid story without the polarizing impact and creative limitations of the biopic genre. Two such films are 1987's Talk Radio (which I hope to get to some other day) and 1997's U-Turn.

U-Turn was Stone's next film after the brilliant (and as they say "highly controversial") films Natural Born Killers and Nixon. U-Turn, on a certain level, feels like a film he made to further explore the new visual techniques he had been developing in those two prior films, a sort of thinking man's MTV editing style full of odd angles, filters, saturated colors, varied levels of film grain, etc. You get slightly different performance takes sometimes, or a quick cut to some sort of archival footage, or in this case, the captivating splendor of the Arizona landscape. There were hints of it in JFK and The Doors, Natural Born Killers of course blasted the lid right off and Nixon was an excellent hybrid of his more traditional and wild visions. This style, in the hands of a master, is a magnificent, immersive sensory experience. Stone is a smart collaborator as well, in this case employing the legendary Ennio Morricone (who I'm familiar with mostly for his work on several Brian DePalma films, most famously The Untouchables). The film also boasts one of the most outstanding ensemble casts ever outside of a Robert Altman film.

“You think bad, and bad is what you’ll get” says Darrell (an amazing turn from a virtually unrecognizable Billy Bob Thornton) to our protagonist Bobby (an especially spot on performance from Mr. Sean Penn). At some point in my third or fourth viewing of the film, those words stood out to me as truly being the central theme of the film. Self-fulfilling prophecy is the game our “hero” is playing and while it’s easy to look at his experiences as a series of bad luck encounters (which on a certain level they are), a keen eye will detect something else going on here, a tale of karmic debts. Sean Penn plays likeable pricks with a singular flair. He's got a true gift for antagonizing people (even when playing someone sympathetic like his Oscar winning turn as Harvey Milk). Here he plays a former tennis pro who is on the run due to a gambling debt which, as we soon learn, has already cost him two fingers and is quickly claiming whatever's left of his ethics and integrity as he spirals out of control down the drain of bad karma and worse luck. This piece would grow ten times longer if I discussed all the actors and actresses and what films of theirs I like, but let me quickly entice you with the following names; Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Lopez, Jon Voight, Claire Danes and especially the aforementioned Billy Bob Thornton. It's a rough crew of shysters to be sure.

We get a glimpse of how uniquely doomed our hero is within the first 5 minutes when he not only crosses, but actually runs over a black cat and subsequently has his car instantaneously fail him mere seconds after he angrily shouts "fuck you" to a passing cop. There's a school of thought that encourages people to envision their goals and make their dreams come true through the power of positive thinking. The suggestion in this film (going back to that bit of free advice from Darrell the auto mechanic) seems to be that acting the opposite ("thinking bad") can cause the world around you to sling as much mud your way as humanly possible. Penn's character seems to egg on his fate and bring about his own disasters through his prevailing hostility, deception and overall bad manners. As he sits in his damaged car, Bobby quite literally finds himself at a fork in the road, the closest town is the ironically named Superior, Arizona, an off the grid type desert (and deserted) town where Darrell is the first resident we have the displeasure of meeting. I really can't say enough good things about Thornton's hilarious and slightly arch performance (and as an added bonus, fan's of musical group WEEN will recognize the sounds of "Piss Up a Rope" from their country album and have an instant feel for the kind of swarthy but playful mischief we have in store). Penn's prized 1964 1/2 Mustang Convertible has blown a radiator hose...and it will take a while to be ready. Not wanting to spend a moment longer in the company of Darrell, Penn walks into the thriving metropolis of downtown Superior.

Arriving in town, the film takes one of its few missteps as we have our first encounter with the blind prophet, a tired cliché not improved upon by Jon Voight's hammy Native American impersonation. Someone really needs to tell him that cheap accents and an unusual hairpiece do not in and of themselves count as acting (a lesson I would much more kindly suggest to Nicolas Cage as well). Still, the dialogue given to the character and the lessons he espouses are solid enough and Voight's mishandling of the performance does little to detract from the film as a whole. It is an intricately woven tapestry of a particular brand of small town life. The kind of swept under the rug dustbowl communities that feel entirely alien, populated by characters both immediately familiar and simultaneously, highly exaggerated and surreal. There's a kind of live wire manic energy coursing through the film, a constant forward momentum. Our "hero" is plunging headlong into the abyss of his own soul.

Fortunately (in 1997 at least) he has Jennifer Lopez to keep him occupied. She has never again approached being as interesting, sexy and dangerous as she is here in the guise of femme fatale Grace, a well written role with shades of Chinatown's Evelyn Mulwray. She's the young wife of town real estate mogul Nick Nolte (in full on grizzly bear mode here, aggressively chewing the scenery). She's also the object of lust for everyone who meets her it seems, from the town Sherriff (Powers Boothe) to, of course, Penn himself. If her later work in a slew of B-movies and nauseating pop tunes failed to convince you, there is a reason J. Lo's a star. I mean, I love Money Train as much as the next man but I've never been sold on her acting prowess. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that it's the director bringing out the best in a performer like when Martin Scorsese guided Sharon Stone to her one and only brilliant turn as Ginger in Casino.

What I suppose you'd call the main plot begins after Nolte's angry husband bursts in on his wife Grace about to quickly advance from a stranger to a lover with Penn's drifter. After being punched in the face, Penn storms off back toward town but is promptly picked up by his assailant, Nolte, who makes an unsavory proposition. Would Bobby be willing to kill Grace in exchange for the princely sum of $50,000? While she may have pissed him off a bit with all the hot and cold behavior and mind games, Bobby doesn't need the money per se. He's got that and much more in his backpack. Money that's supposed to pay off the gangsters that cut off his fingers, money he quickly loses as Superior, Arizona's town grocery store is robbed at gunpoint, fate intervening and ultimately leaving a pile of bloody shredded money lying on the floor. So, now that he's desperate and has gangsters in hot pursuit can he dig deep enough into his damaged soul to find the murderer that Nolte spotted right away? Or, if Bobby can weasel around just short of murdering people, as double cross after double cross comes down, can he walk away with the money, the girl and his life? Or any combination of the 3 for that matter?

I've mentioned a surprise or two already but have stopped short of getting near the final act of this film or the many wonderful moments that occur along the way (Joaquin Phoenix as Tobey N. Tucker/TNT is, in these 5 minutes, doing the best work of his career as far as I’m concerned). So go see it will ya? It's a truly rare piece of cinema and one in a short list of films that manages to be a solid, entertaining genre picture on one level and a powerful, spiritual, brain tickler on the other. Grade: A- (knocked down a peg for giving Jon Voight's irritating character 3 or 4 times the screen time of "TNT" who I could frankly watch an entire movie about).

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

So, I'm going to go ahead and sign off on Matt Damon being the real deal. I suppose this is a fairly common opinion anymore, mostly in the years since Jason Bourne came to the silver screen. By all accounts he's a nice guy in real life and he's slowly built up a resume that showcases a true lack of vanity and a depth of emotional and physical range that I believe will have him entertaining audiences for years to come. I've seen him be hilarious in the slightly underrated comedy Stuck On You (which I must note also features an amusing turn from the incredibly underrated Greg Kinnear). I've seen him in his star making turn as the sensitive genius Will Hunting (and his subsequent fight to prove it's success wasn't a fluke...something Ben Affleck is still on trial for in the court of public opinion). I saw him, along with chuckling cohorts Clooney and Pitt, having significantly more fun than the audience in the Oceans films (although the chemistry between this crew is undeniable). I'm not necessarily proud to admit it, but I even remember him from the Brendan Fraser melodrama School Ties. The list goes on to include the universally beloved Bourne Trilogy, Courage Under Fire, little cameos in Kevin Smith films (a larger role in Dogma after he was a marquee name of course), Private Ryan, Rounders, The Rainmaker, Syriana and his recent, outstanding turn in The Departed. My favorite Damon performance of all, the one that keeps getting richer and richer every time, is that of Tom Ripley in 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley (or as the credits show, The Mysterious Yearning Secretive Sad Lonely Troubled Confused Loving Musical Gifted Intelligent Beautiful Tender Sensitive Haunted Passionate Talented Mr. Ripley, which would have been a better title if it was the least bit practical).

The Talented Mr. Ripley was not at all embraced by audiences when it came out. Damon was hot off of Good Will Hunting's recent box office and Academy Awards success. Saving Private Ryan was a hit but he was only a small (but crucial) part of it's success, Rounders I remember seeing and enjoying and feel like it had a decent critical reception but only lukewarm box office receipts. The late Anthony Minghella was following up his Best Picture and Best Director wins for The English Patient as well. There was every reason in the world for people to flock to see this masterpiece. I suppose it was just one of those typical pop culture moments where people seemed anxious to knock a rising star off his pedestal. Much like my prior featured film The Beach, this is an example of a serious actor trying to shed his pretty boy image as quickly as possible. In Damon's case, he chose to play a closeted homosexual serial killer and all around sociopath and in both cases, it seems their teenage girl fan base was not pleased.

As I mentioned in terms of Damon's performance, Ripley the film also gets richer and reveals more and more detail every time I watch it. It's one of those rare films where seeing it the second, third and fourth time, with the knowledge you now have of the character, reveals the numerous wonderful details threaded through Damon's brilliant performance. It reminds me of how much more exciting Kevin Spacey's performance is with each subsequent viewing of The Usual Suspects. We meet Tom Ripley as he is impersonating a piano player (the fact that he's impersonating someone else is a blink and you'll miss it kind of revelation that hints at a pattern in Ripley's life before the events of the film). He strikes up a conversation with Herbert Greenleaf (one of my favorite character actor's, Mr. James Rebhorn who I believe I mentioned in my Cat's Eye write-up from his appearance in the James Woods section and who you may remember as the "actor" Sean Penn's character kidnaps and uses to get into the secret headquarters in The Game or as Dr. Larry, DeNiro's friend in Meet The Parents who first appears in the breakfast scene when Stiller wakes up late). Greenleaf ends up hiring Tom for an unusual assignment. He wants him to go to Italy and convince his free spirited, jazz loving son Dickie to come back home. Ripley starts studying up on jazz records and makes his way overseas where he "runs into Dickie" on a beach and claims to know him from Yale. Dickie, as played by Jude Law is an incredibly magnetic, dynamic and charming young man. You can see why people are so drawn to his charisma, his good looks and his talent. Yet he too has his demons including being perhaps too careless with the fragile hearts of the many who depend on him for love and fulfillment. Jude Law has been on my radar ever since this dynamic performance and I've enjoyed him in Existenz, I Heart Huckabee's, The Aviator and another future blog entry Road To Perdition. I've heard nothing but great things about his work as Watson in the new Sherlock Holmes film as well.

The other main character in this love triangle (or perhaps quintangle when all is said and done) is Dickie's girlfriend Marge, who is inhabited by an especially wonderful and compelling Gwyneth Paltrow. Anthony Minghella must have enjoyed my prior blog entry Hard Eight as Paltrow is one of 3 performers, along with Philip Baker Hall and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who appear in both films. As long as we're gushing here, I will add that this is one of my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances as well. As Dickie's fellow spoiled, millionaire, globe trotting 1950's playboy friend Freddy Miles, he shreds the scenery with his razor sharp shots at Tom, who he immediately sees right through and despises. Tom, you see, while failing Dickie's father, manages to insert himself very quickly into Dickie's life as a sort of live-in man servant and "best friend". But, as Marge explains to Tom later in the film, Dickie can make you feel like the center of the universe, like the sun is shining just for you and then leave you freezing in the cold when he takes that sunshine away. Much like DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin character in Scorsese's criminally underrated King of Comedy (a guaranteed future blog entry), Ripley genuinely loves and admires Dickie and desperately wants that respect and admiration in return, while simultaneously feeling entitled to have the things Dickie has and to be embraced by people the way Dickie is (and to occasionally prance around in Dickie's clothes and slippers when no one's looking). However, you can also see, in both Pupkin and Ripley, a sort of deep hatred of these men they have placed up on a pedestal (and both ultimately resort to violent acts as well).

The film really gets moving as a tension fueled nightmare as Dickie starts seeing cracks in the surface of this new relationship and unleashes verbal abuses on an increasingly clingy and pathetic Tom who, in the film's most gut wrenching sequence, violently murders Dickie, spends the night cuddling with the dead body and then goes on to begin impersonating Dickie around town. An act which helps him evade the law, helps him live the life he always wanted and helps him deal with the grief of losing his object of obsession by acting (and in a way believing) as if he is still alive. As I mentioned in my Blood Simple piece, I love getting swept up in the nerve jangling ride of a character's tangled web of lies. I feel feelings of pity and sympathy for Ripley at times and, just as often, I feel disgusted, absolutely revolted by his sick desperation and annoying third wheel persona. Watching Damon switch between the weak, emotionally crippled Tom and the suave, in charge Dickie Greenleaf is truly impressive. His face and body seeming to inflate or shrink as he flips the switch between the two. I don't want to spoil how the events unfold except to say that the film will haunt you with it's simultaneously bleak and deeply heartfelt emotional power.

So, we have a Single White Female style obsession thriller, a Crime and Punishment style, guilt ridden cat and mouse with the investigating officers and an American Psycho style high society serial killer all rolled up into one. Take the sneaky and charming double agent Damon played in The Departed and subtract the Jason Bourne badass and you've got Tom Ripley (American Psycho's Patrick Bateman minus Wall Street's Gordon Gecko also feels like a good equation). In all seriousness though, there's just so much to love about this film. The 1950's Italy setting is lively and vibrant and the costumes and sets allow you to step into a fully realized environment. My friend Aaron made a comment that it's one of those movie's that he gets sucked into anytime he catches a little bit on TV. I feel the same, it pulls you in and doesn't let up throughout a tightly orchestrated series of twists and turns. You know a film has to be good when it takes me this long to even mention the supporting work from Cate Blanchett, one of my top 2 or 3 favorite actresses of all time. She's sensitive and desperate and in love with the Dickie Greenlead version of Tom. I was also pleasantly surprised to realize that the sweet, tragic character of Peter Smith-Kingsley was portrayed by none other than Jack Davenport who I spent several hours with during the short-lived Wonder Years meets Boogie Nights TV drama Swingtown (a show I'd never seen before my previous viewings of Ripley).

So, if you, like me have caught enough Matt Damon roles to decide that he's the real deal, you would be doing yourself a true disservice to not have this film in your collection (or at the very least at the top of your Netflix que). I give The Talented Mr. Ripley an A+!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Brazil (1985)

Is it coincidence or fate that Terry Gilliam's brilliant, tragicomic, anti-utopian vision of the future was filmed in the iconic year of 1984? Gilliam's film, like Orwell's book before it, is a nightmare fairy tale, decades ahead of its time, about the epic struggle of the dreamer in the modern cookie-cutter age. It's a search for love and humanity in a world of paperwork, office drones and the utter sameness of it all. Terry Gilliam has amassed an amazing body of work (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 12 Monkey's, The Fisher King and the recent outstanding and misunderstood Tideland amongst others). I don't hesitate for a moment to call Brazil my favorite of them all, and I'm sure it would be in the top 5 somewhere if I ever made an all time favorites list.

So, where we once had "Big Brother" and the Ministry of Truth, we have The Ministry of Information. Where we once had Winston Smith, we have Sam Lowry. Where we once had Julia we have Jill. The similarities between the novel 1984 and the film Brazil don't end there, but I won't spoil the plot twists of either magnificent work. Brazil, with the gift of hindsight, can also be seen as the story of Terry Gilliam's film career. He's an insanely creative and talented visual artist and storyteller (a dreamer if you will) cursed by his opposing forces. He’s cursed by his own stubborn belligerence, the inevitable soulless corporate suit or two and forces of nature so god-like and personal that you can't blame him for laughing maniacally at the cosmic irony of it all. And thank god that's his reaction! A ratio of 90% humor to 10% despair within our hearts is something many of us can only aspire to. He was, of course, most recently impacted by the tragic demise of his leading man Heath Ledger while filming the upcoming Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, there's the well documented failures to make his Don Quixote film (as chronicled in the amazing documentary Lost in La Mancha), the disastrous trials and tribulations surrounding Baron Munchausen and of course "The Battle of Brazil" (this is the name of the feature length documentary on the Criterion version of the film which details the epic battle Gilliam fought, and thankfully won, against Universal who tried to remove him from the project and release a more happy upbeat version of the film with about 45-50 minutes cut out of it...I've seen this version and it's Brazil minus the balls).

Back to the film though, a series of short sequences open the film and introduce the future world in question. We open on a display window populated with "modern" television screens and reflections of neon which block the view of the golden Christmas tree's stuffed in the corners. We are watching a commercial from Central Services for fancy new air ducts for the home (a visual motif throughout the film, symbolic of the endless consumer quest for things we don't really need). An explosion violently shatters the facade and the neon title card for Brazil illuminates the screen. One of the TV's is still broadcasting, a talk program that is being watched simultaneously by a man in his office. A buzzing fly upsets the man and we watch as he comically navigates the claustrophobic office trying to swat the insect. He successfully squashes the little pest who falls into a machine. The machine is spitting out arrest warrants (as we soon find out) and this simple, ever so human error causes a typo wherein a warrant is created for Archibald Buttle instead of Archibald Tuttle. This seemingly insignificant moment comes and goes in about 60 seconds, but its consequences are severe and immediate.

We watch as an idyllic family evening at the Buttle household is shattered by a dozen or so machine gun carrying police officers in full swat gear who come smashing through the doors, the ceiling and the windows and stuff the unfortunate Mr. Buttle into a creepy burlap sack. As a pompous official of some sort calmly and impersonally explains, Buttle "has been invited to assist the Ministry of Information with certain inquiries". The official has the shell shocked wife sign a receipt for her husband and keeps the carbon copy as "my receipt for your receipt." This scene also introduces Jill, who lives above the Buttle's and watches the terrifying events unfolding through the freshly created hole in her floor/the Buttle's ceiling. Jill insists that a mistake has been made and there's a nice bit of irony here as two Department of Works employees (there to promptly fix the hole) laugh and reply that "we don't make mistakes" as the replacement piece they brought goes crashing down into the apartment below (measured incorrectly it seems) and they can only shake their heads and say "typical".

I mentioned my love of complex tracking shots in my Rules of Attraction piece. The two back to back shots that introduce our hero's office are not as long as the one's I discussed previously, but they are incredibly busy with people moving in and out of the shot from all directions, like so many worker bees. We meet Sam's boss, Mr Kurtzman (the always delightful Ian Holm who modern audiences will recognize most as Bilbo Baggins from the Lord of the Rings series, or the prior generation may remember him as Ash, the evil robot of the first Alien film). Kurtzman has a problem with his computer and needs his best man to fix it. His repeated shouts for the absent Sam Lowry finally bring us to our protagonist, who has overslept (Sam is played by the splendid Jonathan Pryce, who has livened the proceedings of a great many films, from Glengary Glenross to the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy where he played Keira Knightley's father). More specifically, we first meet his idealized dream self, who soars through blue skies in a shiny metal suit with wings, both beautiful and splendidly cheap and homemade looking (I've seen the term "retro-futuristic" thrown around to describe the look of the sets and costumes). He hears the sound of a woman's voice calling his name in the distance and flies toward the beckoning call. He briefly kisses his angelic dream girl, gracefully weaving in and out of the fluffy white clouds, before a dreadful alarm noise rouses him back to the world of mechanical and personal failures he has grown accustomed to. This is, you see, a future where nothing works properly (while proudly insisting that it does).

As Sam arrives at the office we see a statue in the lobby the closely resembles his winged dream self. It is all too clear that, as he passes this each day, he dreams of taking flight beyond the confines of a dullard's existence, away from the all too common assembly line feeling of the grown-up world. I love all the Ministry of Information advertisements that show up here and throughout the film. They feel like the kind of creepy, satirical messages that we would see some 5 years later when Rowdy Roddy Piper puts the glasses on in John Carpenter's They Live (a guaranteed future blog entry). "Be Safe, Be Suspicious" they proclaim, "Suspicion Breeds Confidence" and "Information is the Road To Prosperity".

Jill is arriving at the office at the same time as Sam, being endlessly spun from one department to the next while trying to file a false arrest report on behalf of her neighbors, the Buttle's (anyone who's ever visited the BMV or a city courthouse will relate). We also meet Sam's old friend Jack (fellow Monty Python alum Michael Palin, who adds a wonderful bit of warmth that turns into a deeply sinister edge of malice as the film progresses) who chides Sam for not moving up through the ranks at the speed he should (a theme endlessly repeated by his mother and the owner of the company throughout the film). Sam briefly see's Jill's face on one of the numerous security monitors and recognizes it as the face of his dream woman. He looks around but she's already gone...

The Buttle's are the crisis of the day for Kurtzman as well, it seems. He is terrified to his core of making a mistake or attaching his name to any sort of official document in a world where paperwork is King (and he should be...VERY afraid). You see the Buttle/Tuttle discrepancy has shown up and we learn a few scenes later that Mr. Buttle has already been killed. Kurtzman takes the heat off himself by dispatching Sam to issue a refund check to Mrs. Buttle (the system's cold way of apologizing for the mistaken arrest and subsequent torture and death of the Buttle patriarch). It's an ugly terrifying regime that fancies itself a utopia, full of dazzling technological distractions and outright lies. This society has managed to use the language of corporate double speak as a replacement for the principles of the constitution, let alone basic human decency and morality. As much as Sam instinctually rails against this system, it is still all he knows in many respects and accordingly, he is surprised by Mrs. Buttle's lack of gratitude (she shouts "what have you done with his body" at him until he runs away). Sam spots Jill again and chases after her but is again, too late.

The movie from here starts merging the dream world and real world stories with increasing frequency. The obstacles, within the concrete jungle which has sprouted up in Sam's increasingly dark dream world, echo the real and metaphorical walls that are closing in around him in reality. There's a shocking revelation when Sam unmasks his dream foe and sees himself inside. Like Luke Skywalker in the Dark Side cave, Sam is battling his own lesser impulses as much as he is fighting the very real outside threats.

We also meet Public Enemy #1, Archibald "Harry" Tuttle, who, it turns out, is nothing more than a renegade heating engineer (a wonderfully wacky turn by a mustached Robert De Niro, you'll barely recognize him!). Tuttle is so bothered by the endless forms and bureaucracy of Central Services that he lives like Jason Bourne just to be able to practice his trade. As he's quickly and efficiently fixing a mechanical problem at Sam's house, a knock on the door brings us to the incompetent government counterpoints Dowser (I don't recognize this actor) and Spoor (Bob Hoskins in a brief but memorable cameo) who are responding to the original service call and are only stopped from entering Sam's apartment by his quick thinking request for a 27B-6 form (the mere mention of which causes a small seizure in Dowser who obviously has the same paperwork issues as Tuttle, without the courage to break out of the cage). I don't want to spoil the way this sub-plot plays itself out, but it leads to what may be the only real victory over "the man" in the whole film.

Sam finally accepts a promotion at work so that he can have the increased security clearance needed to find out who his dream girl really is. This leads him through a series of misadventures until he finds himself partnered with a very confused, hostile and reluctant Jill as a pair of fugitives on the run. Gilliam manipulates us brilliantly as we allow ourselves to be swept up in the adventure and the hopes and dreams of our hero's futile quest. A component in this manipulation is the highly effective musical cues which are just variations on the famous Ary Barroso song "Brazil" (which is itself used briefly at the beginning of the film and once while Sam is in his car driving to the Buttle's). The same catchy melody works as a love scene, ominous looming score, action music, etc. Lyrically, the song echo's the sentiment of our lead, a dreamer longing for escape to a better place. This song has resonated within my own mind for years as has Tuttle's simple eloquent mantra that "we're all in it together". Sam sadly doesn't realize quickly enough that he's fighting the business suit wearing equivalent of Star Trek's chilling villain's "The Borg". Will Sam and Jill's blossoming love indeed conquer all? Will good triumph over evil? "Resistance is futile" my friends...or is it??

The film is consistently hilarious though as well. Terry Gilliam deeply understands the dry humor and wordplay games of the Brit's (as I alluded to earlier, he is an alum of Monty Python) but is himself an American, with the birth rite of fear and paranoia that comes with it. The impact of this story comes with the realization that the over the top, surreal, exaggerated society we're being shown is a shockingly poignant reflection of our own. There are a couple small details in an early restaurant scene that I particularly enjoy. The first is the waiter's use of numbers for items on the menu. He walks to each patron and whispers conspiratorially that "today Madame, I suggest the #1", while advising the next that "between you and I Monsieur the #11 is especially fresh". I don't know for sure, but I don't think they were doing this in real restaurants back in 1984 but it's the norm in 2009. The waiter even gets furious with Sam when he refuses to use the number instead of the actual name of the meal he wants. I clearly recall a surreal "life imitates art" moment at a Wendy's drive thru where my request for the Big Bacon Classic combo was met with a long silence and eventual reply of "Do you mean the #4 sir?". Oh yes, I apologize you fucking robot, I meant the #4, I know you're absolutely lost without knowing which button to push. The same restaurant scene, when interrupted by yet another explosion, jumps to a soot covered orchestra who collect themselves and continue playing as burn victims and first responders run around in a panic. Whether Gilliam intended this specific reference or not, the moment makes me think of the famous story about the musicians on the Titanic who graciously played on while the ship sank. That moment is kind of touching in the Titanic story but in this context it makes me laugh and think "I guess the upper crust always reacts the same to crisis and pretending it doesn't exist".

You see, George Orwell felt this kind of trouble brewing in our society back in the 1940's, Gilliam felt it still in the 80's and 25 years later it's all continued to come true. It stings to see a world where government misinformation has us fearing our friends and neighbors as potential terrorists. It stings to see humanity stamped out by lust for status. It stings to see leadership that would kill and torture just to bury a mistake, rather than admit a mistake had been made. While I still feel a sense of optimism in the age of Obama, it's too early to say whether we've stopped the cultural degeneracy or if we've merely given ourselves a better actor to sell it to us. My own inner winged dreamer hopes it's the former, but it's disturbing that this was such a real and present issue for Terry Gilliam when I was barely born into this world and so vividly true of our country and culture some 27 years later. It's troubling that these thoughts, feelings, disappointments and fears are not unique to one time and place. They are, it would seem, ingrained in the way society has developed, ingrained in how people choose to relate to each other and the tragic impulse, within the majority, to follow society's unwritten handbook on how to live.

What it also tells me is that the rebellious spirit that cries against the dying of the light is still with us and always will be! Here we are days away from 2010 and the dreamer has refused to die, I see it reflected in artists like Gilliam, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, musically with the Mars Volta or Tool or the many faces of Mike Patton. There are artists and regular Joe's worldwide, clinging to the dream. It makes me think of the dreadful cliché of what "kids these days" are like and how much better it always seems to have been "when I was growing up". One could argue that the world has gotten more dangerous perhaps and the creeps have more tools at their disposal, but the bugs have always been under the lush green lawn, the tree has always oozed sap and every town has a Lincoln Street. But we'll save that story for another day...

Grade: A++

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

Somebody needs to cut Roger Avary a fat check to write and direct his next feature film. While he has not succesfully made as many films, he's right along side Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, specifically in the "filmakers who desperately need (and deserve) a wealthy sponsor" category. I also feel he's every bit as talented and has as singular a voice as his generational contemporaries David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky.He has thus far had only two theatrically released films as an auteur (he has written or co-written scripts for Silent Hill and Beowulf but obviously hasn't earned enough to finance his own new film). The first was 1994's Killing Zoe, which came about between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction when Tarantino's long time producer Lawrence Bender had access to a cheap bank location and asked his friend Avary if he had a script they could use to film something fast and cheap. Roger took a script he had been writing about his travels throughout Europe (he drew upon these experiences again for the amazing "Victor" section of Rules of Attraction which has also been shown as a stand alone short film called "Glitterati") and incorporated a bank robbery in Paris. The resulting film was very well received on the festival circuit (including the Prix Tres Special award at Cannes the exact same year Pulp Fiction won the Palm d'Oor). I will stop this from becoming even longer by saving an in depth look at Killing Zoe for another day but it is an outstanding and thoroughly bizarre heist film.

So yeah, I got hip to Roger Avary some 14 years ago through his work with Tarantino. They were old friends from Tarantino's video store clerk days and partnered up on several scripts (including the Tarantino scripted/Tony Scott directed True Romance and Tarantino scripted/Oliver Stone directed Natural Born Killers which both featured key re-writes from Avery). Ultimately, a script Avery was writing for a full length feature film, along with several unused scenes he had written for the True Romance script became a large chunk of Pulp Fiction (The Gold Watch section in particular and some key moments like the "divine intervention" scenes that had bullets miraculously missing Jules and Vincent and the accidental shooting of Marvin) for which he shared 1994's Best Original Screenplay Academy Award with QT. After Killing Zoe, it would not be until 2002 that he would get to helm another passion project, an adaptation of his artistic "soul mate" Brett Easton Ellis' novel, "The Rules of Attraction". I had read and loved the book years earlier. Ellis, the author of Less Than Zero, The Informers and most famously American Psycho (all made into movies with varying degrees of success) takes an extremely nihilistic view of the world and somehow manages to infuse it with enough sincere heart and longing to get through to good natured but damaged souls like you and me.

Rules of Attraction is a very emotionally complex film. On the surface though, it's a dark comedy, it is a college sex film of sorts and it is full of self centered, entitled, rich white kids with problems. In short, not an easy topic to make a weighty film from. Avery tackles the material though with verbal flair, extreme visual cleverness and absolutely brilliant soundtrack choices. None of the characters here are entirely sympathetic. Sweet and sincere Paul Denton is arguably the most human of the bunch. Paul (as played by Ian Somerhalder who many of you will recognize as the deceased Boone character from the early seasons of LOST) along with Sean Bateman (an excellent demented turn from James Van Der Beek, obviously desperate to shed his teen idol image and be taken seriously) and Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), a dark beauty who has been tragically underused in dreck like One Missed Call and 40 Days and 40 Nights) form the central character trifecta that gives the film it's momentum.

We meet Lauren first, at the first of several crucial party scenes (including one in the middle of the film which features what appears to be an exact replica of the burning Wicker Man from the 70's film of the same name, itself a wonderfully demented, funny and wholly original take on the battle of the sexes). Rules of Attraction is bookended by this winter season "End of the World" party. The movie puts you off within the first 5 minutes as we watch this sad young lady emerging from a passed out drunken stupor and realizing that she's being filmed by a semi-acquaintance while being sodomized by a complete stranger, neither of whom realize she's losing her carefully guarded virginity. The gentleman pumping away pukes on her back (classy!) before the film starts literally rolling backwards, rewinding the story along with it. Avery's camera moves, in the first of many complex and brilliant tracking shots, down the hallway and down the stairs to introduce us to the demonic looking Sean (Van Der Beek) who swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels and scans the crowd like a vulture looking for the evenings plaything. Bateman is established immediately as an emotionally vacant young man and a compulsive liar (it's no coincidence as we learn in a few subtle moments that he's the brother of Patrick Bateman, the inhuman sadist and Huey Lewis superfan from Ellis's American Psycho). We finally circle back (through another time warp reverse sequence) to Paul, who is in love with Sean. We then rewind much further, over several months and seasons, to the beginning of the school year.

In addition to the numerous examples of deliberate emotional manipulation and callous abuse that these characters inflict on each other, there are also many cases of mistaken identity and misunderstood "signals". The crucial one involves the sending of perfume laden love letters that Sean Bateman receives daily and which inspire him, for the first time it seems, to seek out a loving relationship instead of the debaucherous excesses that have numbed him to the point where sex is not even physically enjoyable anymore. These characters, for all their faults, truly put their hearts on the line with devastating results. As painful as the painful moments are though, this film has light and love and humor throughout as well. It is a brilliant satire (big surprise from the writer of American Psycho who again uses the decadent 1980's as the backdrop with which he weaves his yarn) and I also feel like there are probably some deeper themes that I haven't quite wrapped my head around yet. This film affects me very strongly on an emotional level of course but I feel like intellectually, there may be things going on that I haven't picked up on and interpreted as the filmaker and writer intended. That's okay though, great art, in my experience is subjective to the viewer. Everything is meaningless and yet so stuffed with passion. Everyone is cynical and yet wear their hearts on their sleeves.

I want to make special mention of a moment where cinematic technique and dynamic interpersonal chemistry meet. I've long admired the complicated tracking shots of Orson Welles (Touch of Evil), Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas famous Copa Cabana entrance amongst others), Robert Altman (the Welles referencing opening minutes of The Player) and of course Brian DePalma (who loves tracking shots almost as much as the split screen including the amazing sequence in Raising Cain where we follow two police detectives out of an office, down a hall, into an elevator, ouf the elevator, down a series of halls and into a morgue). The one in Rules of Attraction is easily my favorite of any of them. It starts as a split screen sequence that follows Van Der Beek and Sossaman in two seperate tracking shots as they get moving early on a Saturday morning, each navigating the beautiful sun drenched campus, Sossaman even stops to smoke a joint with her lecherous professor (an excellent cameo from Eric Stoltz who partnered with Avery as the lead in Killing Zoe and memorably played the heroin dealer in Pulp Fiction, a sequence Tarantino reportedly wrote for Stoltz based on his heroin fueled sequences in Zoe). We hear Sossamon tell her roomate that she's going to class but we don't know where Van Der Beek's headed, until each character suddenly appears in the others split screen in close up. We watch both faces as they meet cute, flirt and put butterflies in your stomach with the prospect of sweet young love. The camera pulls back and pivots until the shots join together as one and we observe them, in profile staring at each other. I mentioned a moment like this in my Sydney/Hard Eight write-up and mentioned in that same piece how well Paul Thomas Anderson had captured that falling in love magic in Punch Drunk Love; this is one of those moments as well. It's a bright ray of sunshine in a tragic story and the technically stunning aspects of it are dwarfed by the potency of its emotional impact. Ripe with visual metaphor, these two lonely souls connect...for a moment anyway.

Eric Stoltz' Irish professor is just one part of the eccentric tapestry of character actors who are familiar to us; Thomas Ian Nichols from American Pie, Clifton Collins Jr. (a bit over the top here as a wild eyed drug dealer seemingly inserted for comic relief, he has done great work in films like Capote where he played the vulnerable and psychotic Perry Smith and delightfully obnoxious work in a little B-movie classic from my high school days called The Stoned Age), we get Faye Dunaway as Paul's mom and Swoosie Kurtz (Citizen Ruth and Cruel Intentions among many others) as Mrs. Jared, the mother of young Richard, who has a brief energetic, George Michael and booze fueled tryst with Paul. We even get an almost unrecognizeable Fred Savage, strung out in a pair of boxer shorts, shooting drugs into his toes and playing the clarinet while a lit cigarette sticks out of his belly button. The Wonder Years indeed Mr. Savage!

I don't reaelly want to give away the plot twists in the movie but I can tell you that it is far from formulaic. Like The Shape of Things, I feel like this film missed it's audience because of it's marketing strategy. It was sold in 30 second TV spots as a college movie comedy (I was VERY distrubed to actually find it recently listed in the "Top 25 college comedies of all time") with the hearthrob from Dawson's Creek and young starlets Kate Bosworth and Jesica Biel. So, the people who did go to see it were probably horrified at the raw nerve vulnerability and pain at it's core or just didn't get it or are so much like these characters that they somehow viewed this film as a college comedy on par with Old School or PCU. I will also tell you that I can never hear the already tragic "I Can't Live (If Living Is Without You)" song without thinking about the saddest moment in the movie (in almost any movie for that matter).

Things don't end well for anyone involved except for you the viewer, who, if you can stomach the movie, will walk away profoundly impacted by what you've just seen. Again, I can't stress enough how much I love this film and think it's an absolute masterpiece but I'd also be irresponsible to not tell you that it packs a punch. Much like Arronofsky's magnificent Requiem for a Dream or my previous spotlight film Elephant, The Rules of Attraction will cut through the fog and break your heart because of how effectively the elements of performance, music, writing and directing gel together. Rules of Attraction gets an A+ from me and I hope that the coming decade yields at least one more new vision from the tragically underutilized genius Roger Avary.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cat's Eye (1985)

Stephen King is a writer I really enjoy, arguably more for his novels than his screenplays. I’ve read only a handful but I find his style very engaging and he really knows how to keep the pages turning. I’m quite certain he’s had more film adaptations of his work than any other writer in history (with the possible exception of Shakespeare). The films are, in my experience, extremely hit or miss. The Shining and Carrie are my two favorite’s (although King apparently was so dissatisfied with that hack Stanley Kubrick’s take on his book that he decided to remake it with Steven Weber from Wings in the Nicholson role…needless to say it was the wrong call). Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye is one of a few anthology films he’s been involved in. It was his second one after the splendid original Creepshow film (which had the legendary George A Romero behind the camera instead of Cat’s Eye’s Lewis Teague who’s biggest claim to fame was another King adaptation, Cujo) and he later went on to write Creepshow 2 and apparently is at work on a Creepshow 4 as we speak. I believe it was his "Night Shift" short story collection that featured the first two of the 3 episodes in Cat’s Eye and the third he wrote especially for the young Drew Barrymore who he had just met through her work on 1984’s Firestarter (another King story if you weren’t aware). I’m actually reading one of his short story compilations at home right now that features The Langoliers (AWFUL movie, but I’m enjoying the story so far), Secret Window (GREAT movie, haven’t seen how the story compares yet) and two others (Sun Dog and The Library Policeman) that, as far as I know remain un-filmed.

The basic premise here in Cat's Eye is that these three stories are all connected by a stray cat which often plays a crucial role within the story itself and also serves to transition from one to the next. The stories are also similar in terms of a solid blend of comedy and horror elements (true of most of King’s work in my opinion).

The most compelling reason to see Cat’s Eye is the first of its three chapters, "Quitters Inc." We have James Woods in all his sleazy, smirking glory as a loving husband and father who goes to meet with a special smoking cessation company to try to kick the habit. He meets with a “doctor” named Vinny Donatti (the delightful Alan King who I mostly know from his dramatic turn in Casino but who apparently was also a famous comic once upon a time). Donatti explains that he has the ultimate program to stop smoking for good. He explains that he will have his people watching all the time, in his car, in his home, at his job, EVERYWHERE and that if they catch him, they will kidnap and torture his wife with progressing levels of punishment (cutting off fingers, electrocution, etc.) and that if that fails to work, his daughter will be next. There’s a very funny moment where he meets with another couple who “successfully” completed the program and we see the wife’s bandaged hand to demonstrate that Dr. Donatti is serious about it. I love this story first and foremost because I have had an ongoing battle with cigarette addiction for over 10 years now and I can relate. While they were too cheap to pay for the real song, I also love the ironic use of the Police classic “Every Breath You Take” during a hallucination sequence at the party (which prominently features memorable character actor James Rebhorn who has stood out in The Game, Meet The Parents and many others). I also want to mention how funny James Woods is throughout the piece, taking his energetic bundle of nerves persona a little over the top as he fights his cravings and tries to hide from Donatti’s spies and enforcers.

Each of the stories is roughly 30 minutes long. The second portion, “The Ledge” maintains the bizarre comedic thriller tone of the first and centers on a tennis pro, in love with a married woman, who gets caught by the rich, powerful husband of the woman he’s been snogging on the sly. The basic set up is that the husband is a degenerate gambler/mobster type who has decided to handle his wife’s indiscretions by presenting a wager to the young stud; if he can walk around the ledge of a building without falling off he can have “the girl, the watch and everything” (a sly comment which functions within the story but is also aimed at the actor playing the tennis pro…but we’ll get back to that). Both the leads in this section are actors that had very memorable roles in other movies, but really haven’t been in much else. Granted, I recently noticed that Kenneth McMillan (who plays the bad guy husband) has a small role in Amadeus but I have seen him 50+ times since I was a kid as the dreaded Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Dune (a film that is a bona fide classic in the Pritchard household and will definitely get a spotlight treatment here in the blog one of these days). Robert Hays (who appears as the tennis pro in question) most people would recognize immediately as Captain Ted Striker from the Airplane films. While it’s a bit jarring to watch Hays play a serious role (much Like Leslie Nielsen’s chilling turn in the aforementioned Creepshow) and this one is certainly the most genuinely creepy and suspenseful of the three, it’s still a breezy and enjoyable 30 minute short.

These first two sections are, as I mentioned earlier, originally short stories from King and as much as I love them both, I could see how the basic conflicts of each (overcoming addiction and overcoming fear) would be well suited to the internal dialogue that fiction writing lets breathe in a way that films can’t. It is ironic then that the one part written expressly for the film is my least favorite of the three. Don’t get me wrong, “The General” is a good closer for the film and isn’t at all bad. But if I saw the first two out of context, I’d still want to revisit them over and over, “The General” I just sort of sit through because I’m already there. The cat takes a more prominent role in this one as he is adopted by precocious youngster Drew Barrymore and her family. What the family doesn’t realize is that they already have someone (or something) living in their house, a vicious creature who lives in the walls and looks like a hybrid between a Keebler Elf and the Jigsaw mask from the Saw films. While he is a sharp dresser and has an even sharper little knife, the real danger comes when he stands on your chest and steals your breath!! Fortunately, the cat (lovingly named “The General” by Barrymore’s little girl) is there to save the child from peril. The parents, who are already reluctant to let the cat sleep in their daughter’s room, find the messy aftermath of the first cat/troll battle and decide to banish The General to the outdoors. Will the cat be able to save the little girl in time? Will we get to hear that cheesy cover band version of “Every Breath You Take” again?? The answer to both, of course, is yes. The song’s ironic repetition of “I’ll be watching you” in context with the cigarette Gestapo tactics was clever and for this portion I suppose the “Every Breath You Take” lines are used to playfully acknowledge the breath stealing mischief. I don’t remember if they managed to work this song into the middle portion but it seems to follow that darn cat everywhere!

In terms of the balance between humor and horror, I want to be clear that while there are definitely very funny parts, this is not a gore filled horror film by any means, each sequence feels more like a Twilight Zone episode (high concept and suspenseful) while being infinitely better than that dreadful Twilight Zone: The Movie anthology (and without accidentally decapitating any of the child or adult actors like John Landis did…note to Hollywood: if you’re going to plow ahead and still release a movie that cost two children and a movie star their lives, it should not be a total turd, in fact it really ought to be exceptionally good…hey get back here The Crow, this applies to you too… and don’t think you’re getting away unscathed Vampire In Brooklyn!!). I just wanted to point out that this movie has some extra bits of fun for Stephen King fans and one little inside joke for all the Robert Hays fans out there. James Woods, during his sequence is shown watching the David Cronenberg film version of King’s book The Dead Zone (another future blog film) and says “Who writes this crap?”, the cat at one point has an encounter with a St. Bernard as a shout out to Cujo, the cat nearly gets squashed by a red Plymouth Fury (nodding to Christine) and the mom in Drew Barrymore’s section is shown reading King’s “Pet Semetary”. The last little bit of obscure trivia is that line I mentioned from “The Ledge” about “the girl, the watch and everything” which is the name of a successful TV movie that starred Robert Hays back in 1980 (still fresh in King’s mind I suppose while writing this in 1984).

So, yeah this movie won’t change your life or anything but I suspect you will really enjoy it and hopefully it’s something that you’re not familiar with that can spice up your Friday night instead of renting that latest Apatow movie. Grade: B

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ed Wood (1994)

Ed Wood is, by far, my favorite of the seven films Tim Burton has made with his go-to leading man Johnny Depp. It also happens to be my favorite Tim Burton movie period. For that matter, this may very well be my favorite Depp performance (I'd have to really think about that one though as he's consistently memorable in all of his work, regardles of the strengths of the films themselves). Ed Wood, as some of you may know, is famously lauded as the worst director of all time. His film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, has likewise been named the worst movie ever made. The Ed Wood biopic, however, is far more than just a celebration of schlock (although it is that too).

Ed Wood, with his big false teeth and pencil thin moustache, looks like a younger, more energetic John Waters. And like Waters did many years later, Ed Wood has a unique gift in drawing in various "freaks" to his life and assembling them into a rag-tag army of sorts, prepared to go to the ends of the earth in the shared pursuit of "the dream". The dream, in this case (as with Waters), is making over the top B movies. The main difference between Ed Wood and John Waters is the self-awareness. John Waters is a pop-culture and high society skewering satirist while Ed Wood was 110% sincere and believed he was making a masterpiece every time the camera rolled. We see this from the first time we meet Depp's incarnation of the man while he's standing backstage at an amateur play he's put on. Wood's big, childlike eyes grow wider with each passing moment as he silently mouths the dialogue being performed on stage, giddy like a child at witnessing his project come to life. We also see the first signs of his nearly unshakeable optimism in the face of failure when, the next morning, he gets his first (dreadful) review and reacts by pointing out that "it wasn't all bad" since the critic commented on how realistic the costumes looked. A few scenes later he subtley incorporates this slight bit of positivite feedback while meeting with a film producer, bragging about his recent hit play that was "praised for it's realism". The film he's agressively pursuing is based on a recent news story about a man who went under the knife for a sex change operation. Wood, when asked why he's the perfect choice for this material barely skips a beat, nor does his smile waver when he cheerfully replis that "I like wearing womens clothes". He's not homsexual, he explains, just that he's always felt very comfortable in them. He later shares this same information to his disgusted girlfriend Dolores (the dreadful Sarah Jessica Parker who I can tolerate here since she's not playing someone you're supposed to like...and because I get to smirk during the aforementioned play review scene when she gasps while reading and asks "Do I really have a face that looks like a horse"...yes you do SJP, yes you do). After explaining that he first acquired a taste for cross-dressing in his youth, raised by a mother who always wanted a girl and would dress him up as one, he goes on to share that while wearing women's underwear during his time in the army "I wasn't afraid of being killed in combat, but I was terrified of being wounded and having the doctors and the men find out my terrible secret".

Many other colorful characters populate Ed Wood. An easy favorite being Bunny Breckenridge as played by Bill Murray (in one of his first dramatic departures from the wise-ass Ghostbuster persona we all know and love). Every scene Murray's in, as a sad sweet woman, trapped in a man's body, adds a lot of heart and frequent comic relief (Murray can't help but be funny even when he's not in classic Murray mode). Ed Wood is loyal to his friends and loyal to his cast and crew that transition with him from amateur plays to amateur cinema (including Max Casella who I immediately recognized from his work as best friend Vinnie on Doogie Howser many years ago). We also have the always brilliant Jeffrey Jones (who you all know as Principal Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller but who also worked with Burton previously on Beetlejuice and has done excellent dramatic work in the HBO series Deadwood and in Milos Forman's films Valmont and Amadeus as well), here performing as "The Amazing Criswell", an amateur physcic who was apparently famous at the time for going on TV to make bizarre predictions about the future. We also get the universally beloved cleavage and mediocre acting skills of Ms. Lisa Marie (the future Ex-Mrs. Tim Burton would go on to work with him again in Mars Attacks, Sleepy Hollow and lastly Planet of the Apes, where Burton traded up for his current wife, the incredibly talented Helena Bonham Carter who has taken over as his muse ever since, in Big Fish, The Corpse Bride, Willy Wonka and his upcoming Alice In Wonderland). Lisa Marie plays Vampira, an old B-movie TV host who I assumed was an earlier version of Elvira, who I remember in vivid curvy detail from when I was an adolescent boy and who, we learn from the closing credits, was later sued unsuccesfully by Vampira for stealing her act.

The most important relationship in the movie, though, is between Eddie and beloved movie star Bela Lugosi (an Oscar winning turn from Martin Landau). We meet Lugosi for the first time as Eddie does, walking past a store window and seeing him lying inside a casket. Lugosi is not dead, as it turns out (just browsing). But he does seem to be heading there in a hurry, even telling Wood "I'm planning on dying soon". Lugosi is grateful to have a companion around who worships him and tells him he's made a difference in his life and they become fast friends. Eddie does of course "use him" to try to add value to his movie projects but it's clear that he loves him dearly too. There's a great moment where, before Lugosi's first day on the set of what will become Bride of The Monster, Wood gathers the cast and crew around him, and while whispering into a directors megaphone (funny enough in it's own right), tells them not to make Lugosi feel uncomfortable on the set by asking for autographs, being overzealous, etc. As he's emphasizing the point that they should just treat him like a regular guy, Bela walks in and Depp practically skips over to him with a childish little yelp of "Bela!". Another of my favorite moments between these two is earlier on when Wood sits at Lugosi's house watching Dracula with its star beside him. Lugosi, moved as I am by Vampira's sleek silhouette (she's hosting the showing) attempts to hypnotize her right through the TV screen to fall in love with him. Lugosi is completely sincere as he uses a smooth, transfixing hand gesture and a powerful stare to work his magic. Wood, sitting next to him, grins from ear to ear and tries to double this gesture, only to be told that "you must be double jointed...and you must be Hungarian" to pull it off.

Lugosi, tragically, is not without his demons. The most glaring example being his addiction to morphine "with a demorral chaser". We see devestating track marks in his arm when the make-up artist is working on him before shooting a scene and "Eddie" (as Lugosi affectionately calls him) gets woken up in the middle of the night more than once to come to his rescue. Lugosi though, like everyone Edward D. Wood Jr. meets, is caught up in Wood's passion and zest for life and for the magic of cinema. You can't really blame him (or any of the misfit army) either. As I watched Depp in this movie recently, I struggled to think of any of the 20+ characters I've seen him portray that reminded me of this one...and I absolutely could not find one! Ed Wood is as far removed from Captain Jack Sparrow as Sparrow is from Donnie Brasco and Brasco is from his work as John Dillinger in this year's underrated Public Enemies. It's amazing to me that such a striking, handsome face (I recently saw him on the cover for this years People Magazine "Sexiest Man Alive" issue for what must be at least the 3rd or 4th time) can be employed with such vastly different results time and time again. If you're not there already, I'd strongly encourage you all to look up Depp's filmography on IMDB and jump on the well populated bandwagon.

The film's look is quite striking as well. Intentional use of black and white in modern film is virtually unheard of (the so-so film noir experiment The Good Shepard, another Depp vehicle, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and the magnificent and tragically little known Coen Brothers film The Man Who Wasn't There are the few that come to mind). In this case, it is employed not just for the wonderful shadows, fog and ambience it creates, but also to evoke a type of moviegoing experience (50's B-Movie schlock spectaculars like The Incredible Shrinking Man and many others, too numerous to name). Much like the long forgotten John Goodman film Matinee, this is a love letter to that time and place. Accordingly, this feels like the most heartfelt and personal movie Tim Burton has ever made (although I suspect he'd tell you his colorful daddy issue extravaganza Big Fish would take that prize). While I feel Burton is very talented and has a visual sensibility that has become an unmistakeable signature over his 20 odd year career, I think most of his movies are hit or miss. More specifically, very few of them have stood the test of time for me. Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and many others have been solid filmgoing experiences for me but for some reason, most of them lose some of their splendor in the 5th or 6th viewing. Some, like the aforementioned Mars Attacks and his Willy Wonka remake are just plain BAD (and not in a good, Ed Wood production kind of way). My point is that it's interesting to see Burton, so well known for his striking visuals and lush color palletes, to be so seemingly subdued in a black and white landscape. However, not only does he make the film tremendously interesting visually but in terms of its themes and character dynamics, it's wholly consistent with his body of work. Burton makes movies about loners/outcasts/weirdos and the people who love them. From Pee-Wee Herman to Edward Scissorhands, to Batman, to Sweeney Todd, even his Planet of the Apes remake, one could argue, is all about a man alone in a society that doesn't want him. Show me a Tim Burton movie and I will show you a unique, isolated man as its protagonist.

I absolutely adore this film Ed Wood. I never even got to the introduction of the love of his life, Kathy, as embodied by the magnificent Patricia Arquette (she of the blessedly untouched snaggle tooth, a fitting beauty mark for one of my favorite actresses). Put her characters from Lost Highway, True Romance and Ed Wood together in a blender and you have created the most sexy, complicated and loving woman to ever grace the silver screen as far as I'm concerned (granted, she's maybe a tad evil in Lost Highway but I'd let that freight train run me over anytime). It's also noteworthy that this screenplay was written by Larry Karaszewski & Scott Alexander, a sort of biopic power duo who also gave us scripts for The People vs Larry Flynt and the Andy Kaufman story, Man on the Moon.

There are so many moments in Ed Wood beyond the one's I have mentioned that melt my heart, make me laugh and inspire me to bring bottomless passion and drive to my own life. This film is a great companion to my original "Mission Statement" blog in a way. It's all about putting yourself out there, giving it your best shot and knowing in your heart that if you love what you're creating, with every fiber of your being, that's all that matters! I do have to admit that I feel the pacing slows down significantly for the last 15 minutes or so and I often find myself looking at my watch in this part. It's for a fairly obvious reason though (a turning point that I won't spoil here) and in terms of plot, the rest of the story is still essential to the movie and the ending is very satisfying. Grade: A+

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Beach (2000)

Danny Boyle's 4th film, The Beach, is far from perfect. For whatever flaws it has though, it's still a film I return to time and again and look forward to watching. I suppose, right off the bat, that the scenario of a young single guy traveling the world has its appeal. Much in the same way that I’m drawn to the swinging international intrigue of the James Bond franchise. Exotic locations, exotic women, these are great elements to a successful film! This of course was in Leo’s “awkward phase” as I like to call it. He hadn’t yet turned into the man who delivered such a solid, grown-up performance in The Departed, nor was he the lanky kid who got punched in the face by DeNiro in This Boy’s Life or giddily climbed water towers in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He was always a hard working actor though and this is no exception. The Beach ultimately makes some interesting points about the dark side of our constant pursuit of "the experience" and that, more than anything, is the lifeblood that keeps me coming back for more.

The timing of this film is noteworthy as well. Dicaprio at the time was the biggest movie star on the planet, basking in the wave of Titanic mania. Danny Boyle, who had made a huge splash with his 2nd film, Trainspotting, was reeling from the commercial failure of his 3rd effort, A Life Less Ordinary (another flawed diamond in the rough that we'll tackle another day). For the first time, Boyle left behind his leading man, Ewan McGregor, in favor of as close to a sure thing as anyone thought possible...LEO! It is also important to mention that the novel, The Beach, was written by Alex Garland and while John Hodge (writer of Boyle's first 3 films) did create the script for The Beach, Garland has been the wordsmith behind most of Boyle's subsequent work. It was a turning point in the lives of these key players and it was doomed to be more than a bit uneven for all these reasons. Leo wanted to be challenged as an actor and not be just another pretty face (something he hasn't physically been able to pull off while looking far too young, in my opinion, until the aforementioned The Departed). Danny Boyle, for all his willingness to make a crowd pleaser (as proven by last years Best Picture win for Slumdog Millionaire), picked material that has too many tonal changes, subtle social commentaries and way too much story for a 105 minute running time. So, you end up with a group of people all working with great passion on what ends up feeling like several movies in one.

The first quarter of the film introduces our protagonist, Richard (Dicaprio). He's the kind of post-collegiate, intrepid traveler who always gives me mixed feelings of admiration (for the free spirit quality) and irritation (with the naivety of youth, which as a 26 year old father of two already seems like a distant memory). He’s chasing “the experience” over in Thailand. We see him riding around town experiencing the extremes of local culture, drinking snake blood and opening himself up to whatever new sights, smells and sounds he can find. At his hotel he meets the other key players in this saga, a young french couple, Francoise and Etienne, and Richard's crazy neighbor Daffy (the brilliant Robert Carlyle, who, as Begbie helped make Boyle’s Trainspotting such a success and who does the best work of any performer in this film). One night, Daffy shares a joint with Richard through an opening near the ceiling that connects their rooms and proceeds to tell him about a secret beach, a paradise virtually untouched by the hands of man. He gives enough of an enticing teaser to capture our attention right along with Richard’s but leaves things on a more ominous note after the next day finds Daffy blowing his brains out and leaving a map behind for Richard. Fortunately, in a twist reminiscent of American Werewolf In London, when I was sad to see Griffin Dunne leave so early, this is not the last we'll see of Daffy.

Richard recruits the french couple to join him in finding this secret beach and they set off together, battling sharks and drug runners en route. What they find, as we enter the second phase of the film, is an island commune led by the icy Sal (as played by the extremely icy Tilda Swinton, who besides her lighthearted and warm Oscar acceptance speech has always struck me as some kind of monster because of how effective she is playing them in films like Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton, Vanilla Sky and of course this film, The Beach). They listen to terrible techno music (can the music business please rescind their offer to Moby??) and “live off the land” and it’s all just terribly beatific. Cracks in the surface begin slowly as Richard decides to disrupt the balance by stealing Francoise away from her well liked french boyfriend. We also call back to the first section of the movie as a new group of American Interlopers start getting a little too close to discovering the secret location and Richard starts spending more and more time isolated in the woods and going deeper into his own head.

Note to self: Anytime during a movie that you see the protagonists taking a happy go lucky group shot, you can count on seeing that photo still framed at the end of the movie as a reminder of how great it was once upon a time (The Untouchables and Boogie Nights immediately come to mind but I’m sure anyone reading this can think of several others). This movie tragically falls into that awful cliché and shortly after the dreaded “good times” photo things really start to unravel. Richard breaks up yet another couple’s relationship and before this can be resolved, one of the secondary beach bum characters is bitten by a shark and we are meant to start asking some serious moral and ethical questions as the group decides that it’s better to let him die slowly and painfully than to risk their precious hideaway being discovered if they take him to the mainland for proper treatment. Etienne is the one voice of reason and decides to care for the dying, gangrenous man. Elsewhere, Richard, off in the woods in exile, learns to fight off the most dangerous enemy he’s ever faced as a young, entitled American tourist…BOREDOM!!

There are some very subtle and clever nods to iconic war movies like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now and some hilarious moments where we see Richard’s P.O.V as he literally transforms his world into a video game within his mind. It’s very easy to be confused and or bored at this point in the film if you haven’t been paying attention to the tongue-in-cheek approach that’s just barely disguised under the surface of the whole proceeding. What they don’t spell out for you, the viewer, and what millions of teenage Dicaprio fans never expected back in the year 2000 is that you’re not supposed to like this guy Richard. Which is a bit tricky since, as stated in the start of this piece, most people tend to admire or at least understand that sort of nomadic chasing of new experiences. The point that I think they’re making here is to not lose sight of your humanity in the process. I think also that it is taking shots at the well earned clichés of American culture and American tourists whose fanny pack loving ways have been the bane of the international community for decades. So we laugh because it’s funny and we laugh because it’s true and we cringe just a little bit at how true it is of us as individuals.

It is with that bit of guilt in mind that I acknowledge that I’ve never read the book for this and probably won’t. Between a full time job, writing music, performing music and acting as band manager for two groups, spending time with my family and trying to maintain my cinematic obsessions throughout, reading anything more substantial than Entertainment Weekly and the occasional Stephen King book is a luxury I don't have. So, I’m one of "them" too, in a way (but for less selfish reasons if I may be so bold). I find it entirely plausible and relatable that Richard turns his jungle isolation into his own interior Vietnam action film. I don’t play videogames but can identify with the short attention span and constant overstimulation that has become the hallmark of my generation. Being aware of it and being able to laugh at it on screen doesn’t change my own implicit guilt. It does make me return to The Beach though, more often than a great many other (and arguably better) films that I’ve seen.
The voice over narration (which I assume is straight from the book) is brilliant and inspired writing throughout. Danny Boyle is always a dazzling filmmaker and this film is no exception, the plot and setting are unique, the plot twists are many and the way the story is told visually is quite striking and clever. On the other hand, Danny Boyle’s love of cheesy techno turns my stomach at times (seriously...Moby...that's quite enough out of you), the acting is consistently mediocre (except for Robert Carlyle’s little cameo as previously mentioned) and that conflict I mentioned between admiring these efforts in communal living to wanting to slap their smug and selfish young faces is unpleasant at times. Danny Boyle and Leo have gone on to prove that they have real staying power and I think are just beginning to hit their creative peaks.

So, maybe this film isn’t truly “the best movie you’ve never seen”. I’m just saying that its reputation is much worse than the product. The Beach has been unfairly panned as a bad film and it’s not that. It’s a memorable and ambitious failure with some great ideas and is worth at least a rental to see for yourself. Grade: B-