Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Tick

I must say, as much as I completely hate Fox for canceling just about all of their good shows in favor of retaining pure drivel, most of the time I can see why they do it. Firefly was a blend of science fiction and Western that needed time to establish itself. Arrested Development, maybe the funniest show in the history of television, had a hard time landing new viewers because the old ones couldn't possibly explain it in a few sentences. Out of all of them, however, The Tick must have surely flummoxed studio heads the most.

The Tick always was a character meant to send up the ridiculousness of the superhero comics, but this woefully short-lived live-action show takes things to a whole new level. Starring Patrick Warburton, all dressed up in blue foam rubber and sporting two animatronic antennae, The Tick is the Spinal Tap of superhero films and television, and this came out before Spider-Man blew the genre open.

The Tick is joined by his sidekick Arthur (David Burke) and his hero friends Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey) and the screamingly funny Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell, who played the mayor in "The Dark Knight"). All four of them spend more time covering their own asses than fighting crime, and most episodes play out like an episode of Seinfeld with absurd costumes.

I was going to mention strong parts of the episodes, but God, where to start? The pilot, which is probably the weakest of the 9 episodes because it must spend time introducing the characters, immediately sets up its off-beat humor. "The Funeral" shows The Tick and Aruthur trying to stow a dead superhero (named The Immortal, no less), who died in bed with Capatin Liberty, intercut with The Tick's rambling, hysterical eulogy at the inevitable funeral. "Couples" introduces us to Fiery Blaze (Ron Perlman) and his trusty sidekick Friendly Fire, who serves both to highlight a not so subtle homoerotic relationship and to delve into the neglected feelings of sidekicks.

Oh, but this is just episode summary. Each episode overflows with moments that allow pathos while maintaining a darkly ironic resolution that actively prevents an semblance of a storyline. Particularly surprising in his depth is Batmanuel. A mixture of Batman and Manuel from Fawlty Towers, he starts out a hilarious parody, but every now and then we see his insecurities. A wannabe through and through, he makes himself out to be a callous womanizer but obviously loves Captain Liberty, with whom he had a relationship. He also pines to be a real superhero but, like the rest of his friends, is just a joke. At no point does his character stop and have "a moment," but you learn about him and the other characters even while you're laughing you're head off.

Of the 9 episodes, 6 are fantastic, while the other 3 have to "settle" for very funny. Every episode teems with so many outrageous lines that I just couldn't remember them. It was like a sensory overload of comedy. The characters are so over-the-top that even when guest stars show up and have a gag, they never out-crazy the main characters. I've watched a number of shows that make me almost want to start the whole season over again when I'm done, but The Tick is that incredibly rare show that makes me want to re-watch the actual episodes as soon as they're over. It was actually a struggle to move on past each one to the next. It's definitely got some weak spots (particularly in the pilot and "The License," but this could have been an utterly brilliant series. Damn you, Fox, you're the greatest villain of all.

[Note: The Tick can be viewed online legally via Netflix's Instant Watch or on What are you waiting for?]

Solaris (1972)

When legendary Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky saw Stanley Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, he hated it for its coldness. In response, he adapted Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel Solaris, a film regarded rightly as an anti-2001. However, such an easy description unwittingly pigeonholes the film into some narrow vision of a pithy comeback, failing to mention its endless depth and Tarkvosky's ability to suck you in to the story as much as Kubrick kept you at arm's length.

Tarkovsky, like just about every great Russian director stretching back to Soviet propagandist Sergei Eisenstein, endured nothing but hardships from Soviet censors, even though most of these directors (especially Eisenstein and the Constructivist directors) made movies that celebrated Soviet ideals. Tarkovsky, however, was doomed from the start. He couldn't make the film he wanted because the censors proclaimed it too "personal"--this was an ardently socialist empire, remember--so the director returned with a copy of Solaris. After all, the masses could get behind a science fiction film, couldn't they? The censors agreed, and sent Tarkovsky on his way. Oh, if I could just see their faces when they saw the final product.

Eisentstein set down the unofficial rules of Russian cinema with his pioneering use of the montage, but Tarkovsky moves in the polar opposite direction, crafting a series of long takes that, like the work of Yasujiro Ozu but with moving cameras, linger before and after the scene's action, giving us enough time to collect our thoughts. We need that time, too, because Solaris is an endlessly layered trip through the human mind, providing us with possibility on top of possibilty from which to choose.

Tarkovsky takes his sweet time from the start; we begin with Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, walking around his father's land before he meets with a retired cosmonaut, Burton. Kelvin finally goes inside to speak with Burton, and we discover some strange anomalies about the cosmonaut's mission. Sent to the liquid-covered planet Solaris, he went down to the surface to find a missing comrade. We see a tape of Burton's debriefing upon his return many years prior, as he tries to explain what he saw on the surface to a group of dismissive bureaucrats (undoubtedly Tarkovsky's slam against those who perennially kept him down). The camera footage contains nothing but shots of the planet's barren, liquid surface, but Burton maintains they are not hallucinations.

At last Kelvin prepares to leave for Solaris himself. He is played by Donatas Banionis, a stoic man with a shock of prematurely white hair and a look that balances between unkempt and professional: he has a paunch and he needs a shave, but there's a fierce intelligence behind his look of self-defeat. To gaze upon him inspires a seemingly contradictory mixture of pity and respect. We learn before he leaves of his wife Hari, whose suicide haunts his dreams, and he understand him more.

We do not see Kelvin's journey to Solaris, and while I'm sure budgetary and technological reasons exist for this, I imagine Tarkovsky wants to take the "space" out of the equation and force the audience to pay attention. He arrives on the aging space station orbiting the planet and meets the two remaining scientists, Snaut and Sartorious. A third, Kelvin's friend Dr. Gibarian, committed suicide before Kelvin arrived. The two scientists have little time for their new comrade, and Snaut warns Kelvin not to overreact if he sees anything...unusual.

As Kelvin begins his research, he catches glimpses of a woman moving walking along the station, but she disappears out of sight when he tries to follow her. That night, he awakens in his barricaded room and finds himself face to face with his wife Hari. Soon we learn that Hari, like the child Burton saw on Solaris, is a reflection of memories. When the scientists sent X-ray probes onto the planet's surface, something on the planet probed back.

As a reflection of Kelvin's memories, this Hari has all of his wife's mannerisms and all of their shared memories, but none of her own. Perhaps this is Tarkovsky's way of suggesting we can never really know anyone else, though I don't mean it as bleakly as it sounds. Nevertheless, Kris latches onto this corporeal manifestation of his mind as his wife out of desperation. Here the film, whether it realizes it or not, becomes less like a take on 2001 and more a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo. Kelvin treating this creature as an object that he can mold into that which he failed to protect eerily mirrors James Stewart's obsessive remodeling of Kim Novak's character to make her look like the woman he loved. The knowledge that this Guest (the term they use for Solaris' manifestations) is the reflection of Kelvin, we must ask ourselves how subjective this manifestation is. We know that Hari committed suicide after a vicious verbal fight between the two, yet this Hari is caring and calm. Is this Hari an idealized version of the real wife? A representation of all of his fears? Or is it, in a manner of speaking, the real thing?

What Tarkovsky wants to say with this film is that man's attempt to move ever forward, to find out destiny, serves as a comforting distraction from our regrets and sense of personal isolation. Here, man finally reached the end of the universe, and now he must face those feelings. This knowledge drove Gibarian to his suicide, and it left Snaut and Sartorious teetering on the edge of madness. Sartorious in particular reacts to this forced introspection with great anger; he proposes bombing the planet with high doses of radiation to stop the Guests. It's interesting to see that Hari, created from mere fragments of the human mind, seems infinitely more human than the two scientists.

Though the film presents itself almost like a continuous sequence, two scenes in particular stick out. The first--and likely most famous--occurs when the station momentarily loses gravity, and Kelvin and Hari float in the air as lit candles tumble up with them. The emotional center of the film, it conveys Kelvin's deep longing and his sense of contentment with this copy, the first happiness he's felt at least since being with his real wife, if not before that. The second is the final sequence, in which we learn a twist that makes us rethink everything before it and decide what we want to think about it. It's a moment that the characters themselves do not realize, and the moment thankfully does not insist on only one interpretation.

The censors refused to allow any mention of God, but Tarkovsky's characters reach for a higher power here, as did the scientists in 2001. However, where Kubrick's vision of man's future entailed a combination of man and machine that could explore the universe forever, Tarkovsky believes that man's future is the inevitable reconciliation of his past and present. Our true path is one of spiritual longing, not physical discovery. Solaris represents the literal end of this journey, but it represents the spiritual endpoint of man, where no more distractions exist. Solaris, the God substitute, can only catalyze this self-evaluation. As the characters embrace in their uncertain conclusion, we are left with an unsettling question: can man ever truly understand himself and evolve, or are we forever trapped by our regrets and uncertainty?

The Incredible Hulk

2008 will certainly go down as the year of the superhero movie. There was a string of surprisingly great romantic comedies ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Zack & Miri Make a Porno," and, in my eyes, "Wall•E"), but this is the year that comic book films finally gained legitimacy. "Iron Man" launched the commercial comeback (he never stopped doing movies) of über-actor Robert Downey, Jr. and offered up a sleek superhero you couldn't help but love, the "The Dark Knight" came 'round and decimated everything in its path. Complete with superb performances not only from Ledger but most of the ensemble cast, it set a new standard for the genre by focusing on how a hero affects the world around him, and how those reactions filter back to him.

Even "Hellboy II" was a masterstroke; it just had the rotten luck of coming out a week before TDK. Yet that film overflowed with humor and visual splendor (if not necessarily plot), and I love it more and more each time I see it. But there was another superhero movie that came out last year that slipped through the cracks somewhat. It lacked the buzz and, frankly, the quality of the other films, but it still made a decent amount of bank. I’m talking about a little film with a big green hero: “The Incredible Hulk.”

The last Hulk movie was a total disaster. There are those who try to convince me that Ang Lee (maybe the most overrated director working today) created a complex Hulk, one that focused more on Bruce Banner’s psyche than on mindless action. I know what Lee was trying to do but, from the bottom of my heart, I don’t care. I don’t give a good goddamn if the complete lack of lighting symbolized the darkness of Bruce’s repressed memories, or if the poodles represented- well, horrible writing. It was dull, pretentious, and didn’t even tackle the psychological aspects of Hulk properly. I know Bruce Banner is a deeper character than anyone gives him credit for, but couldn’t he just hit something every now and then? After a few years, Ed Norton and Louis Leterrier came in to try to clean up the mess with a reboot. Did it work?

Yes and no. “The Incredible Hulk” is a pure action romp. For just about the totality of its near two-hour running length, Banner will be on the run from the military, pausing only to transform and punch a few of them. Eventually, the army will do something stupid, and Banner will have to save the day because it’s right, yadda yadda yadda. The point is, Norton Hulk smashes all over the place in fine fashion.

How can I tell this won’t try to mine the same psychological issues as the last film? The totality of the plot is presented in the opening credits montage. Apparently what Universal took away from the venom lobbed at “Hulk” was plot of any kind was bad and people just want to see punching. Judging from some of the more fanboyish reviews I’ve seen, they might not have been totally wrong. Actually, what little plot there is seems to be lifted almost entirely from the old “Hulk:” General Thunderbolt Ross knows Banner is radioactive, and considers him U.S. Army property and tracks him down. Meanwhile, Banner is in love with Ross’ daughter, which just pisses the old man off. Really, the biggest difference in these three characters is that the Banner of this film accidentally radiated himself rather than live in a house too close to a weapons testing site as a child. I like this version better.

Ross tracks Banner down in South America, and sends his top lackey Emil Blonsky (a Russian-born man who is now British, I guess because Tim Roth didn’t care enough to try to be American) and a team of commandos to subdue Banner, who promptly gets angry, and you know what happens next. Blonsky becomes Banner’s nemesis; the thrashing he takes at Hulk’s hands leaves him wanting a rematch. He gets one, and this time the Hulk actually hits him, to devastating effect. Oh, it’s on now. As the broken Blonsky lies in a hospital bed, he agrees to a dose of Super Soldier serum to fix his wounds so he can fight get the piss beaten out of him once more.

But wait! Emil knows that even with the (faulty) serum, he cannot win. So what does he do? Blast himself with radiation in the hopes that he too will be a giant beast thing because, as we all know, the best way to fight fire is by dousing yourself with gasoline. Despite the fact that Banner’s survival is billed as a miracle, the exact same thing happens to Blonsky, only thanks to the serum he is stuck in the mutated body.

So it all comes down to a showdown between freaks. Ross picks the lesser of two evils, and Banner agrees to help because…well, I don’t know why, but he must have a reason. Maybe he just wanted to be near Betty, which is kind of sweet but also stupid. This is all nitpicking, of course, because the final fight is suitably bad-ass. We all know who’s going to win, but it was a pure piece of blockbuster action in comparison to the more serious fare (even in the explosions) of “Iron Man” and TDK.

So how does the film fare in the end? I certainly didn’t dislike it, but the total rebellion against plot greatly hurts the film. What attachment am I supposed to have to these characters? Even though I know of their importance and decades-long history, within the context of this film franchise I couldn’t care less who lived or died because we never truly delve into them. The superb cast has so little to do that I’d rate the performances of the actors in Lee’s “Hulk” over them, because at least they did something.

The details of production are somewhat infamous; Norton and Leterrier wanted a much deeper movie, but the people with the money cut it to make pure action fare. The DVD comes with a slew of deleted scenes (though I suspect there are more), and they addressed almost every plot hole or rushed look in the movie. In a year of unprecedented creative control for comic book movies, “The Incredible Hulk” reminds us just how little the people with the money know and how much they’re capable of screwing up. This new “Hulk” is not a bad film by any means, but it’s instantly forgettable. Somewhere between the mindlessness of this fun ride and the dense psychological drama of the previous iteration lies the true Hulk film. I do not know if they’ll make a sequel, but if Universal gives Norton and Leterrier some freedom, they might have a big hit on their hands.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Secrets & Lies

It takes a certain amount of gumption to try to raise funding for a film and gather a cast without a single word committed to a page, but Mike Leigh's made a noble go of it for three decades. He made is first film in 1972, and didn't manage to make other (expressly for the screen, that is) until 1988. Just reading about him makes me curious, but I became about as big a fan as a single film can create when I saw Leigh's superb Happy-Go-Lucky at the tail end of last year. Perhaps the reason it took me so long to actually watch another one of his films is that I had trouble picking between them. Now, I'm not one for fate, but I got my copy of this film in my Netflix shipment today, and before I popped it in, I remembered that yesterday Roger Ebert added a new essay to his Great Movies collection. I brought up his site and what should be his entry but Secrets & Lies? Figuring that could only be a good sign, I dove right in.

And what a find! Mike Leigh's Secret & Lies is a brutal look into a family whose decades of buried problems will explode at the 21st birthday of its youngest member. The film starts as a young black woman attends the funeral of her adoptive mother. Hortense Cumberbatch (the only way that name could be any more British is if her nickname was somehow "Union Jack"), an optometrist, decides to track down her biological mother, though why we're never really told, a minor but noticeable flaw.

Her mother is Cynthia Purley, played as a tearful bundle of nerves by Brenda Blethyn. Cynthia lives in a ratty town house with her 20-year old daughter Roxanne, a layabout who works as a street sweeper. When Hortense rings her, Cynthia tearfully hangs up in fear, then takes her second call and agrees to meet her abandoned daughter. We see the first piece of the title's derivation in their meeting, as Cynthia initially refuses to believe Hortense could be her daughter, because she's never slept with a black man. Then some nugget of deeply buried memory finally bubbles through decades of repression and a look of tragicomic revelation flashes across Blethyn's face. Leigh's method of improvising a script with his actors is on full display in this scene; these two characters are working their way into each other because that's what the actors did for weeks before shooting.

Cynthia has a brother Maurice (the great Timothy Spall) a photographer trapped in a cold marriage with his wife Monica. The scenes in which Maurice sets his clients in poses and coaxes smiles out them seem to exist thematically only to set up an explosive line later in the film, but they add some humor to the proceedings. In contrast to his sister's crowded little home, Maurice and his wife life in a spacious, clean home and have no children. Cynthia despairs over the fact that Maurice hasn't called her in two years, and blames Monica, a fair assumption.

Maurice misses his sister as well, and invites her and his niece over for Roxanne's 21st birthday. Cynthia brings along "her friend" Hortense, and the stage is set for a familial explosion. The party plays out like an intense hybrid of Hitchcock and soap opera. Roxanne brings her boyfriend Paul, a man thoroughly cowed by his pushy lover. He looks terrified and withdrawn throughout the party, as if he somehow expects what's about to happen. At last, Cynthia can't help herself, and spills her secret: this is my daughter.

Like a domino tipped over, Cynthia's admission brings out secret after lie. Leigh's characters, in a thoroughly interesting move, never bring up Hortense's race, something that especially surprised me considering how trashy Roxanne is. The characters simply have too many important things to work out to give a damn about something so trivial. For Roxanne, the simple knowledge that she has a half-sister is enough to send her into a rage.

After details start flying out, Maurice finally snaps. He screams "I've spent my entire life trying to make people happy!" and you know he isn't just referring to his job. In only a few lines, Spall absolutely brings the house down and, though this is Blethyn's show through and through, he steals a moment of spotlight just for him. After all the dirty laundry is aired, we see the family start over. If the ending is incongruously upbeat, it's because they've all worked through a perverse sort of group therapy and have nowhere to go but it.

This is only the second Mike Leigh film I've seen, but I see a pattern already. His films operate with characters who stand outside real life but, because of his workshop method of script-writing, the movies nevertheless have just a dab of verité about them. They're almost like a mixture of Werner Herzog and John Cassavetes as filtered through a British soap opera. It's a testament both to the writing and Blethyn's skill that her constant state of tearful breakdown never becomes repetitive nor unintentional funny; instead, she puts in a completely affecting performance. I don't know if Secrets & Lies has an underlying message--apart from the overt comment on how we are so protective of our secrets that we even close ourselves off from those who know them--but I don't care, because I feel as if I've gotten to know this bizarre little family over the course of 2 hours.


Just how much dramatic irony can you pack into one word? Todd Solondz seems willing to find out with the title of Happiness, a vicious social satire of the misery of human existence. Constructed as an ensemble piece, Happiness uses an Altmanesque ensemble piece to examine how each of these self-centered individuals struggle for contentment in this world, and how they fail utterly. The film also stands as the logical outgrowth of the geek explosion of the mid-90s that gave us quasi-indie wonders (they started out independent but all got signed quickly) like Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. The 90s brought about geek protagonists, and Solondz uses geeks--or at least social outcasts--to make his point.

The film opens with Joy (Jane Adams), who has just broken up with her sadsack boyfriend (Jon Lovitz). He gives her a laughable present (a mail-order ashtray even though she doesn't smoke), only to snatch it back in defiance. Joy is one of three sisters, the other two being Trish (Cynthia Stevenson) and Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle). Their parents, Lenny and Mona (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser) have been married for 20 years, but Lenny wants to leave, not for another woman, but for solitude.

We also meet Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the geekiest character of them all, a computer nerd who cannot speak to women. He details his nervous sexual fantasies to his therapist Bill (Dylan Baker), only to conclude that he'd never act on these fantasies because he's too boring. By this time Bill has become so bored he's thinking about what he needs to get done the rest of the day. The only woman Allen can speak to is his neighbor Kristina (Camryn Manheim), a fat woman who loves Allen but has as much trouble saying it to him as he does speaking to other women.

Slowly the stories play out, and the characters intertwine. Trish is married to Bill, who seems proper and calm but has terrible dreams where he kills people for freedom. On his way home from his session with Allen, he buys a teen magazine and masturbates to the photos. Then he spots a boy on his son Billy's Little League team and, when the boy comes back to his house for a sleepover, he drugs his family and molests the boy (thankfully, the act is not shown).

Allen, in the interim, gets out his sexual frustration by going through the phonebook and making obscene calls to women. Eventually he dials Helen. In an earlier conversation, Helen told her sister how bored she had become with casual sex with countless narcissistic men; therefore, Allen's heavy breathing and dirty talk arouse her and she redials the number to ask for sex. Allen gets nervous and returns home and is comforted by Kristina. Allen's full of too much nervosa to act on his impulses, and Kristina hates sex. They'd make a compatible couple if Allen could see clearly. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays his part brilliantly; he completely captures the nervous, never comfortable body language of someone afraid to talk to women.

Many films have an ebb and flow, but the lives of each of the characters in the film only ever seems to get darker. Joy's ex- kills himself over her, and we soon learn she has a history with losers and cheats. Trish continues to live her life as chirpily as ever, unaware of her husband's activities. We learn that one character is a murderer. Mona continues to hang on to her marriage as if it's the only thing keeping her alive, but Lenny has seemingly moved beyond feeling. For him, cutting himself off from others would only stop all the noise distracting him from being alone. Of all of them, he is perhaps the best they can hope for, because he has moved beyond the self-pity on which everyone else sustains themselves.

But it's Dylan Baker's Bill who walks away with the film. There's a slippery slope involved with making a child molestor three-dimensional, but Hollywood has always used that as an excuse to just not deal with the topic and portray any and all pedophiles as pure evil, Lucifers walking amongst us. Baker, however, crafts a complex performance of a man who forever battles against his impulses. He molests his son's friend, but we see him in scenes with that son as a loving and caring father. Early on, Billy asks his father about what it means to "come," and Bill gently explains it to the boy and is supportive of him as he enters puberty. Bill speaks to his son with the same honesty in the most devastating moment of the film, when Billy asks his father if he did something to his friends.

Solondz uses Bill as the emotional crux of the story: he, along with the entire film, illustrates a mixture of sexual perversion and empathy. He plays Bill not entirely unlike Peter Lorre played the child killer in M: you view him with a perfect (and infinitely unsettling) balance between pity and revulsion. Despite all this, Solondz never exploits these characters and, though his comedy is at times too forced, he crafted an immeasurably dark look into the hopelessness of the human condition.


When I first saw Juno last January, I walked out of the theater knowing I'd seen a great movie, but I couldn't quite say why. I watched it again on DVD and felt the same way, still inexplicably in love with the film. Now, after a third time, I've truly sat down and concentrated, and I've at last come up with an answer that is so absurdly simple I should probably start using safety scissors because I can't trust myself anymore: Juno, to me, is a great movie because it makes me happy, 100%, smiling into the wind, bounce-in-your-step happy. It is so thoroughly deceptive in its depth that I realize know I wanted Diablo Cody to win an Oscar for her screenplay without even understanding why she so completely deserved it.

The film of course deals with the titular Juno, a 16-year old who seems to have spent all 16 of those years fashioning herself into an independent person. To all those who dismiss the film out of hand as Cody's attempt to "sound like a real teenager:" you don't get it. Juno speaks the way she does because she wants to be individualistic; it's her own personal ironic statement to the world. Yet these speech patterns only show her immaturity, so at the start of the film her dialogue overflows with the stuff. Over the course of the film, she slowly drops her speaking styles, and it's one of the many ways Cody shows her character growing up without once calling attention to itself.

Ellen Page plays Juno about as perfectly as a person could. She manages to act far beyond her years while playing someone younger than her, an uneasy balance that could have gone awry, but doesn't. That juxtaposition makes Juno such a singular and great character; she has the intelligence of someone far older, but lacks the actual wisdom needed to put it to good use. Page has established herself as an actress to watch, but she sets the bar so high with Juno I don't know if she'll ever top it.

Also turning in his best work is Michael Cera. It's easy to dismiss Bleeker as yet another awkward little geek à la all his other roles, but just watch him in his first real scene, when Juno tells him she's pregnant. He doesn't explode like Seth Rogen's character did in Knocked Up, nor does he break down. Hell, he doesn't even demand a paternity test. He knows the baby is his, and when you look into Cera's eyes you can practically feel his stomach jump. Then he accepts the news, and whatever decision Juno makes, and in an instant you know these two are a perfect couple; Bleeker doesn't hide behind stylized speeches and quirkiness, but he's every bit as strong, yet unsure, as Juno.

Juno makes an appointment to get an abortion, but before she can enter she runs into a classmate, Su-Chin, a lone protestor who spouts off some parroted talking points before catching Juno off guard with the claim that her unborn child "has fingernails." Juno enters to face a dismissive clerk and, as she fills out the forms, she notices all the scratching and tapping the other people in the room are doing with their fingernails and has an epiphany: she can't abort the baby, but she can give it to adoption. Some may read into this as a pro-life statement, but I see it as pro-choice; after all, one of the choices is to keep the baby, and this is Juno's decision.

Page and Cera alone are enough to support the film, but Cody and Reitman found an outstanding supporting cast who all bring their own originality to the part. Now, if Juno's speech didn't turn off haters, her parents' reaction to her pregnancy sealed the deal. Mac and Bren, Juno's father and stepmom, are played by J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, which alone makes them worth watching. But when they accept Juno's news with understandable shock, but without anger, it draws a very clear line in the sand. For me, it fits into Cody's depiction of maturity; Juno took the news with the fear befitting a child, but before the conversation evens ends they've decided to support their daughter.

The other supporting actors play as important a role as Juno's dad and stepmom. Juno searches through a local paper that has ads for couples looking to adopt, and she settles on Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), a yuppie couple who live in a suburban condo. Mac takes Juno to meet them, and there's a not-so-subtle yet never overstated feeling of the class gap between the two pairs. Vanessa is overjoyed that she will finally be a mother and treats Juno almost like the pregnant Virgin Mary. She wants nothing more than to be a mom, but cannot conceive one of her own; she says with infinite longing that Juno's her friends say Juno's in the toughest stage of the pregnancy and Juno, still acting childish (especially now that she's "solved the problem"), casually responds with "at least you don't have to carry this thing." Jennifer Garner deserved an award just for the flash of immeasurable pain on her face when she hears the line. The agreement is signed, and everything seems to have worked out.

However, Mark gives off a vibe from the start that he's not as thrilled to be a parent as his wife. Juno takes an immediate shine to Mark because he's a commercial composer who used to play in a rock band. There's a disturbing subtext to Mark, but really Bateman plays a role not dissimilar to Bill Murray's in Rushmore: like Herman Blume, Mark seems himself in the young protagonist, and the knowledge of how he turned out leads him to an existential crisis. When Juno finally wises up to how pathetic he really is, and it inspires her own maturation.

Vanessa and Mark form counterpoints for Juno's story and give the pregnancy an endpoint, but this is ultimately a story of a little girl growing up. At the start she masks her fear and adolescence behind her speech patterns and detached demeanor, but she lets out her true emotions in one brief moment early on when she admits "I don't really know who I am." In a bitter voice-over, she mentions her mother, who moved to Arizona after the divorce and sends her daughter a cactus every Valentine's Day. There's a lot of pain masked in Juno's sarcastic remarks, and her feelings of abandonment very likely led her to keep the child, even if she's giving it up for adoption.

As Mark and Vanessa's relationship hits a strain due to Mark's fear of growing up, so too does the relationship between Juno and Bleeker. I mentioned earlier than Cera played within his typecast but offered up something more, but that was only the beginning. At one stage Juno tells Bleeker that she's missing class for an ultrasound, and Bleeker begins to ask "Can I -" and catches himself, replacing it with "Should I come?" Bleeker, though afraid, handles the situation more maturely than anyone else in the film. Later, when Juno is at her peak of self-denial, calls her on her crap and, though he never explodes and never gets mean, the effect is absolutely devastating.

I feel perhaps I'm underselling the comedy of this film in favor of the brilliant drama, but then the drama is what sets it apart. However, it is, quite often, extremely funny. When Juno and Bleeker go to science class, their lab partners are also a couple, and they're in the midst of squabbling over the immaturity of the boy, who cheated on the girl after drinking a few comically weak alcoholic beverages. This scene is funny, but it also shows just how different Bleeker and Juno are, mainly thanks to Bleeker's tenderness. But my favorite gag was the running discussion about the term "sexually active" that continues to make me laugh.

Ultimately, the film is Cody's way of telling kids that they don't know everything. Most adults are quick to point it out, but they do so in a condescending manner, and usually to end an argument before they might actually have to think. But Cody is different; she never condescends because she respects the intelligence of teenagers, and she's never cruel in her lesson. Instead, she gently shows teens that they are only just beginning to truly live, and that life can be full of surprises. Juno, Bleeker, Vanessa and Mark may go through rough times, but we learn something about ourselves and about life by the end of it, and it makes me smile the more I think about it. Haters be damned: I wish there were more films as honest and heartwarming as this.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Throne of Blood

Akira Kurosawa's Ran, an adaptation of King Lear, was one of the best Shakespeare adaptations I've ever seen (second only to Chimes at Midnight). Its personal impact got me interested in seeing his version of Macbeth, a feeling only strengthened when I look around only and saw numerous people citing it as one of the master's best. So, over the protests of my bank account I added another of Kurosawa's films to my collection, but that tiny inner voice of fiscal responsibility can stow it because it was worth every penny.

What made Ran so interesting was how willing it was to play with Shakespeare's original dialogue, freeing it from the narrow confines that befall literal translations while never not feeling like King Lear. Throne of Blood operates in much the same fashion. The general plot follows the same direction: Macbeth becomes Washizu Taketori (Toshiro Mifune) who, along with his friend Miki (the Banquo substitute), meets a witch who prophesies him to become Master of the Cobweb Castle, while Miki's children will assume the throne following Washizu's death. Eventually it all ends in tears. You know, typical Shakespeare.

But what sets Throne of Blood apart from your average adaptation is how many liberties Kurosawa takes with the material. Even Ran stayed more or less faithful and its only modifications seemed to come from necessity in its transportation across continents, but Throne of Blood makes some bold choices that certainly not make it better Macbeth, but turns it into something almost as rare: unique.

First of all, Kurosawa scales the action waaaaaaaay back. Drawing heavily from the Noh style of Japanese theater, the action of Throne of Blood manifests itself mostly internally. Macbeth certainly dealt with inner madness but the stage tends to run red with blood; Throne of Blood, on the other hand, chiefly implies its action. For example, when Washizu's wife Asaji convinces her husband to kill his master Tsuzuki, Washizu wanders off-screen while Asaji moves in a short series of stylized movements that may look strange but clearly represent nervousness. Later, a soldier brings Washizu, the new master, the head of his friend Miki, but the master refuses to allow the guard to show him.

But the biggest change is how Kurosawa re-shapes the characters to craft an entirely new subtext for the material. Macbeth is about how man's ambition can cause his downfall, but Throne of Blood, created after the fall of royalty, paints a more complete picture of the mindset of feudal and monarchical society. Without a king or queen breathing over his neck, Kurosawa reveals how Washizu's actions merely continue a cycle instead of representing a lone man undone by madness. Tsuzuki gained the throne through bloodshed, so why should anyone be surprised that Washizu does the same? For that reason Throne of Blood is less an adaptation of Macbeth and more what Shakespeare might have wanted to say if he were freed from the constraints of the times. After all, a whole bunch of monarchs die in his plays; who's to say he wouldn't have some harsher words about them if those words wouldn't get him killed?

Even Lady Macbeth gets an overhaul. Isuzu Yamada, who would go on to appear in Kurosawa's version of The Lower Depths and in Yojimbo, brings a subtlety to the role that seems almost alien, both to the original character and to the more exaggerated styles of Japanese acting. Perhaps the most brilliant decision of the entire film was Asaji's pregnancy, as it casts the character into a whole new light. The original Lady Macbeth, despite remaining one of Shakespeare's more memorable characters, fits too neatly into the archetype of the evil woman who leads good men astray. It's been around since the Bible, and I doubt it'll ever go away. But Kurosawa's Lady Macbeth, while still very much sinister, has actual layers and for once we see her ambition rather than bloodlust. These added dimensions make Asaji seem so much more human even though she's far more calculating than her English counterpart; not only does she convince her husband to kill the master, she also arranges for the death of Miki.

I've mentioned that a lot of action takes place off-screen, but that pertains mainly to the psychological aspects of the play. It wouldn't be a Kurosawa samurai film without some great battle scenes, and sure enough there are two action sequences in this film that could shame almost any other director out there, then or now. The final sequence in particular, in which the "forest" comes to the castle, illustrates not only a taut, thrilling action sequence but Kurosawa's use of creative liberties. In Macbeth the lead rebelled against a pure king more or less because his wife manipulated him and sent him spiralling into madness. But there is no higher ideal in Throne of Blood; Washizu is simply another cog in an endless wheel of corruption and violence. He, and his soldiers, are motivated not by religion or greed but by fear. Washizu's soldiers do not fight for their master as Macbeth's troops; when they see the forest "move" they immediately turn on their master and kill him because they are too frightened to face the possibility of such a foe.

Throne of Blood, for me, seemed to work better almost as an afterthought. As I watched it, I couldn't help but feel that Kurosawa took the edge of the emotion with his Noh stylings, and at only 110 minutes the movie felt like it came and went to quickly. Yet the second it ended, and I mean the very second the title card came up, it hit me just how brilliant this film was. If it seems shorter and more personal, it is, but Kurosawa gives us the most claustrophobic version of Macbeth ever made. It simmers with social commentary and actually delves into what drove these people to madness instead of turning them all into little Satans for rebelling against a noble king. The more I think about it the more I'm tempted to separate Throne of Blood from Macbeth entirely; both are masterpiece in their own ways, but each offers radically different subtext. As a Kurosawa film, it's one of the master's finest, but as a Shakespearean adaptation, it surely ranks in the top three alongside his own Ran and Orson Welles be-all, end-all mash-up Chimes at Midnight.

Gimme Shelter

There are plenty of documentaries that capture the end of life, of dreams, of careers; but how many have shown us the end of an era? I'm not talking about newsreel footage of something like the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Wall was simply symbolic, but the zeitgeist had changed in the Eastern bloc well before it. I mean a snapshot of a culture crumbling before your very eyes. The events of Altamont on December 6, 1969 could not have been predicted by anyone, yet, when you watch the film, it creeps up with a terrifying inevitability that turns this rockumentary into a suspense thriller.

The Maysles open the film with the Stones at Madison Square Garden earlier in '69, strutting out on the stage triumphantly to "Jumpin' Jack Flash." We then pull back to see the Stones also watching this footage. They're in the final stage of the documentary: reviewing the planned cut to see if they'll give it their approval. They wistfully smile at Jagger's stage banter, but something is amiss. We soon learn why; after this brief portion of footage, the Maysles play a radio broadcast aired shortly after the disastrous Altamont concert in which we hear the report of 4 dead (one murder, three accidental) and numerous injuries. Sonny Barger, the leader of the Hells Angels who provided "security" at the concert, calls in and blasts the Stones' ego and unruly crowds for the violence and stands by his boys.

The look on the Stones' faces go from nostalgic to morose over the course of the broadcast, and we begin to understand how the event has impacted them. The rest of the film plays out in chronological order: the Madison gig ends and the Stones, on top of the world, announce a free concert at Altamont Speedway without planning a thing beforehand. Now their managers have to deal with furious organizers who were barely contacted before the announcement and now have to lay down an actual deal. Though the organizers rage, it's the Stones who look foolish in all this; what right did they have to just announce a concert? Even here you can see the rampant, unchecked ego as their managers schmooze the organizers and deflect any blame they try to place on the band.

The set-up for the event builds, frankly, like a Hitchcock film. Roadies attempt to set up scaffolding and amps, but the already gathering crowds begin climbing them immediately. One of the technicians tries to warn Jagger, but he dismisses the man as "trying to tell him what to do." After the technician comes back a few times, he finally gets sick of Jagger's foppish dismissal and simply walks away.

To make matters worse, the Stones won't go on until nightfall, even though the supporting acts conclude mid-afternoon. The Flying Burrito Brothers start things up, and immediately it all goes to Hell. A great deal of the audience showed up a day in advance to get close to the stage, so they were worn out and stoned out of their skulls before the place was even rigged properly. Combined with weather fluctuations (hot during the day, cold at night), improper facilities and a lack of "freak-out" tents for people to be calmed during bad trips, the tragedy seems an inevitability. Some concert-goers start tussling with the Hell's Angels as soon as the Brothers strike up, and one of the band members pathetically calls out to the Angels to stop beating the zonked out fool, practically weeping "You don't have to do that!"

By the time the Stones take the stage, the crowd is at each other's throats. They strike up "Sympathy for the Devil," and the place goes off like a shot. People rush the stage and the Angels close in from the rafters. There's something infinitely striking about the Stones' most sinister tune causing such a riot; especially disturbing is the fact that during a song named "Sympathy for the Devil," a group called the Hell's Angels seem to materialize out of nowhere to protect the band. The Stones stop and restart, and by the time the song is finished they must ask for a doctor and an ambulance.

But it is their next number, "Under My Thumb," that the infamous stabbing of 18-year old Meredith Hunter occurred. A black man in a green suit so loud the blind could spot him, Hunter pulls a gun on the Angels during the song and is promptly stabbed by another biker. The Maysles replay this moment for the Stones as if it were the Zapruder film, freezing on Hunter's gun and then the knife plunging into his back.

The film up until this has a sinister, darkly funny irony, as it captures a mindset that the film eradicated. At the earlier Madison Square Garden gig, Ike & Tina open for the band, and it's impossible not to think of their then-secret domestic life as Tina seduces the crowd while Ike looks on coldly. The Altamont gig, though unsettling from the start, overflows with people so firmly disconnected by drugs that they'd become truly lost. The hippies started out as rebellious youths who came together to "free their minds" as it were to search for some higher plain of consciousness, or at least that's what they told us. But here they've simply lapsed into drug addictions, and they've lost politics to vague messages of love and the chance to see bands for free.

Consider the frail white woman who walks among the crowd raising money to "Free the Black Panthers." She doesn't really know what some members of the Panthers are being jailed for, but argues that they should be let go because (and this is a serious quote), "After all, they're only Negroes." Now, I know that was the polite term in the 60s, but the way she says the statement shows such a deep ignorance of, well, everything that you can't help but laugh at her. Likewise, there's something kind of amusing about hippies getting stoned, stripping nude, "dancing" (or whatever you call those frantic spasms), and then getting violent. It's something you expect to see in a Bunuel film, and suddenly it's happening in real life.

But for sheer wretchedness, nothing beats the bands pleading with the crowds for peace. Apart from that member of the Flying Burrito Brothers who whimpered at the Angels for beating an audience member, Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick gets big unintentional laughs when she breaks up a fight of her own, admonishing the Angels for their brutality but acknowledging to the crowd that, when they get unruly, the bands "need people like the Angels to keep people in line." These bands can sing and preach about peace and brotherhood all they want, but in the end the artists are clearly on a pedestal. Jagger too tries to calm the mob with pleas of "Brothers and Sisters! Why are we fighting?" that seem even more pretentious when you consider how little he cares for anyone but himself the entire time.

However, the ending saps any and all of the dark chuckles from the piece. The Stones refused to release an earlier doc called Cocksucker Blues because it depicted the more hedonistic aspects of the band (a.k.a. everything everyone already knew about the band even then), yet the sign off on this film, unquestionably a darker portrait of their shortcomings. I wondered why they would do such a thing, and came to the conclusion that, for the band, this is the closest they can come to absolution. Perhaps by putting the film out there someone will forgive them. I don't know why they'd think this, as the band come off like prima-donnas who allowed a crowd to become a mob just so they could make an entrance in style, but I think they made the right decision in the end. As they file out of the room, the camera freezes on Mick Jagger's ashen face before showing people leaving Altamont and cutting to the credits. If you look at Mick Jagger lately, he looks as alive as ever; sure, he looks like a skeleton re-animated through Dark Arts, but he's still vibrant. But the Mick we see in this freeze-frame looks closer to death than even the post-drugs elder Jagger ever has. It's a haunting image that could play in any horror film.

Gimme Shelter has been describe as the greatest rock and roll movie ever made--and it certainly is--but that neglects its much greater significance. Gimme Shelter premiered exactly one year after the events on Altamont, mere months after the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin rocked the counterculture, and it put the nail in the coffin of the 60s. It captures the hippie culture as it passes its crest and begins to crash ashore; in 1967 they became the dominant youth force in the country and, in the turbulent election of 1968, it seemed as if the lunatics had taken over the asylum (though the hippies were never as big as people make them out to be). But by 1969, with LBJ gone, the hippies ran out of a big issue and slowly slid into permanent drug hazes. Though Gimme Shelter is a comment on the egos and callousness of rock stars, it endures as a snapshot of this downfall of the counterculture, the moment where the 60s, a beast that was already dead, finally rotted until someone noticed the stench. For that reason Gimme Shelter belongs as much in a history classroom as it does the shelf of any rock aficionado, and it's one of the all-time most important documentaries ever made.

Mississippi Burning

I seem to forever be one movie behind when I review, always reviewing the film before the film I just finished. Well, I'm gonna play catch-up with this film, because it offers so very little. Mississippi Burning, the 1988 film concerning the actual murders of three civil rights workers in 1964, aims to offer up an intense look at race relations by way of a frightening look into our recent past, but instead plays like a Hollywood-ized thriller that only gets its "deeper" meaning out in chucks of stilted dialogue and tries to wow us for the other hour and half.

In the film, Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman play FBI agents who will stop at nothing to find and arrest the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the murders. Dafoe plays the role of Not-Racist White Guy, the stalwart young hero who sits in the segregated sections meant for blacks, openly speaks in the midst of Klan members about their bigotry. And what better foil for Not-Racist White Guy than Initially Racist White Man Who Overcomes Bigotry Just 'Cause (also known as the "John Wayne in The Searchers" award). Hackman, to his credit, plays the IRWMWOBJC to a T, but his character seems to turn against bigotry out of spite for the KKK members, and while I don't look a gift horse in the mouth it rings hollow.

Because this is Hollywood, our heroes cannot deal with racism in its subtle, insidious form. Oh no. Now, you probably know Mississippi to be one of the more violently racist states during the period, but what you probably didn't know is that Mississippi is officially the worst place ever in the history of racism. The KKK members, some of whom are cops, are so racist that they threaten the FBI officers' lives. Never mind the fact that such an admission alone is grounds for a federal case, Dafoe and Hackman decide instead to wait it out while more black people are killed, because ending a killing spree comes second to-hey, look at that explosion!!

Yes, just as cars exploded left and right in the misogynistic The Last Boy Scout, so too do houses explode in Mississippi Burning. I assumed the title alluded to broiling racial tensions spilling out into a heat wave of violence that threatened to consume the South, but actually they meant literal fire. Damn me and my fancy college-boy type brain; that's what I get for thinking.

Eventually the brave FBI agents, all of whom hate racism just as much as our NRWG because they wear suits and men in suits are simply too fancy to be racist, swoop into the town and capture the KKK members using terror tactics. So, let me get this straight: at the beginning the KKK admits to their crimes and makes death threats to the FBI to their faces, but that's not enough for a trial. However, using flagrantly illegal practices to ensnare targets who aren't even hiding in the first place will mean swift and harsh convictions for those pillow-headed twerps. I could use a KKK hood right now, as a matter of fact. So I could soak up the tears of rage.

The only thing that remotely redeems this film is Dafoe and Frances McDormand. Dafoe has to play a ridiculous, inaccurate and manipulative role, but he really gives a good go at it. McDormand however, is the saving grace of the film. The abused wife of one of the Klan members, she offers up the film's only bit of subtlety as she tackles both issues of racial prejudices and spousal abuse. McDormand was nominated for an Oscar for the film and it was richly deserved.

The rest of it, however, is a wash. It's typical Hollywood Big Issue stuff, in that it entirely skirts dealing with the issue in question to reap the rewards of cheap exploitation. I know it's hard to get racism in film right, but why do we have to sit through all of these Oscar-baiting masturbatory exercises in one that actually works?

The Silence of the Lambs

In my ongoing quest to grow the hell up and get over my childish fear of the horror genre-- though I believe most horror filmmakers would be delighted that I spent the first 17-18 years of my life desperately avoiding the genre-- I've been going through the classics and finding most of them to be too entertaining to frighten. When I watched Alien about a year and a half ago, it served as my gateway into the genre, a beautifully crafted example of how a gifted filmmaker could actually get scares out of something other than things popping in front of the screen (though there's plenty of that). Well, after slowly working my way through some of the more notable names, I've finally gotten to The Silence of the Lambs, the horror thriller renowned for giving us what, for many, is the greatest screen villain of all time.

I became less eager to see this film a while back when I heard Lecter only shows up for 16 minutes of screen time, and I'd seen at least half that on any TV show that mentions him. However, having watched it, I agree that Anthony Hopkins' performance is justly famous. The film is about Clarice Starling, and the villain is Buffalo Bill, but Hopkins walks away with the show. His Lecter is mannered, erudite and fiercely intelligent, which makes it all the more shocking when he suddenly reaches out to eat someone's face.

His performance is so good that it sadly overshadows the excellent work put in by both Jodie Foster and Ted Levine. Foster plays Clarice Starling as a cauldron of insecurities and trauma simmering under a collected yet clearly nervous exterior. At the start of the film she's in training to become an FBI agent and, for reasons that somewhat escape me, her boss Crawford sends her to interview the infamous, cannibalistic psychologist Hannibal Lecter in order to gain some information on a serial killer known only as 'Buffalo Bill.' Before she leaves, Crawford warns her "Don't let him inside your head."

She visits Lector's maximum security cell and, of course, immediately lets him inside her head. But he does not do so because Starling is some bubbly fool like most horror females; instead, we see how he uses his psychological knowledge to weaken and destroy his victims. The scene is less an insult to Clarice as it is a testament to Lecter's fearsome reputation. After all, with 16 minutes of face time, you have to hook the audience fast.

The two enter into a sort of a waltz; Lecter speaks in cryptic riddles and slowly extracts pieces of Starling's past and persona, while Starling solves his misleading advice. Starling uses that nugget of information, then the process starts again. You get a sense from Lecter that he's almost proud of Starling; after all, he got into her head early and stayed there, but she never backed down and she's learning enough about him to figure out his lies.

Demme cranks up the thrills as the film goes on. Buffalo Bill, a wannabe transsexual who, instead of elective surgery, has chosen to kill women and piece together a suit out of their skins, captures a senator's daughter, suddenly putting even more pressure on the Feds. Meanwhile Lecter stages a bold escape attempt, and at some point the psychological drama kicks into action overdrive. Eventually, Clarice finds Buffalo Bill, and it plays out in moments of incredible suspense aided by Craig McKay's skillful editing.

Overall, I found the film to be taut and intelligent. Though people always refer to it as a horror, I don't know if I'd call it one. A thriller certainly, but just because there's a cannibal and a killer doesn't make it a horror film. Then again, true horror stems from suspense, I think; I derive much more visceral terror from, say, North By Northwest than I do The Exorcist. The Silence of the Lambs isn't perfect, but it boast stellar acting, great writing and great direction, and I imagine it'll entertain audiences for generations to come.

Werner Herzog Documentaries and Shorts Vol. 1

As strange as Werner Herzog's feature-length films are, his shorts are often weirder. Freed of the necessity of at least some narrative, Herzog often sort of bounds around for 15-20 minutes focusing on a single, abstract theme. Not that this makes them bad of course; if anything, I miss the mash-up of all sorts of weirdness instead of a lingering gaze on one object. However, the first volume of Herzog's short films (available for instant watch on Netflix) contains two of his more interesting documentaries. Unfortunately, it also contains perhaps his worst.

The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner

At only 45 minutes, The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner seems an unlikely choice for one of Herzog's best films, but it sparks such rare and audible awe in the director I must include it. His previous films (among them Aguirre, Fata Morgana, and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) were considered masterpieces--and they are--, but they lacked that spark of wild passion, though at the time few knew of the laborious toll of Aguirre's shooting and the drive it took to make it. But this elegant, beautifully shot - how did he get some the angles he did?- documentary on ski-jumping, a sport Herzog loved, for a TV station turns out to be one of his most personal works.

He starts out barely covering an also-ran named Walter Steiner, some no-name who's probably just happy to be there. Then he jumps and, as Herzog so rightly dubs it, he is no longer watching jumping but flying. Steiner is so far out of everyone's league that he has to shorten his run and even start lower than the other contestants, just so he won't fly into the very bottom of the slope and kill himself.

In his spare time Steiner is a woodcarver; he's a gentle soul who usually responds to Herzog's queries with some mumbled nonsense. The only time he gets really passionate is when he pleads with the ski judges to shorten the run so he can land "responsibly." For him ski-flying is life, but he knows that landing too far down could kill him or injure him permanently. When you get right down to it, Steiner is an Icarus who knows his limitations.

Herzog's films, be they fictional or documented, generally deal with people whose boundless dreams are either dashed or cruelly perverted by the harsh wave of reality. But Steiner is a man whose can literally soar over what we would think impossible; for once someone's dream beat the real world, and the world looks pettier for it. If people in the early 70s believed that Herzog was an arty, self-absorbed intellectual (as one review from the Times suggested), the pure joy of this film showed just how much he loved his craft. It's short, but it's oh so sweet.

How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck

This, sadly, is not one of his best films. Woodchuck focuses on the world of cattle auctioneering by traveling to New Holland, Pennsylvania to cover the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship. Now, I was surprised at the apparent abundance of deaf-blind people populating Germany and nearby areas in Land of Silence of Darkness, but this takes the cake. Not only is there an auctioneering championship, but they subdivide into chapters? Is there a World Real Estate Auctioneer Championship? Frankly that concept alone is more interesting and terrifying than anything Herzog might bring up in the film.

I suppose that the message (and I'm stretching here), is that people don't just aspire to be doctors and spacemen. I can attest to that: when I was two years old I thought the most fascinating thing in the world was that tank that drove up every day to take the garbage. In fact, up until I was five I wanted to be a garbage man when I grew up. Look, I was a toddler, all right? Stop laughing. These men have wanted to be auctioneers since they were children, and for them this is the highlight of their lives. In that way it's an interesting commentary on what motivates different people, and how people can fill any job with spirit and vigor, but the simple fact of the matter is that you can't tell the difference between the speed-talkers and it gets boring and repetitive. In the end this is far and away the weakest thing I've ever seen with Herzog's name on it. It's one of only two (the other being Even Dwarves Started Small) that I have no desire to watch again, though I might at least gives Dwarves another go to try to get it.

La Soufrière

At 30 minutes, this is the shortest of the three documentaries, but it's incredibly interesting and (unintentionally) hilarious. In 1977 Herzog learned that the island of Guadeloupe had been evacuated because a volcano was about to erupt. Everyone left, except for one man. Well of course that tripped a flag in Herzog's head, so he gathered a crew and flew to Ground Zero to ask the man about his philosophy on death.

Herzog arrives to a strange land; people literally ran from their homes to get off the island, and they've left behind eerie remains. Doors swing open, revealing uneaten meals and still playing televisions. Pets remain tethered or pinned in their owners' homes or roam the streets. One can't help but look at the village as a sort of living Pompeii, uncovered ruins that somehow still work and breathe.

Herzog came to island to find one man, but discovered three. In interviews with these people, Herzog peers into man's acceptance of death and his belief in God. One man in particular looks at Herzog like an alien when the director asks him why he stayed. None of the men has a death wish, but they welcome their deaths and, like the best of Herzog's subjects, they make you stop and think. However, one man does relent when he thinks of his family and asks to return with Herzog.

But the documentary gives way to hilarity at the end when the volcano doesn't erupt at all. Even Herzog admits to some embarrassment over the matter, but quite rightly rallies around the subjects he observed. In them he found fascinating ruminations on the philosophy of death, voiced in rather direct terms in opposition to Herzog's usually cryptic prose. This is the only documentary of the bunch where time worked against it. Ecstasy was perfectly paced, while Woodchuck tested patience even at 40 minutes, but this one spends half its time letting Herzog ruminate over volcanoes and death and such, and it only gets to the people themselves in the last 10 or 12 minutes. Though they still get their points across, I would have liked to see a bit more of them.

Once Upon a Time in America

In 1969 Sergio Leone released the epic Once Upon a Time in the West, a commentary on his own bloody spaghetti Westerns that examined what brought men to violence and introduced the first genuinely three-dimensional characters in the genres (John Wayne's revelation at the end of The Searchers always felt tacked on). For once characters moved outside of the archetypes and actually came off the screen, giving the Old West a three-dimensionality it always lacked. But as a commentary on American life, Once Upon a Time in the West feels like a mere warm-up for Leone's final film, the epic tone poem Once Upon a Time in America.

As much a deconstruction of the gangster genre as his previous epic was for the Western, Once Upon a Time in America looks at the gangster as an individual, rather than as an outgrowth of familial bonds and strife à la The Godfather, yet it is as much an examination of what America has to offer, both good and bad, and how people can twist their own dreams into nightmares. As a matter of fact, we can not be altogether sure that at least a portion of the film does not occur with the opium dreams of our protagonist.

David "Noodles" Aaronson comes of age in the Jewish ghettos of Brooklyn in the 1920s, struggling to get by with a small gang consisting of his friends Patsy, Cockeye and Dominic. The four toil for local hood Bugsy, but that all changes when they meet young Max Bercovitz. Soon the youth strike out on their own under Noodles and Max's leadership, trying to assert themselves in the neighborhood. Eventually Bugsy catches wind of these boys trying to muscle in on his turf and assaults the gang. Dominic gets shot, Noodles kills Bugsy, then he stabs a cop in his madness and goes to jail for 9 years.

Noodles emerges from prison in the middle of the Prohibition era, only to find that, after Bugsy's death, Max and the gang took over the place and have become lucrative bootleggers. Suddenly Noodles can live in the lap of luxury after a lifetime of hardship. This new found affluence allows him the shot to pursue Deborah, the fancy girl he for whom he always had a thing. Deborah, an aspiring dancer, was far out of Noodles' class. Now she's an actress, and Noodles still can't attain her.

Leone structures these sequences perfectly; he rests on these characters in a way that will make The Godfather seem like GoodFellas. His camera lingers on conversations, pauses, evens stretches of seeming nothingness as he looks around the towns. That brings me to my next point: the art direction. Leone creates vast, beautiful sets, then sprinkles a fine layer of soot and dirt all over it, giving the film the beauty we expect from a period piece but with a realistic grime. So many period films look like gaudy musicals, but this is one of the few that feels as real as our current buildings.

Just look at how he crammed this beautiful room full of dusty old junk.

Also of note is the incredible acting across the board. De Niro, coming off some daring and timeless performances, is at his most understated as Noodles. He has to carry most of this 4-hour epic, and he succeeds magnificently, showing us a man forever haunted: haunted by his past, haunted by the decisions of the present that leave him with increasingly fewer choices and, finally, utterly broken and weary as an old man. Just look at De Niro's depiction in his later years and at De Niro himself now. De Niro is still full of life, but Noodles, who physically just looks like the younger version with gray hair, seems infinitely older.

De Niro isn't the only one who owns his role. James Woods, who cannot help but be interesting, imbibes Max with a slickness that makes him impossible not to like, even though he leads Noodles to his eventual self-destruction. What makes their acting even better is that Leone found kids that were actually right for the part. Scott Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, and Jennifer Connelly not only resemble their older counterparts, but capture their mannerisms; Connelly in particular makes even more of an impression than McGovern.

Eventually Noodles' life crashes down around him; Max's plans get more audacious, Prohibition gets repealed and, in a dark turn of events, Noodles rapes Deborah when she rejects him. When Max plans a suicidal robbery on the Federal Reserve, Noodles realizes what will happen and warns the police. When the police show, a shootout ensues that forces Noodles into exile for 30 years.

The final moments of the film, set long after the terrible shootout, elevate the movie from brilliant to masterful. Noodles returns as the old, broken man, and makes peace with Deborah, only to find that Max is still alive. The two reconcile and each apologizes for wronging the other, and it seems if, at long last, Noodles has found some semblance of happiness.

We then flashback to the 30s, in the wake of the botched robbery. Noodles visits an opium den, and Leone watches his face as the attendant slowly fixes his pipe. In those moments we see indescribable pain cross De Niro's face, then he at last takes a puff from the pipe and the film freeze frames and ends as he breaks out into a smile. What is the significance of this scene? The predominant theory is that the film itself is Noodles' opium dream: in it, he relives his past and then hallucinates a future. I prefer to think of the film this way as well; after his life finally crumbles, Noodles' future gives him some sliver of hope of redemption, yet in the back of my mind I know it cannot happen.

I know I need to see this more times just to absorb the awesome scope of it all, but for a four-hour film, Leone crafts an incredibly personal and captivating film. If The Godfather used the gangster genre and the perversion of the American Dream to delve into the generational gap, Once Upon a Time in America uses them simply to paint a portrait of a man's life. Most gangster films end in the defeat of the bad guys because the law (whether within the film or, in the case of old Hollywood Production Code, the real world) deemed they must, but Noodles here has defeated himself, more so than even Michael Corleone at the end of the second part of The Godfather. The law never catches up with him, but his own consequences consume and haunt him more than prison time ever could. Death itself would be a release for this man.

Though I am inexplicably given to making arbitrary lists and rankings (in fairness, I am very bored very often), I don't know how I'd place Once Upon a Time in America in Leone's oeuvre. It's certainly his most ambitious, his greatest in scope and scale, but I may actually prefer his previous epic, and maybe even The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. Of course, these are personal preferences, and ranking masterpieces is a maddening effort and should never be dwelled upon. Quite simply, this is one of the greatest films ever made: the acting is superb (particularly De Niro and Woods), the sets teem with that scuffed and dirtied beauty that made Scorsese's New York so tangible and its meticulous examination of one man's life and how the people around him shape him make this a must-see. Supposedly Leone's estate is preparing a new 4 1/2 hour director's cut for release in the near future. I'm always uneasy about extended cuts, but hopefully it gets an opulent DVD release worthy of its grandeur, or at least to replace the crappy DVD they have out now.

Land of Silence and Darkness

Werner Herzog got his start in the 60s making short documentaries and narrative films for television, finally producing feature-length work at the start of the next decade with the infinitely bizarre Even Dwarves Started Small, a film I was going to review but just couldn't find the words to describe it (perhaps some day I'll give it another go). But Land of Silence and Darkness is the first proper, full-length documentary in the director's oeuvre, and it contains just about all the flourishes and technique Herzog would use in his docs for the next 38 years.

Over the course of its 81-minute running time, Herzog explores the world of the deaf-blind, those utterly cut off from the world around them. But even Herzog's documentaries need a protagonist, and he centers his journey around Fini Straubinger, a deaf-blind German woman, as she travels to various meetings and care facilities for others like her. The title of the film derives from an early speech from Straubinger, in which she likens her attempt to help and communicate with other deaf-blind people as a journey through the "land of silence and darkness." However, earlier she mentions that he hears a constant humming and she sees colors and light, however abstract and formless it may be. Also, she never speaks with such lofty poeticism again, leading one to believe Herzog may have fed her the lines.

This willingness to embellish, even to outright lie, is what makes Werner Herzog the most audacious filmmaker alive today, if not ever. His gleeful admission of his own manipulation will certainly put a number of people off his documentaries, but when you hear his explanations for them, you cannot help but love the man. Herzog claims to seek what he deems "ecstatic truth," in essence the deeper themes of life buried under the banalities of human existence. Therefore, he finds someone out there just a little bit off from the rest and lets them dig for that tuth. Occasionally, he pitches in his own shovel.

Yet for all his flourishes, it's Herzog's probing camera that really gets to the bottom of his messages. His footage here is unsettling because he zooms in on his subjects faces, peering into their sightless eyes for what seems like an eternity. Is he being exploitative? Does he think that by staring into those eyes long enough we'll jump into their heads? It's never easy to tell with the man, though I don't think I'd call him exploitative. Hell, if I won't call him exploitative for Even Dwarves Started Small I sure won't toss out the term here. Personally, I think his direction here is meant to unsettle; he's staring as intently as the blind people and, on a surface level, he sees about as much.

Of course, one can never stop at the surface level with Werner Herzog. The message here is one of loneliness and isolation. Sure, Straubinger attends a small gathering of the community where they catch up on old times, but she mentions how difficult it is to organize such a meeting because everyone must bring translators who stay with their wards at all times. Straubinger and the rest of the community communicate with their hands, speaking by tapping and stroking their fingers in the palms of the "listener." I found this method fascinating; it's far more complex than the hand communication Anne Sullivan used with Hellen Keller. At some point I began to see their fingers as tiny dancers moving along palms with grace and beauty. Shortly after, I began to wonder if perhaps I've been watching too much Herzog lately.

Not everyone responds to communication, though. In one of the most upsetting scenes, Herzog sets his camera in front of a 22-year old man named Vladimir Kokol for an agonizing number of minutes. The poor soul sits on the floor blowing raspberries and forcibly hitting himself in the head with a small ball. If Herzog's earlier lingerings were meant to see what his subjects see, then he clearly is having a hard time figuring out Kokol. Unlike Straubinger and her friends, Vladimir has been deaf-blind from birth; not even Fini knows what goes on inside his head. We then see him being taken into a shower after a lifetime of hydrophobia; after all, how do you explain a shower to someone who can never know the definition of water?

The film ends with a pair of equally disturbing images. On the one hand is a man in his mid-40s, who did not lose his senses until he was 35. He could read and write, but when he lost his sight and hearing he completely withdrew from the world. Fini tries to communicate with the hand patterns, but he recoils from her touch as if it burns him. He walks away from the group to a tree, which he gently caresses. Finally, the film ends with the man, his mother, and Fini's translator walking inside, leaving Fini sitting as contentedly on the bench as she was with others around her.

Now, I'm almost certain this was Herzog's work. I'm not saying that Fini requires someone by her side at all times, but the image it creates is so powerful that he must have sent her assistant in the house to capture it. It paints a terrifying portrait of solitude, one in which being surrounded by people is truly no different to being totally alone. Herzog doesn't run the image with words, but I get the feeling he wants us to think of our own lives. Surely we've all been to at least one party in our lives where we seem to know no one there. Some people thrive in such an environment, but others --like me-- retreat, preferring to stand round the fruit punch, that unofficial sun around which the planetary bodies of the awkward orbit. Do we feel any more a part of these parties than those who cannot see or hear them?

For the last two months I've been on a rampant Herzog kick. After finally watching Aguirre: The Wrath of God, I immediately became a fan, and I've since blown through the majority of his feature-length films and a few of his shorts. In Herzog I see perhaps the most realistic of directors, ironic considering his disdain of verité. Yet I believe he has the ability to cut to the very core of the human condition, to seek out extraordinary people and view them with indifference if not outright cynicism and therefore show their accomplishments for what they really are (some hold up, others, like Timothy Treadwell, are exposed as fools). For that reason, Land of Silence and Darkness stands as a minor anomaly. It still teaches us something, but Herzog gives in to sympathy for perhaps the only time in his career; if The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner showed Herzog at last fully awed by one of his subjects, Land gives us a compassionate Herzog, and the result ranks as one of his finest documentaries, eclipsed only by Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


David Cronenberg, no stranger to bizarre trips into the horror of the mind, started out in the 70s with a series of audacious yet ill-formed horror-thrillers such as Shivers and The Brood. After a few years of slowly bettering his craft, he hit his stride in 1981 with the enduring cult hit Scanners, the film that will forever be remembered as "that movie where the guy's head blows up." But it is 1983's Videodrome that will likely stand as Cronenberg's most lasting triumph, a well-acted, flawlessly constructed journey through the interim between reality and hallucination so ahead of its time that it may only increase in relevance as the years go by.

Videodrome concerns the trials and tribulations of Max Renn, the president of CIVIC-TV, a disgusting TV station that seeks out the most depraved programs to show its perverse audience. Renn is always on the look out for new shows, and he seems to have hit the jackpot when he and his girlfriend, Nicki, are watching TV one night and the signal picks up a pirate station's feed. The program in question is "Videodrome," a plotless show that simply airs sequences of brutal violence and torture. Nicki, who's into S&M, likes the program, and Max sees potential.

What results is a indescribable orgy of bended reality, social commentary, and innovative special effects. Renn begins to have increasingly graphic and violent hallucinations that concern him, to say the least. Soon he realizes that "Videodrome" has something to do with the hallucinations, and tracks down the owners for answers.

But instead of finding some sadomasochistic, pierced whackjob, he discovers that the true owner of "Videodrome" is a well-mannered businessman who communicates only in video messages because he believes it to be the "new reality." He uses "Videodrome" to broadcast signals that awaken our basest instincts while implanting people with tumors that will birth the "new flesh." Through "Videodrome" he crafts Max into an assassin via horrifying metamorphosis and increasingly blurred lines between reality and fever dream.

These grotesque transformations are where the film gets its reputation, but I wonder if people perhaps focus solely on the gore and gross-out horror and ignore the deeper meaning. Max continues to think about Nicki and one night actually sees her on "Videodrome." While watching, a wound opens in his stomach that look almost certainly vaginal, and suddenly Nicki beckons to him from the screen. In perhaps the most famous shot of the film (it's even the cover of the Criterion DVD), Max presses his lips on the screen and seems to melt into her lips. I watched this on Netflix's Instant Watch service, and I was immediately ready to buy the DVD just to see how they did that.

The vaginal opening in Max's chest takes on numerous meanings. On a surface level, it's Cronenberg's usual gimmick of doing all sorts of weird things to bodies and sexual organs, but it takes on great significance when "Videodrome's" producer begins to actually place video cassettes inside of Max. Not only is he quickly becoming a hybrid of man and machine that opens the door for the "new flesh," by shoving these tapes into this vaginal wound Max is literally being screwed by television and television executives.

Cronenberg forces us to watch the extremities of television, what happens when we become so de-sensitized to pornography and vulgarity that we turn to snuff films just to get it up. At the same time, he condemns both the conservative watchdog groups who try to tell others what they can and can't watch, who claim to be protecting the "innocent" but really just are too lazy to change the channel, and the rise of the television conglomerate that manipulates its viewers by preying on our base desire to see violence. Considering Rupert Murdoch wouldn't even get Fox off the ground until the end of the decade, Cronenberg really was bold as hell.

Of course, anyone who's seen the film will know that you can't possibly understand all of it; it's so intrinsically tied to the director's magnificently warped mind that a great deal of it can only ever make sense to him. Yet this may be the most prescient and intelligent horror film I've ever seen, the Blade Runner of splatter gore. It warns of a future in which man turns not only to violence (which is present is every major sport except golf) but to actual death to get his jollies, and when I turn on Fox or Spike TV and see programs that air police footage of people getting killed in car crashes I can't help but wonder how much longer it will take until Videodrome stops being a deeply metaphorical foreboding and becomes a trippy, effects-ridden documentary.

Videodrome is a landmark achievement of the horror genre: as a comment on the growing insidiousness of the television industry, it ranks with Network in terms of identifying the problem before it ever became apparent, while it also introduced a number of special effects that presaged the CG era yet still stand up today. Combined with Cronenberg's minimalist direction and a strong cast anchored by Woods' commanding performance (he clearly got the film), these effects never overpower the story and the whole thing keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire time. Long live the new flesh.