Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cannes not

You'll find my completely uninformed Cannes Film Festival coverage below. I have never been to Cannes nor have I seen any of the films mentioned. Enjoy.

*Boy, these lines are long.

*Badges, huh? Jeez.

*Lars von Trier's Antichrist: Holy shit!

*I can't believe I heard {famous critic} say that to {less famous critic}!

*Johnnie To's Vengeance: Suits arranged in geometric patterns explode into redness.

*Gaspar Noe is a geniuasshole.

*Alain Resnais' Wild Grass: It's floating away. Sublime!

*This croissant is tasty.

*Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective: Romania, yay! Bureaucracy, boo!

*I'm so tired I'm hallucinating that the main competition is superior to Un Certain Regard. Zing!

*Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon: Rigor, mortality.

*My weight gain is affecting my sex drive. You know, because of the economy.

*Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds: The Expendables will be better.

*The award will go to that guy who did that thing.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Thoughts on Antichrist (2009)

I took notes during the first Cannes press screening of Lars von Trier's new film Antichrist but I don't have them in front of me right now. I don't need them. This movie is many things: shocking, troubling, angry, maybe even a little funny (though I'm still not sure whether the laughs are intentional or not). But it is not forgettable. Is it a success? Is it a train wreck? Who knows. Maybe it's a successful train wreck, caused by a conductor who saw a car stalled on the tracks in front of him and willfully chose not to hit the brakes.

To some degree, to read about this movie before you see it is to ruin it. Make no mistake: the imagery and content of this film would be shocking in any context. It is a movie about insanity that is itself batshit insane. But part of its reception here sprung from the way in which the movie completely blindsided people. Already Antichrist is becoming a part of Cannes legend — I heard two different stories today about people fainting at screenings — which means no one will ever get to see this movie the way that first audience got to see it. And once you know a film is quote-unquote shocking, and watch it with that expectation, you've changed the viewing experience. It's the difference between walking into an ambush and walking to the gallows.

But you want to know more anyway, I take it. The story involves an unnamed married couple, first met having sex in a scene that feels like a cross between a porn film and a cologne ad: hardcore money shots mingle in a sea of black-and-white slo-motion, snow falling, water droplets flying, bodies humping. With their baby monitor on mute, the pair — played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg — don't hear their infant sneaking out of his crib, or climbing onto the windowsill where he slips and plummets to his death. Sometime later, Dafoe, a therapist by trade, decides to ween Gainsbourg off the medication her doctor has prescribed for her grief. Despite Dafoe's constant, slightly prickish counseling, her condition worsens and she begins to experience wild panic attacks that he eventually attributes to a fear of "nature." That leads the couple to their remote cabin in the woods, where Dafoe plans to make Gainsbourg confront her anxieties. Though they call their secluded second home "Eden," the place is ludicrously ominous even before Dafoe encounters a wounded fox snacking on its own innards and growling "Chaos reigns!" From there, as the press notes put it, "things go from bad to worse." And worse would involve a variety of graphic sex and violence, and eventually a gruesome fusion of the two to mirror the tragic opening.

Though the film's first hour contained some of the most disturbingly powerful images of anything I'd seen this year at the festival, everything is prologue for the brutally gory ending, one that I heard fellow critics liken after the screening to everything from I Spit on Your Grave to Un Chien Andalou. Both comparisons seem apt; if you like your experimental art films with just a wee bit of sexual horror, look no further. Maybe von Trier thought the only way to approximate the pain suffered by the characters on screen was to assault the audience with some of the most graphically unsettling images imaginable. Or maybe he just thought making 2300 stuffy rich people in tuxedos all gasp at the same time would be a great laugh.

And I'll be honest here: I really don't know. Based on my conversations with others here in Cannes, it seems nobody really does. Maybe von Trier doesn't either: in the press notes, he basically says as much, confessing scenes "were added for no reason. Images were composed free of logic or dramatic thinking," (though he does add "I am very happy about this film and the images in it. They come out of an inspiration that's real to me. I've shown honesty in this project."). As for his expectations about the festival? The director says, "The audience in Cannes is usually pretty open. What isn't done? Fucking?" I don't think it's the fucking people objected to; so much as being fucked with. The audience won't forget that anytime soon, either.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Scenes from Cannes 2009

The view from my bedroom in our apartment here in Cannes:

A typically extravagant Cannes promotion; a giant mock-up of the UP house & balloons filled with dozens of real balloons:

As usual, the Carlton Hotel is covered in movie ads. I like the ones from Inglourious Basterds best. I doubt we'll see this catch phrase on the American advertising.

JCVD must have had a bigger impact in Europe than it did in the states; Van Damme billboards are everywhere this year. This one has the tagline of the century. Oh and in answer to your question, tagline: YES.

Finally, either this menu is mistranslated, or that is the dirtiest sandwich in history:

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Turns out Wolverine's not so indestructible after all. Oh sure, he's impervious to bullets or knives or claws, but against up against foes like unsure directors and careless screenwriters, the popular X-Man is just as mortal as any other movie character. He may walk away victorious at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine but he's clearly lost the more important battle against listless big budget filmmaking. Like Wolverine's own mutant powers, the film devoted to his story (or more accurately his backstory) is more curse than gift.

Allegedly, the movie serves to explain just how the man known only as Logan (Hugh Jackman) arrived at the X-Men's doorstep before the franchise's first film. A brief prologue, culled from the pages of Marvel Comics' Origin series, shows him as a sickly young Canadian boy discovering his claws in the mid-nineteenth century. Another, slightly longer prologue picks up the thread as he's fighting in a series of twentieth century American wars beside his bloodthirsty brother Victor (Liev Schreiber). Yet another still longer prologue finds Logan and Victor recruited into a secret government program where they perform black ops for Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston, playing the younger version of Brian Cox's character from X2) before Wolverine quits and retreats to the Canadian wilderness where lives the quiet life of lumberjack and paper towel spokesman for six years until Styker and Victor claw their way back into his life and the film proper begins.

When it does, it is all what and no why. It's like the screenwriters went grocery shopping at the tortured hero store: bloody past, lost love, Oedipus complex, rides a motorcycle, etc. Those early sequences hope to cast Wolverine as a man tormented by the death he's seen and the pain he's caused, but trying to express that in an excessively stylized opening titles sequence is easier said than done, and the result is a lead character that looks more confused than conflicted; one moment, he's a dedicated soldier and the next, he's the voice of moral restraint. In its rush to cram as much as it can into its brief runtime, X-Men Origins often raises as many questions as it answers. What, for example, are the actual details of Wolverine's family tree? How did Logan meet his beloved girlfriend Kayla (Lynn Collins)? Why did he even pick the name Logan, since he's initially referred to as James? How did Victor a.k.a. Sabretooth transmogrify from sardonic and sleek Liev Schreiber to silent and shaggy Tyler Mane in the first X-Men? Meanwhile, most of Wolverine's actual revelations are irrelevant minutia dressed up as shocking discoveries, like the lengthy scene about how Wolverine acquired his jacket. Spoiler alert: he got it from some kindly Canadian farmers!

Despite spending most of the film's second half as a roiling cauldron of rage, Jackman's lost the charismatic spark that made his Wolverine such a fundamental component of the X-Men films' success and his own rise to stardom. Where the Wolverine from the first X-Men trilogy brooded, this Wolverine sulks; most of his badass attitude and winds up instead in Schreiber's enjoyable performance as Sabretooth. Jackman's actually upstaged a few times, with various characters like Ryan Reynolds' wisecracking mercenary Deadpool and Taylor Kitsch's playing card throwing Gambit nudging him to the edges of the frame as they vie for their own spin-offs. With so many hard-bodied dudes vying for the testosterone crown, maybe Jackman felt threatened. Then again, it's hard to play the tough guy when your character's so damn gullible – cool people don't get duped, played, gamed, and tricked as frequently as Jackman's Wolverine does in X-Men Origins. If this guy was angry in the X-Men movies about losing his memory, he's going to be really peeved when he gets it back and realizes how idiotically he used to act. And make no mistake: nothing we, the audience, learn in Wolverine has any impact on the character in the present; there's no framing story set in the modern day with Logan searching for the truth about his past. There are no stakes and nothing gained, only pointless things done and then forgotten.

Marvel Comics' produced their Origin comic book series about Wolverine in 2001 out of fear that the movies' X-Men franchise would beat them to the punch and screw it up. On the basis of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, their fears were very well founded. Director Gavin Hood, with his background in character-driven indies like the award-winning Tsotsi, may have been the right choice on paper to capture Wolverine's wounded psyche, but he doesn't draw any emotional weight out of the material and his action sequences and special effects are several steps down from the series' past highlights (Wolverine's claws looked more convincing in the first X-Men nine years ago). Spinning the ever-popular Wolverine off from the rest of the X-Men may have been a no-brainer business decision. Too bad the movie itself is a no-brainer too.


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Termite Television: The Rise and Fall of Danity Kane

I was trying to fashion a tweet about Making the Band: The Rise and Fall of Danity Kane but there's no way to talk about all that is fascinating (yet incredibly boring) about this hour of television in just 140 characters. This recap of numerous seasons of the long-running television series purports to pull back the curtain on the pop group's recent breakup but all it really reveals are the limitations of "reality" television.

Deriding the lack of reality surrounding so-called reality television is nothing new. At this point, it's pretty obvious reality television is, at best, carefully production managed and scrupulously edited and, at worst, thinly veiled scripted fiction. Still, regardless of the circumstances of its production (one I attest to knowing nothing about), there were some things about Making the Band that were incontestably real: this group assembled and svengali'd by Sean "Diddy" Combs released two albums, played concerts, had several hit singles; my wife and I danced to one of them in a bar just last night.

Making the Band is a strange relic, a lumbering beast from the paleozoic era of reality TV; so old, in fact, that in its initial conception it was designed to put together the next big boy band back when the phrase "boy band" was still a big deal. The series outlived a switch from broadcast to cable and even the band it had made (That'd be the now defunct O-Town). When the show's reins were passed along to Diddy, he invented his own group, Da Band. When it crumbled after three seasons, he hit upon the idea of inventing yet another group, this time an all-girl concoction. This fivesome would eventually become known as Danity Kane, and this hourlong special, The Rise and Fall of Danity Kane, charts the group's early successes and eventual dissolution. The story itself is almost entirely without interest, but as a referendum on reality TV's shortcomings, it's absolutely riveting.

Here's what I mean. The show is called Making the Band, and if it's doing its job right, it should show you what it's like inside the inner circle of this up-and-coming band. And yet not even Making the Band knows exactly why the group broke up! Though cameras were present for a scene where Diddy fires two of band's five members, the show's narrator professes that it's still not clear what broke up the group. The show ends with its narrator asking questions like "Was it Aubrey desire to create her own image that broke them apart?" "Or was it the dissolution between the friendship between Aubrey and Aundrea?" Why are you asking ME, TV voice? YOU were there! Shouldn't you have some idea?

Despite hundreds of hours of footage and dozens of cameras, the series didn't capture the actual reality surrounding its "reality" show. It is the televisual equivalent of a guy who thinks his relationship with a woman is going perfectly well, is shocked when she dumps him, looks back over his memories of their time together and sees no evidence of trouble the has to be told by his best friend that she was cheating on him all along. Either the people making Making the Band were inobservant or the people they were following were willfully hiding crucial information from the cameras. Either is a fatal flaw.

The most interesting figure in the entire show is Aubrey O'Day, one of the first girls fired from the group by Diddy. In the picture above, she's the one to the far left styled like she could become the next cast member of another MTV reality show, The Hills. What little footage of unrest within Danity Kane exists comes via the numerous battles O'Day had with Diddy over her appearance, her attitude, her feelings, her dance moves, her whatever. Diddy doesn't like that O'Day puts herself before the group, but based on the evidence in this show, it was a wise move; though the show may be titled The Rise and Fall of Danity Kane but it might as well be subtitled The Aubrey O'Day Story. She's the member with the most screentime, the most on-camera interviews, and the most glamour shots (particularly useful in charting O'Day's eerie transformation from a normal, pretty looking girl into a full-size Pussycat Doll Barbie). Even if the controversy got her fired from the band, it also got her the most attention, and created a feedback loop whereby now she's the character around which all DK stories center. Then again, this may have less to do with telling the "true story" of the group and more about setting O'Day up for her solo reality show, which is supposedly in the offing later this year.

That's what you're left with, really, the use of a reality show as a carefully disguised PR device. When Diddy fired O'Day and D. Woods on camera, he did it in a showroom for his clothing line. When Danity Kane or their sibling group Day26 release an album, it's typically timed to coincide with Making the Band's season finale. There's lots of undiscovered musical talent out there; Diddy could presumably find lots more people to sign and develop (and yell at, and control, and critique) without resorting to a television series to do it. But the show acts as the perfect way to promote the artists, and its a canny way of propping up record sales at a time when the whole industry is struggling. It's all brilliant advertising for a real fiction.


Saturday, May 02, 2009

Spaceballs: The Blog Post

On my parents' first date in 1968, they went to see Mel Brooks' The Producers. They've harbored a soft spot for Brooks and his spoofs ever since; probably a big reason why I was permitted to see Spaceballs at the tender age of 6 or 7. And maybe that's why I've harbored a soft spot for Mel and his spoofs my whole life. I watched Spaceballs religiously as child, over and over again until I wore out the family VHS tape that we'd copied off HBO. Looking at the film now, its appeal is not hard to understand. When you're a goofy little kid with a strange sense of humor, a Star Wars movie is great. But a Star Wars with jokes? Well that's just about heaven right there.

The movie holds up pretty well, better than some of the other cinematic obsessions of my childhood (G.I. Joe: The Movie, anyone?). Now, of course, I can recognize that Brooks' best work came in the 1970s during the era of Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, but Spaceballs still owns a special piece of real estate in my heart as one of the first movies that I out-and-out loved. On the basis of the laughs that still spilled out of my mouth as I rewatched the film tonight for the first time in years, I see no reason to change that.

It's true that children are pretty forgiving of special effects, but I think it's worth mentioning just how good Spaceballs looks for a spoof. As a kid, I really did think of the movie as a "Star Wars with jokes" -- it wasn't just funny, it was exciting too. And as silly as the concept of a Winnebago-as-a-starship is, the ship itself moves gracefully and fluidly through the space (kudos to production designer Terence Marsh). The mixture between comedy and adventure in the movie is perfectly managed, and an underrated part of the film's success. Take the final showdown between Lone Star (Bill Pullman) and the Spaceballs, for example, which features the unbeatable combination of thrilling lightsaberish swordfights and guys getting hit in the balls. The scene also contains one of the all-time great bad guy to good guy putdowns in movie history, courtesy of Rick Moranis' delightfully mean Dark Helmet: "So, Lone Star, now you see that evil will always triumph because good is dumb."

Most of the humor is dumb, but wittily dumb. And twenty-plus years later, the movie's best sequence, Brooks' send-up of Hollywood's thirst for "moy-chan-dizing!" ("Spaceballs: The Lunch Box! Spaceballs: The Breakfast Cereal! Spaceballs: The Flame Thrower!") hasn't aged a day. I also remain a deep admirer of the movie's surreal texture, and the way characters keep breaking the fourth wall to point out each of the cliches Brooks demolishes. A particularly memorable example comes when the Spaceballs, wondering to where to search for Pricess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga), find her by watching the next scene in Spaceballs, via the already-released home video edition. The plan works, but not before the fiends accidentally find their way to the exact point of the movie that we're watching, leading to a rat-a-tat exchange that would have pleased Abbott and Costello:

Dark Helmet: What the hell am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie?
Colonel Sandurz: Now. You're looking at now, sir. Everything that happens now, is happening now.
Dark Helmet: What happened to then?
Colonel Sandurz: We passed it.
Dark Helmet: When?
Colonel Sandurz: Just now. We're at now now.
Dark Helmet: Go back to then.
Colonel Sandurz: When?
Dark Helmet: Now.
Colonel Sandurz: Now?
Dark Helmet: Now.
Colonel Sandurz: I can't.
Dark Helmet: Why?
Colonel Sandurz: We missed it.
Dark Helmet: When?
Colonel Sandurz: Just now.
Dark Helmet: When will then be now?
Colonel Sandurz: Soon.
Watching a beloved childhood favorite as an adult, you do see things you never saw before. Curiously, this Star Wars knock-off doesn't even have a Luke Skywalker character. You'd think a character that annoyingly earnest would provide plenty of material for parody. Certainly the Kafka joke didn't mean much to me at age 6 (to be honest, it doesn't mean a whole lot more at age 28). Also, one incredibly disturbing fact that completely eluded until this very viewing: Bill Pullman keeps his eyes open for the entirety of his movie-ending smooch with Zuniga. I'm not making this up:

I have no idea what's going on there. Besides that, I remain a Spaceballs devotee. But maybe given my familial history, I'm just genetically predisposed to like Mel Brooks movies.

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