Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Briefly: Suspiria (1977)

It boggles my mind that Dario Argento directed a movie called Deep Red and it is not this picture. How is that possible? How could any movie not set entirely in a darkroom be more about the color red than this one? On one of those classic horror film dark-and-stormy-nights an American girl (Jessica Harper) arrives at a German dance academy. By day, the place seems harmless enough. By night it's transformed into a house of horrors, lit entirely by ominous splashes of blue, green, and especially red. Argento's film is soaked in fluids: it opens in a drenching rain, features a key scene in a pool, finds menace in a glass of syrupy wine, and covers its victims in liters of blood. And there's no denying the amount of imagination behind the inventively grisly slasher scenes; it would not surprise me in the slightest if the barbed wire room made an appearance in my dreams in the near future. Still, points off for the score (which I've heard others praise, but sounded to me like an giddy asthmatic with an old Casio keyboard) and for the crummy transfer on the bargain basement DVD Netflix sent me instead of the remastered Anchor Bay disc.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Briefly: The Proposal (2009)

The title The Proposal has two meanings; it refers to the improvised marriage between shrew boss Margaret (Sandra Bullock) and exasperated assistant Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) devised to stave off her deportation, as well as to their jobs in the world of book publishing. But another possible title, The Sham, works equally well, not only to describe their romantic hoax but also the contrived, counterfeit nature of this entire cinematic enterprise. Set in Alaska (but shot in Massachusetts), The Proposal tries to form an unholy union of its own between Meet the Parents-style homecoming shenanigans and the workplace screwball comedy of previous Bullock vehicle Two Weeks Notice. And while the stars mug and flail with commendably shameless abandon, the movie's about as romantic as a fifth season episode of Jon & Kate Plus 8. That's what happens when you give two people who've hated each other for three years three wacky misadventure-filled days to fall in love. When do you think it hit Margaret that what she really wanted all along was Andrew and his rippling rectus abdominis? I'm guessing the light bulb moment came at some point between when the male stripper shoved his junk in her face and dancing a Native American tribal ritual with Betty White.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

New York Asian Film Festival, Part I: Written By (2009) and The Longest Nite (1998)

As integral to summer in NYC as panicked Mets fans proposing ridiculous trades on WFAN (Jon Niese for Matt Holliday, maybe?), the New York Asian Film Festival is quickly becoming the most entertaining film series in the city. It has the plums to program genre actioners along with the art films that tend to solely populate regional surveys here. The breadth of the NYAFF is its great strength, as was evidenced early on.

The opening night film was Wai Ka-Fai's Written By (2009), a narratively dense family drama. Ka-Fai has been Johnnie To's right hand man for over a decade at Milkyway Productions, writing, directing, producing, and polishing the eccentric company's output. He's known mostly for his co-writing and co-directing duties with To on Fulltime Killer (2001), Running on Karma (2003), and Mad Detective (2007), but he's also helmed idiosyncratic projects of his own, including the 2006 comedy The Shopaholics. His latest solo jaunt is an ambitious but strangely flat exercise in experimental narrative. It's structured like a Russian Doll, stories within stories within stories.

Lau Ching-Wan (a Wai regular since their TVB days) plays a lawyer who dies in a car accident, leaving his daughter Melody blind and his wife and son devastated. Trying to rekindle happy memories, Melody starts writing a story where her father survived (although also blinded) while the rest of the family died. The film then follows this second story, as Lau and his Filipino maid aimlessly putter about their large home. Lonely and desperate, this invented Lau starts to write his own story, a more fantastical tale where the ghosts of his family return to aid him through his depression. These story layers remain discrete until the final act, when characters begin crossing between stories and tragedies beget tragedies.

For all of its conceptual complexity, Written By never takes off dramatically. The characters are ciphers, thinly drawn receptacles of grief that serve as pawns in Wai's narrative game-playing, not unlike Charlie Kaufman's embalmed Synecdoche, New York. As Wai draws his deterministic web, Melody flails without a discernible inner life. Her attempt to exorcize her memories through her imagination is a potent device, but it stagnates on the screen. Wai never finds a consistent style to visualize her plight, and his use of subpar special effects lends the piece a Saturday morning cartoon insubstantiality. It ends up a tantalizing disappointment.

There was no lack of inspired Wai, though, for there was also a rare screening of 1998's The Longest Nite, a rescue job he performed with Johnnie To. Credited director Patrick Yau was fired after he had completed five scenes, and the duo built an entirely new story around this feeble skeleton. It turned out to be a punishingly dark yakuza tale, as Tony Leung and Lau Ching-Wan's mobsters tumble into an abyss of violence and swapped identities.

The film is literally dark, using very little artificial light and framing the bald, glowering Lau as a black angel of the apocalypse. Leung, a twitchy crooked cop, is soon framed-up for a fall, and his only way out is to assume Lau's identity. Only one can survive, so they devour each other for the use of it, in a mirror-smashing finale redolent of Welles' Lady from Shanghai. In the Q&A that followed (available online), Wai admits this final battle was hatched on the spot, as they needed 10 minutes to fill and had little money. So they rented an empty warehouse, shaved Leung's head, and had them beat the shit out of each other. It's a miraculous bit of improvisation, and the film is a testament to Wai and To's adaptive creativity.

More to come...

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Briefly: Salesman (1968)

This picture about traveling Bible salesmen had me thanking God I didn't go into retail. At least not the kind in Salesmen: you're separated from your family, working out of shared hotel rooms, trying to convince poor Catholics they need to own a $50 (or, inflation adjusted, $300) Bible. Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles offer little gloss or commentary on the proceedings while capturing this day-to-day, door-to-door existence. They follow four salesmen, but return most frequently to one of the older members of the brigade, Paul "The Badger" Brennan, who goes about his job humming "If I Were A Rich Man." If only; at this late stage of his career, unable to move his merchandise, Brennan is like a trapeze artist working without the benefit of a net whose hands have started to cramp on him. What Brennan does is undeniably unsavory – and to some degree the fact that the Maysles stood by and watched him do it is too – but his situation is so dire and the odds he faces so long that we can't help but sympathize. There's no joy in this hustle, only the desperation of a dead-ended American dream. For added value, watch back-to-back with an episode of the TV series Mad Men.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Briefly: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

Tony Scott's remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 opens with a credits sequence set to Jay-Z's "99 Problems." The film itself has nearly that many. John Travolta and Denzel Washington, as a man who hijacks a 6 train and the MTA worker who receives his demands respectively, are no improvement over the earlier combination of Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Neither is Brian Helgeland's modern take on the original 1973 novel; switching the hero from cop to MTA dispatcher adds an agreeable fish-out-of-water element but also makes the finale, in which Washington straps on a gun and saves the day, totally out of character. Prepare to be incredibly frustrated as you watch allegedly clever criminals make obviously dumb mistakes: how does Travolta, who's monitoring the hostage situation on the Internet, not notice as the national news grabs a webcamera feed from inside his train? Scott's glossier take on Joseph Sargent's grimy imagery has an undeniable panache, and there's no question he makes a story about two dudes talking on the phone an impressively lively visual experience. But his flashy editing and stutter-shutter effects slow down a movie that is supposed to be about speed, and he winds up obscuring the film's thrills rather than enhancing them.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Terminator Salvation (2009)

In order to enjoy Terminator Salvation, you need to approach it as if it were pornography. Ignore all the people talking, the story, the characters, the dialogue, focus in on the big set pieces, and enjoy the explosions. Nothing but the action in Terminator Salvation matters, which is good because the film makes absolutely no sense, even by the already low standards established by the three previous logic-challenged Terminators.

For instance, a young man by the name of Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) factors heavily into the plot. The machines, you see, have put out a new Terminator's Most Wanted list, and his name is right at the top. Why? Because in the first Terminator (directed by James Cameron), Reese (played then as an older man by Michael Biehn) travels back in time to destroy the T-800 trying to kill Sarah Connor and inadvertently fathers humanity's eventual leader John Connor (Christian Bale) in the process. If the machines can kill Reese before he goes back in time, they can ensure Connor was never born and wipe out their biggest enemy. Which begs the question: how do they know Kyle Reese is the guy from the future who becomes Connor's father? My guess: these machines are cutting-edge. They have the Terminator Blu-Ray and they took notes.

The story spirals downward from there. Connor actually shares the spotlight with a new character, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who we see put to death by lethal injection over the opening credits yet find miraculously alive after the machines have beaten the holy hell out of civilization. Slowly he comes to learn what anyone who has seen the Terminator Salvation trailer knows before they walk in the door: Wright's second life comes at a terrible, mechanical cost. He provides the narrative connection between Reese and Connor as well as the closest thing Salvation has to any thematic resonance with Terminator 2 and its examination of the unquantifiable things that separate a human and a robot. Worthington is Australian, and to hide his accent he speaks in the same gravelly whisper as Bale, which makes the pair's dramatic confrontation unintentionally hilarious. Bale keeps leaning closer and closer as he speaks to Worthington, until the two are inches apart, whispering at each other (see the picture above). Y'know if either of these guys could speak at normal volume, they wouldn't have to stand so close together to hear what they're saying.

Terminator Salvation's plot is like a house of cards built on a pit of quicksand. Really the last thing you want to do when you're sitting watching this movie is ask questions, because that could ruin the entire experience for you. It's best not to consider why, for example, if the machines have yet to invent time travel (Salvation takes place in the year 2018, some time before Connor becomes the outright leader of the Resistance and before the off-camera events that prompt the first three Terminators) they don't simply travel back in time from the point they have invented it and provide themselves with the necessary technology or information needed to create it ahead of schedule. Or why they don't just send Terminator after Terminator to kill Sarah Connor back in 1984, or John Connor back in his Edward Furlong days. In the very first Terminator, Kyle Reese claimed that the Resistance destroyed the time portal after he and the first T-800 went through to ensure that no one else would follow. Of course, if the Resistance destroyed the time machine after Reese went through it, how could Reese know that they actually did it? Maybe they didn't after all because seven years later we got the temporal shenanigans of the Cameron-helmed Terminator 2: Judgment Day and twelve years after that, Jonathan Mostow's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, each with their own pair of time travelers. By 2009's Terminator Salvation I guess anything goes (again, like porn).

I'm giving the movie a hard time, but I do want to give credit to director McG for putting together at least three truly outstanding action sequences, including a horrifying helicopter crash done in Children of Men-style long takes, a grisly gas station siege that culminates in a crackerjack motorcycle and truck chase, and finally a full-on battle royal between Connor and a familiar looking Terminator. Kudos also to cinematographer Shane Hurlbut and the various FX teams for creating as seemless and convincing a blend of old-school practical effects and modern digital ones as I've seen in a film. Plus the widely spoiled CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger cameo is surprisingly convincing; infinitely superior to the similar gag in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and so good that a colleague of mine assumed he was watching Schwarzenegger beneath a heavy amount of makeup when he first saw it. It's an honest mistake; the guy did say he'd be back.

When Salvation goes into action mode, it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside this summer's best blockbuster, Star Trek. Like Star Trek, Terminator Salvation's villains' time traveling plans don't make a whole lot of sense, but at least J.J. Abrams' film had a clearly defined enemy, something it shares with all the previous Terminators and their big, imposing singular bad guys. In Terminator Salvation John Connor and the rest of his intrepid crew are up against an endless parade of indistinct machines with no personality and no goals beyond their ongoing attempts to eliminate every bit of organic matter on the planet. If the machines were to kill Reese, kill Connor, kill all of what's left of civilization, what would they do next? Scaring the hell out of the vestiges of humanity is all they seem to know how to do. My guess is if they ever succeeded in wiping out mankind they'd immediately travel back in time and stop themselves from killing us all, just so they could do it all over again.


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

YouTube Art: A Fan's Reaction to the New Moon Trailer

From Salon as found by someone on Twitter.

Question: have you ever been this excited about ANYTHING in your entire life? Follow-up question: has ANYONE ever been this excited about ANYTHING IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD?