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Spaced Out

Not every movie can be great (or good). Most, in fact, end up in a long line of generic mediocrities, playing on cable for years with built-in lowered expectations. Movies like Space Jail (2012)—whose title is actually Lockout, but come on—which is coded as “standard genre fare” so bluntly it’s almost endearing. It stars Guy Pearce (mmm Guy Pearce) as Snow, an ex-CIA operative trying to clear his own name, and it takes place in a dingy, corrupt future that seems to exist solely as a backdrop for misadventures like these. The kind of future where no one seems to have a house or a 9-to-5 job, but the government can invest zillions of dollars in a supermax prison orbiting the earth.

The president’s daughter, of course, is drawn to said space jail like a moth to the flame, making a humanitarian visit that goes horribly awry. Next thing you know, she’s trapped among hundreds of rioting space-prisoners, the cynical Snow is sent in to rescue her, and Space Jail is well on its way toward following Escape from New York’s blueprints beat for beat. But to my surprise, the film has a single twist in store: once Snow and the first daughter cross paths, it becomes less a John Carpenter rip-off and more a remake of It Happened One Night… in space. Same opposites-attract story of sheltered rich girl vs. seen-it-all roughneck, same on-the-run banter, even near-identical gender politics despite being made eight decades apart.

So Space Jail’s syntax is that of the “fugitive lovers” romcom, overlaid with every visual cliché an action movie can sport. Claustrophobic ventilation shafts! Chasms inexplicably built into the jail! Dim blue lighting and orange explosions! It’s all exactly as ridiculous as you’d expect from the words “space jail,” right down to a fun but credibility-straining climax. Nothing new or remotely intelligent on display here, but I like it. Maybe it’s Pearce’s gruff wisecracking. Or maybe it’s the “get in, get out, get it over with” mentality of the filmmaking: this is self-evidently a factory product, 90 minutes of set pieces and MacGuffins not intended to outlast April 2012, yet here I am months later chuckling at its absurdities.

Despite the hugeness of its spectacle, Space Jail feels small and grungy. It’s the first feature for either of its directors, James Mather and Stephen St. Leger; it was shot in Belgrade; and its digital effects are shoddy at best. It feels made to slip through the cracks, and I appreciate that, as well as its tone—the casual bleakness of its future, the use of violence as a tool to skip past obstacles and toward objectives. Space Jail’s mediocre through and through, but I can’t help thinking it’s the kind of movie Snake Plissken would make.

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Getting Out Alive

I don’t know if I can overstate how much I love Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924). It’s just, well, so much better than everything else. Its slim 44 minutes lampoon the genre conventions of romance, melodrama, and detective fiction; test the laws of physics with one near-impossible stunt after another; and construct a dazzling, meta-cinematic spectacle within the dreams of one lowly projectionist. It’s also this week’s movie for The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, which means I need to pick the one image that best represents it. It’s a tough choice, since Keaton wasn’t just funny and physically daring, but a visually gifted director too.

In Sherlock Jr., he doesn’t just rely on the default humor of his life-endangering pratfalls. Every visual gag is elegantly framed and executed, with nary a single step (often into the path of an oncoming vehicle) out of place. Many of my favorite such jokes involve objects’ motion and momentum in a straight horizontal line, whether across a street, a (discontinuous) bridge, or a moving train. I love the one pictured above, too, for both its box-within-a-box composition and Buster’s sheer surprise at the magic of editing. That’s really the essence of the “Buster Keaton” character, there in those flailing arms: always bemused by the world’s instability, never able to get his feet on solid ground.

Which is a great segue to my favorite shot, because riding past a train on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle is about as far from solid ground as you can get. The camera’s been traveling alongside Buster as he’s careened along a country road, with farmland zooming by and the train tracks coming into view. As soon as he catches sight of the train, Buster performs a beautiful full-body double-take, then does what any sensible person would do so close to death: presses his hands to his head and cowers. Seconds later, after racing past a car as well, he tentatively peeks up like a turtle from its shell. No title card, nor any need for one—just a disbelieving face that says “How am I still alive?”

How indeed? It’s all perfectly timed, leaving us to marvel at his split-second survival. (To spoil the illusion somewhat, TCM’s John H. Miller says “repeated viewing reveals that the shot was safely filmed backwards.”) Even though Keaton himself was a peerless, fearless acrobat, the onscreen Buster is just like you or me. He’s hopelessly inept, a victim of circumstance, and whenever things go right it’s because of pure dumb luck. Like the rest of us, he’s just the oblivious X in a vast, complex equation. Maybe part of the reason I love Sherlock Jr. (and The General, and Our Hospitality, etc.) so much is the profound optimism implicit in Buster’s everyman quality. Because hey, if he can make it out alive, who’s to say I can’t too?

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Seein’ Me

You’ll be seein’ me. You’ll be seein’ me. Every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back into the darkness and wonder if I’m there, and some night I will be. You’ll be seein’ me.

This is terrifying. This is a man embittered by betrayal who’s turning himself into a weapon of vengeance. This is Jimmy Stewart in Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River (1952) with a bloody lip and hellfire blazing in his eyes. He’s spent the whole film thus far repressing his killer instincts, defending a wagon train of ranchers and farmers in order to refashion himself as a good man. But to paraphrase Robin Wood, the repressed will always return. The second he’s double-crossed by a former ally—played with a demonic grin by Arthur Kennedy—his old, violent self rises up like a werewolf against the full moon.

Certainly the film provides warning signs. Stewart and Kennedy first meet up just before a Shoshone attack, where (as usual) the Native Americans are manifested through bird calls and arrows. The new friends quickly slay the attackers, strengthening their white solidarity but tantalizing the audience with a glint of danger: both men are still handy with weapons, too handy. Afterward, Kennedy decides to pan for gold in California, and Stewart gives him a farewell that doubles as foreshadowing: “I’ll be seein’ ya!”

They do see each other again, teaming up later to shepherd supplies from Portland back to the near-starving settlers. But a recent gold rush tightens around their necks like a noose: greedy prospectors are everywhere, alternately bribing and threatening to get their hands on some food. Stewart and Kennedy enlist a few ruffians, then refuse to pay them until they reach the settlement. One protests: “The law won’t let you get away with this!” Stewart’s face curls into a wry half-smile as he retorts, “What law?” So when a Kennedy-led mutiny abandons him on the mountainside, it’s no surprise that he stands there, framed starkly against the Technicolor sky, and transforms into an avatar of revenge.

And after that blood-curdling “You’ll be seein’ me” monologue, he disappears. For nine whole minutes out of Bend of the River’s last twenty, its star and hero is nowhere to be seen. Instead he lurks off-screen, occasionally dispatching stray members of Kennedy’s posse or firing into their camp, rapidly becoming an invisible agent of fear. A guerrilla, a ghost, a myth. He returns for the climax, yeah, and he gets the girl, even convincing her father that bad men can fundamentally change. But we know better. He might settle down with a home and family, but that same old bloodlust will always be lurking just beneath the surface.

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And Nothing But the Truth

[This is my third entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]

Thanks to watching a lot of Hitchcock movies and film noir, I’ve always been terrified of being caught in a real-life “wrong man” scenario. The kind where circumstantial evidence links you to a crime—usually a murder—and protest as you may, you’re still arrested, tried, and somehow convicted. Maybe you’re jailed, maybe you’re executed, but the point is that you can’t fight it. Fate has chosen this bad path for you. Fate, and a flawed justice system.

That same nightmare devours Randall Adams, the protagonist of Errol Morris’s groundbreaking documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988). I say “groundbreaking” in part because of its formal construction, but also because, get this, it brought up new evidence and more or less got Adams set free. It’s the rare movie that actually had a direct, tangible effect on someone’s life. Such is the power of Morris’s interview technique (which renders the director himself invisible) and his gradual, multimedia build-up of evidence.

This documentary doesn’t rely on voice-of-god narration or authoritative title cards. Instead, the evidence speaks for itself. The mild-mannered Adams and his one-time acquaintance David Harris (who, per Morris, actually shot the cop in 1976) are given space to tell their respective stories; then, over time, Morris weaves in testimony by investigators, lawyers, and dubious eyewitnesses, deepening our impressions of “what really happened” and developing several layers of “truth.” Concurrently, he establishes a veneer of objectivity through physical data: maps, photos, diagrams, calendars, newspaper clippings, even a drive-in schedule.

But perhaps the most powerful form of documentation in Morris’s toolbox is the crime scene reenactment. His are different from the ones you’d typically see in a true-crime TV special. They’re elliptical, affectless, more oriented toward objects than people, and set to Philip Glass’s typically chilly, minimalist score. Often they reiterate a single point—e.g., that inscrutable series of gunshots—but they also change over the course of the film, adding new angles and details as our understanding of the crime evolves. Here, the truth is malleable. It can always be improved by new, better information.

What’s more, “the truth” can always be skewed during investigation. Midway through the film, defense attorney Edith James suggests that Adams was prosecuted not on the strength of the evidence, but because “he was a convenient age.” At 28, he could receive the death penalty, whereas the 16-year-old Harris couldn’t. Here and elsewhere, the film goes beyond arguing that Adams is innocent, and asserts that the whole of Texan (or hell, American) justice is corrupt. Its priorities are mixed up. It depends too heavily on the judgments of flawed individuals. As Dennis White, another of Adams’ attorneys, explains:

Some policeman… made a decision about who to prosecute and set the wheel of justice in motion in the wrong direction, and they got going so fast no one could stop them.

The past couple years have seen Rick Perry nearly nominated for president and CeCe McDonald jailed by a racist, transphobic justice system. The lessons of The Thin Blue Line are as crucial as ever.

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Royal Flush

Wes Anderson never wastes a frame. Every shot in his filmography is packed with so much information: about his quirky-but-traumatized characters, their ornately imagined worlds, and his own artistic influences. So his masterpiece—can I say “masterpiece”? Yeah, let’s go with that—The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) is an especially apt pick for The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series. As luck would have it, I actually wrote about my favorite (bloody) shot in the movie a couple years ago in a piece called “Suicide and Irony in The Royal Tenenbaums.” So this time I’ll discuss my second-favorite shot, pictured above.

From left to right, the shot’s subjects are Richie, Henry Sherman, Etheline, Chas, and Margot; “Dr. McClure,” who’s actually Royal’s accomplice Dusty, stands behind the camera as he informs them of Royal’s fake prognosis (i.e. “not good”). I love the sheer wealth of data Anderson embeds in their reactions, outfits, and positions within the shot. Take Henry Sherman, for example. Of the five, he has the weakest tie to Royal, so it makes sense that he’s located in the back and tough to read. As always, he’s well-dressed and radiates polite professionalism, but here it’s ambiguous. Is that mild concern over his would-be rival’s illness, or a growing skepticism of it?

In the foreground, Richie and Chas stand side by side, but with opposite dispositions. Richie’s receding, tucked away behind his shades, beard, and headband, whereas Chas is demonstrative, leaning in toward the camera with knitted brow and crossed arms. Although raised in the same household, they’ve developed radically different coping techniques, with Richie—the “Baumer,” a retired tennis player and mass of failed potential—settling for passivity where tracksuited business prodigy Chas opts for aggression. More than anyone else in the family, Richie’s icy demeanor aligns him with the object of his forbidden love, Margot, who slouches against the corner in the far end of the frame.

It’s a pose that Gwyneth Paltrow reprises later at the hospital, and it’s consistent with the rest of her aloof performance. For years she’s been wounded by her father, so now that he’s “sick” (and her marriage is collapsing) all she can do is retreat to the nearest surface or plant herself in the middle of the frame like another one of Anderson’s antique fetish objects. Anything to avoid acting or interacting with this absurd family drama. And finally, there’s poor Etheline, rigid and anxious as she anticipates Royal’s death. Anjelica Huston, in this shot and throughout the film, plays such a complex string of emotions: scared for her children’s father, aware of what a bastard he is, with a vague sense of obligation to reconnect with him despite her encroaching remarriage.

It’s a lot to get across without dialogue, but of course Huston’s up to the task, and she’s aided here by Anderson’s spatial eloquence. So many of his distinctive shots depend on great blocking in confined areas, whether it’s the Whitman brothers aboard the titular train of The Darjeeling Limited, or preteen girls putting on bird costumes in Moonrise Kingdom. Superficially, this scene in The Royal Tenenbaums is just a matter of exposition, needed to further establish Royal’s scam and Chas’s animosity. But thanks to the dense composition and the actors’ static faces, it becomes a quick emotional cross-section of the whole movie.

(For more evidence of Anderson’s pictorial flair, watch Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay “The Prologue to The Royal Tenenbaums, Annotated.”)

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Horror is everywhere (4)

Over the past couple years, I’ve written repeatedly about how “horror is everywhere”: how horror iconography slips across genre boundaries, turning up in surprising places; how savvy filmmakers employ traditional horror imagery—vampires, witches, ghosts, etc.—even in “straight” dramas, often to shocking effect. So now here are five more films, all plucked from the TSPDT “1,000 Greatest Films” list, and their scariest moments…

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

I’m certainly not the first to point out that Frank Capra’s “beloved Christmas classic” is also one of the darkest films to emerge from 1940s Hollywood, tearing as it does into American ideals like family and the free market with severe emotional precision. But the darkness extends beyond the film’s sociopolitical implications: when Clarence lets George experience the world if he had never been born, it’s visually coded as an actual horror movie—an anti-ghost story, if you will. George investigates his and Mary’s would-be house, but nobody lives there; in this reality, it’s an unlit, decrepit building with graffiti and broken windows. And it’s haunted, sure enough, by George and his now-false memories of his wife and children. Capra uses cobwebs and shadows right out of Gothic horror to give George the ultimate “Be careful what you wish for.”

Easy Rider (1969)

Long before he became an avatar of cackling grotesquerie in The Shining and Batman, Jack Nicholson was on the other side of horror, as a victim of redneck violence in Dennis Hopper’s hippie picaresque. Although smoking pot and riding motorcycles may sound like fun, a cloud of southern “good ol’ boy” bigotry hangs over the film. When free spirits Billy (Hopper), Wyatt (Peter Fonda), and George (Nicholson) stop off for lunch in a small Louisiana town, their mildly rebellious looks and behavior stir up rage and jealousy in the local men, leading to a late-night ambush on the hippies’ campsite and George’s death by beating. This bloody turn of events directly anticipates a whole wave of horror movies (DeliveranceThe Hills Have Eyes, Pumpkinhead) wherein rural folk assault unwanted outsiders. (See “Getting Even,” the third chapter of Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws for more on this “city vs. country” strain of horror.)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Really, what isn’t scary in Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian classic? In its futuristic England, no amount of locked doors can keep out psychopathic thugs, whose ranks include the protagonist, Alex. The film follows two different home invasion subplots, one of which segues into a rape-revenge narrative, while the other ends abruptly when Alex cracks the homeowner’s skull with a penis statue. The only reasons, I’d say, that A Clockwork Orange isn’t categorized as pure horror are 1) because of its sci-fi setting and 2) because it’s from the POV of the monster. And what a monster! Malcolm McDowell’s performance stretches the definition of “human” as he gibbers, lies, and beats his way through adolescence. Just listen to his low, chuckling delivery of the closing line, “I was cured all right.” Absolutely spine-chilling.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Watch the last 10-15 minutes of Coppola’s war epic without sound or context. Then tell me it doesn’t look like the kinkiest, most homoerotic art-horror movie ever made. A soldier, wearing little more than sweat, fog, and shadow, breaks into a temple and—symbolically cross-cut with the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo—stabs an older man to death. By now, they’re both possessed by “the jungle” (i.e. by the film’s still-colonialist conception of the Southeast Asian wilderness) and far from the pseudo-civilization of the American military. That soldier, Martin Sheen’s Willard, has refashioned himself as something more like the primordial Creature from the Black Lagoon than a war hero. And the coup de grâce he delivers is edited to feel more like an orgasm than an assassination. “The horror, the horror,” indeed.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino routinely makes visual nods to obscure horror movies—see the references to Dario Argento and Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell in the first Kill Bill, for example—but when Pulp Fiction‘s “Gold Watch” chapter (my favorite of the bunch) descends into Maynard’s basement, its horror is more than just an allusion. It becomes a short, sharp recapitulation of that same “city vs. country” horror found in Easy Rider (or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), as a pair of Angelenos are bound and gagged by a coven of pro-Confederate hick rapists. Butch and Marsellus get their grisly revenge, of course, but they can’t unsee what they’ve seen: that L.A.’s horrors go so much deeper than the criminal underworld they’re used to.

This lesson applies equally well to moviegoers, too: you may think you know what genre you’re in, but horror could be lurking just around the corner.

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Heartbroken

I’m not dying; who said anything about dying? I want outta the marriage! I want outta the goddamn marriage.

The break-up in The Heartbreak Kid (1972) is one of the most agonizing, mortifying scenes in American film history. This is comedy as torture, torture as comedy, about as funny as a tightening thumbscrew. And it’s set in a tacky Miami Beach seafood joint with only half a slice left of its famous pecan pie. The worst place to announce the impending dissolution of your days-old marriage. The vicarious pain and nausea intensify with every new detail: the honeymooning bride starts to sob, choke, and hyperventilate as her husband’s news sinks in; he tries to smooth things over, to keep her from causing a scene. Then, of course, the waiter brings over that half-slice of pie.

Charles Grodin plays Lenny, the husband, and it’s what I’d call a “brave performance” because the character is so goddamn unlikeable. He’s a schmuck, a middle-class salesman from New York who marries a nice Jewish girl, then starts pondering a divorce before they even get to Florida. Lenny’s defined by a handful of negative traits: he’s callous, insincere, and most of all audacious. He’s a pathological liar, really, inventing all these bullshit stories so he can court glamorous shikse Cybill Shepherd while his wife Lila recovers from a nasty sunburn. And Grodin sells the character, too, with his plastered-on smiles (always pretending everything’s fine), his faux-empathy, and his faux-indignation. He’s an everyman, and a sociopath.

Hell, is there even a difference between the two? Part of what makes Lenny so terrifying and difficult to watch is that he’s normal through and through. He has platitudes and justifications to back up his every selfish act. Faced with his prospective father-in-law, a stone-faced Minnesotan businessman, he describes his current marriage a “big mistake… Radio City Music Hall big,” but nevertheless “the decent thing to do.” He wears “decency” like a suit of armor, and it’s impossible to tell if a real Lenny even exists beneath the lies, the mind games, and the raw determination. (He proudly identifies himself as “probably the most determined young man you have ever seen.”)

The sickest twist of this acrid comedy is that Lenny gets what he wants. He’s an unstoppable force, immovable objects be damned; he’s going to fulfill his American dream, his masculine prerogative, even if Lila has to suffer for it. Lila’s only crime? Not being Cybill Shepherd. Being the “nice Jewish girl.” She isn’t dumb, or unattractive, or unpleasant. A little gullible, maybe, but how is she supposed to guess that her entire honeymoon has been an elaborate ruse? So she suffers. She suffers through that protracted break-up, misunderstanding Lenny’s cues before being blindsided by his desire to get “outta the goddamn marriage.”

The metatextual irony here is that Lila’s played by Jeannie Berlin, the daughter of The Heartbreak Kid’s director, Elaine May. Casting one’s daughter isn’t too unheard of—just ask Dario Argento or Francis Ford Coppola—but this is an especially degrading part, and Berlin spends much of the film flecked with lotion or egg salad, playing her own humiliation for muted comedy. Watching her, I’m both upset and awed: What kind of mother would subject her daughter to this kind of onscreen torment? On the other hand, what kind of mother wouldn’t help her daughter receive this rich of a professional opportunity? (Sure enough, Berlin received her only Oscar nomination to date for the performance.)

And as audiences are rediscovering now, courtesy of her role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, Berlin is extraordinary. Here, she’s essential to her mother’s comedy of cruelty, exuding the naïveté (“I never thought that I’d get to Florida!” she gushes) that makes her so susceptible to Lenny—and to the kind of toxic male egos that populate the rest of May’s scant filmography. Men with tunnel vision; men incapable of resolving moral dilemmas. Men who initiate the circuitous verbal tangos that May stages for maximum pain and nervous laughter. Breaking up is hard to do, unless you’re as psychotically audacious as Lenny. Then it’s as easy as pecan pie.

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