Roman Times

Thursday  October 01, 2009

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"Polanski, man. He's tearing the Internet apart." That's what one blogger I've never met but like very much—ace film buff Bill Ryan, the wag behind The Kind of Face You Hate—lamented to me by e-mail after he and I had gone several rounds in the comments threads of more than one online forum, his own not included. While we hadn't exactly been at daggers drawn, since I respect his POV and think the feeling's mutual, we'd definitely come at the Great Polanski Kerfuffle from different perspectives.

Ryan is a straight-arrow conservative who thinks the law is the law, is purely revolted by Polanski's long-ago rape of a 13-year-old girl and won't buy any argument that gives the fugitive director wiggle room. His position is all the more principled because, if anything, he admires Polanski's movies more than I do. As for me, though I share his revulsion, I'm more ambivalent about what I think should come next. But compared to the flame wars around us, our exchanges on the topic have been a minuet.

The 76-year-old filmmaker's arrest in Switzerland last week—30-plus years after he pleaded guilty to having sex with a minor in a California courtroom, then fled to Paris when the very lenient sentencing deal he'd been promised went haywire—was a twist that nobody, most obviously Polanski, saw coming. Things had been looking up for him ever since his 2003 best director Oscar for The Pianist (which he couldn't collect in person) reminded everybody of his long exile.

His victim, Samantha Geimer, who'd gone public back in 1997 and reached a private settlement with him, was and still is on record as saying she wanted the charges dropped. Now in her mid-forties, she was also a sensible and gallant talking head in last year's HBO documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted & Desired, which I reviewed at the time for GQ. It established beyond much doubt that some fairly appalling judicial misconduct drove him to bolt (though one interviewee has recently recanted)—while also, be it said, soft-pedaling the even more appalling particulars of his original crime.

Not that I get any pleasure out of revisiting them. But for the record, mere unlawful sex with a minor—the reduced charge Polanski ended up copping to back in 1977—is a euphemism. Lured by the promise of a potential French Vogue photo shoot, Geimer was drugged and then violated in multiple ways. Her ordeal went on for hours, and she'd made her unwillingness clear to Polanski—not that her "consent" would have had either legal or moral meaning. Even if some of the indignation meisters now slavering to see the little creep behind bars at long last don't sound especially motivated by concern for his victim, facts are facts and what he did to her wasn't just criminal. It was vile, and also "really gross"—to quote Geimer's own description.

The Hollywood and other supporters who want the little creep to walk free are pretty damn anxious not to remind us of all this too vividly. In a September 30 New York Times op-ed, novelist Robert Harris—Polanski's collaborator on the film adaptation of Harris's novel The Ghost, a project now in post-production limbo thanks to his arrest—attacked "the almost pornographic relish with which his critics are retelling the lurid details of the assault," a tactic that let Harris off the hook of mentioning so much as its lurid generalities. "Of course what happened [note the passive construction] cannot be excused, either legally or ethically," went his only other comment on Polanski's deed, a bit of boilerplate woolly enough to apply to everything from the Final Solution to insider stock trading. But the true—gross, hilarious?—Hollywood note came out in Harris's idea of a deft chess move: "His daughter and mine keep in regular touch."

When it comes down to the brass-tacks question, though—do I really want to see Polanski brought back Stateside in handcuffs?—my answer is a very tentative, ambivalent no. While I don't believe a victim's wishes should always trump legal retribution—or legal restraint, for that matter—Geimer's own preferences cut a lot of ice in my book. 32 years after that wretched afternoon, she's understandably sick of seeing the meaning of her life reduced to having been The Girl In The Roman Polanski case. A new trial (or whatever, since I'm not sure what actual form the proceedings would take) would not only oblige her to wearily revisit the original trauma, but put her back in the middle of a tabloid storm. And fairly remarkably, she's even said that the media did more to "ruin" her life than Polanski—no small claim, since she's hardly denying that he did plenty.

The flip side is that if Geimer were telling interviewers, as she'd have a perfect right to, that she can't wait to see him jailed for what he did to her, then I don't think either the "Polanski has already paid a steep price" camp—yes, he has, but not in a courtroom—or the "But he's a great artist" crowd (so TF what? What if he were Ed Wood instead?) would have a leg to stand on. Simply because it's prevented him from working in the U.S., Polanski's fugitive status has probably done more real damage to the career he might have had than the few months in stir he'd most likely have served. We'll never know what we missed—another Chinatown, a follow-up to Rosemary's Baby?and neither will he. But A) that's his own fault, B) he's still a much honored filmmaker who leads a cosseted and luxurious life, and C) what if he were Ed Wood? Or just for the hell of it, some Fox News personality or GOP bigwig?

In the latter case, the cultural divide— special pleading that reeks of elitist hypocrisy on one side, self-righteous indignation and gleeful schadenfreude on the other— not only would be but has been duplicated in reverse. Even from my limited sampling, the Polanski cyber-war has brought out the creeps. ("Being a photographer, I'm not bothered by nude depictions of adolescents," wrote one swiftly unpopular commenter on Glenn Kenny's Some Came Running. As an ostensibly relevant citation of professional credentials, that's on a par with, "I'm a dentist, so of course I enjoy seeing kids get punched in the mouth.") But on both sides, it's also brought out the haters. After posting her favorable post-arrest appraisal of Polanski's Repulsion—a "masterpiece" that "all women should watch"—on HuffPo, film writer Kim Morgan chronicled the choleric response on her own Sunset Gun site, including "bizarre wishes that I should be or had been raped" for defending Polanski. I've got my own problems with Morgan's take—on the crime, that is, not the movie—but c'mon.

When I chipped in on Some Came Running and elsewhere, it was mostly to engage one of the Polanski case's abiding memes—the "it was a different era" line. Well, it was: one I remember firsthand, though from the limited vantage of a not particularly swinging nonparticipant who was a couple months from graduating college the day Polanski gave Geimer a Quaalude. But to say it was a different era is neither a legal argument nor an alibi for him. It's just a cultural truth, one Wanted & Desired disappointed me by not exploring more ambitiously. The sexualization of barely adolescent girls was so rampant that even virtuous, middle-class Americans were being bombarded with the quasi-explicit message: "There's no such thing as jailbait anymore."

At the time, all this made me feel queasy. I can still remember the one time I leafed through one of that creepazoid David Hamilton's egregious coffee-table photo books of barely nubile young girls; I was all of 17 myself, but I learned in a hurry that this wasn't my taste in porn and calling it art was a snow job. But outraged I wasn't, because what did I know? After all, I wasn't furtively lurking in some scuzzy joint off Times Square. I was in my new Ivy League college's very swank bookstore.

Strange days indeed, as John Lennon once put it. I've never had too much trouble since imagining how much more hyperbolized—as acceptable behavior, not just acceptable bookstore browsing—all this newly guilt-free pretty-poison licentiousness must have been in Polanski's Hollywood circle, and let's not even talk about the arena-rock circuit. When he met Geimer, very little in either the culture at large or his privileged pals' attitudes—or actions, but that's speculation—would have been flashing a warning that this was particularly taboo or something he'd be penalized for. That left his own moral scruples as the only deterrent, and…well, we all know how that worked out.

A vivid awareness of living through a peculiar but transitory era of history isn't adolescence's best event. Yet now that I've been turned into a modest cultural historian by not only age but predilection—I can't stand literal jigsaw puzzles, but assembling the past's figurative ones is my favorite hobby—don't blame me for caring about the sad and cruel little saga that's come to define the sexual mores of my inattentive youth. The most ridiculous figures in the Polanski debate are the predictable scolds grousing about all the attention we're giving to such sordid goings-on. Just like the O.J. Simpson trial, this is one of those crystallizing episodes whose themes—then vs. now, art vs. life, justice vs. ???—have every reason to keep us riveted. Odds are they'll fascinate 22nd-century Ph.D's, too.

As for my tentative reluctance to see Polanski reincarcerated—not that I think it's a likely long-term scenario—I'm sure his advanced age has a lot to do with it. I don't feel the same way about chasing down concentration-camp guards a decade his senior—and I sure don't feel that way about paroling Charles Manson, either—but go figure. Even so, if he does end up back on trial in L.A., I'm damned if I'll call that an injustice or feel much regret. Except, in a convoluted way, for Geimer's sake, but it would be presumptuous to speak for her.

Thursday  September 17, 2009

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Toronto Film Festival: Round Four And Out

Starring George Clooney as corporate America's chipper equivalent of a hired assassin—he jets around the country firing people when their employers don't want the hassle, and it may go without saying that nowadays business is booming—Jason Reitman's Up In The Air is almost unbelievably good. We've all gotten used to putting up with the slovenliness of even Hollywood's most entertaining comedies, from the ramshackle way they're assembled by too many cooks to the cheap use of patsies and cartoonish finks to guarantee laughs at the expense of people we don't care about. An expertly wrought, emotionally satisfying contemporary comedy that has none of those flaws is a minor miracle.

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This is only Reitman's third movie, but he's made the leap from being a skilful director of slipshod material to one whose work has no visible seams between ace conception and crackerjack execution. While pleasant enough, Thank You For Smoking was riddled with the usual compromises, softening and cute-ing up Christopher Buckley's un-P.C. satire at every turn. As for Reitman's sophomore blockbuster, Juno, I loathed the damn thing; it took me some time to recognize that Diablo Cody's script would've been twice as obnoxious without Reitman's nice sense of tempo and gift for shaping appealing performances. In Up in The Air, he's working from his own screenplay—an adaptation of a Walter Kirn novel—just as he did on Thank You For Smoking. The difference is that this time he isn't second-guessing himself.

As the movie opens, Clooney's jet-hopping days are looking numbered, since a newly hired co-worker (Anna Kendrick) has figured out they can provide the same service at lower cost via teleconferencing. In a conventional slobfest, she'd be either a prissy figure of fun or Clooney's "Me Tarzan, you Jane Austen" love interest—so when Kendrick's character turns out to be neither of those cliches, the movie grows richer and more unpredictable on the spot.

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The same goes for Vera Farmiga as the hero's real love interest. Not that he wants to admit it, since she's just a fellow corporate traveler who enjoys matching perks with him whenever a shared destination lets them fall into bed. Our slightly dazed realization that being both merrily cynical and sexually available doesn't mean she's a bitch or a flake is such a relief from our expectations that AMC addicts may break down and sob at the evidence Myrna Loy didn't live and die in vain. Not only is Farmiga a joy to watch, but her sensational chemistry with Clooney is a reminder how seldom he's actually played opposite an actress worth falling for.

As for Clooney, ah well. Just a few years ago, he'd seemingly come to equate entertaining an audience with (lucrative) fecklessness while equating Real Art with (award-winning) sonorities. Since I wanted to see him combine the two impulses, I got fed up enough with his bipolar numbskull streak to rashly predict he'd end up pissing away his best acting years—and boy, do they know how to cook crow in Canada. He's as marvelous here as he is in his other Toronto entry, The Men Who Stare At Goats; as different as the two roles are, in both cases he's also using his charisma and cocky humor in ways that don't cancel out meaning or depth. The proof is that Up In The Air's unexpectedly bleak conclusion amounts to a deconstruction of the crowd-pleasing side of his persona that even Clint Eastwood, no stranger to that game, might admire.

And I swear, I don't plan these twofers deliberately. I'm just a frazzled blogger at the mercy of the press-screening schedule, is all. Nonetheless, supposing I felt like pitting mainstream filmmaking at its best against indieland vanities at their worst— not only which one has more sophistication, but which one feels truer to life, as if those are necessarily contradictory to begin with —I could hardly do better than Up In The Air for an invidious comparison to Todd Solondz's latest.

Few moviemakers have gotten the mileage Solondz has out of peddling an adolescent's fantasies about what grownups are like as the rotten truth about people. Unlike the David Lynch of Blue Velvet—a movie whose dream logic didn't allocate blame for its characters' lurid behavior to anything outside its creator's own fertile brain—Solondz comes on with the bile of a muckraker exposing social hypocrisy. Yet the boobs in his movies barely get any chances to act hypocritical before their depravities and closet hysterias take center stage.

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Pretty much killing any residual hope that he might have learned to move on, his new one is a quasi-sequel to 1998's Happiness, the movie that made him "Todd Solondz"—though I far prefer the earlier Welcome to The Dollhouse, which had the relative honesty to make its heroine a 13-year-old girl whose distorted view of her family was a given. With different actors playing renamed versions of the same batch of spiteful object lessons, Life During Wartime picks up Happiness's pedophile husband (Ciaran Hinds, taking over from Dylan Baker) as he exits prison.

Played by Allison Janney, his ex has started a new life with their younger son in Miami, where her cuckoo kid sister (Shirley Henderson) soon turns up on the lam from her own pervy worse half. Ally Sheedy appears in one sequence as a third sister who's now an Emmy-festooned scriptwriter—a gratuitous parody of Hollywood selfishness that's so lame it makes Sean Hannity look like George Bernard Shaw. The script's fleeting allusions to real-world events—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, chiefly—are just as vapid, since Solondz plainly doesn't have Shinola to tell us about the issues involved. He's just trying to trick up his fetishes with a spurious extra dimension to justify his overreaching title.

A sentimental favorite of mine ever since The West Wing, Janney could use a break from the frumpy-but-caustic sidekick roles she's usually stuck with in movies. But good as she is, she's trapped in Solondz's Rubik's-cube determinism. Not only is the character's hope that she's finally found Mr. Right (Michael Lerner) inevitably doomed, but her own sexual terrors—set up in a scene of instructing her son about pedophilia whose obviousness in laying the groundwork for a disastrous wrong guess would look unsubtle on Two And A Half Men—are to blame. No less cruelly treated is the festival circuit's rent-a-Jeanne Moreau, Charlotte Rampling, as an aging rich bitch who picks up Hinds in a bar. But Rampling has been used this way in so many films that she's become comically brisk at delivering the curdled goods.

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We also get another helping of Solondz's Happiness specialty: sex conversations between adults and children that let him get off on hearing apprehensive youngsters talk about "tushies" and buggery. If he thinks that's compassionate, he's kidding himself. But it's also true that his understanding of sexuality often doesn't seem to be a whole lot more advanced than theirs, and if he's an authority on eros, I must be Leonard Cohen. Which I'm not, but on this topic, Cohen at his sexist nadir is more trustworthy than a director who's pushing 50 and apparently still hasn't forgiven his parents for fibbing to him about the stork.

Tuesday  September 15, 2009

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Toronto Film Festival: Round Three

Why remake somebody else's movie? To a studio, that's a no-brainer: ca-chung. Franchises get a new lease on life, proven crowd-pleasers are recycled for a new generation, well-reviewed foreign films can be transformed by reverse alchemy into crappy American ones. But when directors allegedly in it for the art opt to piggyback on pre-owned material, it's usually for one of two reasons. Either the earlier movie is a stimulus for something fresh that suits their own flukey priorities—cf. Philip Kaufman's Invasion of The Body Snatchers, David Cronenberg's The Fly—or else they're fresh out of ideas of their own. Not too surprisingly, filmmakers acting on Reason B have an amazing capacity for deluding themselves it's really Reason A.

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Today's examples are Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which spins off like a banshee from Abel Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant, and Atom Egoyan's Chloe, which leans for inspiration on Anne Fontaine's 2004 Nathalie like a Q-Tip propped up by balsa. In neither case was the public baying for a 2.0 version, so each is best seen as an index of the director in question's creative energy.

From Aguirre, The Wrath of God up through Grizzly Man and Rescue Dawn, Herzog's reasons for doing anything have always been pretty gnomic. But my best guess is that updating Ferrara was his idea of fun—which has always been pretty gnomic, too. Starring Nicolas Cage in Harvey Keitel's old role, the movie is a glorious crock: Not only have the original's bad-Catholic thematic underpinnings been dumped like so much moldy lasagna, but Herzog's trademark fascination with the romance of willful craziness has all the depth here of a Wile E. Coyote tribute dinner. That didn't stop Port of Call New Orleans from being the most purely enjoyable movie I've seen in Toronto so far.

If you've got a weakness for Cage in full bug-eating mode, you won't be disappointed. Even though, as usual, whether he knows he's overacting is anybody's guess, his performance is a blast from start to finish: wild stares, unprompted grins, windmilling body language and a guided tour of all the neat things he can do with that phlegmy voice of his. Despite a human cast that includes Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer and the always welcome Brad (Deadwood) Dourif, who even gets to play someone sane for a change, Cage is upstaged only by a number of animals, at least some of whom are the hero's hallucinations; I'm pretty sure about the iguanas, undecided about the crocodiles. But all of them, in true Herzog fashion, are treated as more deserving of respect than their two-legged counterparts.

In the midst of this circus, whose plot (gambling debts, a murder investigation, drug binges, etc.) could give a Cuisinart an inferiority complex, the director's documentary side gets an airing via the post-Katrina New Orleans locations, which are so evocatively photographed you can feel the mugginess. There's no good reason for the mix to work, but movies don't always need 'em. Me, I'm just hoping Herzog will tackle Dr. Dolittle next. If ever there was a movie he was born to get right, that's the one.

These days, I'm not convinced Atom Egoyan could even get The Sweet Hereafter right—and since that's still the directing credit his festival bios tout a dozen years later, it's fair to say his recent output hasn't been a succession of triumphs. After the botched Where The Truth Lies and the fumbling Adoration, the Toronto programmers who haven't stopped casting him as Canada's gift to world cinema may be privately wishing they'd anointed Cronenberg or Guy Maddin instead. Chloe would benefit from either one's sense of absurdity.

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The increasingly painful-to-watch combo of self-love and radiant masochism we once knew as Julianne Moore is an unconvincingly successful ob/gyn doctor—you wouldn't trust this neurotic jitterfest to deliver a letter, let alone a baby—who hires call girl Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to test her music-prof husband's fidelity now that the zing has gone out of their marriage. He's played by Liam Neeson, who's had such a horrendous year not only onscreen but off that your heart plumb goes out to him.

But Chloe, it turns out, has not only a devious streak but designs on Moore, which. . . oh, the hell with it. Didn't photographing poor Alison Lohman with vaginal juice on her chin in Where The Truth Lies sate Egoyan's zest for conning comely young actresses into going lesbian for art's sake? While Chloe might have been tolerable as either a nasty comedy or a forthrightly meretricious thriller, it's grotesque as an ostensible showcase for Egoyan's ostensible humanism. If he ever deserved that rep, his work this time out makes you appreciate the candid prurience of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls.

That's why my heart also went out to Seyfried, an appealing performer with more than a hint of Drew Barrymore's blithe early charm. A regular on HBO's dandy Big Love, she may have imagined her well-publicized Toronto twofer—she's also in Jennifer's Body—would show off her range. But tendentiously conceived parts like Chloe have a way of irking reviewers into faulting the blameless actress instead of the director's dumb fantasies, especially when said director is someone in whom they've got a prior investment. Especially since nobody will see Chloe anyway, Seyfried has enough going for her that she'll probably overcome it, but I still couldn't help wondering as I headed exitward whether I'd seen her promising big-screen career peak and flame out in all of 72 hours.

Monday  September 14, 2009

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Toronto Film Festival: Round Two

As one of the handful of literate Americans who've never read Cormac McCarthy's The Road—disgusting of me, isn't it?—I've got no idea what its virtues might be on the page. But since I'm allergic to the kind of screen allegory that simulates profundity by keeping the characters nameless, you'll have to forgive me if I only made it to the end of director John Hillcoat's film adaptation by thinking up handles for the father and son plodding their way through a post-apocalyptic vision of hell to get to—ah, symbolism—"The Coast." Humbert and Lolito? Bob Hopeless and Bing Crossword-Puzzle? I finally settled on Poppy and Jeb.

The Road's release was delayed for a year, and rumors are rife of studio tinkering that diluted Hillcoat's original concept. But if, as word has it, his intentions were bleaker, then God help us. Whatever else it is, the movie we've got is no picnic. As usual in the existential-starkness sweepstakes, the main proof it must be art is that nobody's going to mistake it for entertainment.

It didn't help that I'd walked out the evening before on a crummy quest epic called Solomon Kane that amounted to a shlock version of the same material. A brutal environment randomly pocked with vicious thugs? Check. An unbarbered hero tasked with the salvation of a dewy-eyed innocent in grim times? Check, please. Even granting that Hillcoat is a far superior craftsman and Viggo Mortensen's acting chops and commitment sure beat Kane star James Purefoy's, that couldn't help but redefine The Road in my mind as pulp with pretensions.

Even so, plenty of people who'd pat me on the back for bailing on the cheesier of the two are sure to be solemnly impressed by the other. Is it just because McCarthy's imposing reputation puts that of Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, from whose bottom-drawer oeuvre Kane allegedly derives, in the shade? All I can say is that if I held a contest to guess which movie's dialogue makes a mantra out of "We carry the fire," I'd have to bar former members of the Pulitzer fiction committee from competing.

The Road isn't ineptly made by a long shot. Photographed in drab, wintry colors under monochromatic gray skies, the blasted landscapes and wrecked memorials of civilization have atmosphere to burn—something they often do literally—and the tone of solitude and desolation is impressively sustained. Yet a story that's all in one key from start to finish probably tests a director's skill less than having to modulate among a variety of moods and characters to dramatize a theme, and while the novel may well have done that, the movie definitely doesn't. By the time Robert Duvall showed up as a Tiresian wanderer whose big line is that dying is a luxury he can't afford, at least one glum scribbler at the packed press screening knew just what the old duffer meant.

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American leftism's one-man answer to the Goodyear Blimp has made a pretty fair career out of doomsday scenarios himself. So you'd figure our latest real-world apocalypse—last year's financial meltdown—would be a good bet to turn Capitalism: A Love Story into Michael Moore's most Zeitgeist-grabbing film since Fahrenheit 9/11. Instead, it feels weirdly dated, partly because his bag of tricks is both familiar by now and more inadequate than usual to his complicated topic.

The other reason, you won't be surprised to hear, is that Moore's trademark vices—from narcissism to shoddy thinking—are on ignobly prominent display. Never too reliable a documentarian, if you don't mind me wallowing in understatement, he isn't even a convincing or useful town crier anymore. He's a self-smitten pop star whose vogue is fading, that's all, and he's predictably reacted by amping up the stuff that made him famous to begin with. Not only does Capitalism: A Love Story include remember-when clips from 1989's Roger & Me, but they're underlined by Big Mike sententiously explaining that he "tried to warn GM and others that this was coming" 20 years ago. That's right, folks—the reason the world went to hell is that we didn't listen to Michael Moore. But he still hopes we will before it's too late.

Even the movie's good bits are nostalgic, like a brisk and fairly funny rundown on the causes of America's post-World War II prosperity that combines vintage happy-suburbanite footage with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Yet what you can't help noticing when he gets to the mess we're in today is that he isn't much good at explaining how it all went down. Indulging his worst habits, he'd rather get laughs by showing us Wall Street insiders who can't explain it either. Not only does that end up perpetuating the sense of powerlessness he's supposedly trying to help Americans overcome; it crowds out any genuine despair he's evoked by replacing it with snickering complacency.

That's nothing compared to the gaga conclusion, which hymms Obama's election as the arrival of the Messiah who's going to cleanse the temple and put eveything right. (Try this for illogic: "This was not what Wall Street wanted," Moore tells us. "So they threw money at him.") What would have been a touching misconception last November looks downright delusional now, not least since Moore (accurately) portrays Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner as a market stooge without seeing fit to mention that Obama appointed him, much less wonder why. The glowing way Capitalism: A Love Story tells it, our current President really is the closet-socialist revolutionary of right-wing nightmares—a Good Thing in Moore's eyes, of course. But did he ever consider the likely effect? Thanks for handing your fellow chowderhead Glenn Beck that can of gasoline, you great big tub of malarkey.

Saturday  September 12, 2009

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Toronto Film Festival: Round One

Grant Heslov was George Clooney’s co-screenwriter on the reverential Goodnight, And Good Luck—a project that had about as much use for laugh lines as the Sistine Chapel does for skateboarders. So I wasn’t exactly presold on The Men Who Stare at Goats, which Heslov directed and Clooney stars in. But I’ve guessed wrong before. This very funny, slyly pro-hippie saga of the U.S. Army’s nutball attempt to create a unit of Svengali-like “super-soldiers” gifted with psychic powers plays like a sequel to Joel and Ethan Coen’s beloved The Big Lebowski where everyone ends up in Iraq.

That includes the original Lebowski, Jeff Bridges. He’s got what may be his best part since The Dude as Colonel Bill Django, the visionary loon who sold the brass on paranormal warfare after a mystical battlefield experience in Vietnam. Decades later, his burned-out former star pupil (Clooney) spills the beans about their top-secret outfit to journalist Ewan MacGregor in post-millenial Kuwait City, at which point the two men set out on a flashback-riddled desert quest that inevitably leads them to Django himself. Old and cranky, he’s the in-house Methuselah for the Bush era’s privatized variation on the same experiment, headed up by a Peter Sellers-ish Kevin Spacey as Clooney’s long-ago fellow “Jedi” and finky Fort Bragg nemesis.

Working from journalist Jon Ronson’s nonfiction (!) book, Heslov and scenarist Peter Straughan have shaped the material with considerable cunning. The unit’s complicated back-story comes out in shaggy-dog snippets that work like blackout skits, but each goofy incident turns out to have a payoff once everyone’s reunited. The real treat, though, is the acting—not only from Bridges, who at 60 can still fool you into thinking he’s some genius casting director’s latest off-the-street find, but from Clooney, who may have finally figured out that he says more about American craziness when he plays comedy than he ever will in the didactic likes like Syriana.

If there’s a weak link, it’s MacGregor. Maybe Greg Kinnear makes the frantic-naif bit look easy, but that doesn’t mean it is, a truth MacGregor seems to have caught onto just as the cameras rolled. Still, that’s only a minor distraction in a movie that does lots better than Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock at reviving that counterculture gestalt—in this case, by transforming one of its weirdest offshoots into the grizzled incarnation of an older, better America out to redeem itself by saving W.’s version from its sins.

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And speaking of the Coens, their own much anticipated A Serious Man provoked the following overheard dialogue between two anonymous colleagues once we exited the press screening. He, with a shrug of finality: “It’s minor.” She, with a rich European accent: “It’s very Jewish.”

I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with the first, but nobody’s going to dispute the second. Copping at long last to their own Jewish—and Wonder Years—upbringing, the brothers have delivered the remembrance-of-things-past movie that too many directors louse up by doing it before they’ve had time to develop any perspective.

The tip-off is that their autobiographical stand-in—a 13-year-old malcontent who’d rather watch F Troop reruns than bone up for his bar mitzvah—is just one of the minor annoyances bedeviling the title character (Michael Stuhlbarg, in a wonderful performance). He’s a would-be steadfast ‘60s husband and father who’s trying to cope with a floundering marriage as his tenure review nears at the college where he teaches physics, and if he bears any resemblance to Joel and Ethan’s actual dad, they were lucky to know him.

If you’ve ever wondered where the Coens got their fascination with this country’s unwitting subcultures, it’s pretty clear from A Serious Man that they started by keeping alert tabs on their own. Partly because the Midwestern setting keeps the material free of the usual New Yorky cliches, this is real inside-baseball stuff, rich in precise detail—the menorah in a perfect Homes and Gardens suburban dining room, the synagogue’s “modern” architecture—that’s got less in common with Woody Allen than the Philip Roth of Goodbye, Columbus. Hell, nobody even mentions the Holocaust; that’s because they don’t need to.

Some fans will doubtless complain the brothers have gone soft by allowing that at least a few human emotions aren’t ridiculous by definition. But they usually drive me nuts when they play up the reductive side of their humor at the expense of giving their mockery any definable meaning, and that’s not the case here. The movie is often plenty sardonic, and not always justifiably so; the women characters are all coarser and shriller than the men, taking the bulk of the screenplay’s cheap shots. But even so, the literal tornado on the horizon at the end is as close as the festival circuit’s fave snarkmeisters have ever come to putting pure heartbreak on the screen. Picture Toto being the one left behind for a change, and you’ll know why.

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Like the patriot I am, I believe that any movie starring Megan Fox as a high-school cheerleader turned entrail-chomping demon deserves my devoted attention. But even though Diablo Cody’s arch dialogue is somewhat less grating in an openly parodic context than it was in Juno, the sad truth is that Jennifer’s Body just isn’t very good. You can see all the clever subtexts the filmmakers were going for: the way the hot all-femme eroticism sends up male moviegoers’ lusts and fears at once, for instance. Yet any flick this pleased with itself ought to be a lot more, I dunno, surprising—and less padded when Cody’s inventiveness fails, which happens often.

Successfully reworking teen-horror tropes for that meta effect probably requires some genuine affection for the genre, as Kevin Williamson knows. But Cody is just seizing on a gimmick she doesn’t have any noticeable feeling for, and director Karyn (Girlfight) Kusuma doesn’t either. A good filmmaker who’s been shafted by the industry more than once, Kusuma mostly just seems eager to prove she can deliver a hit by copycatting Heathers, which is understandable but depressing anyway.

For whatever it’s worth, Fox is OK. Amanda Seyfried does a pretty fetching job as her chum turned antagonist, too. But that said, the only performance I really enjoyed was O.C. alum Adam Brody’s droll turn as an indie band’s smartass front man, and c’mon, Hollywood. Won’t somebody please cast him as the young Lou Reed in a Velvets biopic before it’s too late?

Mashterpiece Theater

Tuesday  August 25, 2009

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The fake version: Mad Men, 2008.

One of my recurring grumps about Mad Men is that the health-conscious actors playing 1960s roués don't know how to booze and smoke with conviction. Managing cocktails and Marlboros with only two hands—or four, once they'd had a few—was as close as my parents' friends came to doing ballet sitting down. It may or may not be a lost art worth mourning, but you'll never understand our midcentury forebears without grasping that today's vices were their social kabuki.

Skimping on that particular brand of verisimilitude is not a complaint anyone's likely to lodge against the soused title characters of John Cassavetes's 1970 Husbands. Newly out on DVD from Sony, it's about three New York asshole buddies on the cusp of male menopause who head off to London on a jet-lagered bender after a close pal's premature death. If Smell-O-Vision had ever caught on back then, the reek of stale tobacco smoke, bad Scotch, and worse cologne coming off the screen could have made a coroner gag.

Since that's what I spent my formative years inhaling, I'm responsibly placed to affirm that Husbands has acquired a value as a period document it didn't have then as a film. Given Cassavetes's belief that he was Julia Child at serving up raw psychological honesty—you know, the kind that always gets called "unflinching"—the movie's insights into the protagonists are maddeningly paltry. But the behavior their creator takes for granted—the posturing he was too steeped in himself to have much perspective on—sure is a wonder in 40-year hindsight.

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The real one: Husbands, 1970.

In its combined boorishness and anomie, Husbands mashes Eugene O'Neill with a Rat Pack flick gone Antonioni. Played by also-ran '60s icons who were also cronies offscreen—Ben (TV's Run For Your Life) Gazzara, future Columbo star Peter Falk, and then recent Dirty Dozen and Rosemary's Baby alum Cassavetes himself—the main characters are patently discontented actors in everything but their ostensible (white-collar, cushy, predictably unfulfilling) professions. It's typical of Cassavetes the director that their debauch isn't worked out as a story so much as it stays a premise in search of a plot. Since he was both stubborn and simple-minded enough to equate conventional dramatic structure with commercial-minded Hollywood phoniness, the shapelessness of their midlife adventure equals truth in his mind.

In case that sounds rude to an indie legend, don't misunderstand. The two or three generations of DIY filmmakers who revere Cassavetes as their home-grown John the Baptist have lots of good reasons. Back when Sundance wasn't even a gleam in the twin tanning-machine victims we know as Robert Redford's former baby blues, his determination to go his own way was heroic. Naming the movies that wouldn't exist without his example and influence could keep us here for hours, with Swingers and Clerks at the crowd-pleasing end and Todd (Happiness) Solondz at the other.

All the same, any admirer who thinks Cassavetes' films achieve the oh-the-humanity profundity they hunger for may just have internalized his aggressive self-romanticization. Even at their best, which to my taste means in bits and pieces—parts of Faces, his wife Gena Rowlands' performance in A Woman Under The Influence, one or two sequences here—they're like lesser O'Neill plays rewritten by an only intermittently perceptive O'Neill character. And if the shoe fits, should we blame the bottle?

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All-American boys: Gazzara, Cassavetes, and Falk take a break from dribbling.

Owners of David Thomson's A Biographical Dictionary of Film should feel free at this point to marvel at how skilfully Thomson manages to paint Cassavetes as a drunk without saying so outright. Whether or not he fit the bill clinically, which the evidence is he did—not yet 60, he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1989—Husbands can't help but look to dazed modern eyes like some kind of tribute to John Barleycorn, Auteur. The heroes scarcely draw a sober breath, yet nobody calls them alcoholics. In their sub-Sinatra world, that'd be akin to accusing them of breathing—and like their phenomenal hostility to women, this isn't one of the movie's points. It's one of the movie's givens.

When his approach works, Cassavetes gets moments Tarantino might envy. And therefore steal, and also improve on. Unpleasant but mesmerizing, one standout scene here is a brutally protracted singalong at a wake that inspires our sozzled heroes to badger and humiliate some poor broad for her rendition of "It Was Just a Little Love Affair" before listening with groggy respect to a male duffer's performance of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" But not much lives up to it once Cassavetes shifts the scene to England.

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Suave in London.

Promptly buying tuxedos—they might as well be in costume for a fantasy Oscars, which would be smarter if all three leads hadn't wanted one — his not-so-young dudes head for a posh gambling club to pick up some girls. The sextet's face-to-face and head-to-toe encounters in various rooms of a London hotel suite precede but don't especially explain the coda, in which one Yank opts to stay in the Old World. Either sadder or wiser—in this movie, you can't be both—his sidekicks head back to the New One's comfortable hell of suburban domesticity.

Even to characterize their decisions in those symbolic terms may give Cassavetes too much credit for clarity. If the camera's interesting concentration on the female victim's face during the wake makes you suspect the director of backhanded sensitivity, your mind will be changed by the casino sequence's cruel treatment of an elderly—what a sin!—British biddy propositioning Peter Falk. Imagine this dame as sexually attractive, and you've got the movie's hypocrisy—and latent subscription to the Playboy philosophy—in a nutshell.

Cassavetes' intentions aside, his method had an obvious Catch-22. You can't peel away the layers of personalities you haven't individuated in the first place, and his refusal to give us basic information about who these people are to themselves or each other keeps their revelations awfully haphazard. By 1970 standards, Ben Gazzara has a fairly startling bit when he reacts to being gay-baited by chortling, "Harry the Fairy! I wouldn't be surprised. Might even be better off." Yet nothing clues us in whether that's his hidden truth or just boozy jocosity. Anyhow, the moment's soon lost in more footage of our heroes jousting, lamenting their lot or (a Cassavetes trademark) laughing interminably at stupid jokes.

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"Didja hear the one about the Polish starlet?"

At a structural level, zooming off to London would make more sense if the character who proposed the jaunt had some previously established sentimental connection with the place: if he'd served there during the war, say. But spelling out anything of the kind would amount to well-constructed "exposition," one of Cassavetes' great bugaboos—and why? Even by his lights, was Casablanca all that bad? There's a reason it'll outlive Husbands, after all.

It may say a lot about the main trio's lousy, self-indulgent performances—all tics and showpiece broadsides, with nothing in between—that I found myself intrigued by Gazzara, one of my least favorite actors. Despite some advantages his peers would kill for—a bullfrog face that drew the camera, a good and robust voice, a weirdly infectious horniness—he was stopped short of stardom by his bad taste, which was coarse and narcissistic. That's true of his work here too, but at least his obnoxiousness suits the part about two-thirds of the time. He may never have had a better moment in movies than the glimpse we get of him singing along to "Jesus Loves Me" at the wake.

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Eyeless in Gazzara, and Paul Simon was right. Jesus did love them more than they would know.

So far as veracity goes, did I know guys like his character in Husbands back when I was growing up? Oh, sure. I used to see 'em stagger around our lawn in search of the keys to something after every party. But I was 15, and still under the illusion that one purpose of art was to explain my parents to me. If Cassavetes failed to, that was because he was one of them.

Monday  August 17, 2009

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One Glorious 'Basterd'

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quentin tarantino’s fans have had a candle in the window for Inglourious Basterds ever since he started bragging up his ballsy script for the ultimate World War II action saga a decade ago. That’s why I figure I’d better break the news without delay: It isn’t the nonstop splatterfest adrenaline addicts were panting for. Anyone hoping to see Kill Bill’s blood ballets retooled for tommy guns is in for a serious case of, let’s say, delayed gratification.

If the trailers do their best to peddle Brad Pitt blasting his way through The Dirty Dozen, Part Deux, don’t blame Harvey Weinstein and Universal for trying. Whatever they thought they’d be getting for their reported $70 million, it wasn’t the Moulin Rouge! of war movies. By which I mean one set in Nazi-occupied Europe at pretty much the level that Puccini’s Tosca takes place during the Napoleonic Wars. One crammed to the gills with elaborate palaver in subtitled French and German. One that builds to a plot to kill Hitler that plays out like The Wizard of Oz transposed to the Third Reich and rewritten by Tennessee Williams on a binge.

The difference is that I wouldn’t sit through Moulin Rouge! again if Baz Luhrmann was threatening to drop a kitchen sink on me. A movie that brings this one’s grand nerve to reinventing the twentieth century’s most cathartic imagery is a whole different kettle of swastikas. Truth is, I’m so smitten with What Quentin Hath Wrought that if I could lug just one Tarantino title to a desert island, Inglourious Basterds would be it. Still, it’s only fair to warn you that I might as well be there already, so far as the conventional wisdom goes.

what naysayers and enthusiasts can agree on is the movie’s refusal to play by any rules except QuentinWorld’s. This thing’s proud excesses make everything Tarantino’s done up to now—which hasn’t exactly been timid, from Reservoir Dogs on—look like the work of a filmmaker trying to conciliate America’s multiplexers by keeping his nutso side on bread and water.

Unless the deliberately misspelled title counts, the first hint that Inglourious Basterds isn’t your grandpa’s wartime Europe is the opening music, a blast from the wrong past: It’s the ballad that haunts John Wayne’s not-so-great epic The Alamo. Next comes an opening sequence as showy as anything in Tarantino’s filmography. To the suddenly unnerving plinks of “Für Elise,” Beethoven’s malicious gift to piano beginners, S.S. Colonel Landa—nicknamed the Jew Hunter and played by a terrific Austrian actor named Christoph Waltz—pulls up with his goons at a simple French farmhouse Paul Bunyan could raise Babe in.

All smiles and polylingual quips, he’s here to interrogate Oncle Henri and Tante Em about the Jewish Dorothy hiding along with some rels in the suffocating crawl space beneath Landa’s boots. While the overscaled staging is pure Sergio Leone, the tension is right out of Hitchcock. Since we know the interview can only end in a massacre, Tarantino has leisure to fetishize every detail of Landa’s self-amused gamesmanship and his human prey’s mute terror under the floorboards—and brother, can he fetishize. When the raid’s bloodied lone survivor, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), takes o across the fields, Landa watches her go with a smile. As surely as if he’s been tipped o that he’s in a Tarantino movie, he knows they’ll meet again.

Cut to Pitt’s languidly psycho Lieutenant Aldo Raine and his Basterds, eight Jewish-American GIs recruited to wreak havoc behind enemy lines. But even though Tarantino has touted IB forever as his “guys-on-a-mission movie,” don’t worry about getting this bunch’s faces straight: They don’t rate much more screen time than the cheese baiting a mousetrap in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Something like half the squad vanish after their big set-piece scene—the chortling aftermath, mind you, of a Kraut-killing spree we don’t witness.

When we rejoin Shosanna in Paris, she’s calling herself Emmanuelle—a double entendre so complicated you’d need a rabbi into 1970s porn to explain it—and running a rep cinema under the occupiers’ noses. The one that’s soon sniffing her marquee belongs to Daniel Brühl as Zoller, who turns out to be, as he explains, “the German Sergeant York.” (Color me impressed: How many moviegoers today have heard of the American one?) Lionized for his feats as a sniper, Zoller is now aiming to turn matinee idol by reenacting his exploits in a Naziļ¬ed ur-infomercial for battlefield sadism called Nation’s Pride.

Putting his new clout to use, he gets Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth, exuding rancid bonhomie like a fart made of champagne) to stage its premiere at Shosanna’s theater. Der Führer will be attending in person, and if you can see how this might give our gal ideas, bingo. But she’s not the only one, since London soon dispatches Michael Fassbender as dashing Lieutenant Archie Hicox—briefed by none other than Mike Myers as a crusty general while a scowling Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) looks on—to link up with the Basterds for their own crack at bringing down the Third Reich. Their contact is Diane Kruger as the wondrously named Bridget von Hammersmark, a Marlene Dietrich–y movie star-—with a big injection of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon—who’s a Goebbels favorite but secretly helping our side. What tells you everything about Bridget and a lot about her creator is that her leg cast once she’s wounded is high-heeled.

Set in a basement dive called La Louisiane, the disastrous rendezvous between Bridget, Archie, and two of Aldo Raine’s men is a sequence sure to keep film classes dazzled for decades. Don’t think Tarantino didn’t plan it to be, either: We’re talking twenty-plus jaw-dropping minutes of edgy chitchat, multiplying agendas, and increasing jitters before the slipup that triggers an outburst of gunplay. In a final flourish, when Raine checks out the climactic carnage, Tarantino underlines his own theatricality by largely reducing Pitt to an offstage voice. And since Angelina’s better half is only in the movie for something like forty minutes as it is, chalk up yet another reason you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that these days Harvey Weinstein’s blood pressure is being monitored by NASA.

it ought to go without saying that Tarantino’s characters are strictly unbelievable as human beings. Magnified to the mythic max, they’re the L. Frank Baum versions of 1939–45: the Plucky French Jewess, the Suave Nazi Monster, the Caustic Kraut Sexpot, the Erudite British Commando, and the other stalwart fixtures of a bazillion Gott in Himmel comic books. But the movie’s preposterousness is its poetry. Most operas are preposterous, too—kind of by definition, which must be why devotees never stop blathering about being transported—and you’re a hell of a lot less likely to doze off at this one.

Tripping up our expectations, Pitt’s role as the Gung Ho Yank Sociopath on the Side of the Angels is the most openly buffoonish caricature of all. Though it’ll win bigger laughs in Paree than in Iowa, the way he and the other American characters get demoted to bungling interlopers in an all-European feud is one of Tarantino’s more sophisticated jokes—take that, Steven Spielberg—and historically astute to boot. Clearly glad to oblige, Pitt is uncommonly focused and funny. Not only is his Tennessee drawl a hoot, but the kind of old-fashioned confidence he’s acquired in his forties makes it hard to remember how blankly puzzled about a movie star’s duties he could seem in his younger days.

Good as he is, though, he can’t compete with Waltz’s Landa, who inevitably resurfaces in Paris and ends up being just full of surprises. Impossibly witty, utterly vicious, and insanely entertaining, Landa is a conception as over-the-top as Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Despite the movie’s unecstatic press reception at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where the yawnoscenti mostly came out scratching their berets, Waltz won the acting prize there; while you may worry he’s ruined himself forever for nonparodic parts, his performance is a stunner. Kruger, Laurent, and Fassbender—whose roles aren’t any less exaggerated, just less twisted—are all spot-on, too.

Only an American could magnify these faux-European archetypes into yesteryear’s X-Men, which is more or less how The Good, the Bad and the Ugly saw our own Civil War. Yet Tarantino goes further by treating Hitler himself (Martin Wuttke) and his real-life henchmen as grist for his fever dream’s mill. From Adolf’s Roman-emperor red cloak on down, they aren’t historical facsimiles any more than Dietrich was as Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress. They’re the rotten gargoyles of our most primitive childhood conjectures, and not so very different from Chaplin’s burlesque editions in 1940’s The Great Dictator.

Then again, Chaplin didn’t call Hitler Hitler—or know about Auschwitz, either. Tarantino does, which is why it’s legit to be appalled at his irresponsibility. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to attend this film with a Holocaust survivor, but is that even a sensible yardstick? I bristled when Saving Private Ryan messed with the facts of D-day while purporting to show the unvarnished truth. But Tarantino has always been the anti-Spielberg—pop as riotous id, not pop as superego—and his movie doesn’t pretend to portray the “real” World War II. It’s a love song to the florid, melodramatic version enshrined in his generation’s trash-culture memories, all leering villainy, tawdry glamour, and righteous rat-a-tat-tat. While I won’t give away the full outrageousness of his fabulously multilayered climax once he gets everyone into Shosanna’s theater for Nation’s Pride’s premiere, suffice it to say his characters—“Hitler” and “Goebbels” included—fulfill their destinies with a flamboyance Puccini wouldn’t sneeze at.

Anyway, whether his wow finish is way tasteless depends on your point of view. When the Nazi era was a lot more recent, Mel Brooks thumbed his nose at Hitler by making him the ultimate butt of vaudeville humor. Tarantino’s pulp fantasy is a cinemaniac’s version of the same comeuppance, and it’s no accident that the fiery finale occurs in a movie theater. More than anything else, this is his most rapturous movie about movies: movies as lingua franca, movies as a mythic past whose marvels trump the authentic one. Gallant Archie Hicox’s civilian occupation—“I’m a film critic”—is the joke that tips Inglourious Basterds into dementia. But the whole thing is set in a Netflix junkie’s self-enclosed universe, right down to the way Aldo Raine’s shoulder patch gives him a Hollywood pedigree; his former outfit is the WWII cutthroat crew immortalized in 1968’s robustly cheesy The Devil’s Brigade.

None of this whimsy would be worth squat if Tarantino weren’t a filmmaker as brilliant as he is cuckoo, meaning he’s pretty darn brilliant. Whenever his coarse streak threatens to do you in, he’ll uncork an image for the ages, like the yellow leaf settling on a Basterd’s chest that uncannily mimics a Star of David. For my money, Inglourious Basterds stands or falls on the most ravishing shot of his career to date: a gorgeous blond in a red evening gown, her face framed and echoed by the movie billboard behind her. She’s opposite a swastika banner whose red matches her dress and whose Führer she’s planning to send to kingdom come by literally setting celluloid ablaze. To Tarantino’s cinema-crazed mind, that’s a contest between equals—and no, real life it’s not. But man, is it some kind of movie heaven.

Wanna See Jack White Make an Electric Guitar Out of Spare Parts?

Thursday  August 13, 2009

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It Might Get Loud, a new documentary (out this weekend) about the electric guitar—featuring Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White—is the late summer's biggest surprise at the multiplex. Nothing much happens in the film. These dudes sit around. They talk about their first guitars. They jam. And it makes you feel stupid for playing "Guitar Hero" instead of picking up an actual axe. The late Les Paul would've been proud. Here, It Might Get Loud director Davis Guggenheim—who won an Oscar for Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth—talks to GQ.com.—mickey rapkin

It Might Get Loud's opening sequence is unforgettable. It's just Jack White fiddling with some scrap metal and driftwood—which he turns into a rudimentary electric guitar. Explain.
That was Jack's idea. It's called a diddley bow, which is actually how Bo Diddley got his name. The instrument's origins are in southern African-Americans stringing barbed wire between two nails and playing the blues. You see them on broom handles as well. In the movie, Jack just takes it a step further and electrifies it.

It's a perfect image to start the documentary. It somehow says everything. Meanwhile, did Jack White really play the electric guitar so hard that his hand started to bleed?
Yeah. We were filming him in a live concert in Austin, Texas, and he was playing the solo for "Blue Veins" from the Raconteurs album. I was right there, and I said, "Wait, what is that?" In the middle of the solo, his finger was cut, and it just sort of bled all over the guitar. The amazing thing is not that he was bleeding; it was the fact that he didn't notice it. He was like a great fighter being cut. I'm sure he went home and said, "Oh, my finger got cut."

This movie made me feel guilty for playing "Guitar Hero."
My son plays guitar—the actual guitar. He played the electric guitar in front of the whole school today. He played a Flight of the Concords song, and it was genius. But he wants "Guitar Hero," and I forbade it. I was like, "Why would you spend hundreds of hours to perfect this skill which is not actually playing anything?"

Do you play the guitar?
A little bit. I play shamefully, like a cat in a litter box—you know, looking around to see that no one is watching when I do my business.

Come on. You didn't want to play for Jimmy Page? Or The Edge?
Never. No. I pretended I didn't. I wouldn't…

You spent hours interviewing these guys, across the globe over many months. What's the most surprising thing you learned?
Here's one: The revelation about Jimmy Page was how important his years as a session player were. You have to know what a session player is: It's someone who is told to show up at a recording studio at nine in the morning, not knowing what the work is that day. And the producer puts some sheet music in front of you. It could be a jingle for a soap commercial, or background to a trailer for a movie, or you're putting in an electric-guitar track for the latest pop band—a band where the lead guitarist has great hair but can't play. And so Jimmy, for a significant period of time, learned to play everything, and to play it inside a very rigid format. The beats were measured. He had to come in at certain places, come out at certain places. When you think of him in those striking bell-bottom pants with a dragon embroidered on them, with his incredible hair, playing an endless solo, you don't think of someone who might have done session work. So the revelation, for me, is that all that session work—being able to play everything and play it exactly right—set him up to be the best improvisational player ever. Suddenly he goes from being a session player to being in the Yardbirds, where they would have these four-hour shows. And he could just riff on anything. That weirdly formal training of being a session player helped make him a rock god.

What are your must-see music documentaries? What should I throw in my Netflix queue?
My current favorite is No Direction Home, which shows the genius that Scorsese is. It's like, "We're never going to really say what Dylan's contribution was, we're never gonna really say what his essence was, but the whole movie is going to circle that." So when it's over, you end up getting the feeling of what this movie is. Bad music documentaries are the ones that say, you know, "He was the greatest blah blah blah ever. He was a rock god! He changed music forever!" I used The Last Waltz as a map of how to construct An Inconvenient Truth.

Wait, what?
Yeah, isn't that strange? The idea was "Al Gore's slide show." It's giving a presentation, which is like a stage show. And then it becomes "How do you intercut a very personal story inside of that?" That's what The Last Waltz does, right? Scorsese guided me in both movies, weirdly.

You've had quite a career. Are you really directing an episode of the new Melrose Place? Tell me that's an urban legend.
No, I directed the pilot.

Really? From Al Gore to Melrose!
I really loved doing Melrose Place. It was fun! It's like clearing your palate. Like a sorbet. Okay, maybe not a sorbet. Maybe a tequila chaser or something. But my wife and I call it the Family Stimulus Package. I direct television to pay for my habit, which is making documentaries. But it's very difficult to make a living in documentary films, even if you've got rock stars in your movie, so the Melrose Place pilot is to get my kids through private school.

Wednesday  July 01, 2009

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The Kubrick Konundrum

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Calling Stanley Kubrick some kind of cinematic genius will get you no arguments from me. That doesn't mean I have to like him. After all, Leni Riefenstahl has often been called the same thing—and for reasons that aren't totally dissimilar, since her mastery was a command of film's vocabulary above all.

What makes it unpleasant to give Riefenstahl even that much credit is that her shock-and-awe imagery and skill at rhythmic editing were put to work celebrating Hitler. About the most that can be said in her defense is that she didn't invent the ideology she lionized in Triumph of The Will. By contrast, everything that disturbs me about the great Stanley originated nowhere but his self-impressed noggin.

The backhanded compliment here is that aversion isn't the same as indifference, especially up against a critical consensus that's so laudatory. Hence my return-bout interest in checking out new Blu-ray editions of two landmark Kubrick films. He made so few, and eventually with such pomp, that damn near all of them fit that ambiguous category.

I figured I was giving him every advantage, since Blu-ray might as well have been invented to showcase his fabled visual perfectionism. Not only that, but 1964's Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb and its 1968 quasi-sequel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, each have a hallowed place in his filmography. They're the birth and zenith, respectively, of his legend. I've always had my doubts about the first, but I'm a kajillion times more likely to alienate your average cine-head by making impolite noises about the second.

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Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory. 14 years before A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick had the look down.

For better and worse, Dr. Strangelove was the first Kubrick film to dramatize his antihuman world-view without compromises. No matter how edgily directed and superbly cast, The Killing was still in hock to a standard genre—the heist flick, although I do prefer Kubrick's decorative perversities to the sodden overripeness of John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle. Even Paths of Glory was constrained by the choir-preachy outlook of Humphrey Cobb's original novel, though Kubrick didn't seem especially engaged by the material's pacifist message.

His one job as a hired hand was replacing Anthony Mann on Spartacus, with no say over a script he disdained. Then he'd been hobbled on Lolita by censorship restrictions, while also betraying a vestigial willingness to play along with Hollywood notions of crowd-pleasing yucks. On Strangelove, though, he had absolute control. It shows.

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Peter Sellers as Doctor Strangelove…

It's a tribute to Kubrick's grip that you can watch the movie over and over—and I've probably sat through all or part of it a half-dozen times over the years—without grasping how confined and static it is. Aside from the process shots of the B-52 piloted by Slim Pickens's Major "King" Kong and the jittery mock-newsreel footage of the attack on his demented commanding officer's Air Force base, we're mostly trapped in just three cramped locales. The War Room's design is claustrophobia on a grand scale compared to the office of looneytunes General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) and the rogue plane's interior.

The cross-cutting between them is what gives us an illusion of watching a much rangier panorama than is actually the case. That's partly because they're each photographed with an acute sense of different perspectival values. We're in tight with the bomber crew, but the War Room sequences are all about the eeriness of dwarfed figures gesticulating under vast situation maps and a looming black ceiling. Ripper's scenes are a mix of almost sitcom-style framing and oppressive closeups. The way each setting disintegrates from stately to messy is brilliantly modulated, too.

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…and as Group Captain Mandrake, with bonkers General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden).

The downside is that the satiric wildness the movie is famous for is largely glued onto a dull cautionary tale. The plot spends more time showing us the mechanics of how a nuclear war might start than finding room to eviscerate the mentality of those responsible. As every Stanley buff knows, the source novel—something called Red Alert, by Peter George—wasn't comic at all. Preproduction was well along before Kubrick made the decision to jazz up the script with black humor. That's when he brought in Candy's Terry Southern to play script pediatrist.

Fond as I am of him, Southern wasn't Jonathan Swift by a long shot. Basically, he just added burlesque names—Bat Guano, Merkin Muffley—and one-note hangups that go for the easy target (fluoridation, not anti-Communism) time and again. Thanks mostly to Peter Sellers' performance, the title character is the movie's only inspired satiric creation.

Nonetheless, even Strangelove's showpiece monologue dwindles awfully fast into an echt-Southern gag—meaning fantasy—about America's rulers drooling at the prospect of banging a harem of sexpots for the future's sake. If runamok testosterone can explain nuclear holocaust, keep in mind that it also goes a long way toward explaining Picasso. While a movie that indicted both on those grounds would have been genuinely radical in 1964, Dr. Strangelove isn't that movie.

One unforgivable but commercially smart omission lets us revel more or less heartlessly in the spectacle of a world blown up by a handful of self-important idiots. We never glimpse the doomsday scenario's victims—the billions of ordinary men, women and children wiped out by their leaders' folly. Anyone can understand why Kubrick would want to avoid the mawkish shots of ordinary people awaiting annihilation already made banal by solemn end-of-the-world treatises—Stanley Kramer's On The Beach, for instance. Yet leaving them out is a huge evasion. Black comedy or no black comedy, it's hard to admire a nuclear-holocaust movie that's too smug to remind us of the horrific human consequences of its big kaboom. That's why the laughter Strangelove invites is a superior snicker, not the kind that freezes in people's throats.

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Come into my parlor, said the Stanley to the fly.

At the time, liberal audiences were able to take it as a given that Kubrick thought destroying the planet would be a bad idea. But 2001 indicated that this might have been a fallacy on their part. Keep in mind that its finale was to have been identical to Strangelove's—a string of nuclear explosions wiping out life on earth. Kubrick plainly didn't see humanity's demise as cause for regret. You literally can't go farther than that in playing God, especially since the reasons why humanity had it coming (inventing weapons? Dull conversation? Just time to move on?) are so inexplicit.

While the ending we've got is less apocalyptic, whatever the "Star-Child" is mulling as he gazes balefully down on our pathetic blue orb doesn't spell good news for Peoria. But why we should be moved or impressed has stumped me for decades. When a movie gets described as "thought-provoking" as often as 2001 has been—idly Googling the two gave me 13,400 hits—I have an old-fashioned hankering to hear someone explain the nature and value of the thoughts being provoked.

If you aren't on 2001's wavelength, the thing's tedium is staggering. The nearest thing to a dramatic situation in 148 minutes is the astronauts' contest with HAL the computer for control of the Jupiter probe. With one mildly clever exception—HAL's ability to read lips—the duel between man and machine isn't worked out with much ingenuity. Not that you've got reason to expect any from a script whose idea of smart exposition has been to have the astronauts watch an endless TV report about their own mission.

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Guess which fist I'm holding the Earth in. C'mon, guess.

Nothing has any urgency, right down to the lack of suspense when Keir Dullea finally gets busy yanking out doohickeys. He isn't in a race against time, and HAL—some super-genius computer he is in the crunch—doesn't concoct any strategies to thwart him. Nor do we care which one wins. Since whatever's at stake hasn't been made compelling, it's like watching a carrot outwit a Waring blender.

More puzzlingly yet, this long central episode has no detectable connection to Kubrick's big theme—you know, the self-important business about tracing man's evolution from apehood to post-human deity, or whatever the Star-Child is supposed to be. The only way it might make sense would be if defeating HAL is the test that proves Dullea is qualified to hop to the next rung of the evolutionary ladder, but that's just my desperate guess. Nothing we're shown bears it out.

For that matter, if Dullea is the one who's going to wind up transformed into the ultimate embryo, shouldn't it make some sort of difference—to Kubrick, to us, to the extra-terrestrial intelligence playing galactic mumblety-peg with all of us chimps—whether he or Gary Lockwood is the astronaut who makes it to that Las Vegas Presidential suite in outer space? So far as I can tell, it doesn't. About all that distinguishes the two is that Dullea has blue eyes. As proof he's destined for higher things, that would probably gratify Leni Riefenstahl.

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Also sprach Tony Bennett: the dawn of the musical.

Like their counterparts in the moon-base sequence, they're deliberately portrayed as boring, bland ciphers, presumably for satiric contrast with the technological marvels of their environment. But that's an awfully slender joke to keep on repeating ad infinitum in a movie this supremely convinced of its own profundity. Except that the caption isn't as witty, we might as well be trapped staring for over two hours at a New Yorker cartoon about boobs who can't appreciate the Sistine Chapel's ceiling.

So remember who thought he was painting one. Since it's painfully evident Kubrick didn't think of himself as trite or trivial, why are the only characters allowed any individual spark or pizzazz in his post-1962 movies all monsters bent on destruction: Strangelove, HAL, A Clockwork Orange's Alex, Jack Nicholson in The Shining? Notice the steady progression from pretended disapproval to gleeful identification, too.

But doesn't 2001 still look great, you wonder? Eh, yes and no. The pre-CGI special effects in the space-travel scenes hold up astonishingly well. The bombastic "Dawn of Man" prologue looks awfully silly—those mimes prancing about in simian costumes to Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" split the difference between Bishop and Busby Berkeley—and the climactic light show is pretty flimsy. In between, Kubrick's unholy fascination with static compositions that pin his puny characters in place like tails on a missing donkey makes the first few seconds of scene after scene hypnotic—until the monotony leaves restless viewers like me struggling not to zone out, the way people do on long car trips once the fixed view through the windshield has even the family dog losing interest.

Sorry, but when it comes to 1968 sci-fi epics, I'll take Planet of The Apes over 2001 any day. It's got better monkeys, cleverer evolution jokes, and Charlton god-love-him Heston, all of whom seem healthily eager to keep me amused until hell freezes over. It's no work of art, but it doesn't aspire to be; even its occasional fake profundities are in the enjoyable vein of sophomore bull sessions played for irony that screenwriter Rod Serling specialized in. Planet of The Apes leaves Kubrick's cinematic genius safely unchallenged, sure. You'll just have to forgive me for thinking that in every other way it makes the great Stanley look like a bloody idiot.

Harvey Weinstein's War on Error

Wednesday  June 24, 2009

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Harvey Weinstein has had a tough year. His company is rumored to be in trouble—and everything is rumored to rest on the success (or failure) of Quentin Tarantino’s WWII opus Inglorious Basterds. The biggest man in indies got on the phone with Alex Pappademas to talk about why Basterds took so long, whether a prequel is in the works, and those pesky rumors that he demanded Tarantino slash the movie to ribbons.

Do you remember when you first heard about Quentin’s World War II movie?
Probably seven or eight years ago. And over the course of that time he’s read me pieces of it.

Are they things that actually ended up in the film?
Yeah, they were pieces that ended up in the film and then I’ve also read the stuff that’s part of the prequel.

What’s the prequel?
I’m not tellin’ you! [But] Brad wants to do Inglorious II. We all want to do it. And the movie hasn’t even come out yet! But unfortunately I cannot give away the plot. [pause] Unless you turned into Jacqueline Bisset when she was 27 years old. Under those circumstances, I would give it away.

I don’t think that I can make that happen, unfortunately. Why do you think it took him so long?
We weren’t even gonna do it as a movie! We were gonna do this as, like, 16 hours for Showtime or HBO. He had so much stuff mapped out, we could have done like 3 movies. It was just epic. We could do two movies, three movies. I was begging for the movies, but Quentin wanted to do the TV series, Bob [Weinstein] wanted to do the TV series, so it was like two against one, you know? And I was getting outvoted all over the place, so I just figured, “All right, forget it, I’m not gonna be a loser, I’ll jump to the winning side." And then Quentin turns it into one movie. Go figure.

He mentioned that to me, that he was gonna do his Band of Brothers, almost, and then sort of changed his mind about it.
That’s correct.

Was he having trouble getting it into a shape, basically? Was that what was happening?
I don’t think he was having trouble getting it into a shape, I just think that it was such a big undertaking that it dawned on him that it was time to say, you know what? This piece, unto itself, can make a movie. And then after that there’s a bunch of places you can go. He can do the pre-story; he can do the post-story, too. I don’t want to jump to conclusions on his behalf, but I know he’s talked about the past and the future of the Basterds.

He’s always like that, right? He knows what’s going on, regardless of what’s on the page, he knows what the entire backstory is.
It’s like George Lucas with Star Wars—he’s mapped it out. I know he knows what Kill Bill 3 is. We all know where the basis of it is: it’s in that fight scene with Uma Thurman and the kid—y’know, Vivica [Fox’s] daughter. So that’s the basis for it, but there’s a lot of strands, a lot of plots in the movies that Quentin has. The cool thing is, I hope he makes ‘em all.

He shared with me his plan: that he’s done when he turns 60. He’ll do whatever he can do at that point, and then he’s gonna stop.
Well, I hope for me that he doesn’t stop, but if he does stop, I think he’d be one of the greatest film professors/film critics in movie history. That’s the great thing about Quentin; you can go out drinking and hanging out with him, have incredible, fun, crazy nights and then go to a film festival and watch every goddamn movie there is. He called me on the phone, he said, “You’ve gotta see Jane Campion’s new movie, it’s her best film in Cannes.” And then he rang me right after he saw Vengeance, Johnnie To’s movie, and said, “Harvey, you’re gonna have such a good time”—and I was howling in the theatre. And he was right about Campion! Quentin was giving me intel in Cannes seeing movies!

He’s in his element in those places.
I think he was the happiest I’ve ever seen him.

Do you think he wanted to get it to Cannes because he felt like he had something to prove, after how Grindhouse did at the box office?
Oh, no. But I think after Grindhouse, which took a while, he wanted to get back in the saddle right away. I think he did his B-movie and it was time for him to go back and make another Quentin Tarantino movie.

How do you feel about the reviews coming out of Cannes?
You know what? I felt like the fifteen-minute standing ovation was a review. [laughs] Look, people expect a lot from Quentin, and I think there were some great reviews, and some mixed reviews. I think he’s making some adjustments to the movie as we speak, but I think they’re all pretty minor. But the movie’s great, it plays with audiences, and when I saw it back home in Los Angeles, it wasn’t even a movie. It was like going to see the Stones. It was like Aerosmith and the Stones and AC/DC combined. People were cheering, it was like, fucking, I thought they were gonna light candles any second. It was like a 1980s experience.

So the stories about him being asked to cut 40 minutes out of the movie aren’t true?
Those stories are all untrue. There’s no fucking way. Here, read my lips: That is nuts. Please don’t even write that, it’s insanity. There’s not even a question of that. Whatever you’re reading, it’s like some insane blogger… There’s no truth to any of this. He’s not gonna cut. What he’s doing is just reorganizing some scenes. I mean, the guy had six weeks to cut his movie [for Cannes]; most guys take six months. Most guys take a year. When I worked with Martin [Scorsese], we’d do eighteen months in post-production. Quentin Tarantino cuts a movie in six weeks? Come on, there’s shit on that cutting-room floor that’ll blow your brains out. I was telling Quentin the opposite—"You should put that shit back in the movie." There’s scenes with Brad Pitt and the Basterds, and I’m praying he puts that shit back in, ‘cause it’s un-fucking-believably great. Listen—this movie will be between two hours and twenty minutes and two hours and twenty-seven minutes. I don’t think it’s going to be shorter—it’s just a question of rearranging. I know he’s putting footage back into the movie. I know he’s got some cool shit that he didn’t get time to address.

'Year One' Director Harold Ramis' 19 Favorite Comedies

Friday  June 19, 2009

I'm leaving out a lot of good films, but here's a long short-list of my faves.—harold ramis

Dr. Strangelove (1964)
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Great script, incredibly well-acted, Sellers is amazing, and Kubrick is a genius.

A Night At The Opera (1935)
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It could be any Marx Bros., really. Some people prefer their earlier, looser films, but I think this one works like crazy.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
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Preston Sturges manages to achieve a kind of zany sophistication here and the fantasy device is brilliant.

Sullivan's Travels (1948)
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Another great Sturges film. I totally relate to the comedy director who longs to do something meaningful and his realization that comedy is a noble calling.

Enter Laughing (1967)
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A little-known Carl Reiner film about a young Jewish boy who longs to become an actor in the '30s. There are at least two major set pieces that have me crying with laughter every time I see them.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)
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So smart, so elegant, so winning. Made me want to be a "socialite."

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
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Cary Grant again, really over the top this time, great script, Frank Capra directed, and the performances (Peter Lorre, Raymond Massey) are uniformly wonderful.

Fargo (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998), and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
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I love the Coen Brothers in general and these are all gems. Great writing, great performances, and great visual filmmaking, which you don't often get in comedy.

Heartbreak Kid (1972)
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Nasty and wonderful.

The Graduate (1967)
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Enough said.

Stardust Memories (1980)
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I love all of Woody Allen's films (except the stinky ones) and this one does it for me. Another comedy director searching for meaning. And an impeccable filmmaker.

Life of Brian (1979) and The Holy Grail (1975)
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Monty Python's best, brilliant, and most idiotic at the same time.

Zoolander (2001) and Anchorman (2004)
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Clueless egotists, too stupid to know how stupid they are. The triumph of ignorance. Really funny.

Superbad (2007)
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The best teen comedy I've seen, if only for the discovery of Michael Cera, Jonah Hill and Chris Mintz-Plasse.

40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
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Steve Carell and the rest of the cast are great and Judd Apatow nails it first time out as a feature director.

Duncan Jones Shoots the 'Moon'

Thursday  June 11, 2009

The director—and son of Ziggy Stardust—on his new indie sci-fi hit

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Long before he was a filmmaker, 30-year-old Duncan Jones was known as Zowie Bowie, one of the best examples of ‘70s rock stars (in his case, David Bowie) burdening their offspring with colorful names. A few years back though he re-appropriated his adopted Christian name of Duncan (as well as his dad’s original surname), then toiled for a bunch of years in grad school before landing on that thing that would set him apart from his famous father—making inventive, refreshingly human sci-fi movies like Moon (out this weekend), which stars Sam Rockwell as an astronaut/miner living solo on a lunar work station for a three-year stint.—mark healy

What was the longest you’d ever been isolated?
Um—three years. [Laughs.] When I was at graduate school at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. There’s absolutely no coincidence that that’s why it’s three years in the movie. I felt like I was on the far side of the moon when I was doing my Ph.D.

Was it really that alienating?
It was kind of a ridiculous situation I’d let myself fall into. I did my undergrad in philosophy. My girlfriend at the time had just been accepted to graduate school at Vanderbilt. So, I applied and I got in. I was thrilled, and also I wasn’t really sure what to do with my life at that point so I just went along. Of course, within a couple of months we’d broken up and I was kind of stuck down there and feeling a bit embarrassed and sheepish. I ended up sticking it out for three years.

One of the things I found impressive about Moon was that the sets didn’t have this high-gloss, high-tech look that most futuristic movies tend to dwell on.
Absolutely. Well, it’s a mining facility. It’s kind of an industrial setting, so it wouldn’t be designed by Apple. It would be designed by like a tractor company or something. Secondly, we really wanted to get back to the aesthetic of the films that we were sort of paying homage to—ones from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that had this great look to them, this great style.

What movies were you paying homage to?
There was Outland, [starring] Sean Connery, which was kind of like High Noon in space, and that was about a mining base. And then there was Silent Running, with Bruce Dern, which was kind of an ecologically and politically heavy sci-fi film, but just a beautiful idea that has one man living on his own for quite a lot of the film. There’s obviously Ridley Scott’s Alien, especially the first half before it turns into a horror film. It’s interesting, because we all think of Alien as a horror film, but the first half of it is just kind of lifestyle, the human habitat. It just shows you what it would be like to live on a base. I’ve always loved that part. And then there’s the granddaddy of all modern sci-fi, 2001. Those are the main ones—Outland and Silent Running and Alien were really the ones that we were referencing all the time.

In the movie, this main character Sam [Sam Rockwell] has been on the moon for three years and he’s starting to lose it a little bit. Did you set out to make a movie about isolation or a movie about the moon?
The very first thing was that I wanted to do a film with Sam Rockwell. That was the initial impetus. I met up with him about three years ago to discuss another project, but we got on very well and we started talking about the kind of films we both loved, and the films I mentioned were the ones that we discussed. The fact that they all seemed to center around quite normal blue-collar people and then you put them into these science-fiction settings or these alien environments and it’s really about how do they maintain their humanity in these places, or how is their humanity sort of chipped away at over the course of time? So that’s kind of what we wanted to make of this story.

You’re the son of the man who made “Space Oddity”. Weren’t you self-conscious about making a movie about a guy isolated in space?
Funnily enough, nothing that my dad had done even entered my mind while I was writing it or making it. It just didn’t even occur to me. It wasn’t until we completely finished the film that people started mentioning the similarities and I was like, “Oh!” Then I got it, and then I sort of realized it, but honest to God, there was nothing conscious about it when I was making it. I guess I’ve never really thought of it that way or approached life that way. I think if I constantly second-guessed myself I’d never get anything done.

You recently screened Moon for actual astronauts…
Yeah. We did this screening at NASA, at the NASA space center in Houston, Texas, and about 80% of the audience worked at NASA. Did the screening for them, did the Q&A afterwards, and we had an amazing time discussing what seemed to be the most realistic parts of the film and obviously which bits weren’t.

You’re a brave man. That takes a lot of courage, for you to submit your work for their review.
It seemed like a good place to start, because if I could convince them that I’d done it out with the best of intentions and they kind of liked it, then anyone else’s criticisms on the science side I could pretty much put up with.

When you took the movie to Sundance, was it fun or was it stressful?
We’ve been to a few festivals now, and Sundance was the first and the most terrifying. I mean, at that stage, the film hadn’t been seen by any public audience. My dad turned up for the screening, which was fantastic, but showing him the finished film for the first time, showing an audience for the first time, in the Eccles Theatre at Sundance which holds over 1,300 people, and then doing the Q&A. And then at that time not having a distributor either…Yeah, that was really stressful.

Were you a sci-fi freak when you were a kid?
Yeah, definitely. Well, all things geeky to be honest. I was a multi-purpose geek.

What’s your favorite of your dad’s movie performances?
That’s a difficult one, because there’s always a certain awkwardness there for me about watching them; I can’t help but think of him as my dad. Even now, when I should be kind of grown out of it, I can’t help sort of just smiling and thinking of it as my dad, which kind of takes me out of the films a lot of the time. Yeah, it’s difficult. I’m not really sure.

But I mean, when you were a kid, if you were a sci-fi nut, you would have loved like The Man Who Fell to Earth?
Well, no, that doesn’t work for me, because all I see is my dad. That wasn’t a film that I particularly responded to. I mean, I was a huge fan of Blade Runner—that’s because he wasn’t in it.

I listened to the song “Kooks” before we spoke because it was written for you at the time of your birth. It must be wonderful to have a song like that written in your honor.
It is a lovely thing. I guess Julian Lennon’s got a pretty lovely song written about him too, from his dad.

It’s funny that it predicts that you’d be pretty kooky, too; that’s fairly accurate.
Yeah, I think that is fairly accurate. I think he got that one right.

It’s a really sweet song.
It’s lovely. You can borrow it, if you want. You can imagine it’s about you.

Get 'Lost'

Friday  June 05, 2009

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Sid & Marty Krofft’s kitschy ’70s fever dream—about a family living among dinosaurs—gets a reboot this weekend, courtesy of Will Ferrell and friends. And by reboot we mean a sexually suggestive, stoner-flick paint job complete with Jurrasic Park realism and hot, barely dressed Pakuni women. Ferrell is a delusional paleontologist thrust back to the Mesozoic. Danny McBride is a redneck survivalist. (If you’ve seen McBride in Eastbound & Down you’ll understand that this is wise casting: Dude does white trash better than Britney.) The best part: Will Ferrell tells Matt Lauer to suck it. Here, in an interview with GQ.com, Land of the Lost director Brad Silberling talks Lauer, George W. Bush and the perks of being married to actress Amy Brenneman.—mickey rapkin

So, the Matt Lauer cameo. Who knew he had such good comedic timing?
Man, he’s just such a good actor. We finished the first take and Will was dumbfounded. In the first scene, the bulk of what you see was take one.

One-take Lauer! I always thought Brian Williams—who was so good hosting SNL—was the funny NBC anchor.
The weird thing is, at 30 Rock, any cameras on downstairs are piped through the building. And Brian Williams, in good competitive comedic form, must have heard us filming, because he suddenly strolled into the studio. He couldn’t believe he wasn’t the one we asked to do it.

He was pissed?
Kind of! Lauer was like, “You’re not needed here! Get outta here.” Normally you see Brian Williams with Jon Stewart. And he’s great. But there was definitely some competition going on.

The Land of the Lost marketing seems aimed at kids. But...
It’s a decidedly PG-13 movie. I mean, my daughter’s eight, and I would not bring her to the movie. I’ve had friends who’ve brought their kids—kids who are ten—and they had a ball. But the innuendo…

Yeah, I’m guessing the vibrator jokes go over their head. Same with the jokes about the soundtrack to A Chorus Line.
We wanted this thing to just be as idiosyncratic as possible. Yes, it’s a summer tentpole movie. But it doesn’t have to be at the sacrifice of tremendous weirdness. And that was our goal.

Mission accomplished. By the way, no one does white trash better than Danny McBride.
In the first draft, his character was gonna be dressed in survivalist camo. I was like “No, it’s too on the nose.” Danny came up with the idea that the character would really be into Chuck Norris movies. And that was perfect. So he wore denim on denim—with boots.

Did you catch Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush show, You’re Welcome America? Sometimes I look at Will Ferrell and only see George W. Bush. Do you ever have that problem?
I was teasing Will about this the other night. There are moments where he can still fall into the posture and that delivery—where suddenly he’s got the Bush swagger to him. In Land of the Lost, he’s explaining his snack: “It’s a donut stuffed with M&M's. That way you don’t have to eat the M&M's after.” That’s totally a Bush delivery. It’s fantastic. I think he’s outgassing three months of performing the show.

Yes, the Broadway show. Speaking of which: He’s up for a Tony Award this weekend—and he’s competing against Liza Minnelli. Has he said anything to you about that strange smackdown?
He think it’s fantastic. He’s up against Liza Minnelli and some Chinese acrobats. He can’t think of a better match-up. Conan asked him about Liza the other night. Will said, “Well, I don’t meant to bait anyone here. But you do know she’s a Communist, right? Me, I like America.”

Speaking of America, your wife—Amy Brenneman, aka Judging Amy—is in with the Obama administration, right?
Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein—they just love Amy and the series, Judging Amy.

Any payoff for you?
Pelosi invited Amy to come to the inauguration, and so we went. It was a dream. We had insane seats.

Hey, It's That Guy!

Tuesday  June 02, 2009

Ken Jeong is everywhere

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Before playing a rude gynecologist in Knocked Up, Ken Jeong was an actual medical doctor, the kind that pulls 80-hour weeks at a Los Angeles hospital. Not surprisingly, since falling in with the Judd Apatow crowd, he’s given up medicine, preferring instead to work in Pineapple Express, Role Models, and anywhere else people are in need of some funny. The good doctor may have his most memorable role to date in The Hangover (opening June 5), in which he pops out of a car trunk fully naked. Dr. Ken explains.—mickey rapkin

So, when you signed on for The Hangover, did you know you’d be getting naked?
Actually, I pitched that to [director] Todd Phillips. In the script, I think I still had my slacks on.

Uh, who volunteers to get naked on film?
Nobody. I don’t even like to take my shirt off in public, alright? I’m not an exhibitionist by nature. But that character, I was thinking Pulp Fiction a little bit—when Ving Rhames’ character gets all tortured and humiliated. I wanted to justify why my character gets so angry later in the film. It sounds weird to say, but I thought it would play more organically if I was naked.

Jason Segel was naked in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. There’s was full-frontal male nudity in Walk Hard. What’s funny about male genitalia?
There is nothing funny about male genitalia. Especially mine.

Are you really a medical doctor?
Technically.

Can you prescribe medical marijuana?
I’m not practicing, so I don’t prescribe.

Do you miss anything about medicine?
I was putting in 80 hour weeks as a doctor. I have so much free time now, relatively speaking. I have a wife and two baby twin girls at home. So I’m pretty much Mr. Mom when I’m not working.

You did stand-up comedy in college. What was your routine about?
I was like a hip-hop doctor who did Asian jokes. I wasn’t very good, actually. It wasn’t as cerebral as people would like to think it was, given my background. I did jokes about how Koreans are the angriest of all Asians. And the Vietnamese sound like Koreans on weed.

Do you do much stand-up anymore?
Just special gigs with the Kims of Comedy—that’s an Asian group that I’m in.

The Kims of Comedy? That’s hilarious.
It’s Steve Byrne and Kevin Shea. They’re great Korean comedians. We’ll go to San Francisco. It’s easy money. And the crowd will listen to my old, tired jokes. [laughs] I’m stealing money from the Koreans.

Wednesday  May 20, 2009

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Cannes Film Festival: Wednesday, May 20

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An hour or so into this morning’s press screening of Inglourious Basterds—the movie that had been looming in our collective anticipation like a Cote d’Azur Gottedammerung ever since the Festival began, although the expected riot to find seats didn’t materialize—I got to wondering just how steamed Harvey Weinstein must be at Quentin Tarantino right about now. My tipping point was a scene that featured crusty British general Mike Myers—yes, you read that right—briefing the dapper, handsome commando played by Michael (Hunger) Fassbender on his upcoming mission behind enemy lines. As a glowering Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) looked on, his cigar serving as a shorthand identifier a la Mickey Mouse’s ears, Myers asked what the commando’s occupation had been in civilian life.

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Predictably, Fassbender’s valiant answer—“I’m a film critic”—brought down the house. But we aren’t your typical house, and our reaction is pretty damned unlikely to be duplicated at multiplexes Stateside come August. When I first heard that Tarantino was moving heaven and earth to get his long-brewed World War Two epicready for this year’s Cannes, I didn’t realize that was because the cinema-soaked attendees were the movie’s only surefire target audience.

While I can’t imagine what Weinstein and Universal thought they’d be getting for their megabucks, I’m pretty sure Inglourious Basterds isn’t it. Just like all of Tarantino’s other features, it’s set nowhere but inside Quentin’s astoundingly fanciful brain. The difference is that, since people named Hitler and Goebbels (both characters here) have a separate and indeed—spoiler alert —radically different existence in history books, this time we have a point of comparison.

Then again, nobody was expecting verisimilitude. What must be giving Weinstein apoplexy is that, for most of the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, Tarantino the action addict—you know, the guy who could have outdone The Dirty Dozen’s bloodbaths with one eye tied behind his back—takes a distant back seat to the Tarantino who loves protracted sequences of edgy, oblique dialogue that’s jammed with allusions to his private talismans. Even when the talk builds to a tense showdown, which it usually does, the climactic bang-bang is over and done with in seconds. It also can’t have made Harvey any too happy that a lot of said dialogue—including a lot of the best of it, since QT’s no slouch at palaver—is in subtitled French, German and Italian.

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Tarantino has talked up this script for years as his “guys-on-a-mission movie,” but that concept seems to have long since fallen by the wayside. Once they’re introduced, the Basterds—eight presumably ultra-motivated American Jews recruited by moonshine-country alum Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) for savage guerilla reprisals against the Nazi fiends—turn out to be vestigial to the storyline; I couldn’t tell you which of them was which if Colonel Klink was waterboarding me. The true focus of Quentin’s interest is the heroine of the movie’s other main plot strand: Shosonna, aka Emanuelle, who’s introduced when SS Colonel Landa (Austrian actor Christoph Waltz) massacres her family in an opening sequence full of bravura Sergio Leone-ish flourishes.

By the time we meet her again three years later in Paris, she’s running the art-house cinema where a Nazi propaganda film called Nation’s Pride is soon to get its gala premiere. Once she learns the Fuhrer, Goebbels, Hermann Goering and Martin Bormann will all be attending, Shosanna/Emanuelle hatches a suitably cinematic scheme to blow the entire Nazi leadership to Quentin come, and let’s just count ourselves lucky that QT doen’t play the role himself. Melanie Laurent does instead, but my guess is that, figuratively speaking, she’s the most autobiographical character in any Tarantino movie to date. She’s his fantasy of how he’d have behaved if he were a European Jew during 1939-1945, from her place of work to her apocalyptic revenge on her would-be executioners.

As for Pitt, you should know that his scenes take up around 40 minutes tops. And I wouldn’t have minded more of him, since he’s uncommonly focussed and funny; not only is his thick Tennessee drawl a hoot, but it gets even better when he’s got to say “Buon Giorno” while masquerading as an Italian. (The several jokes about American ineptitude at foreign languages are one more hint as to which audience the movie’s aiming to please—not Des Moines action fans, to say the least.) But as things stand, the male performer who ends up dominating is Waltz as the aforementioned Colonel Landa, Tarantino’s version of the ultimate Cool Nazi—polylingual, witty, amoral and demented, which means he gets all the best laugh lines. As a conception, Landa is as over-the-top as Jack Nicholson’s Joker, but Waltz is so terrific in the part that I just hope he hasn’t ruined himself for straight drama forever.

My hunch is that Inglourious Basterds is best understood as Tarantino’s love letter to Europe—or “Europe,” a place he learned about from movies as well as one he’s grateful to for honoring his own. Beyond that, you might as well know that I a) loved every delirious minute of it and b) can’t honestly argue that I think you should feel the same. Its relation to the real World War II is Oz’s relationship to Kansas, yet that’s just why—c’mon, tell me you didn’t see this one coming— it may say more about our jumbled cultural memories of that now distant, endlessly Hollywoodized conflict than Steven Spielberg’s high-minded adulation ever will. But maybe I shouldn’t be trusted, since the truth is Quentin had me from the moment I recognized the Ennio Morricone-ish opening music as “The Green Leaves of Summer” from John Wayne’s not-so-good epic, The Alamo.

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Since I’m flying out of here tomorrow, that pretty much wraps this up, too. Except, of course, for this blog’s awards, which for some reason aren’t as prestigious as the Palme D’Or.

Best South Korean movie I hope you’ll check out: Mother, by Joon-Ho Bong. Best South Korean alternative to Netflixing Twilight: Thirst, by Chan-Wook Park.

Best reason to think Mike Leigh and Ken Loach aren’t all that: Fish Tank, by Andrea Arnold. Best reason to think John Keats isn’t all that: Bright Star, by Jane Campion.

Best reason to be glad Janis Joplin died childless: Taking Woodstock, by Ang Lee. Best reason to hope Lars von Trier emulates Janis: Antichrist, by Lars von Trier. Best movie by a director I’d never heard of until Monday: Independencia, by Raya Martin.

Best Johnnie To movie of 2009: Vengeance, by Johnnie To. Best Johnnie To movie of 2010: A Prophet, by Jacques Audiard. Best Quentin Tarantino movie since Kill Bill, Vol. 2: Inglourious Basterds, by Quentin Tarantino.

Tuesday  May 19, 2009

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Cannes Film Festival: Tuesday, May 19

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“A film must be finished, even if it’s blindly.” So goes the closing line of Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces, spoken by a literally blind director as he completes the restoration of Girls And Suitcases, the butchered comedy that indirectly cost him his sight 14 years earlier. The extended sequence from Girls And Suitcases we’ve just watched is a witty self-tribute—a pastiche of the early Almodóvar’s biggest crowd-pleaser, 1987’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. While charming, the look back to past glories amounts to a confession that—after the artistic second wind that gave us All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education and Volver—this often wonderful but not inexhaustible filmmaker is bumping up once again against the law of diminishing returns.

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Filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar

The mechanism that kicks off Broken Embraces is virtually identical to the opening gambit of Bad Education. In both, a film director is approached by a shadowy figure out of his past who’s peddling an idea for a movie. This time out, the hero is Mateo Blanco (Bad Education alum Lluís Homar), who’s been writing screenplays under the pseudonym “Harry Caine” ever since blindness ended his other career. The intruder is the ferrety gay son of a recently deceased industrialist whose mistress (Penelope Cruz) was the star of Girls And Suitcases back in the day, leading to tsuris aplenty once she and Mateo fell in love on the set. Next stop, Flashbackland, letting Almodóvar indulge his current mania for finding the missing pinks in film noir.

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Because his mature technique is so assured, a lot of Broken Embraces is very smoothly engineered. Not only does it look great (he’s Almodóvar), but he knows how to make jigsaw-puzzle plot construction both accessible and surprising. The big problem is that you never believe he gives a damn about these people—or concoctions Xeroxed and reshuffled from his last few movies, anyhow. When Almodóvar is on his game, his adoration of his own characters, especially the female ones, is a wonder to behold. Here, he only seems invested in Blanca Portillo’s role as Mateo’s long-suffering ex-lover and assistant, and loyal female sexual martyrdom isn’t exactly undiscovered territory for him.

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The proof that he lost interest in his own devices around two-thirds of the way in is that the final revelations—which ought to be one nifty melodramatic mousetrap after another—are communicated via simple recitals instead. These scenes are so short on verve that even the “Did you know X was your father?” ploy that surfaces at one point would move you just as much if X had been Y’s podiatrist. And speaking of being moved, Almodóvar—like the pomo self-advertiser he is—has often found pretexts for including clips from his forebears’ movies to signal his own priorities. But the scene from Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia he has his hero and heroine watch on TV in this one is the first time I’ve wished he’d reconsidered, since the primal power of ten seconds of that classic turns his riff on the same themes into an ambitious sitcom.

About all that he seems genuinely smitten with in this movie is Penelope Cruz—not the character she plays, but her. So he’s happy to give Cruz the best comedy bits and photograph her looking gorgeous, two things that tend to happen simultaneously. But the fact that what glow Broken Embraces has defines it as a movie from Cruz’s still developing career rather than Pedro’s midlife one can’t help but make you wonder if she’ll turn his next script down. Come to think of it, that might be good for him, too.

Monday  May 18, 2009

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Cannes Film Festival: Monday, May 18

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He may have a Palme D’Or for Dancer in The Dark and a Grand Prix for Breaking The Waves behind him, but Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is still a small boy who thrives on enraging people. If he were really that age, we’d find his craving for attention too touching to be shocked—or do I mean “shocked, shocked, shocked”?—by how he’s gone about getting it this time around.

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Willem Dafoe, Lars von Trier, and Charlotte Gainsbourg

As you may have read here and there by now, the choice sights in von Trier’s new one, Antichrist, range from a fully erect penis ejaculating blood and female genital self-mutilation in scissors-to-clitoris closeup to a hole drilled through a man’s leg to attach a heavy weight to it. And I’ve left out the disemboweled fox who develops the power of speech just long enough to play Yoda to poor Willem Dafoe, whose haggard face hardly needs anthropomorphic help by then to register that something has gone amiss. “Chaos reigns,” chirps Foxy—a moment somehow made even funnier at Sunday night’s jammed press screening by the subtitles’ dutiful translation, “Chaos reigne.”

This, you’ll be glad to hear, is our Lars’s post-Strindbergian take on the war between the sexes, personified by Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple mourning the death of their only child who take refuge in a secluded woodland cabin named—no, not Smitty’s: Eden. Since he’s an intellectual control freak behind his reasonable mask and she’s as bonkers as Chucky, things go downhill pretty quickly after she dashes off into the woods to masturbate when he refuses to smack her during sex. Mainly because she’s blessedly stopped talking, at least watching Gainsbourg play find-the-anchovy for our dubious benefit is an improvement on the pair’s deep-dish dialogues about the perils of capital-N Nature—the sort of guff only a clot mistakes for profundity, but which von Trier is either ingenuously or disingenuously (always hard to tell with him) peddling as just that.

Even so, the audibly indulgent laughter that greeted the talking fox told me I wasn’t the only crit who’d figured out over the years that getting worked up about von Trier’s wilfulness just means you’re taking him altogether too seriously. My own hostility to him melted for good sometime during 2005’s Manderlay—the sequel to the Nicole Kidman-starring Dogville, also shot on a bare sound stage with chalklines indicating the sets. Around when our Nic’s pinch-hitter, Bryce Dallas (as in Ron) Howard, started boinking Jim Jarmusch regular Isaach de Bankholé—bringing back fond memories of Mandingo, which von Trier has either never seen or watches every Tuesday with selected, cheesily Danish friends—I finally realized that taking umbrage at something this dotty was the humorless equivalent of chopping off a first-grader’s hands to punish him for dipping girls’ pigtails in inkwells.

By coincidence, the Filipino movie Independencia also features two people running off to the forest to escape a trauma—in this case, the U.S. suppression of the natives after taking over the islands in the Spanish-American War. It’s also just as stylized as Antichrist, but what a difference a director whose eccentricities are choices rather than needs can make. The filmmaker in question, Raya Martin, is a new name to me, but if his earlier movies are anything like this one, Guy Maddin has a prize pupil to be proud of. The evocativeness of Independencia is all in Martin’s decision to shoot it in the style of a pre-Griffith silent movie, when nobody knew that film had any purpose except mimicking a theater’s proscenium arch. If that didn’t make it clear we’re watching a fable of the Phillipines’ past, the final image wouldn’t be nearly as wrenching—or as pointed. Beyond that, all I can say is that I’ll be at Martin’s next one with bells on.

This morning’s big in-competition film was Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric, but I can’t tell you a thing about it. That’s because I played hooky, sneaking off to a film-market screening of Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming The Girlfriend Experience instead. One explanation is that I still haven’t recovered from Loach’s dismal The Wind That Shakes The Barley, which inexplicably won the 2006 Palme D’Or.

Another is that, as any Cannes vet can tell you, skipping at least one obligatory screening becomes something of a psychological imperative at some point, and I wasn’t about to pass up the new Almodovar (Tuesday), much less Tarantino (Wednesday). But the real reason was that GFE, as it’s known, was my only chance to see Glenn Kenny at Cannes.

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Long at Premiere and now the capo of his own movie blog, Some Came Running, my old pal couldn’t make it here in 3-D this year. But to the delight of his friends, he has a small but already notorious part as a sleazy Internet escort reviewer—self-named the “Erotic Connoisseur”—in Soderbergh’s look at a high-end call girl (real-life porn star Sasha Grey) plying her trade just before Obama’s election. The movie itself is minor Soderbergh in his I’m-still-experimental mode, though it’s lots more watchable than, say, Full Frontal. And less inadequate to its real-world subject than Che, but I digress. Anyhow, GK’s pretty good in his one scene. Call me self-indulgent if you like, but I’m in France and it was fun. As Antichrist’s foxmight put it, Cannes reigns.

Monday  May 18, 2009

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Cannes Film Festival: The Weekend Roundup (May 16-17)

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From 87-year-old Alain Resnais, still at it almost half a century after Last Year at Marienbad, to bad boy emeritus Pedro Almodovar, this year’s Cannes roster has its fair share—and then some, say the grumblers—of tried-and-true European big names. But as has generally been the case in recent years, the new releases from Asia’s young and old masters are where to look for that 21st-century buzz.

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Director Chan-Wook Park

Among the South Koreans, my fave Chan-Wook Park has both the biggest rep and the best shot at provoking critical arguments. Three days after the Thirst screened, Park’s gory, comic, ultimately moving mashup of The Diary of a Country Priest and a sexier Dracula was still the movie my colleagues were having the best time bickering about. So even though group interviews aren’t my idea of a chance to probe, I naturally hied myself down the Croisette—Cannes-ese for what Americans would call “the Boardwalk”—on Sunday afternoon to Park’s press roundtable at the Mammon-love-it (God doesn’t) Hotel Martinez.

The problem with these things isn’t only that time is limited but you’re at the mercy of the stupidest questioner present. In this case, that turned out to be the Brit bonehead next to me who wanted to know all about Thirst’s fake blood: “The actors said it tasted like grape juice, but they couldn’t tell me what was in it. Was it different from the blood you’ve used in your other movies?”

Well, yeah, most likely—since in his other movies, the actors didn’t have to drink the stuff by the gallon. But whether or not his translator managed to improve the question on its way into Korean, Park’s answer was splendid. “The hero is a Catholic priest who drinks the blood of Christ every day while serving Mass,” he reminded us. “Then, against his wishes, he becomes a vampire, and learns he needs human blood to survive. Of course this blood had to feel different from the blood in my other movies.”

Which didn’t stop Bonehead from going in for a second try. “But was there grape juice in it? I want a recipe.” Not that anybody else’s questions were such pearls, my own included: I asked him about all the deliberately incongruous slapstick in his work, eliciting the interesting but doubtless not wholly novel response that comedy had been his most important early influence. But in a gentlemanly way, Park gave better than he got, whether the subject was his M.O.—“I carefully calculate everything, so if it has an adverse effect at the end of the day, I don’t have the excuse of saying it was an accident”—or the inevitable violence issue: “It’s my choice to go with extremes and provocation. Just because it’s a controversy, I’m not going to start making movies about pretty clouds moving in the sky.”

The translator was pretty good on his own, too. “You know, even if it’s something he’s been asked 100 times before, he tries to come up with something fresh,” he told a couple of us 101’ers after Park left. Then came a grin: “And if he can’t, then I do.” Which was probably a joke he’s made before, but he and his employer are a good match.

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Director Sang-Soo Hung

As for Park’s gentler compatriot, Truffaut wannabe Sang-Soo Hong, I admit I didn’t feel wracked with guilt about skipping his new one, Like You Know It All. And that title may unintentionally say something about why, since I’ve already seen two (or was it three? I honestly can’t remember) of Hong’s gracefully made but cloying movies about filmmakers not unlike himself coping with one or another private crisis. Sue me for suspecting I was unlikely to exit sockless after sitting through yet another.

By contrast, anything new from 39-year-old Joon-Ho Bong, who’s everybody’s current favorite not least because he straddles the difference between the garish best of Park and the calmer best of Hong, is cinema manna I wouldn’t dream of passing up. Mother, which screened here Saturday, is Bong’s first feature since The Host, a phenomenally smart and zingy monster-movie riff on family ties and Korea’s half century of hosting (cough) the U.S. as its benevolent occupiers. After becoming the 2006 festival’s sleeper hit when it played here in the Directors’ Fortnight program, it went on to be the biggest box-office success in South Korean history, making cine-heads slaver to see what he’d come up with next.

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His contribution to the anthology film Tokyo wasn’t much more than a placeholder, but Bong doesn’t seem to be the type to rattle easily. Instead of trying to top The Host’s pop flash, he’s returned to the deceptively unshowy, wonderfully engrossing style of his earlier, equally first-rate Memories of Murder—the unacknowledged but obvious template, incidentally, for David Fincher’s Zodiac, if you’ve ever wondered how come the best ideas in Zodiac seemed so un-Fincher-like.

Played by Hye-Ja Kim, the title character is a devoted, long-suffering, ostensibly saintly single parent who goes feral when her dim bulb of a good-for-nothing son is arrested for killing a schoolgirl. (Though Kim is unknown to me, she’s a huge TV star in her home country, celebrated above all for a long-running sitcom in which she was the loving mother of everyone’s dreams—making this the equivalent of watching Happy Days’ Marion Ross or The Brady Bunch’s Florence Henderson go to the dark side.) Bong starts out playing by the rules of a whodunit, but then bends them when the solution of the mystery comes earlier than we expect, setting up Mom’s solution to the solution. As it becomes steadily clearer that she’ll stop at nothing to save her pride and joy, Mother evolves into a deadpan variant on Psycho in which Mrs. Bates is not only alive and well but poor Norman might as well be a stuffed bird. The movie’s wit is terrifically dry, and I could swear there isn’t one misjudged shot or trite performance in it.

Ultra-prolific Hong Kong veteran Johnnie To, on the other hand, keeps making variants on the same shoot-‘em-up, but he’s so expert at finding jaw-dropping new ways to deliver the goods that I could happily watch one or even two a year until Hong Kong freezes over. Less idiosyncratic than 2007’s Mad Detective, his new one, Vengeance, is an especially close cousin to 2006’s terrific Exiled, with the same hardy character actors—led by the indispensable Anthony Wong—once again playing hit men doomed by their own code of chivalry. This time around, they’re hired by Johnny Hallyday to avenge the massacre of his daughter’s family, making for complications when the murders turn out to have been ordered by the same crime boss they usually work for.

Since honor gives them no choice but to live up to their contract even after a revelation that makes it clear Hallyday in no position to compel them to, our heroes march forth to quixotic glory. Their showdown with the boss’s dozens of other goons is one more of the virtuoso set-pieces To can apparently concoct and shoot before Martin Scorsese—here to host a screening of Powell and Pressburger’s classic The Red Shoes, incidentally,and looking more like a Muppet than ever as he got the ululation treatment from celeb-starved Cannes photogs—has so much as finished his first cup of coffee for the day.

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A very different sort of crime film had kicked off our weekend. Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is a ferociously well-managed saga of a young Muslim (Tahar Rahim) who’s sent to jail and goes to work for the wily Corsican mobster who secretly runs the joint. Starting out as a gofer, he eventually accumulates enough guile and resources to challenge his boss for mastery of the prison, with metaphorical implications that may well hit a nerve for France’s Islamic and non-immigrant populations alike. The first hour or so, especially, is absolutely crackerjack—the most riveting and detailed depiction of prison sociology I’ve ever seen—but things don’t really let up much afterward.  

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Sunday night brought us Lars von Trier’s much-buzzed Antichrist, which I think I’ll postpone until my next post. Let me leave you with the all too appropriate image of a very determined Russian-or-was-she-Italian journalist insistently grinding her right boob into my armpit—presumably on the assumption I’d be polite enough to step aside and let her worm past me, which I wasn’t—as we all started to panic about whether or not we’d get in.

Saturday  May 16, 2009

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Cannes Film Festival: Friday, May 15, 2009

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If you know anything about the brief life of John Keats, who gave us "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and sundry other candidates for literary immortality before dying of consumption at 25, you may be tempted to clap wildly when Ben Whishaw, the miscast actor playing him in Jane Campion's Bright Star, coughs up blood for the first time. Coming along just when you've almost given up hope that this stopped clock of a movie will ever end, it's a welcome reminder that eventually the credits will roll and life—yours, not his—will go on. In my case, that meant staggering off to lunch with a couple of equally relieved if abruptly aged pals, and the pizza Napolitaine I usually live on at Cannes has seldom looked so good.

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It's anybody's guess what led Campion to believe there was a riveting screen drama in the almost completely mental romance between poor, doomed Keats and his winsome next-door neighbor, Fanny Brawne, played here by Abbie Cornish. The primary real-life evidence of their passionate attachment is his letters to and about her; hers to him haven't survived. Yet next to nothing of any consequence seems to have actually happened between them before his illness packed him off to Italy to die. And the only reason we care at all—Keats's poetic genius—doesn't exactly shine forth like a beacon in the wan readings from his greatest hits Campion wedges into the script whenever a scene flags, which is often. With its intricate diction and welter of densely packed similes, his poetry would need an elocutionist as brilliant as Christopher Plummer to play as spoken verse, and neither Whishaw nor Cornish is in that league.

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Adding to the movie's problems, the rest of Keats's life—unlike, say, Byron's (wotta cad), Percy Bysshe Shelley's (fun wife), or Coleridge's (opium)—wasn't what you'd call action-packed. As Charles Brown, the poet's best-known male confidant, the usually very enjoyable Paul Schneider is trapped in an atrociously written part whose rants jack up the momentousness factor without contributing anything to the love story. When Schneider isn't stuck carrying on like the porridgeless fourth bear whose existence Goldilocks never suspected, the overworked Scots accent he's audibly proud of has a way of reminding you of a standup comic's take on what Scotland's automobile industry would sound like if it had one.

If nothing else, Bright Star is a pleasure to look at. That's mainly thanks to cinematographer Greig Fraser, who's so good he can make the fake-Vermeer natural light blooming in every window look almost not corny. But as historical epochs go, Regency England is a setting that any number of middling movie and TV directors learned long ago how to simulate, since Jane Austen has reaped more posthumous movie glory as an unwitting art director than a misunderstood scenarist. Campion's version is less stilted than some, but we'll never know if she got it all wrong.

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Not so our own God-love-'em 1960s, notoriously resistant—and I do hope you'll admire this segue—to halfway plausible Hollywoodization. For whatever it's worth from a viewer whose puzzled childhood brushed elbows with the real thing, Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock does as well as any movie ever has at reproducing the surface look of a decade that wasn't the triumph of hip so much as the first time hip vs. square became a mainstream donnybrook. But the impressive attentiveness to getting the clothes, cars, lingo, and behavior just right turns out to yield the same tinpot insights you already know from too many History Channel docs and MTV snow jobs. It's the usual thin stuff about liberation, exemplified by the accidental hero's (Demitri Martin) confrontation with his own gayness and decision to bail on his suffocating parents.

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The good actors playing walking period cliches include Emile Hirsch as a psycho Vietnam vet (honest) and Liev Schreiber as a comic drag queen. But the only performer who makes an impact is newbie Jonathan Groff as real-life Woodstock promoter Michael Lang. Groff's innate charisma probably bowdlerizes the original's mercenary streak, but it doesn't matter; every scene he's in is, how you say, money. If only he'd been the central character, Lang's contradictions might have told us something genuinely new about The Decade To End All Decades. More tritely than he knows, Lee treats it as The Decade That Began All Decades instead.

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Rounding off today's assortment of journeys into the past, the movie I saw between Bright Star and Taking Woodstock was Michel Gondry's doc Thorn in My Heart—a mostly engaging look at Gondry's own family, above all his clan-defining Aunt Suzette. Unsurprisingly, his rels are as interesting and idiosyncratic as yours, mine, or anyone else's, and the moments of Gondry-like Cinema de Twee are blatantly just his way of pretending that's not the case. But if the gene pool in question had produced, say, Luis Buñuel, as opposed to the guy who gave us The Science of Sleep, we'd be a lot more likely to feel fascinated by the oblique self-portrait instead of mildly diverted. Not that "mildly diverted" is all bad.

Thursday  May 14, 2009

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Cannes Film Festival: Thursday, May 14

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Virtuously skipping today's Japanese sex-doll-come-to-life movie, your Critic trudged off to watch a doc about the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda instead. But even though I'd love to tell you that's just the kind of high-minded dude I am, it wouldn't be true. I was playing screening-schedule hopscotch to make sure I'd get in later in the afternoon to Old Boy director Chan-Wook Park's new vampire movie, Thirst—starring my favorite actor on the planet, Host alum Kang-Ho Song, as a Catholic priest turned guilty (duh) bloodsucker—and 80 minutes in Rwanda suited my Thirst-centric agenda better than two hours of Kore-Eda Hirokazus Air Doll. No slight meant to Air Doll otherwise, although my too vivid memories of deeply hating Lars and the Real Girl probably helped settle the blameless Hirokazu's hash.

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Of such base calculations are modest festival discoveries made. French filmmaker Anne Aghion's My Neighbor, My Killer is far from being the conventional hunk of "Never Again" piety you might expect. Unlike most 20th-century mass murder, the Rwandan genocide was, above all, intimate, with not only neighbors but family members turning executioners during the killing spree. Hence the next government's Gacaca Tribunals, which meted out justice at village level. The catch was that "forgiveness" was all but mandatory, since by 2005 this impoverished country had thousands of able-bodied ex-thugs behind bars and practicality said they'd be better off rejoining the work force.

There's probably never been another documentary about genocide whose surviving victims are so likely to call their former tormentors by first name. That's because they've not only known each other all their lives but are once again—however uneasily, for Hutu majority and surviving Tutsi minority both—living side by side. As a result, what we see in My Neighbor… feels less like a condemnation—that's a given—than scenes from a great, troubling play about the (bloodsoaked) ties that bind.

Even though in her case the brutality is mostly psychological, that's also a fair description of up-and-coming Brit director Andrea Arnold's very fine entry at Cannes. As it's in competition, Fish Tank was the first flick we press wretches all shlepped up the red carpet (believe me, it looks different at 8 a.m., especially on one cup of Napoleon's fave instant coffee) to check out today. What I'm starting to love about Arnold, whose feature debut Red Road knocked everyone out here in 2006, is that her preferred settings—England at its post-industrial, council-flat bleakest—don't determine her attitude. Everybody's prospects are dim, but she doesn't tell cut-and-dried stories about impoverished lives. Her movies are about inwardly rich ones thwarted by circumstance.

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This time out, she's tackling the familiar tale of a balky teenage girl who gets all hot and bothered by her slatternly single mom's new boyfriend. Until payback time rolls around, not only she (newcomer Katie Jarvis) but he (Hugh Grant's latest Antichrist, Hunger vet Michael Fassbender) discover they kind of dig the friction, too. But along with Arnold's gift for wonderful shots that always come across just like the casual accidents they aren't, not to mention her impatient editing ("Let's get on with it" could be her motto), she's one of the rare directors who excel at making us see timeless human behavior as if it's all new. While I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that Arnold worships the U.K.'s much more lauded little-people poet Mike Leigh as a god, I prefer her by miles to her surreptitiously vainglorious exemplar.

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As for Chan-Wook Park's Thirst—you remember, the movie I'd been planning my Thursday around—my wisest colleague here only needed one eloquent post-screening wince to convey his reaction. But even though I'd winced myself a few times during, I wasn't wincing afterward. Almost every movie of Park's I've seen includes sequences that seem like puzzling or downright boneheaded mistakes as you watch them, yet there'd be something wanting if he'd cut them beforehand. Maybe that's why keeping tabs on South Korea's greatest filmmaker sometimes seems like the closest I'll ever get to the cranky but dazzled way my Sixties forebears used to keep tabs on Godard, which doesn't mean I think that Park and JLG are kindred spirits or equals in talent. It just means that if you haven't heard of one, you might as well never have heard of the other.