Jun 30, 2007

Zzyzx (2005): F

AKA Burned.

If there exists a well of cinema below the rankings typically attributed to direct-to-video fare, Zzyzx occupies it – one imagines that what little exposure the film has received can be credited solely to its inanely eye-catching title. Sharing the same moniker as a small stretch of road in the Mojave Desert (itself originally named so as to be “the last word in the English language”), the film concerns two guys (most press notes describe them as “friends”, but I see no indication of so pleasant a relationship) on their way to Vegas, their detour to the titular road the result of the excessively reserved Ryan’s (Ryan Fox) having read stories about the location’s supernatural tendencies. Military vet Lou (Kenny Johnson) is hearing none of it, and – when the otherwise barren road presents them with an older man on foot – makes as if he’s going to run him down for the sheer sport of it. Ryan fights for control of the wheel, and – whether Lou’s initial indications of malice were intentional or not – the man is run over and killed. No sooner then he sputters his last words, his wife Candice (Robyn Cohen) is seen on the horizon, in search of her recently acquired spouse. Ryan and Lou stash the body in the car and make cute with the innocuous girl, each having distinctly different ideas on how to handle the situation at hand. What follows brings to mind a cross between Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’s trip factor and Wolf Creek’s hellish vision of the world, albeit in the most superficially aesthetic means possible (note to all filmmakers: shaking your camera does not automatically make things look realistic and/or stylized), devoid of genuine subtext and barely coherent from one scene to the next, stylistically or otherwise. Eventually, Ryan, Lou and Candice have at each other amidst drugs, alcohol, and sex, nary a moment of their interaction not defying virtually all standards of reasonable or believable human behavior, the entirety of this narrative told in retrospect with scenes of a Mexican family digging up the anti-protagonist’s remains serving as a framing device. Like the rest of the film, these sequences are bereft of implicit meaning (save for whatever convoluted philosophies the filmmakers will bend over backwards to justify), instead serving as some strange breed of faux moral contemplation that suggests an acquired taste I don’t especially want for myself. No indie film this bad would be complete without a plot twist, the ultimate non-revelation only adding to the film’s stale voyeurism. “Zzyzx” may very well be at the end of the dictionary; if so, the film is justly stuck at the bottom of the barrel.

Jun 23, 2007

Die Hard 2 (1990): C+

“How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?” So says Bruce Willis at the outset of Die Hard 2’s terrorist-driven mayhem, verbalizing this sequel’s underwhelming sense of been there, done that self-awareness. Such is a cinematic fate rarely avoided by box office-mandated sequels, and so it is much appreciated that this follow up to 1988’s sweat and blood soaked masterpiece Die Hard is at least tongue-in-cheek enough to acknowledge such adherence to formula. It’s Christmastime again, this time at Washington D.C.’s Dulles International Airport. There, John McClane awaits the arrival of his wife's flight, but not before his pursuit of several suspicious characters and a subsequent shootout in the airport’s baggage section indicates an impending crisis at the miniature metropolis; local police captain Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) wants to hear nothing from an out-of-town, hotshot cop during the frenzy of the winter holidays, but it isn’t long before the control tower’s resources have been sabotaged and the encircling, unaware airplanes under the control of malevolent forces. Such is an ambitious plot, albeit one riddled with logical deficiencies (why not simply reroute the flights during the 2-minute window conveniently provided by the antagonists?), an unfortunate fact that demands more credit be given to director Renny Harlin for successfully ratcheting up the tension so as to minimize the effect of such narrative weaknesses. Unlike its predecessor, though, this is merely a serviceable action flick, sorely missing both a sense of stylistic clarity as well as the glorious excess this kind of modern western-meets-Indiana Jones affair deserves. The action scenes – loads of squibs and flailing bodies notwithstanding – feel remarkably tame, and we’re forced to settle with the muddled motives of underwritten villains (whose political and financial interests serve the purposes of the script more than any sense of character or theme) in lieu of Alan Rickman’s delicious criminal entrepreneur Hans Gruber. Such as it is, the spotlight of the show is stolen by the unlikely supporting character Art Evans, whose pebble-in-the-cog verbal antics (an out-of-nowhere reference to the Dark Knight proves the film’s comedic shining gem) provide a regular burst of energy amidst such tedium.

Jun 22, 2007

The Fountain (2006): A

Call me a sucker, but I have a taste for ambition than knows no bounds. This is the case in all human endeavors, but particularly in the artistic realm, and given my interests, particularly in film. In some cases, these are films that I recognize as outright failures, or, at the very least, wobbly creations that barely manage to carry their own weight. I have tremendous respect for Alexander even though it spends most of its three hours crashing down in flames. Others I simply adore through and through, despite their having earned the label of “failure” from friends and peers. I’ve seen it five or six times, and I still adore Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, and consider its overblown bravura the very life blood of its canvas.

It should be obvious to just about everyone, then, that what is and is not a “failure” is an incredibly subjective designation. A necessity in any form of criticism or opinion-exchanging is the ability to recognize - and appreciate - the coexistence of conflicting opinions and taste; were more people be able to do this simple task, the world as we know it would be a much nicer place to live in. With this in mind, I've chosen The Fountain as my subject on this topic. I think that there are far better and more important films I could write about for this topic, but it was a film that left a deep impression on me that I've not yet found the time to adequately examine or write about. Six months later, having now seen it three times and come to better understand my feelings towards it, I feel far more prepared for the task.

At a recent party in Brooklyn, drinks in hand, myself and some fellow Slant writers came around to Aronofsky’s film in our conversation. Ed Gonzalez hated it (though he loved Clint Mansell's score), Keith Uhlich “didn’t mind it” (though he likes it when "the tree eats Hugh Jackman"), Paul Schrodt thought it was interesting but pretentious, and the absent Nick Schager – like me – included it on his original top ten list at the end of last year, readily admitting its many flaws in the process.

I bring up these individuals not to criticize or take on their opinions, but to remark at how many of their specific (and largely negative) observations I actually agree with; despite many of the same observations, we've reached strikingly different conclusions. Yes, The Fountain is ridiculous, arguably pretentious, pining for your attention like a sixth grade emo kid. Its premise is a silly and all-too-literal manifestation of man’s grappling with his own mortality. Its multi-layered narrative web is highlighted at every intersection, and Rachel Weisz is always standing by to repeat the film's philosophies for those who didn’t hear them the first time. Despite all that, I love it to pieces.

Admittedly, I recognize that at least some of these feelings come from an internal bias on my part, but what opinions aren’t biased by our own experiences, feelings, thoughts, dreams and passions? Two near-death experiences in the past three years have placed mortality at the front of my mind in almost all matters. While The Fountain’s blatant themes of death and immortality should ring true with any being aware of its own finite existence, its motivations and ambition speak to me even more so, and I believe it is this strength of intent that holds it together even as its many pieces threaten to fly off like some out-of-control amusement park ride.

To some extent, one could argue that The Fountain remains less than fully formed, although to an extent I feel that such perceived shortcomings actually add to the experience. This is a film – or at least a theme and subject – that Aronofsky should have arguably left in the drawing room for some time, until life’s experiences had given him greater insight into the passages of the soul. But at the same time, the film is what it is because of its creator's youthful vigor, the passion that stems from eagerly exploring the unknown. It is a na├»ve work by a soul aware of its own limitations, its honesty like a pulpy, bleeding heart longing for the experiences of the world and the wisdom of the ages.

It is unfortunate for the film that it has elicited such a distinctly divided reaction amongst both audiences and critics alike, it being thematically ambitious but aesthetically traditional enough to arouse similar vigor on both sides of the aisle (it is telling that the film's Rotten Tomatoes score is an even 50%). Many love the film for something it isn't, while many hate it for failing to be something it never tried to be in the first place. Only a fool would liken it to 2001: A Space Odyssey – hold Kubrick’s masterpiece up to Aronofsky’s work, and it will expose the film’s flaws tenfold. Similarly, it is foolish to disregard any work simply for not being something other than itself, to leave it despite any potentially independent merits of its own. The Fountain has its own beautiful, worthwhile heart, a desire to reach for greatness despite knowing full well that it is out of its league.

Silliness is a key word in describing Aronofsky’s film, whether in addressing its multi-pronged narrative, religious overtones, or trippy sci-fi imagery. Hugh Jackman floating in a bubble with a dying tree through the reaches of space to some dying star that an ancient civilization worshipped as their underworld? Recurring circular imagery likening the human experience to the rings of a tree's life cycle? Many people have bemoaned the film as being "incomprehensible," but if anything, it is a work far too obvious in its execution. However, this all-or-nothing, pull-out-all-the-stops approach is a befitting one I quite adore under the circumstances - what the film loses through this "flaw", it gains back triplefold by forsaking the limitations otherwise imposed on it.

Aronofsky has laid out his intentions like a heart on his sleeve, tying together his epic love story through a fairly obvious storytelling device that allows him to cover a 1,000-year canvas with relative ease. Like M. Night Shayamalan's misunderstood Lady in the Water (possibly 2007's greatest "failure"), The Fountain is a daring act of creation open for all to see without the slightest of pretenses. Internet critic Steve Rhodes calls it “preposterous,” and he is right (keep in mind that many people think the same thing about the virgin birth, too). What it comes down to is the human need to tell stories – stories that uncover deeper emotional truths, no matter what path is taken to find them. If film criticism boiled down to pure technical analysis - from basic filmmaking practices to the usual suspects of plot, acting, dialogue, etc. - then I’d be unable to even give The Fountain the time of day. But, as is the case in all art, there is an immaterial force guiding the proceedings, and even though The Fountain is routinely absurd in ways seemingly unforgivable, it works through its own messy ambitions to find its own sacred emotional truths.

I’d never much liked Rachel Weisz in the film, but it dawned on me during my third viewing that she may very well be the key to accepting or leaving the entire work. Her performance is one of shameless attention grubbing, and though she looks heavenly through husband Aronofsky’s lens, she comes off as impatient when forced to pontificate about the script’s Big Themes. It's a dissatisfying in-the-moment impression that improves almost immediately in retrospect; while her enthusiasm is a bit too much to swallow, it is also infectious, a purifying force to be submitted to. Like the film as a whole, she bypasses all that is considered proper for the sake of art and philosophy, instead going straight to the gooey gut of the matter, and those who are turned off by such brazen romanticism will just have to be left behind. In theory, The Fountain seems to have been an impossible film to make, and in cases such as this, ignorance is possibly the greatest tool a filmmaker could have at their disposal. How else to attempt the impossible than to disregard the odds you face?

In this way, my adoration for The Fountain stems largely from the fact that it even exists in the first place. This is not to say I dislike watching it – it is a rocky experience that has elicited groans, chuckles, and eye-rolls from yours truly, and one that I can wholly understand others loathing. It can't begin to hold a candle to its many predecessors and will likely be surpassed by its own creator as his body of work builds - it might not even make my top ten of the year should I ever recompile the list. Still, with all this standing against it, it has also managed to make me wide-eyed with wonder; not in the staring-into-the-face-of-God way that 2001 manages to redefine my life every single time I watch it, but in the way that one is inspired by watching another do the same, without flinching. If this is but a folly of youth – both Aronofsky’s and mine - then so be it.

This my contribution to William Speruzzi's Ambitious Failure Blog-a-Thon, hosted at This Savage Art.

Jun 9, 2007

Hostel: Part II (2007): F

Eli Roth’s latest is a nauseating vehicle of slasher B-movie parts that might have actually risen to the level of “exploitative” had it an ounce of material actually worth exploiting. Many will decry the film for its wanton bloodlust (quite literally, in one particularly off-putting sequence), misogyny and anti-human posturing, and while these are all legitimate claims given this immoral beast of a movie, they ultimately serve to further empower a film that aims to provoke by the most superficial means possible. Like a schoolyard bully, it’s best to simply ignore it outright, although this is a near impossibility given the in-your-face attitude of the onscreen carnage. The film is cruel and sadistic, but so were The Devil’s Rejects and Wolf Creek, two modern horror classics that knew something about tension, suspense, and tongue-in-cheek restraint as a means of illumination into the recesses of the human experience. Entire portions of Hostel: Part II are so over-the-top that it begs a satirical reading, yet such camp hardly seems intentional in a film so completely bereft of irony.

Like the best modern horror films, Hostel: Part II’s chosen subject matter is ripe with parallels to worldwide human conflicts; Roth’s script gives lip service to the immorality and chaos that often comes out of a society on the brink of anarchy, but lip service it remains. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre savagely evoked the American experience in Vietnam through it’s slice-and-dice mayhem. Here, Roth wants desperately to have his cake and eat it too. Hostel: Part II shuns such implicit social examinations in favor of a proudly perfunctory series of unfortunate events, so as to flex it’s Grand Guignol muscles without any un-cool claims to higher legitimacy. Yet, much like it’s equally bullshit-laden predecessor Cannibal Holocaust, this film ultimately gives way to a faux-artsy commentary on its depicted human torture by means of a shallow and unjustified swapping of character motivations. Roth condescends to his characters at virtually every turn, their every action and line of dialogue in service to his superficially provokative bullshit.

Such poseur imitations are certainly depressing, but Hostel: Part II is most reprehensible in its proudly disclaiming any connection to morality. That the film’s most bloodthirsty character ultimately sees the error of his ways when the carnage finally begins is of no redemptive value here, as the film is simply going through prefabricated plot mechanisms without spirit or joy, served up only to legitimate its cowardly torture sequences with the cover of a plot. Roth wants to be as brutal to his audience as possible, but by divorcing his film from any anchor in the complexities of its human roots, the end results are surprisingly tame - there's virtually nothing here that hasn't been done before, better, and with more substance, even if only of the incidental kind. That someone would pay to kill a fellow human being isn't nearly as disturbing as why someone might do such a thing, yet this is a reality lost on such surface-oriented filmmakers, and for a film built so heavily on such strangely motivated characters, such a stunning lack of characterization is a most damning attribute. The film doesn't want to acknowledge the banality of evil, only to exploit it for immediate and increasingly desensitized shocks. One may as well watch a marathon of American beheadings at the hands of Iraqi insurgents with popcorn in hand – the entertainment value is surprisingly comparable. You can add fans of this movie to the list of people I’ll never date.

Jun 8, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen (2007): C-

The cast of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's films are truly irreplaceable, mainly in that his plethora of iconic celebrity faces exist for little purpose other than to play themselves as the exclusive members of some ridiculous pop culture phantasmagoria. George Clooney and Brad Pitt aren't Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan - they're George Clooney and Brad Pitt sporting pseudonyms so as to justify having taken $8-11 of your dollars rather than the mere $2 needed to acquire the latest celebrity gossip magazine. Willie Bank (Al Pacino) is this threequel's lead newcomer, a hotel manager elitist who screws series veteran Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) out of his rightful half of a new casino to be built in Vegas, leaving him not only ruined but with a near-fatal heart attack as a result. Enter Danny Ocean and company to right this wrong by means of upsetting the opening night of Bank's casino by whatever means necessary (at its most extreme, the crew seeks to simulate an earthquake beneath the precarious Vegas location). In this way, the film stands as little more than a feature-length rendition of Home Alone's booby trap sequences, although missing here is the payoff otherwise so precariously built up to. This isn't so much offensive as it is monotonous and boring, as little about Soderbergh's wobbly construction seeks to exist out of the moment of its own self-designed superficiality, ultimately adding up to less than the sum of its parts. Invoking everything from Zapata revolution to Oprah's "Favorite Things" with only passing acknowledgment of a world beyond its star power circle-jerk, the film is a cocky and condescending indulgence test for anyone who hasn't automatically bought into its faux-cool suave. Part of me would like to say that the focus on the minutiae details of this third heist's orchestration falls into the realm of entertainment (and certainly, there are sporadic humorous moments), but Ocean's Thirteen remains a film more intent on amusing itself than in ever throwing the audience a bone. An auteuristic nightmare, the film encapsulates God knows how many elements of self-proclaimed "indie" cinema and smug retro stylistics; Soderbergh coheres these elements that have inspired him, but to what extent, save for an continuously incessant visual clash that rubs our faces in primary color hell? This is a film without a dream, without virtue, without love for anything other than itself. Forget replacing the cast - like Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones from the previous installment, you can lose them altogether and call it a day.