Sep 28, 2007

The Kingdom (2007): C-

A single image from The Kingdom’s opening credits effectively summarizes the entire film to follow. An animated timeline serves to enlighten the audience as regards the history of Saudi Arabia, from its formation as a country to the discovery of oil to the involvement of fifteen of its citizens as hijackers in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This final point is illustrated – in cheap thriller effect with pulse-pounding musical accompaniment to boot – with the all-black image of a jet en route to its soon-to-be-collapsed targets, the screen cutting to black just before the moment of truth, because, well, that would be going too far. There isn’t intended malice in this image, just insensitivity. In other words, The Kingdom isn’t evil – it’s just fucking stupid.

Director Peter Berg manifests ideas in his images, but here neither the thought nor the product has been well developed. The Kingdom loves America and its troops. It hates cowards who kill innocent people in the name of an invisible man in the sky. It hates when political games get in the way of progress. Such broad qualities serve as reductive labels for attitudes and beliefs in our current political climate (you know, where conservatives hate queers and love Jesus while atheist liberals take it up the ass amidst their feverish anti-American ramblings), and this film does little to nothing to reinforce the notion that reality isn't all black and white. The Kingdom will likely divide critics and audiences as regards its own purported ideas and values (a minor banter has already broken out at The House), but most of these quarrels – like any interview in which Bill O’Reilly is present – are likely to miss the bigger picture amidst their knee-jerk defensiveness. What is the bigger picture, exactly? Whatever it is, I’m sure that a stupid action flick posing as moral pontification on terrorism ain’t what we’re looking for.

The Kingdom starts off with a wrenching terrorist attack, though it becomes clear we’re being played for fools when it questionably avoids anything particularly gruesome amidst the chaos in typical shock-horror fashion. For all of its moral shortcomings, at least United 93 didn’t shelter us from the graphic nature of its subject matter, a necessary quality to weather if we're to truly come to understand the nature of war. Here, the bullets fly and the bombers explode, but the riddled bodies of children remain deliberately off screen, titillating us with their demise but forgoing us the trouble of dealing with it up close and personal. In this way, The Kingdom is everything is shouldn't be: safe and distant. Among the deceased was a comrade of four highly trained FBI agents, who – despite the fact that additional U.S. troops on Saudi soil may very well provoke more violence – opt to enter into the country in hopes of finding the necessary evidence to track down the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Here, The Kingdom similarly sidesteps the ideological violence at hand. Sure, American presence abroad might foster more terrorists, but we don’t say Uncle. You're either with us or against us.

Whether in the flesh or on the screen, the battlefields of these culturally driven conflicts require not just guns, but ideas, and The Kingdom, like Dubya, seems to think that enough grenades and ass-kicking attitude will suffice just fine. The film’s slight complications on such boot-in-your-ass themes, then, come across as empty posturing. Though it takes the time to show us some Saudi who aren’t terrorists with bloodshot eyes, it never ingrains these facets into its core narrative, where the innocent hundreds who’ve died from the latest car bomb are of half the interest as those of U.S. blood who perished. Its humanism is genuine but its execution smacks of idiocy, like a drunkard unaware of his own obnoxiousness.

These problems translate consistently to the film’s surface indulgences, where Jamie Foxx and company get down and dirty in the The Kingdom to put a smackdown on the evildoers. Their mission stems from a basic, and legitimate, longing for justice, but it lacks depth when placed against the background of a much wider and complex maze of motivations and events. The Kingdom defines its characters not as individual human beings but as Americans (or not), ultimately lacking for any emotional resonance, turning a small chapter of the War on Terror into the week’s latest shoot em ‘up – albeit with the occasionally serious nod so as to remain “legitimate.” Its shakicam style feigns realism but the camera’s presence longs to be felt amidst the visceral proceedings, rendering the action sequences immediate but fleeting, while the divide between east and west remains unexamined despite lying at the center of the film’s plot. The final scene attempts to draw out a sense of moral similarity between Us and Them, but it falls short as a dialogue because it refuses to give a genuine voice to anything potentially labeled as an opposing force. As a political thriller, then, The Kingdom fails most in its only being able to empathize with itself.

Sep 18, 2007

Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof: The Full Cut

A word of warning: do not drive immediately after watching this film. Especially if you're like me, in that you can't miss the transition of a street light from yellow to red by half a second without getting nabbed by the boys in blue. The vehicular thrumming of Death Proof is far too seductive a call to refuse once you're out in the parking lot, and if you're not careful, the pedal's to the metal before you've even realized it. I've done it twice so far.

The same heed goes for this newly released on DVD version of Tarantino's film, here in its original form, uncut and unedited. Make no mistake, this is no "Unrated" DVD in the sense that an extra F bomb and pair of nipples were spliced back into the mix so as to better popular the racks at Best Buy; the 113 minute version of the film is Quentin's original cut, as it existed before the necessary editing that was undertaken to compact the feature for his collaboration with Robert Rodriguez in Grindhouse. I, a fan of alternate versions of films (even when I don't prefer them to the original cut), am grateful it is here for us to see, as the two versions, side by side, offer us more of a window into the creative process and the mind of the artist behind the camera. The only downfall is that we have to wait for the full Grindhouse experience, the release of which is surely part of yet another DVD milking plan.

So, let's cut to the chase: do I prefer Death Proof a la Grindhouse, or stand alone? Having just finished watching the new cut not 90 minutes ago, my initial impressions are telling me the former, although, seeing as it took me two viewings to come around to the shorter version so as it is, such is a view that could very well change. But my sense is that leaner is better in this case. QT is, among many things, an incredible structuralist filmmaker; from Reservoir Dogs to both Kill Bills, I believe he knows how to provide a film with exactly what it needs, beginning to end, at any given moment, from his tiny, surprising character reveals to whatever hook or melody is required to compliment the mood at hand. So many of these choices defy the usual expectations that it suggests a higher force being channeled, one that even Quentin is unaware of (the same is true of all great artists, to some extent). That his work exists, at least superficially, in the realm of "entertainment" has been a hindrance to their appreciation, methinks; the language is different from what we expect of greatness, but the words remain the same. Though they're blatant regarding their many direct influences and inspirations, Tarantino's films aren't just remixes of films past - they're conversations within the culture, between past and present, breaking down the barriers between the screen, the audience, and the maker.

I'll certainly be revisiting Death Proof 2.0 again in the future, but moments of it felt less than constructive at this first meeting, a rarity for its director. When Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) stalks Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) and her sleepy feet in a restored scene now opening the second act, it seems but a pandering set-up for her destruction of his face with her bitchy boots at the film's end. This sequence is interesting, though, in its functioning as another one of Tarantino's stylistic reflections on his own work; the scene begins as a black-and-white reel that later and quite abruptly shifts to color, as if restoring itself mid-process (whereas Kill Bill: Volume 1 was forced to censor itself via the color shift during the Crazy 88 fight scene). Though my thoughts are that additional qualities of the film will ferret themselves out over time, it is an altogether different animal, both in its length and in its being removed from the schlocky (though immensely fun) Planet Terror as the opening act. It is my hope that fans will treat it as such, rather than as a "real" version meant to replace the shorter cut altogether. Both are valuable unto themselves, but even more so with the other in hand.

At a base level, nothing that was removed from the 2-hour cut was necessary, per se, either plotwise or thematically, although much of it is a great deal of fun. The best of the new footage is, without a doubt, Butterfly's lapdance as requested by Stuntman Mike; a sexy, restrained number that better humanizes both our instinctive killer and doomed prey before the terrifying moment of truth. Here, I think, it is obvious just how much Quentin loves and respects women, even if he only knows how to express it through politically incorrect expressions of pop culture. Its absence helped Grindhouse pacing wise but its presence here aids in the dimensionality of these characters, a quality to Tarantino's work that I believe he rarely gets due credit for. Films are his life and actors are part of his most intimate family, and his camera is not unlike a loved one nurturing them, savoring their growth and achievements.

What else is new? I detected some fresh dialogue amidst the Jungle Julia and company's nuttering in the opening scenes (it should be stated here that all my comments are based on memory - no notes were taken during my viewing of the film), while a daytime scene after their arrival to the first club depicts Mike watching from a distance, planning his attack in the shadows. Scenes such as this are cool but, I believe, unnecessary in that they externalize what was previously implied through exchanges and pacing. Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) and her whiny would-be boyfriend discuss their make out plans outside Warren's bar, whereas the previously existing scene of their coming back inside already told us everything we need to know. It's a testament to Quentin's knack for characterization that I find myself enjoying even frivolous time with these individuals, but sometimes a little mystery in the margins is preferable to the overall experience.

Shorter or longer, though, I still believe that Death Proof is indicative of a new phase in Quentin's artistic career, though I suspect it is one we won't be able to truly appreciate except in retrospect. His past cinematic and cultural navigations have contained their own form of profundity as achieved through a reflexive self-analysis (a point on which I disagree with many of my fellows), as well as a distinct, although implicit, sense of morality that has carried over into Death Proof's scathing genre deconstruction. These all remain in the same voice and form but something within seems even more explosive than in those films prior. Is this some new level of auterism only to be revealed with time and additional entries on his resume? Or is this simply the same old Quentin, but with additional years behind him? Either way, Death Proof doesn't simply comment on its genre inspirations - it adds to their very legacy.

Sep 16, 2007

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You

The month of October, 2007 is hereby declared the 31 Days of Zombie Blog-a-Thon. Participants can go about this subject matter as they please. What is your favorite zombie film? Least favorite? Do you prefer the old school voodoo ghouls, or Romero's flesh-eaters? Or Fulci's? Are the sprinting zombies of late ruining the essence of the genre? Do victims of the rage virus qualify? I myself will be covering one zombie film per day for the entire month, while saving a special something for Halloween day itself. Come back in two weeks when we begin to tackle the land of the dead.

Black Snake Moan (2007): A-

Religion hangs over the lives of the souls in Black Snake Moan - not so much as a specific theology, but as a guiding force of truth in the name of which one can righteously seek to better themselves. This is the primary manner in which the film exemplifies the morality central to its story and themes, a necessary component in justifying its dealing with so many seemingly immoral subjects and events. A true exploitation film - albeit one with a passionately pumping heart - it is a pristine example of masterful storytelling infused with technical know-how and assured ethos. Make no mistake, Black Snake Moan doesn't "make up" for its being soaked to the gills with sex and blood; these are components as necessary to it as hymns to a church (and, incidentally, itself). Director Brewer's previous and much lauded (though unseen by me) Hustle & Flow used its hard-out-here-for-a-pimp storyline as a launching pad for rags-to-riches turmoil. Black Snake Moan swaps the rappers culture for that of the home fried blues, the film sharing with its soundtrack of choice a deep desire to exorcise the sin in its heart so as to find the rays of salvation. There are no acts of divine intervention in the film, but there is a God most definitely present in its framework.

This knitty-gritty exploitation drama doesn't front. Its sleazy, scuzzy nature comes not from a forward desire to push the standards of taste but a been-there sense of the ways of the world. Rae (Christina Ricci) is a formerly abused nymphomaniac in remission after her boyfriend Ronnie (a strong Justin Timberlake) leaves for deploy to Iraq. Meanwhile, the older Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) has just learned of his wife's affair with his own brother, embittered and alone. She seeks to drown her sorrows in drugs and sex (Lazarus, amusingly, destroys his wife's rose garden with a tractor), ultimately ending up beaten and raped on the side of a road, left for dead, only to be discovered by Lazarus in the morning. Nursing Rae back to health, he learns of her reputation and uncontrollable urges, and takes it upon himself to better her situation even in the face of local attitudes and racial taboos. Like the film itself, they defy convention in working towards some form of betterment, their flaws not justified but accepted as inherent to their beings. Black Snake Moan knows the troublesome baggage many are forced to carry and it loves them all the more for it.

Here, the sex is hot but it's anchored down by a genuine sense of humanity laced with spirituality, with Brewer astonishingly evoking his character's physical and emotional plights via a controlled color palate, subjective sound design and delirious suggestive visual framing. Rae aims to fill some internal void via her constant rutting while Lazarus' picking of his guitar is unto itself an act of soulful lust, the two ultimately taking on an unlikely father/daughter relationship not unlike the central device of Million Dollar Baby. Black Snake Moan is mournful but vibrant, hopeful and yet reserved; Brewer gives his characters (and the audience) the satisfaction of having made some semblance out of life's trials but not without the reminder that additional bumps in the road lie ahead. Barefoot and half-naked for most of the film, Ricci is a revelation, shining not only through her impressive physique but in using it as an expressive devise (evoking her character's uncontrollable impulses via a fearless series of convulsions and moanings) - we forget how much skin she's showing in light of how strongly Rae's tormented soul shines through. Such is the nature of Brewer's film altogether. From the joyous to the desolate, it is a work that knows how to roll with life's punches.

Sep 15, 2007

Superbad (2007): B+

Forget American Pie - Superbad is the modern teen sex comedy. The film reverses the escapist fantasy of the drunk teen comedy, taking its character's idiosyncrasies and defects head-on as a means of uncovering the humanity within, as opposed to burying it beneath loads of uncomfortable innuendo and shallow bumblefuckery. The plot is threadbare and all the better for it; longtime friends Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) attempt to go all out during what is to be one of their last nights of high school partying together, loading up on alcohol and attempting to lose their virginity in their pursuit of personal worth and acceptance in a ruthless social environment. Hints of misogyny and selfishness abound in their efforts towards sexual gratification, but Superbad is a film that understands the vain struggle of the outsider high school lifestyle and the excessive focus laid upon otherwise superficial concerns; it knows that such male-centric behavior can be absolutely hilarious from an outsider's perspective (no more so here than in a montage of personified dick drawings, culminating in a brilliant Dr. Strangelove parody: a sketch of a Major Kong penis riding what was already cinema's greatest phallic symbol), but it also has the insight to know that these things are funny because they represent the way we were rather than the way we ought to be. Whereas its genre predecessors cheer with the guy who scores and mock the guy who goes home alone at night, Superbad has the audacity to look for the deeper feelings expressing themselves through these sexual frivolities, male and female alike. Seth, Evan, and their dweebish underling Fogell (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, later dubbed "McLovin" thanks to the so-stupid-it's-brilliant running gag of his poorly envisioned fake ID) ultimately get more than they bargained for during their would-be escapist escapades, and with their misadventures charmingly bookended by (and occasionally crossing paths with) those of Slater (Seth Rogen) and Michaels (Bill Hader) - two juvenile cops in a perpetual state of arrested development - such going-ons come to represent an eternal act of learning. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's screenplay - first drafted when the pair was but fourteen years old - tears down the clich├ęs of the genre and in doing so resurrects one all but dead at the hands of a decade's worth of Old School-like comedies, and its keen sense of self-criticism makes it the superbaddest one of all.

Away From Her (2007): B+

The pangs induced by the onset of Alzheimer's disease - for both the victim as well as their onlooking loved ones - make up the basis of Away From Her's central dramatic foundation, and it is one that actress-turned-director Sarah Polley examines with an assured poise and formal - yet feeling - emotional insight. After nearly fifty years of marriage, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) find themselves at a point where their living arrangements will no longer prove sufficient in caring for her incurable and increasingly controlling disorder, and while her moving to a nearby facility for the mentally impaired is indeed the best medical decision to be made, the policy that prevents new patients from receiving visitors for the first month of their stay proves to be a nearly unsurpassable obstacle in their already strained relationship. Polley communicates her character's emotional rigors with a cool and controlled visual palate, light on indicative musical scoring or overt explanations of emotional undercurrents but heavy on a deliberate "prettiness," a style that initially activated this critic's gag reflex but ultimately revealed itself as a newfound means of ferreting out the textures of human experience present within the narrative; in this way, Away From Her is something of an antithesis to the fake fuzziness of any Hallmark movie of the week. The film stays largely with Grant and his trials following Fiona's worsening condition, and it is from this angle that the film becomes less explicitly about Alzheimer's than about any scenario in which the definition of love is put to the ultimate test; Grant's past is smeared by act(s) of infidelity but his commitment to his wife during this most testing of experiences proves to be his having channeled that regret into something wholly productive (in what may be the film's most telling sequence, Grant finds himself in the most unlikely of interactions, one that crosses gaps of age, gender and culture in a sublime moment of holiness). Polley knows this material well, and though her sincerity is occasionally peppered with an attitude of superiority, the former greatly outweighs the latter. In the end, though, it is the cast who proves to be the most affecting; Gordon Pinsent is wounded in all the right ways by this most selfish of diseases, but it is Julie Christie who is most revelatory - her performance is practically invisible amidst the fabric of the film. Together, they illustrate the soul inherent in life's trials and the triumph that can be salvaged from even the most seemingly absolute desolation.

Sep 4, 2007

3:10 to Yuma (1957): B-

Before its underwhelming second half, Delmer Daves' classic western 3:10 to Yuma appears to be heading for that special cinematic designation of being About Everything. Early exposition concerns outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and his posse's robbery of a stagecoach that results in the death of its driver. Standing by but unable to help for sheer lack of man or firepower is Dan Evans (Van Heflin), a local and honest rancher whose family is suffering from drought and seclusion. Luck, however, sees the local authorities able to arrest Ben Wade in a rare instance of his being alone, and tired of being unable to provide for his wife and two sons, Dan volunteers to help transport the convict to prison for the sterling payment of fifty dollars. Charles Lawton Jr.'s impeccable cinematography frames these characters as essentially lost beings in the existential wasteland of the desert, a series of graceful pans and tilts emphasizing the expansiveness of country in comparison to the meager human outcroppings, while Welles' screenplay touches on the desperation of these souls to live, love, and be loved with a profound sublimity.

Though nary a moment of the film strikes an unpleasant chord from beginning to end, the generally abrupt shift in tone from the first to the second half lessens the cohesiveness of the overall experience, abandoning the accruing potency of its spiritual undertones for a more streamlined and far less interesting action storyline. Dan's moral challenges in bringing a murderer to justice against overwhelming odds - so as to prove his existence as having been truly worth something - should signify his having overcome the desolation that has so long plagued his soul, and though his ultimate decision to act is a significant one to his character, the sense of purpose in his motives feels unnaturally mandated by external forces (namely, the screenwriter), betraying much of what has already transpired. Similarly, Ben Wade's character arc ultimately proves little more than a gimmicky, underdeveloped necessity to the final series of events; while Van Heflin's sympathetic performance is strong enough to largely mask over his character's inconsistencies, Glenn Ford's performance never goes beyond pandering to audiences who would have otherwise scoffed at his playing against type. Similarly, 3:10 to Yuma flirts with a deeper greatness, and though masterful in stretches, it ultimately mistakes feel-good qualities for truly satisfying ones.

Sep 2, 2007

Halloween (2007): C+

Remakes, as a whole, have never gotten my goat. To this viewer, cinema is less about individual stories than about our individual modes of sharing them, and so it is often the case that a number of voices will each have their own interpretations to contribute to a specific tale, all of them worthy of equal consideration and regard (to allow those instances where the film in question is made purely for money to speak for the whole is nothing short of foolhardy, and yet this is the trend amongst both the critical and public movie going bodies). Few films, if any, can qualify for the title of "definitive", though our gut reaction as fans of certain titles might be to assign that very label. Therefore, as a matter of principle - and as a declared, unwavering fan of John Carpenter's original 1978 masterpiece - this new version of Halloween has as much a right to exist as any other, original or remake.

That being said, the film just isn't very good. Instead of a taut, minimalist thriller in which tension builds most during periods of silence an only slivers are known regarding the main villain, this new film spends considerable time developing the young Michael Myers before sending him off to oversee the slaughterhouse, his killing streaks motivated by an abusive home environment and the endless taunts of school bullies. The question, then, isn't whether or not the film improves upon or even lives up to the original - a near impossibility, in this case - but whether or not it stands up unto itself. Unlike the brilliant genre deconstructions of The Devil's Rejects, this Halloween only intermittently taps into the sleaze that defines its brand of grindhouse terror, making for an uneven and unsatisfying experience, despite its scattered moments of potency. When Halloween scores, its ferocity is formidable, but too often does its overzealousness upset the scenery. The opening white trash scenes are downright hilarious but fail to convince of their emotional brutality on an organic level; the blunt naturalism of the 1978 performances has been replaced by an excess of gimmicky acting, as if to compliment Zombie's louder-is-scarier dynamics, which come so hard and fast that they barely have time to simmer into the mind. From its matter-of-fact opening titles, the film is as aggressive as they come in the genre. Here, though, it would appear as if it were attempting to compensate for something.

Zombie must be given props for his extensive reinvention of the original film, a daring but necessary act given the breadth of its influence. Nonetheless, in attempting to distance his own creation from Carpenter's, he's left it without a identifiable voice of its own, defined less by its own qualities than those it lacks in relation to its predecessor. Zombie's respect for the story is considerable, but his decision to humanize Myers is ultimately a counterproductive one; we're watching less of an evil psychopath than an enraged hunk (imagine the Geico caveman crossed with The Terminator) whose motivations feel incomplete and, ultimately (spoilers ahead) - given a late act of mercy - slightly unbelievable. Halloween 2007 externalizes all that was internal in the original, in effect forgetting that the scariest of evils are those we can't see in the flesh. Despite its better efforts, this film fails in inflicting fear onto the soul.