Mar 27, 2008

American Zombie (2008): B

After the dull (not to mention mean-spirited and largely unfunny) Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, one can be forgiven for treading the genre of the horror mockumentary with more than a bit of skepticism. The fact, then, that American Zombie exceeds initial expectations is a quality more than incidental in nature, it being not only among the most spot-on examples of the genre since Rob Reiner revolutionized it with This is Spinal Tap almost a quarter century ago, but also doubling as an intelligent re-examination of its predecessors in the horror genre. For the bulk of its running time, I'd even go so far as to suggest it of near-brilliance, its failure to follow through with a consistent batting average being the only impediment to its status as something of an instant, albeit minor, zombie classic. The scenario of the film—basically, that zombies are a real and everyday presence in our society—screams of gimmickry, a lethal trait the film avoids until a piteous conclusion manifest of an already unnecessary plot conflict, one that sidesteps the film's effectively inquisitive nature in favor of more traditional (read: contrived) storytelling devices. That the film itself serves to critique media trends and cinematic pretentions as much as anything else almost allows the success of the third act turn of events, but such is a slippery slope is the film lightens up on exposition in favor of deadpan, de-contextualized humor.

Totally aware of itself, American Zombie concerns two documentarians—John Solomon and Grace Lee, playing themselves—out to tell the zombies' side of the story, they a minority group working for equal rights, suffering the same patterns of discrimination and marginalization as any number of groups throughout U.S. history. Parallels to the civil rights, feminist and LGBT movement about as we see the undead—who are presented here, quite importantly, as being able to function without a reliance on human flesh—attempt to re-integrate themselves into society. The film's ultra-cheap budget is apparent in some of the effects work—an open wound is achieved with a simple prosthetic and a handful of mealy worms—but American Zombie maintains its own suspension of disbelief in great part because of the stellar cast, which pitch-perfectly replicate the casual nature of traditional documentary subjects with almost absolute consistency. Ditto the filmmakers, who present American Zombie as being from the same cloth as countless other docs, right down to the establishing shots and still-life cutaways that serve as transitions from one segment to the next. Nonetheless, their film avoids the tedium of its non-fiction fellows by constantly doubling back on itself, self-reflective (both figuratively and literally) and staunchly non-ironic, a quality that allows the film far more humor than had it openly winked to the audience about its many first-glance absurdities.

Few aspects of modern life go untouched: labor laws are in effect to prevent slave labor abuse of the undead, for whom the official, politically correct term is a "revenant". This is just one example of many in which American Zombie intelligently and meticulously maps out the social patterns and mechanisms at work as regards any group at odds with the status quo, recollecting Romero's deconstructions of racism and sexism through an effectively no-frills lens. Hate crimes abound (a zombie rights group entitled ZAG suffers routine graffiti attacks by zombie haters) while many of both secular and sacred backgrounds work towards greater unification, arguing, respectively, that anyone currently living may one day become a zombie themselves, and (in possibly the film's finest moment), that "Jesus loves zombies. Jesus was the original zombie." More often than not, American Zombie strikes pivotal chords by simply telling it like it is, stating out loud what was on everybody's mind when The Passion of the Christ and Zack Snyder's Dawn remake shared theater space in 2004.

Such trinkets of brilliance are complimented finely by numerous, altogether effortless homages to zombie films past (from Dawn of the Dead to Blood Sucking Nazi Zombies), while an early, scientific explanation of the zombie condition serves to bathe the rest of the proceedings in a state of complete legitimacy (essentially, a virus rests dormant in the brain until the moment of death, re-activating the cells long before decomposition begins to set in). The similarly themed They Came Back was more successful in its exploration of this scenario in large part because is bypasses the easy baiting that American Zombie goes for in the end (are the zombies up to something? will they eat someone, and who?), which disappointingly skimps out on the ravishing self-criticism initially suggested by the image of our protagonists recording themselves, implying that, by making a documentary about the undead, they are effectively telling the same story about how we function while still alive. The same has been true from the early days of Night of the Living Dead on through the more recently incisive Shaun of the Dead, but Lee's film proves—along with George Romero's Diary of the Dead—that it's a genre as viable as ever, endlessly flexible and perpetually illuminating.

Confusions of an Unmarried Couple (2007): B-

The unreleased indie dramedy Confusions of an Unmarried Couple functions as coach to the titular quarreling couple, almost rigorously evenhanded and unbiased as it details the opposing viewpoints and recollections of a (possibly) former couple now separated for several months, Dan (writer and co-director Brett M. Butler) having dumbfoundedly walked out on Lisa (Naomi M. Johnson) after discovering something unexpected when arriving home early from work one day. Such tumult is experienced only in recollections, both versions meshing together factually but illuminating the opposing (and often completely incompatible) viewpoints and motivations on either end. Such is an unusually and moderately brilliant tool here, and one senses that, had the creative team of Brett and Jason Butler more experience under there belts, the premise could have been developed into something of great measure, like a second-generation channeling of Woody Allen. Though less witty or enrapturing as anything near Annie Hall (not to mention deliberately more embittered), Confusions marks a distinct voice, a quality that helps solidify it as something truly, honorably Indie. Hope yet remains for the cinematic world.

Beginning after initial shockwaves and subsequent fallout, Confusions first addresses the state of Dan, who took to his brother's apartment after leaving his own with virtually none of his belongings (the entirety of which he has yet to get back). In these opening scenes, Confusions gets the kind of emotional hang-up suffered after such an emotional blow absolutely right: waking up from yet another night on the couch, Dan downs some half dozen beers before acknowledging the world before him, absorbed in destructive and inefficient routine as a distraction from feeling and responsibility (trust me, I've been there). The look and performance are raw in a naturalistic amateur way but remain rooted in a felt reality, one that functions entirely on the muted restraint of self that denies an emotional presence and thus the pain that accompanies it. Speaking plainly to the camera (one wonders who "filmed" the solo interviews, and if they accompany the couple as they interact together), Dan conveys his inner thoughts deliberately and honestly, often hypocritical or misguided but never untrue to his developmentally arrested self: here I am, this is how I feel, and why. Ditto Lisa, who shows equal capacity for self-absorption or ignorance in her own views. In other words, they're just like you and I, and watching their respective confessions is most aggravating if only for wanting to tell them how much they're talking past each other, words flying aimlessly at targets neither seen nor felt. Confusions understands the impossibility of truly understanding the viewpoint of another (although at times the male/female communications here are so amusingly inept that one must wonder how the couple in question ever managed to live together in the first place), with just another layer of experience, emotions, and memories lying just below the surface of the last. As Kane showed us, there's always another Rosebud.

The only thing weighing down the final effect of Confusions, then, is the chemistry of the performances, which function almost astonishingly when singular but hit a wall of uneasy trepidation when interacting together. To say the least, Butler and Johnson are no Ullmann/Josephson or Hawke/Delpy, and though such comparisons would be cruel and pointless to make, a look at their differences is indicative of the former's simple but key limitation: overlapping. Achieving in its interviews a Kevin Smith-like balance of realist and verbose dialogue, Confusions wavers between projected realism and awkward would-be stage acting. Determined to get his possessions back and maybe patch things up, Dan works up the willpower to go back to Lisa and his former apartment, having to let himself in with his former key after Lisa closes the door in his face. Though the projected interplay is intriguing (details arise on what happened, why, and what has happened since) the stars of Confusions feel like anything but people once intimately familiar with each other, pausing between exchanges as if the audience itself needed a moment to catch up. We don't, and though Confusions would have never reached greatness even without the rough patches, it has a gnarly, post-sex mustiness to it that makes it almost radically legitimate in its anti-polished, necessary unpleasantries. "A feral anti-romance" would make a good selling point.

Mar 25, 2008

The Kite Runner (2007): D+

Any film worth its weight in celluloid can best be described as a representation of an idea, why and how that idea is expressed being left up to the particulars of the chosen story, genre, and every creative element apparent in the final product. This means of expression/sharing is culture in its most basic form, and among the primary reasons why I loathe (to say the least) the oft-repeated phrase "it's just a movie", a nugget typically employed with inconsistency among those who buy into its dismissive naivety, purporting silence amongst those who take the medium seriously (from Showgirls to Munich and back, oh my) only to be quickly forgotten when topical movies bubble to the surface of mainstream popularity. This lackadaisical approach to the effects of the medium is at the heart of why film like The Kite Runner are so dangerous, simplistic concoctions that pander to audiences (as opposed to truths), their guise of harmlessness masking naivety and ignorance. That last word is key, for Marc Forster's film—like Paul Haggis's Crash—is one of banal evil, unaware to its own offenses and infinitely worse off because of it.

One needn't read Khaled Hosseini's original novel of the same name to see how The Kite Runner homogenizes and flattens its material, doing to racial and social oppression in the Middle East what Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor did to American tragedy and vigilance at a turning point in history. That The Kite Runner strikes the occasional notes of genuine emotion speaks to the humanity inherent in its core premise, the trauma that undergoes two childhood friends of converging racial and economic backgrounds after one is subjected to a hate crime of inconceivable magnitude. Tears nearly flow as the educated Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) reads aloud the illiterate Hassan's (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) favorite story, but such is a fleeting moment of unembellished interaction that speaks volumes to the class differences that lie at the crux of the story. Enter hilariously CG-enhanced kite flying sequences reminiscent of the final aerial battle from The Matrix Revolutions and Alberto Iglesias's overbearingly "foreign" score (which plays like a Hallmark travel-abroad-from-your-living-room compilation), and this tale becomes one of cheap sentiment and skin-deep abstractions, reducing complex turmoil to what amounts to a few good guy/bad guy plot points, overly decorated clichés seemingly calculated for Western audience who need convincing to care about life outside their own borders (with no example worse than a PG-rated rape scene at kitschy as a Disneyland tea cup ride). The Kite Runner will no doubt warm the hearts of its intended audience (says Roger Ebert in predictable booster fashion, "How long has it been since you saw a movie that succeeds as pure story?" Uh, about a week?), but its nature is one of dubious flattery.

Mar 18, 2008

Funny Games (1997): D+

Many have already described Funny Games as an example of cinema-as-thesis statement, and it’s a fitting analysis given how the film functions almost exclusively in theory, the result of connect-the-dot philosophizing that works less like artistic exploration than it does the notebook summary of a college lecture. As a commentary on class values and consumer relationships with violence, Haneke’s film doesn’t invite audience exploration; it pummels them with preordained conclusions, having already reached its proverbial destination before the opening credits have rolled. We first meet the nuclear, upper class family of Anna (Susanne Lothar), Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and Schorschi (Stefan Clapczynski) from above in an extended aerial tracking shot as they approach their lakeside vacation home, a sequence that would recall Kubrick were Haneke’s detached perspective more ingrained in a genuine observation of human behavior than a mere experiment in pain endurance. Heavy metal blares as the characters challenge each other to naming the composers and pieces from their collection of classical music CDs, and the film’s first bit of condescension comes in the form of a throwaway shot of an ejecting CD, the uninterrupted soundtrack assuring us that the effect is one of superimposed irony, thus confirming its own impatience (and simple-mindedness) in getting the point across. If the effect weren’t already one of impending doom, Haneke lingers on the gate at the entrance to the family’s well-furnished abode as it closes behind them, the fortress of the wealthy doubling as an inescapable prison. Here’s where the fun begins.

The stripped down approach taken by the film reads like pure gold, but its functionality is irreparably contrived. It isn’t long after arriving that Anna, Georg and their son are confronted by two effete maniacs—Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch)—and their calculated torture mechanisms, first gaining entry to their home via dubious, friendly requests (Peter claims relationship to a neighbor in need of some eggs for cooking), Peter and Paul exploit the uneasy responses to their presence as justification for a series of beatings and humiliations, eventually “betting” the family that none of them will remain alive the following morning. By stripping this pseudo-slasher scenario of all but the most basic elements (read: necessary to get the job done) of plot, motivation, or legitimately developed characters, Haneke aims to wax existential on our purportedly unhealthy relationship to violence through the lens of a disillusioned and impersonal media, and given such shallow and misanthropic exercises in catharsis as Hostel: Part II and the Saw films, his is a conclusion I’m compelled to agree with. In theory. Funny Games may have been truly funny had the film not seen fit to constantly remind audiences of the “joke”, and as the noose on the audience tightens (Anna is forced to strip and her son strangled with a pillowcase, for starters), Funny Games reveals itself as a fraud through its repeated penetrations of the fourth wall whilst repeatedly denying audience involvement save for that of a whipping post. Paul addresses the audience verbally—acknowledging our implicit empathy for his victims—while simultaneously wink-wink, nudge-nudging us into supposed complacency. The film never shocks us with the truly unexpected, just the gruesome and horrific, as Haneke’s methods of toying with audience responses and expectations are as cruel and stupid as those of his supposed protagonists.

Funny Games’ self-awareness epitomizes artsy pretentiousness, forgoing the self-critical reflexivity of both Dario Argento’s spectatorship-challenging gorefests and Hitchcock’s readings of voyeurism as participation. Haneke’s literal-mindedness, though, is no straw that broke the camel’s back; Funny Games purports subversion of genre expectations but its efforts continually smack of laziness. Anna escapes temporarily only to unwittingly flag down her former captors while searching for help, and Paul literally rewinds the film after an unexpected change of events; these and other twists are meant to be profound but they’re nothing more than gags from the latest Scream (or, better yet, Scary Movie) given the elitist treatment. Two images from the film speak effectively to Haneke’s themes: the aforementioned gate closing, and that of a blood-splattered television airing footage of gruesome news reports and carnage-based entertainment, the suffering of the world invading the thought-to-be safe sanctuary of the home. These visual triggers are no less shrill than the rest of the film yet they stand out because they bypass the same lecturing attitude that passes for discourse. In the end, Haneke does little to distance himself from the subjects of his supposed scrutiny, as Funny Games vocally aligns itself with the psychopaths as they draw out their victims’ suffering to Gibsonian lengths (“You shouldn’t forget the importance of entertainment” says Paul, exposing the film’s one-note commentary), cheap gimmickry in the name of simplistic bourgeois upheaval. Haneke’s games aren’t just devoid of rules, but also scrutiny and humility. As self-declared ringleader, he should stop getting ahead of himself.

Mar 14, 2008

10,000 BC (2008): D

Even though its title would justly cause one to expect a film taking place within the realm of time as we know it, it doesn’t take long for 10,000 B.C.’s blatant anachronisms and wistfully unhistorical events to pile up so high that keeping track of them proves a futile effort. Mammoths never helped build the pyramids and early human clans never spoke English as we know it in the A.D. era, and those are just the ones you can spot from the preview. Sadly, the fact is that even if every ridiculous detail of 10,000 B.C. were accurate enough to pass for museum artifacts, the film itself would remain a smoldering piece of month-old cheese the likes of which the box office has rarely seen. Worse, perhaps, and maybe lamer, but none so bland, lifeless, and unimaginative, cobbled together from parts of a hack screenwriters junk drawer and passed off with the volume turned up to eleven as if it were the Next Big Thing. The film fails to acknowledge the juicy camp it so closely treads—in theory, suggesting a more straight-faced satire in comparison to the wink-wink nudge-nudge deconstructions of lame farces like Meet the Spartans—and so one can only infer that, in order for it to be taken seriously, the makers expected audiences to forget pretty much every movie they’d ever seen before in their entire life.

One can only imagine the pitch meeting, but truly unprecedented here is the flatness of the imagery, the entire film acting as a blow against the use of CGI in special effects. The images are only passable (and just barely at that) from a strictly technical perspective: lacking substantial detail and/or scruffiness to pass as a tangible element in the world they inhabit, entire herds of animals may as well be swarms of gnats for all their effect, and though one can justly argue that pulpy enough imagery will work despite a disconnect between the real and the animated (as was the case with much of The Mist’s creature-feature work), the far-reaching laziness of 10,000 B.C.’s stale direction and cinematography is more than enough to snuff out that flicker of hope. As is typical of a film whose thought is confined to a Happy Meal mindset, the film condescends to ancient culture time and again by designating the elements of their world (mountains, rivers, snow) with what amounts to strictly Newspeak Proper Adjectives: everything is Great and Blue and Old and Great. With each inanity outdoing the last one (unbelievable character interactions, kindergarten-level conceptions of inuit cultures, countless moments of forced revelations…), the central plot (a chosen one must save his people and the woman he loves blah blah blah) quickly subsides as the primary offender. Despite his ineptitude, Ed Wood has become prominent because of his heart and soul; 10,000 B.C., on the other hand, is the Great Suck. There’s no way around it.

Mar 10, 2008

Bee Movie (2007): C+

The comedic mastery of Curb Your Enthusiasm has time and again confirmed my suspicion that it was the creative voice of Larry David—not Jerry Seinfeld—that was the driving force behind the 90's most prominent sitcom. That being said, it's tough to not anticipate the first work from a famed figure after a ten-year-dry spell, and Bee Movie sees Seinfeld at the top of his game, even when that very game necessitates a film bound by its own nature. Cutesy is an applicable word here, and, unsurprisingly, Seinfeld admits to having dreamed up the film on the basis of its name alone, long before the story itself would begin to take form. Such is apparent on screen: Seinfeld plays Barry B. Benson, a worker bee horrified at the prospect of forever making honey with no rotation whatsoever on the production line. Hoping to find a life of greater things, he leaves the hive and inadvertently meets the gentle human (voiced by the sultry Renée Zellweger, who remains sexier in voice than most actresses manage with their entire form) named Vanessa Bloome (!), a florist (!!) who believes that all life—insect and human—is created equal. As the story heads into legal territory (when Barry learns of the bee-oppressive honey industry), Bee Movie loses much of its steam in unnecessarily convoluted plotting, as Barry's initial crisis enables an unprecedented and genuine exploration of identity and purpose, aided not so much by the given correlations made between the bee lifestyle and capitalism's effects on human behavior, but by an almost eerily plasticine, theme-park animated look that proves nothing less than gonzo. The shtick is both obvious and simple but its use here defies simplicity, with Seinfeld shedding much of his "about nothing" cynicism for a more bold and inquisitive outlook on life. Too bad, then, that the film feels unjustly leashed not only by the onslaught of titular puns, but also Seinfeld's unavoidable penchant for purported witticism—knowingly "clever" insights that feel like decade-old leftovers reaching for laughs.

The Bank Job (2008): B

Plot is something of a matter-of-fact, formalized hindrance to The Bank Job's equally matter-of-fact libido, a steady stream of energy, style and wit that finds its way onto the screen here in the form of a self-consciously classic crime story. Largely removed from the territory of more Americanized action fare such as The Transporter and War, Roger Donaldson's stab at the cops-n-robbers genre (appropriately referred to as The BJ in a commendably honest advertising campaign) is nothing short of drunk on itself, a quality that proves both its greatest asset and most damnable impediment (not unlike any number of equally amusing human counterparts). Forget that Jason Statham is this century's answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger and that the plot (involving an unofficially commissioned bank robbery meant to retrieve evidence imperative to an important government court battle, just for starters) reads about as humdrum as one would expect of a film that declares itself "based on a true story" in the same frame as the title itself. The Bank Job uses its performers effectively but the hyper texture of the images practically swallows them up, a far-reaching effect whose execution is hidden in plain view (though admittedly observed with a less than educated perspective on the technical side of film construction). To suffice, each shot appeared to have been deliberately cropped by a mere frame or two before and after each cut, thus disrupting the "natural" flow of events between the unfurling images. One senses a need to keep up with this increase in pacing, an effect that helps to make the less-than-original plot line more convincingly surprising and arresting. Such positives, however, are countered by negatives of almost equal force: the purported editing effect is enforced throughout the entirety of the picture (remember: a review is as much based on experience as on actualities), unwavering even when the scene in question requires an alternate tonal shift. The Bank Job lives up to its marketing by maintaining a cool and steady pace until it gets the, err, job done, but such persistence creates a tangible disjointedness between the film's performances and kino eye. The nudity is hot and tasteful and the entire cast is allowed to partake in the catty banter typically reserved for an egotistical action hero, the more equal footing amongst the conspirators here suggesting a Kevin Smith rehash of Heat, only cool. Statham and company don't sell all of the film's character points (particularly when it comes to the thieves' personal lives), their passively engaging performances both hindered and aided by the film's staccato vibe. The film comes out on the upper side of things by managing to avoid blue balls in the end, but don't think it couldn't use a lesson or two on pumping techniques.