January 24, 2009

If the Keeper of Time Runs Slowly...

So Warner and Fox made up, and Watchmen is back on schedule. Whoopee.

I mean, don't get me wrong. No matter how it turns out, there's no way I'm going to miss a cinematic adaptation of one of my favorite works of fiction. And even when taking a strictly cynical perspective, there was already plenty of reason to be wary, and the discussion had already started with that first preview trailer: the chilling image of a giant blue Adonis laying waste to the Viet Cong with a wave of his hand, recreated in such a way that the expected reaction would be closer to
John Lichman's priceless "director commentary." "HOLY SHIT DID HE JUST BLOW THAT MOTHERFUCKER UP WITH HIS MOTHERFUCKING FINGER?! THAT SHIT IS AWESOME!!!" But it's a trailer, and trailers can be deceiving. It wasn't until I saw the image above--attached to an article announcing that the two rival studios had reached an agreement--that I really began to worry. For those who haven't read Watchmen and don't mind having a minor spoiler tossed their way, this is more than likely the moment when Edward Blake, the Comedian, pulls out his service pistol and kills his pregnant mistress at the end of a victorious Vietnam War. And in this promotional image, it's presented as something dead sexy.

Closer inspection reveals that Blake's fresh facial wound--the catalyst for this moment--is no longer a life-altering disfigurement, a fountain of blood that results in a perpetual sneer at humanity. It's a wartime scar, awesome and admirable without any context necessary. The Comedian has always been a fascinating character because, particularly when seen exclusively in retrospect, it's frightening to consider how amoral figures affect our lives. But ultimately, that's all the Comedian was--a public figure... while Blake was a monstrous coward who used nihilism as an excuse to indulge in his ugliest impulses. With that picture staring me in the face, I'm afraid that Snyder has integrated him into the same culture of cool he offered to Leonidas and his band of chest-pounding Spartans. "YOU SEE THAT BITCH HIT THE GROUND?! FUCK YEAH!!!" That scares me to no end. To be fair, Snyder offered a reasonably accurate depiction of Frank Miller's mania, and he could certainly be aiming for an ironic look at our own admiration of the wrong cinematic icons. But even if that's the case, isn't he already part of the problem? If the trailer's any indication, he's going to go for slow motion during every iconic moment--which, in Watchmen's case, would mean the most violent, catastrophic events--and I'd like to know how it's not going to come across as another testosterone fever dream.

Speaking of which/whom, I hope all of you know by now that The Spirit is fucking awful, because that fact didn't quite crack through my thick head until I dared to see it a second time. It was a decision that I almost immediately regretted. I knew it was jaw-droppingly bad, but the movie stuck in the back of my brain after a Christmas Day showing because it reminded me of my former adulation of the ultra-high-concept: Once Upon a Time in the West appealed to me because it represented the western in its most undiluted form, all of the gritty one-liners and clever setpieces crammed into one three-hour epic. I used to think of Darkman the same way, actually, this movie that screamed its mad, over-the-top intentions to the rafters. Amazing stuff, right? But I got older and realized that while those aspects certainly have merit, they wouldn't have much weight if there was nothing flowing in the undercurrent. I was lucky enough that many of my favorite movies held up to the scrutiny: Once Upon a Time in the West is pretty well defined by a cast of characters trying and failing to escape their predetermined identities; and Darkman is a work of unbelievable insanity, but it's given credence by its immense sadness and almost mocking parody of superhero conventions.

I should have seen it coming, given Walter's
dead-on review, but that melting feeling that crept up on me after The Spirit unspooled was inevitable. It's the final nail in the coffin containing any lingering sense of doubt... the feeling that, as an adult, I was missing the point by tossing these maniacal works through the furnace flames of detailed analysis. That I somehow refused to touch base with my inner child by doing so. Fedoras, superfluous slow motion, blood-red ties, six-shooters and kicking the shit out of Nazis... S'cool and all, but at last we've been exposed to the apotheosis/nadir of that icon worship, and it just dismantles the "awesome for awesome's sake" argument beyond repair. I hope you took the time to read through the comments section of Bill's wonderfully sarcastic Oscar predictions--which were, ultimately, preferable to reality--because "theoldboy" delivered a real gem when he took a stab at Frank Miller's acceptance speech for Best Picture:

"I had no choice but to bring my vision of Rob Rodriguez's vision of my vision of his vision to the screen. Also I'd like to graciously thank whores, and grit, but mostly whores, for making this possible."

A brilliant summation, really, because where's the basis in reality that's supposed to make the grit and the
whoreswhoreswhores hit so close to home? The Dark Knight Returns was supposed to have originated from Miller's bitter realization that he would grow older than his boyhood hero, "perpetually twenty-nine," and eventually be lost to the sands of time. So what the hell happened? Here's a dude who has immersed himself so thoroughly in his fantasy world that he has managed to deny the full weight of aging and violence and crime--now he keeps a death grip on the Goddamn Batman because everyone berates him for it. Okay, you want to pay tribute to film noir; deep shadows and gritty dialogue are a good start--do you have anything else?

The layers of homage and imitation just keep building until you have no idea where anything originates. Sex, love and death lose all meaning as angular, monochrome action figures beat, maim and perforate each other without consequence. When Sam Jackson dresses up like Himmler to interrogate and torture his quarry, is there any relationship to the unspeakable acts that made the Nazis such popular villains, both during and long after the war? I think it was Thomas Pynchon who said that science fiction was difficult to take seriously as a legitimate form of literature because there were so many ways to circumvent death... cloning, time travel and delusions of immortality. Now that there are sizable audiences and brilliant writers who are forging a symbiotic understanding of the various fantasy genres, that's been steadily changing over the last few decades. These entertainments are proving to us that they can shed some light on the mysteries of how and why we live and die--but guys like Miller certainly don't make that quest any easier by crawling into their impenetrable shells of self-satisfaction at any cost.

I guess my point is that nobody saw The Spirit, but--to preempt the soon-to-be-ubiquitous headline in entertainment journalism--everyone will watch Watchmen, and the price of escapism is getting higher every day. When and where, precisely, does a desire to inhabit a "pure" world of art detach itself from reality completely? Only Charlie Kaufman knows for sure. I just hope that, even without Hollis Mason's memoir or Sally Jupiter's scrapbook, Snyder won't lose sight of the moral obligation that Moore and Gibbons explored with no small amount of fear and doubt.

January 22, 2009

Professional Commentary on the Oscar Nominations

Best Picture
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button = the lesser of 5 evils?
Frost/Nixon = barf
Milk = yawn
The Reader = purchased by a Weinstein
Slumdog Millionaire = barf

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Richard Jenkins for The Visitor = whatever
Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon = fine
Sean Penn = fine
Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button = curious case
Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler = yay

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married = yawn
Angelina Jolie for Changeling = really?
Melissa Leo for Frozen River = fine

Meryl Streep for Doubt = telegraphed
Kate Winslet for The Reader = tolerable

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Josh Brolin for Milk = yay
Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder = yay

Philip Seymour Hoffman for Doubt = fine
Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight = yay
Michael Shannon for Revolutionary Road = yay

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams for Doubt = who'm I kidding, I love her
Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona = I'll tell you in another life, when we are both cats
Viola Davis for Doubt = fine
Taraji P. Henson for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button = dubious
Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler = yay

Best Achievement in Directing
Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire = barf
Stephen Daldry for The Reader = whatever
David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button = delayed reaction to Zodiac

Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon = barf
Gus Van Sant for Milk = yawn

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Frozen River: Courtney Hunt = LOL
Happy-Go-Lucky: Mike Leigh = yawn
In Bruges: Martin McDonagh = haven't seen, forecasting a yawn
Milk: Dustin Lance Black = absurd
WALL·E: Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Jim Reardon = yay with caveats

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Eric Roth, Robin Swicord = embarrassing
Doubt: John Patrick Shanley = yawn
Frost/Nixon: Peter Morgan = barf
The Reader: David Hare = yawn
Slumdog Millionaire: Simon Beaufoy = barf

Best Achievement in Cinematography
Changeling: Tom Stern = uh, no
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Claudio Miranda = yay-esque
The Dark Knight: Wally Pfister = yay
The Reader: Roger Deakins, Chris Menges = yawn
Slumdog Millionaire: Anthony Dod Mantle = you gotta be fucking kidding me

Best Achievement in Editing
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter = it was edited?
The Dark Knight: Lee Smith = yay
Frost/Nixon: Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill = barf
Milk: Elliot Graham = whatever
Slumdog Millionaire: Chris Dickens = barf

Best Achievement in Makeup ("yay" across the board)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Greg Cannom
The Dark Knight: John Caglione Jr., Conor O'Sullivan
Hellboy II: The Golden Army: Mike Elizalde, Thomas Floutz

Best Achievement in Visual Effects (ditto)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton, Craig Barron
The Dark Knight: Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Timothy Webber, Paul J. Franklin
Iron Man: John Nelson, Ben Snow, Daniel Sudick, Shane Mahan

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
Bolt: Chris Williams, Byron Howard = fine
Kung Fu Panda: John Stevenson, Mark Osborne = no
WALL·E: Andrew Stanton = yay

Best Documentary, Features (a bizarrely respectable category)
The Betrayal - Nerakhoon: Ellen Kuras, Thavisouk Phrasavath
Encounters at the End of the World: Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser
The Garden: Scott Hamilton Kennedy
Man on Wire: James Marsh, Simon Chinn
Trouble the Water: Tia Lessin, Carl Deal

Skipped Foreign because only two of those movies have reached my neck, Music because I only remember one of last year's scores (WALL·E), and the rest for either holes in my viewing (the shorts) or blind spots in my movie eye (see: Costumes, Art Direction).

January 21, 2009

Oscar Predix for the Four Majors

We'll see how right I am in the morning...

Best Actor

  • Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
  • Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
  • Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
  • Sean Penn, Milk
  • Zac Efron, High School Musical 3
Best Actress

  • Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
  • Camilla Belle, 10,000 BC
  • Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
  • Meryl Streep, Doubt
  • Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Best Director

  • Andrew Stanton, WALL•E
  • Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
  • Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
  • Jon Avnet, 88 Minutes
  • Jon Avnet, Righteous Kill

Best Picture

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • The Dark Knight
  • Gran Torino
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • The Spirit

January 12, 2009

Golden Globes

Okay. So this means that Slumdog is a shoo-in, right?

The Golden Globes, a party thrown by the old biddies of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, has come and gone and bestowed upon one of the most appalling films of the year its stamp of approval. And so it goes. . . Me? I'm still high from the Oscars getting it right last year with No Country for Old Men.

So - comments on the nods last night - or the show? I didn't watch it.

And predictions for Oscar noms in a few days?

January 05, 2009

True Blood on the Towelhead

Towelhead was the worst film of 2008.

If IMDb is to be trusted, Alan Ball said, “We can make movies like 'There's Something About Mary,' using semen as hair gel, and it's a huge hit--but to show a bloody tampon is considered shocking. I think that says a lot about our culture's attitude towards women and towards female sexuality.” He seems to be ignoring the fact that There's Something About Mary is a comedy, and shock has always been more welcome in comedy than in drama, but that's not the only thing he's ignoring.

Bloody tampons aren't interesting. Bloody tampons aren't funny. Blood isn't funny. Semen isn't funny. Semen in Cameron Diaz's hair was a little funny. If Towelhead had included a character accidentally putting a bloody tampon in someone's hair, it probably would have been funny if Ball had figured out a way to have the idea make some narrative sense, and that method would have been interesting. But my question is, “Are bloody tampons an example of female sexuality?”

I think that's an important question when discussing Towelhead, because Ball seems not to have made a film, but rather an informational video for Health class. Every scene is as hopelessly determined to dramatize an aspect of the puberty and sexual awakening of a young girl as every scene of Crash was hopelessly determined to dramatize an aspect of racism. From memory, Ball fits in masturbation, orgasm, accidental orgasm, sex, contraception, pregnancy, shame, predators, porn, pubic hair, periods, and breast development. Oh, and two of the male characters are fixated on Jasira's hymen. In density of issues, it's perfect for school, though the girls in the class will probably want to know whether to define their period as an aspect of their sexuality or a bodily function. Towelhead doesn't try to answer that question, but it does give other helpful hints. Near the end and right after its only scene that isn't awful (the scene in which the adults figure out what's going on and some conflict is resolved), Jasira and her boyfriend discuss what's been going on, and Jasira proceeds to explain to him the difference between good touch and bad touch. Disappointed that I wasn't able to slap a movie scene in the face, I started fantasizing about finding a copy of the shooting script, finding out where Ball lives, and leaving those pages on his porch under a burning bag of bloody tampons--not as an act of vandalism, but as an excuse to ask him if being shocked by bloody tampons is an indication of his attitude towards women or female sexuality.

I'm not disgusted by the thought or image of a bloody tampon, and one odd effect this movie has had on me is to make me wonder if that makes me weird. I understand from Breillat films (mostly Anatomy of Hell, or at least its title) and the internet that men are supposed to be scared or disgusted by the vagina, or at least the aspects of the vagina that we don't simply love or desire. I tend to think this fear or queasiness, if it exists, isn't much of a problem--would men be more receptive to the idea of a penis bleeding occasionally in secret? I doubt it. But even if this is a worthy issue, does a bloody tampon sharing a shot with a repulsed, offended father and a terrified, embarrassed girl really help the problem? I think Breillat considers her film a comment on this issue, while Ball thinks of his as a comment and a cure, at least not a regression. So in the spirit of the worst of a particular year being a “real” movie that fails spectacularly, Towelhead is a clear winner. For an actual review, try Ebert and then AJ's capsule for two different, interesting pans. But I have an ulterior motive. I think Alex's capsule review of this film is very good except for one sentence, and here it is:

...I find it typical of Ball's liberal naivety that he can't seem to conceptualize how traditional Islamic standards of modesty can help give value to female sexuality.

What does value mean in this context, and no matter what it means, why should female sexuality have value? Should male sexuality have value? Is it the same kind of value? Before he answers, I won't say much about this issue, but if my interpretation is correct, this troubles me. I'll move on for now, except to say that Towelhead isn't really about the concept of value in female sexuality, but that an interesting film could probably be made on that issue.

When I watched Towelhead a few weeks ago, I hated it. But the reason it stayed fresh in my memory was because I had just finished watching the first season of True Blood in essentially two sittings. True Blood is, easily, my favorite new television show since The Office and I think it's probably better than it otherwise would have been due to the involvement of Alan Ball. And the interesting thing is that every common element between Towelhead and True Blood sings on TV while it failed miserably in the feature. Towelhead is fixated on sex because it's a textbook; True Blood is fixated on sex because every word, every glance, every tree or door or sudden gust of wind, is sexual and rightly so. All men are patronizing or horny in Towelhead because every scene has to have a warning, a message, and a lesson; all men are patronizing or horny in True Blood because Sookie can hear their thoughts and the men in her town disappoint her. Towelhead is about a girl making sexual choices so it can argue--with no one--that a girl can make her own sexual choices; True Blood is about a girl making sexual choices now because she's previously had too much information to want to make them.

One of the stock romantic comedy plots is for a guy to win a girl's heart by learning secrets about her that he wouldn't normally know. The methods are different and the sexes are sometimes reversed, but it's always inside information that wins the day. By “reading her mind,” he's able to impress her or make himself look like a better match for her. The girl always finds out he “stole” her secrets, and she breaks up with him temporarily--wouldn't it be interesting if she didn't find out or simply didn't care--but they always predictably get back together. In True Blood, Sookie can hear thoughts, so her ideal match is someone whose thoughts she can't hear. She wants equality--mystery too, sure--but also equality. She wants him to have secrets. The show is sexy and funny and devastating and charming and it's not afraid to have an unconventional pace. It also has a great theme song. Ball certainly can't take credit for all or even most of those things, but I believe his presence is felt and not in a bad way. My assumption is that freedom from the need to turn your obsessions into a message allows you to let them breathe and live. Towelhead is about blood because Ball thinks menstrual blood disgusts us; True Blood is about blood because it's about vampires.

Does anyone disagree with me about the quality of the show?

Can anyone think of a “B story” from any show with more weight than the Stephen Root stuff from True Blood?

Can anyone think of a “message movie” that isn't terrible?

January 03, 2009

In the year 2009...

There's all sorts of things in the air for the coming year - I'm predicting right now that Inglorious Bastards is in my Top Ten about 360 days from now - but what about Star Trek and the new Harry Potter(s)? And there's a new Miyazaki floating out there; a couple of Miikes; a new Kim Ki-Duk as well - I'm intrigued as hell by Trick 'R Treat and Sly's gonzo The Expendables. Of course there's Watchmen if it ever clears litigation and what about Wes Anderson's foray into the animated medium? The trailer for 9 looks fucking amazing and call me an idiot, but I'm sweatin' for Terminator 4 with Christian Bale. . .

I can't wait for Coraline; the new Tom Tykwer; Pixar's Up; Spike Jonze's amazing looking Where the Wild Things Are; Benicio as the Wolf Man and Guy Ritchie's Robert Downey Jr.-starring Sherlock Holmes.

There's going to be a sequel to Donnie Darko (that looks dumb as a bag of hammers) and Peter Jackson does Lovely Bones. Biggest news? James Cameron's Avatar.

Red Cliff at last? The Road with Viggo? Nispel's Friday the 13th reboot?

What're you waitin' on? What're you dismissing sight-unseen?