A hellish slice of throat for the gentleman?

It’s been a while since I really liked a Tim Burton movie. Sleepy Hollow looked great, but I felt that the romantic subplot between Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci was tacked on, and largely as a result the film felt mean-spirited to me. Mars Attacks! was half an hour of great over-the-top black comedy padded to an indecent extent with boring SFX bits and cameos. Planet of the Apes was, well, Planet of the Apes. Big Fish annoyed me more than most movies I’ve seen in the past few years; it was aggressively sentimental and the old guy simply angered me with his chronic need to be the centre of attention. (If I’d been the Billy Crudup character, I would have suffocated Daddy Dearest with a pillow ten minutes into the movie.) Corpse Bride was okay and nicely done, but it was no Nightmare before Christmas – the characters were flatter, the music less memorable, and the bits that were best felt like rehashed bits of Halloween Town.

 As I wrote recently, I enjoyed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory quite a bit, but it’s not the sort of film that I’d need to see more than once. All in all, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Sweeney Todd, since I’d heard mixed things. I’m not the greatest fan of musicals (even though I keep finding myself wanting to rewatch “Once More, With Feelings”), and I wasn’t sure whether anything new or interesting would come out of Tim Burton working with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter yet again.

They’re my friends…!

We sat in the very front row at the cinema, since all the other seats were already taken. Not the best starting point for an enjoyable evening at the cinema (and I’d rather not tell you about the Mexican restaurant beforehand… I may very well have woken tonight, screaming the lyrics of that horrible Latin-y Happy Birthday song they played at top volume).

I think I was riveted about two minutes into the film. Like Sleepy Hollow, the atmosphere was great – the film was one of those that you should be able to frame and hang on the wall. But unlike that throat-wounding movie, this one had better writing and, accordingly, better, more believable characters. While the film was visibly artificial, it didn’t feel fake like many of Burton’s worlds tend to do. And the emotions on the screen felt more… well, more grown up, for want of a better term. There’s something very child-like (sometimes indeed childish) to many of Burton’s works, and in the case of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood it works quite well, but it was getting tired and stale. By comparison, this film felt like Jacobean revenge tragedy – bloody, passionate, alive and raw.

P.S.: It’s a shame that Anthony Head (yes, I squeaked “It’s Giles!” at the cinema) didn’t get to do more on screen. Apparently he recorded some songs, but they didn’t make it into the final version of the film.

P.P.S.: For the first time, in this movie I saw why some people think Neil Gaiman and Alan Rickman look alike. When the latter doesn’t do his patented “Where are ze fucking detonators?” sneer, he does look and even sound a bit like Mr. Sandman.

Suffer the little children

I missed Monster’s Ball when it was on at the cinema, and I never really went out of my way to see it on TV. There’s no particular reason for this – except, perhaps, that there seemed to be more talk about the fairly explicit sex scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton than about anything else. Okay, a good sex scene can make a film better (Don’t Look Now, I’m ogling you!), but there’d better be something beyond copulatory goodness.

Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball, is one of the few Swiss people who’ve made it big in Hollywood – so big in fact that he’s now doing the new James Bond movie. He seems to be comfortable in many different genres and he gets in the good actors.

Stranger than Fiction

And yet. I wasn’t too keen on Stranger than Fiction, a film that desperately wanted to be more clever than it really was. True, Will Ferrell put in a fairly poignant performance, and I always enjoy watching Maggie Gyllenhaal, but all in all the movie felt like Charlie Kaufman Light, turning its metafictional veneer to the service of an essentially trite Carpe Diem story. And what was worse (at least for me): the book that the critically acclaimed author played by Emma Thompson was writing was drivel of the worst sort. It wasn’t even a parody of literary fiction – it was the sort of thing that a decidedly mediocre first-term creative writing student might cobble together, feeling awfully proud of himself.

Last week we watched Finding Neverland. Again, Forster’s assembled a lovely cast of actors: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman. The film is well crafted, obviously. But the story and dialogues render their work disappointingly toothless. Most of the performances are adequate, but let’s face it: it doesn’t take much to get an adequate performance from these actors. It’s more difficult to get a bad performance from them. But what can they do, when their characters can all be summarised in two sentences without being reductive?

Finding Neverland

There are small joys in both films. Dustin Hoffman is understated but great fun, both as the theatre impressario and as Stranger than Fiction’s literary critic. (I just wish he’d say what is so blatantly obvious – that the book Will Ferrell’s character is in is badly written rubbish.) And Freddy Highmore (who went on to play with Johnny Depp yet again in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is great. Not only is his acting subtle and moving, his character is probably the only one in the film who is ambivalent, who has depth, who doesn’t fit comfortably into a well-worn cliché.

Talking of children: perhaps the strangest, sweetest sight in any Deadwood episode is that of the school children lined up behind Joanie Stubbs and Calamity Jane holding hands, walking down the thoroughfare to their new school. For a few moments, the scheming and bloodshed comes to a complete halt as the inhabitants of Deadwood come out to watch the children. I have a feeling, though, that “Amateur Night” will be the last episode of the season (and, sadly, series) that will allow for such peace and quiet. Something is going to happen, and it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. I’ve rarely seen a series that managed as well to ratch up the tension. Somehow I have the distinct impression that the title of a recent P.T. Anderson film will describe the last three episodes of the series quite accurately.

And no, I don’t mean Punch Drunk Love.

Let’s face the oil well and dance…

There’s something weird going on in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Okay, there are many weird things going on – the film is quite confounding on the whole, as it doesn’t present its story the way you’d expect it – but when you watch the beginning of the film, a long sequence without any dialogue, you feel some strange sort of double vision. At least you do if you’re a film nerd like me, that is.

On the one hand, you’re watching a solitary prospector mine for silver in a desolate landscape, breaking his leg in a bad fall, striking it rich – and then, almost by accident, finding oil. On the other hand, the music and the landscape suggest very different images, recalling one of the most famous (and most parodied) scenes of cinema:

There is some sort of weird intertextual thing going on between There Will Be Blood and Kubrick’s movies that is discussed intelligently in this forum post. Beyond that, though, there something eerily ritualistic and religious about the film’s beginning: it’s as if the black liquid gushing from the ground is the harbinger of some new, cruel religion that will require sacrifices. In his way, Daniel Plainview (a disturbing performance by Daniel Day Lewis that is more complex than its detractors admit) is more of a mad prophet than his opponent, the self-righteous yet wheedling Eli Sunday. It’s just that human beings have no place in his religion.

Is it better to rule in Hell…?

I recently re-watched Magnolia, which I still like a lot, so There Will Be Blood came as a surprise. Even Punch Drunk Love, which I didn’t particularly enjoy (or understand), felt more like the P.T. Anderson who made Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Those latter two films were quintessential ensemble movies. There Will Be Blood has barely enough space for one or two characters next to Plainview. It grows out of its central monolithic (if you forgive the Kubrickian pun) protagonist: perhaps the most frightening character in recent film history.

P.S.: Please keep in mind that I haven’t yet seen No Country for Old Men, so I can’t judge the scariness of that film’s Anton Chigurh. His hair’s plenty scary enough, though.

Prince Valiant, the Cleaner

P.P.S.: After Miami Vice used to be the top search term leading people to this website, it has now become “magenta”. So, my heartfelt thanks to one of my frequent readers. Hope you’re getting just as many hits because of me!

Where the wild things are

Sean Penn is clearly a very talented artist. He’s also annoying and self-righteous as hell, at least sometimes (and I’m saying this as someone who basically agrees with many of his opinions). So what happens if someone annoying and self-righteous makes a film about someone annoying and self-righteous?

In the case of In the Wild, what happens is that you get a beautiful, moving, disturbing and infuriating film.

The film clearly has admiration for the uncompromising cut Chris McCandless makes with his family and his past, and for the way McCandless – calling himself Alexander Supertramp (he doesn’t seem to be ironic about this) – goes out into the American wilderness to become himself. Penn’s movie, especially in its images, shares his protagonist’s awe at the beauty of the country and of nature, and so do we to some extent. Part of me definitely thought, “Yeah, man, I’ll get rid of all my belongings, get some survival gear and live like Grizzly Adams! Right on!” And I didn’t even need to be smoking pot to think it.

At the same time, McCandless (as portrayed in the film) can’t be described as anything else than a self-righteous, selfish adolescent. Clearly many of the societal conventions he abandons are also selfish in nature – do parents have any claim to their children’s lives? does a sister have a claim to her brother? But Chris makes people care about him and then he’s off. Being human, the film implies amidst the awe, also involves human contact, human responsibilities… and responsibilities seem to scare McCandless. It’s either that, or he’s cheerfully callous about waltzing into people’s lives and then waltzing out the moment they feel for him.

It is this ambivalence about the central character that makes Into the Wild more than just a beautiful film. Some critics have been rather negative about this: why feel awe for such a selfish jerk? Didn’t McCandless simply got what he deserved? Yes, he (the movie character – I don’t want to judge the real person on the basis of a movie) is selfish, and yes, he is a jerk. Yes, he’s a coward who doesn’t have the courage to forgive. Yes, he’s also an idealist and a dreamer, and his cowardice is also his courage. Strip the film of this central ambivalence, and you turn the movie into a simplistic cautionary tale: Don’t abandon your family and your cosy capitalist surroundings to go into the wild, because you’ll die of starvation in an old bus, only to be found by moose hunters two weeks later.

Personally, I prefer to feel both awed and infuriated. I prefer to be given enough space to make up my own mind. And space is something Penn’s film has in spades.

Into the Wild

A matter of life and death… and Japanese movies

There are a handful of films that give off a glow in my memory, like a candle flame. They’re not necessarily the Assassination of Jesse James etc. etc. or Magnolia type of films. They’re not by people such as Steven Soderbergh or Martin Scorsese. One of those films is Roderigo Garcia’s Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her (great acting in that one, but more than that, the film is amazingly gentle – not soft, mind you, not anodyne, but gentle), which I saw by sheer accident. Another one is Kore-Eda’s After-Life.

I’d been wanting to see the director’s Nobody Knows for a while now, but I only did so yesterday evening. After the very emotional final episode of Six Feet Under (it got to me just as much this time as it did when I first watched it) I wasn’t sure whether a film about four children who are abandoned by their mother and who try to continue their lives as best possible, ignored by the world around them, wouldn’t be too depressing.

The film is definitely not cheerful, and the ending is quite tough in terms of what happens, but there’s something as gentle and comforting about Kore-eda’s direction in Nobody Knows as there was in his deeply spiritual but never preachy After-Life. There are moments of simple joy in the lives of the children. There are just as many moments of joy in the filmmaking: scenes that are both realistic and subtly poetic.

Nobody Knows, by Kore-eda

It’s strange: in a way I feel the movie should get to me more, especially considering the ending – yet somehow I also think that I’d resist a tougher film more. Kore-eda’s work doesn’t do the emotional work for you. It doesn’t tell you what to think or feel. And it doesn’t allow for simple, clear-cut emotions. Yet you have to be willing to be taken along by the film’s flow. I don’t think I’ve seen many films that have this sort of pace; the film that popped into my mind when I tried to think of other movies that had a similar effect on me was Le fils by the Dardenne brothers.

Writing about the film now, I feel I’m only circling around the emotions that it touched upon. I don’t think I’m an inch closer to understanding the effect Nobody Knows had on me. But I think, somehow, that I may be remembering this film, much like After-Life, for a long time.

The Miami boys have lost their pull

It had to happen eventually, but still… for the first time in months, the top post in this blog isn’t the one about Crockett and Tubbs. What will I attract readers with now? According to the search terms used most often to get here, Hellboy’s become more of a pull. Sorry, Colin Farrell – some big red dude with filed-off horns gets the virtual punters in the seats these days!

We’ve now finished Jackie Brown (this blogger here is getting old – halfway through JB I realised that it was way past my bedtime… and that before midnight!), and it definitely more than holds up. The care Tarantino takes with his characters is wonderful, and not a little surprising: I’m more used to Tarantino caring about his lines and close-ups of feet than about characters.

More than anything, Jackie Brown is the most (perhaps even the only) mature film Tarantino has made. Now, his appeal doesn’t necessarily lie in his maturity – in fact, his adolescent hyperactivity is part of his appeal – but it’s beautiful to see his talent put to the service of a story that is not just a fun ride. In our youth-obsessed pop culture, it’s rare to see such a perfectly executed, entertaining film that is essentially about getting old but that takes its older characters seriously.

P.S. for all the Hitchcock fans out there: Vanity Fair has done a photo shoot of iconic Hitchcock scenes with today’s actors. People might ask what the point is – I don’t. I think the photos are eminently cool. The lighting, the painterly, expressionistic colours, the actors chosen… it’s perfect. Check all of ’em out here.

Okay, the seagull on her head may hamper the effect a tad for some…

The Butterstumps Effect

They say that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Hollywood, DVD sales halfway across the world may skyrocket. This is exactly what seems to have happened with The Butterfly Effect, an Ashton Kutcher vehicle – and what is truly miraculous is that the phrase “an Ashton Kutcher vehicle” didn’t make anyone reconsider.

This film could probably be called Dude, Where’s My Past?, except that wouldn’t be quite fair. The Butterfly Effect is very different from that other vehicular Ashton Kutcher movie in that it tries to be intelligent, dark and deep. It is quite scary at first, though mainly because of cheap jump cuts and shrieking violins on the soundtrack, but it’s far less clever or tragic than it thinks it is.

The premise is intriguing, in a Twilight Zone/”Don’t think about it too much” way. College student Evan Treborn finds that he can go back in time thanks to his journals he’s been keeping since the age of 7, and he attempts to make things better for the people in his life, especially his love Kayleigh, by changing the past. Wacky hijinks ensue, of the sort that Ray Bradbury and the Simpsons got quite some mileage from – change one thing in the past, and a whole plethora of effects snowball from this change. Keep your ladylove’s dad from making kiddie porn with her when she was seven years old, and suddenly she’s not a suicidal waitress in a diner but your girlfriend and sorority chick extraordinaire – but her brother’s a murderous psycho. Stop a prank that went horribly wrong, and your chubby-yet-hunky best friend (described in one wonderful review as “Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Fabio”) is Kayleigh’s perfect lover while you’re – surprise! – mostly armless.

Perhaps if I rewrite the script…

The problem is… Actually, there is more than one problem. For one, while a film about something as fantastic as time travel cannot be realistic, it can still have some sort of internal logic. This film doesn’t. Some changes in the past have major effects on the present, others simply leave Evan in the same situation but with one or two additional scars. What makes the difference? Simply the whim of the script writers. When you realise that they’re the ones pulling the strings, for no other reason than “It’s coolest/nastiest/most tragic like this!”, you stop caring.

That is, if you cared to begin with; because, to be quite honest, there’s very little to care about in the film. Most of the characters keep changing due to Evan’s fiddling with the past, the effect being at Kayleigh 1 is a different person from Kayleigh 2 is a different person from Kayleigh 3. You know that in five to ten minutes, most of the characters will have been rewritten completely, so why should you feel any emotional attachment to them? The only person who remains halfway constant is Evan, and he’s a bit of a blank, with moments of total idiocy. I felt so detached from him that I had to suppress giggles when he woke up from his latest bout of time-travel with his hands gone and him screaming at his stumps. It just felt so phony, like the scriptwriters were saying: “Okay, he stops his mom from smoking in the past, so in the present his dick has been chewed off by rabid poodles!”

If I kill the scriptwriters in the past…

The film’s been compared to that other time-traveling weirdo tale, Donnie Darko. There are indeed some similarities, but they’re mainly superficial. Donnie Darko is less interested in its mystery/sci-fi plot, at least in the theatrical version – and that’s good, because the more prominent a labyrinthine time-travel plot is, the more apparent its almost inevitable plot holes become. Instead, Donnie Darko focuses on the characters and, in doing so, manages to become one of the sweetest films about teenage angst this side of Breakfast Club. It’s as if David Lynch and John Hughes, after a big breakfast of pancakes, pie and damn good coffee, set out to create a bitter-sweet surreal adolescent romance – and succeeded.

Also, there is simply no comparison between the character writing and the acting in the two movies. The protagonists in Donnie Darko live and breathe, while their equivalents in The Butterfly Effect are mere puppets on strings controlled by a puppeteer who is moderately competent at best. And Ashton Kutcher does a very good “bland twentysomething”, but there’s more acting talent in Jake Gyllenhaal’s left buttock than in all of Kutcher.

P.S.: One of the first pics that came up when I Googled “butterfly effect” looking for images was one of the Olson twins topless, with flimsy foil butterflies over their nipples. By god, I wish I could go back in time to keep myself from seeing that…