30 September 2009


The cautious, tentative start to what used to be prime Oscarbait season continues, although this month doesn't seem to be quite as fallow as September was. Shall we?

For a certain kind of viewer - like me - the biggest release (though it is in fact a very limited release indeed) is the 14th feature film made by Joel and Ethan Coen, the seemingly semi-autobiographical A Serious Man, a dark comedy about the Jewish life in Minnesota in the 1960s. With the best trailer, hands down, of the year, I am happy to declare my expectations unreasonable; but there aren't many filmmakers with a better hit-to-miss ratio than the brothers, for those of us in their rabid fanbase.

On the subject of rabid fanbases and hit-to-miss ratios, Michael Moore - beloved purveyor of deeply frustrating documentaries - has what looks like his most nerve-wracking project yet, Capitalism: A Love Story. As a good leftist, I anticipate finding his themes rousing, his rhetoric exhilarating, and his game-playing deeply obnoxious. Call it a hunch.

The, let us say, less difficult offerings include Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, Whip It; a fantasy comedy co-directed by Ricky Gervais, who leads a crackerjack cast, The Invention of Lying; and Zombieland, a horror comedy with an unusually promising trailer for that subgenre.

Really, though, if you want a sure bet, it's going to be the 3-D reissues of Toy Story and Toy Story 2.

Can you believe that there's only one wide release this weekend? It's another damn comedy, although Couples Retreat looks vastly more disposable than the three which will already be in theaters, Jason Bateman or no.

The limited release to beat is unquestionably An Education, a film that's been steadily percolating awards buzz ever since Sundance. Chris Rock hosts Good Hair a documentary about the strange world of African-American follicular traditions; and there's a British import about boarding school kids planning a heist, St. Trinian's - about these latter two I know virtually nothing. I am, however, terribly excited for the New York/LA exclusive The Damned United, the newest collaboration of actor Michael Sheen and writer Peter Morgan.

Certainly the most interesting weekend of the month, variety-wise. Consider: another fucking horror remake in The Stepfather, a revenge thriller starring Gerard Butler titled Law Abiding Citizen (directed by the helpless F. Gary Gray), and a feature adaptation of the plotless picture book masterpiece Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze with maximum visual awesomeness, although who can say if the plot will be worth a damn? It's all enough to almost make you not even notice New York, I Love You, an attempt by the same producers to do another Paris, je t'aime with spectacularly more boring directors.

Whoohoo, there's another Saw.

If that's somehow not enough for you, also in wide release we find a CGI feature remake of Astro Boy, and the most Oscarbaity film of the month, a biopic starring Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart, compellingly titled Amelia. Also, something called Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, which looks like Twilight for boys, but maybe that's just me. Not so wide, we have Ong bak 2 - as a fan of Ong bak, I count myself excited - and a rather unpleasant-looking farce starring Uma Thurman (a farce starring Uma Thurman?) called Motherhood.

Even more limited - just New York, Chicago & LA limited - is just about the only movie that I could possibly dread more than Saw VI: Lars von Trier's Antichrist. Like all his work, it is already polarising; I count myself firmly among his haters, though I am sure to drag my ass to see it, especially since its (probably) sole Chicago venue is a scant two blocks from my apartment.

The hugely anticipated Michael Jackson tribute documentary This Is It gets a nice mid-week berth. Having never really "gotten" MJ, I might skip it just to be contrary.

It looks like absolutely nothing of even the slightest interest is opening wide today, oddly enough, but I am looking forward to the '80s horror homage The House of the Devil; enough that I'm seeing it a couple weeks earlier, at the Chicago International Film Festival. Otherwise, we've got Jared Hess's Gentlemen Broncos, the latest release date for the often-delayed but rather interesting-looking Skin, and oh my God, the actually made a Boondock Saints II? Well fuck me silly, but that is a bizarre idea.


With his fourth feature, Alan J. Pakula made a fairly decisive break with what had been his most easily definable thematic concerns up to that point, and thereby created one of the two films that have since absolutely secured his position as one of the great American directors of the 1970s. Prior to 1974, we can track a number of similarities uniting all of his work: a female protagonist, viewed in such a way that the movie could be best considered as a sort of psychiatric analysis of what happens to a person in a given situation. That element isn't completely absent from The Parallax View, except that here, the psyche being analysed isn't necessarily that of the main character, an investigative journalist played by Warren Beatty in one of the great performances of his career; the movie's ambitions are far more crazy than that. The second of the great 1970s paranoia thrillers (it followed The Conversation into theaters by just a couple of months), The Parallax View is also the only entry in that august subgenre that I have seen where the paranoia on display is so richly woven into the very fabric of the movie that it ends up being less an exercise for the characters than for the audience itself; to view this film is to interact with its narrative in such a way that we are the subject, and Beatty's Joseph Frady is in places little more than the vehicle for our own descent into madness.

As with any good conspiracy thriller, most of the fun the first time around is in just buckling in and letting the movie take you where it wants to go, but at the same time, a movie as fraught with ellipsis as The Parallax View becomes essentially impossible to discuss without mentioning, in sometimes great detail, what happens late in the plot. So here's what we're going to do. I will simply posit that this is a truly magnificent '70s thriller, maybe even the very best of all of them, and that if you have any affection for that genre at all, you will certainly love it. So I would like to suggest that if you haven't seen the movie, you should go out and do that sooner rather than later, and this review will be waiting for you when you get that handled. If you have seen it, or don't really mind having an extravagantly twisty conspiracy plot spoiled for you, we'll move along to trying to dissect it a bit; and quite the dissection that will be, for this is one hell of a layered film, thick with formal complexity to say nothing of its dense narrative.

The plot, for those who'd like the recap, is fairly typical stuff early on: a greatly beloved senator (Bill Joyce), who is strongly implied to be an especially left-wing Democrat, is visiting Seattle, when he is assassinated. The official congressional inquiry concludes after careful examination that this was the act of a single depraved gunman who was killed at the scene. Three years later, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a reporter in the Space Needle during the assassination, comes to her colleague Joseph Frady with a terrible suspicion: it seems that the 18 people depicted in a certain photograph (Frady and Carter among them), all of them witnesses to the murder, are dying one by one. Six people so far have had very convenient accidents, and she expects to be next. Frady is dismissive, but in only a day or two, Carter has died of what appears to be a suicidal barbiturate overdose.

Frady knows an unlikely coincidence when he spots one, and he wrangles the permission of his editor (Hume Cronyn) to investigate further. He tracks the goings on to a small town in the Pacific Northwest called Salmontail, where the papers of a murderous sheriff point him to the obscure Parallax Corporation, which publishes a personality inventory for prospective inventories that looks for all the world to be a net for catching violent sociopaths. With a made-up identity in his back pocket, Frady passes the Parallax written test, and goes to their west coast offices for the second part of the interview, and the movie breaks.

I mean this in a good way. Up until now - just a bit past the midway point of a 102-minute film - The Parallax View has been a conventional, albeit unusually well-crafted thriller about a crusading journalist's investigation into a vast conspiracy set to kill a potentially revolutionary politician, and then to silence the witnesses. What happens to him at Parallax shatters the movie's simple generic codes and leaves the last 40-odd minutes of the film as the most sublime, impressionistic depictions of paranoia, not paranoia as a psychological state but more like the Platonic ideal of paranoia as a concept, that I have ever seen or could indeed imagine seeing. Put it another way: the first part of The Parallax View is about paranoia, the second part is paranoia.

The transition is achieved through what I genuinely believe to be one of the truly essential sequences in American cinema in the 1970s. I could describe it, but the description would be flat and pointless: it is a triumph of motion picture language in a way that beggars text description. Indebted in no small part to the Soviet montage theory, in which isolated scraps of imagery are given meaning because of the image preceding and the image following, we are presented with a video flashing certain words, like "Mother" and "Country", along with a couple dozen still images which repeat in absolutely no recognisable pattern, for something around four minutes. This is presented to us from Frady's exact POV; we have become the character, and are experiencing precisely what he experiences.

This abrupt shift of the audience's perspective is just one part of the fairly massive reboot of the film's structure that occurs around this point, and it's not all that we've suddenly been thrust into Frady's mind like we weren't before. The opposite, almost. One of the more interesting peculiarities about the division in the film is that for most of the first half, we know more than the hero does - we learned in the very first scene that there were two killers, for a start. Then, after the video test, Frady knows more than we do; he is taken to a meeting with the Parallax execs that we are never made privy to, and so we spend much of the rest of the film wondering exactly what Frady knows.

As cool as that may be, it's not the really big deal about the last 40 minutes of the movie. Not only do we not know what's going on in Frady's mind - most unpleasantly, we can't be certain, even at the very end of the film, the degree to which he has or has not been brainwashed - we have even less of an idea what's happening. At the end of the film, there's one thing made clear: Frady was a patsy, set up by Parallax to fit the bill of a crazy lone gunman. The $64,000 question is this: when did Parallax start doing that? When did they figure out that he was really a journalist and not a combustible sociopath? There's really no way to answer that question, and that's the terrifying part. For half - hell, most - of the film, there is a strong possibility that Frady, and the audience's understanding of what Frady goes through, is being controlled by people with a vested interest in lying to him and to us - but we can't be certain. I can think of very few films that so thoroughly suggest that most of the narrative is potentially a lie, and none that do it so well.

Of course, The Parallax View had the benefit of coming at a time when America was reeling from disillusionment and conspiracy; though the filmmakers could hardly have planned it (or could they...), Watergate was in full swing when the film was released, and the narrative itself is plainly a reference to the assassinations of the Kennedys and Dr. King (it's impossible to miss how the stern congressional hearings that open and close the film are inspired by the Warren Commission). It is a movie about the sheer terror of living in a time when good people are mowed down at random - a line in the film reinforces this - and thus its very fabric is saturated with the fear that everything really is that chaotic and dark in American life. A grim decade for cinema, the '70s; not many films tore open the reason for that grimness more directly, or with more success.

That success, by the way, isn't just a function of a damn good screenplay - though David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. certainly wrote a damn good screenplay. The Parallax View is a truly impeccable work of craftsmanship and artistry at every level, the first movie in which Pakula was not just doing a good job shepherding a film but in fact engaging with the language of cinema in fascinating and unusual ways. There's a certain type of shot that I keep noticing in his films, and I've seen it elsewhere in movies of the time, but it's pervasive in The Parallax View: an extreme wide shot, practically an establishing shot, with two characters very small somewhere in the frame, though the audio is as crisp and clear as if we were a foot away from them. There are many reasons to use that set-up, but in the context of this film, it works to isolate Frady (and whomever else he's talking to) in a wide emptiness, stressing the degree to which he's vulnerable at any moment. It's as suspenseful as anything in Hitchcock, which I know to be a trashy cliché, yet The Parallax View is one of the most Hitchcockian films that I think I've ever seen. So many scenes are paced and framed with the greatest elegance and delicacy to produce maximum intensity: a scene on a plane, where Frady watches in a terrifying deep-focus shot as a stewardess comes closer and closer to the warning he's written on a napkin, is one of the best such moments in any '70s thriller.

Though I believe it obvious that the guiding hand of the project was indeed Pakula's (on the strength of its compositions, and the sense that it is a thematically typical work seen through a glass darkly), there are a few particular collaborators without whom it is impossible to imagine The Parallax View working as it does. The chief of this is obviously Gordon Willis, in his second project with the director, turning in (if I can be so unabashedly bold) the best work of his whole career - in the same year as the practically flawless The Godfather, Part II, no less (if you would like to be made very angry, I invite you to consider this statistic: Willis, arguably the best American cinematographer of the last 50 years, received two Oscar nominations, neither of them for his Decade of Miracles, the 1970s). The man rightly nicknamed the Prince of Darkness certainly does not lack for candidates to that title, but by my reckoning, this film witnesses the most tightly controlled use of blacks in his very estimable canon.

But liking Gordon Willis is easy. The other two men who gave so much to the texture of the film are editor John W. Wheeler and sound mixer Tom Overton. Sound in particular is always an important element in Pakula's films, but The Parallax View has a soundscape that must be heard to be understood and appreciated. And the editing, palpably influenced by the French New Wave, blends so effectively with the sound and the visuals that it seems almost impossible to describe it as the work of a separate mind; this is the mark of a strong director, perhaps, and whether or not Pakula thus counts as a great auteur (I'd come down, hesitantly, on the "yes" side of that debate), there is no denying on the strength of this film, even in the absence of any other, that he was among the very best craftsman of his generation. There is a scene between Frady and an ex-FBI friend set on a train ride in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, that should be analysed by every serious student of the artform as a perfect example of the way that cinematography, sound, narrative, and editing can be wholly reliant on each other for the creation of a particular meaning and mood. I should not prefer to do that close analysis here - this review is long enough, and already a day over-schedule - but its genius is right there, ready for anyone ready to go in and just watch, closely.

Form dictates that one must sum up; but how do you sum up something as holistically brilliant as The Parallax View? It is one of the great American films from arguably the finest decade in American filmmaking, inseparable from its time but so elegantly made that it is rendered timeless; preying upon the fears of a very single moment but still as thrilling as any movie ever made in its genre. Basically, this is a flat-out masterpiece, an essential piece of cinema, and one of the most compulsively watchable movies I've seen in many a day.

28 September 2009


I have two nice things to say, and I will lead with one of them: the visual effects in Surrogates are well done, no two ways about it. One visual effect in particular: for much of the first part of the movie, Bruce Willis - bald, craggy Bruce Willis, in his mid-50s - is covered with a glossy CG sheen that makes him look smooth and young and just about exactly the way he did back in the late 1980s, only with sillier hair. And while this effect bothered me and creeped me out, I think it was in the way I was supposed to be creeped out - Hey, that's not Bruce Willis! He looks old now! - and not because of some Uncanny Valley problem with the unlifelike quality of the animation.

That nicety given its due, Surrogates is mainly a shambles, a failure of speculative fiction, of plot, and of good old fashioned action filmmaking. The filmmakers (Jonathan Mostow, of the wretched Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, working from a screenplay by Michael Ferris and John Brancato, a team responsible for not just T3, but Terminator Salvation and Catwoman too) hit a precariously narrow ridge of being bad in two exactly opposite directions, an anti sweet spot that really doesn't make any sense at all, but there it is, right on the screen in front of you. On the one hand, the movie is so wrapped up in world-building that it leaves no room for the story to develop with any kind of breathing room; on the other, the story it tells is so pointlessly complex that all of the world-building has to be glossed over as quickly as possible, skipping over the most essential details of exposition. One usually does not wish for a bad movie to be longer, but I can't help but think that Surrogates would have an infinitely stronger narrative if it had been given more than a breakneck 88 minutes to play in.

The basic nugget, which you know if you've seen any of the naggingly present ads, is that In The Future, there will be remarkably life-like robots that can be controlled by human users through neural hook-ups that allow the operator to feel everything the robot surrogate (or "surrey") feels. Because of this, virtually every human being has taken to living every moment of their life via a mechanical alter ego, among them Boston-based FBI Agent Tom Greer (Willis). Ah, but someone has figured out a way to kill the robot in a way that kills the human user, and this means that for the first time in years, there's a proper homicide for the cops to sink their teeth into.

For those lucky bastards who didn't see the advertisements (maybe I should call them unlucky; they stumbled into Surrogates without knowing what they were in for), the movie opens with a fairly nimble bit of whooshy background information, a montage that brassily starts "11 YEARS AGO" with the invention of machines you could control with your brain, and zips ahead through the major events in the intervening years: the creation of perfectly lifelike robots, their approval by the world's governments, their immediate widespread adoption by something like 99% of the population, and the immediate plummeting of crime and disease that goes along with a world where no human ever interacts with another. Oh, and the concurrent rise of an anti-surrogate movement led by the charismatic, violently revolutionary Prophet (Ving Rhames).

Setting aside for the moment the fact that the central mystery - who is responsible for this new surrogate-killing technology? - is both needlessly convoluted and rather easy to predict, Surrogates hinges on a single hook that made absolutely no sense to me, at least, and it ruined what would otherwise have been a thoroughly mediocre piece of crap: it is patently absurd to think that a technology as delicate and fussy and revolutionary as mentally-controlled humanoid robots so lifelike that you can't tell them from real people would, in a mere 11-year span, become so affordable that virtually everyone in America, at least, would own one; and secondarily (the movie at least attempts to answer this one), it's almost as absurd to think that virtually everyone would also decide that life as a surrogate is so damn swell that they never needed to interact with another human being ever, not even to do their laundry or buy milk. As hard sci-fi, the film's great misfire is to present a universe that simply cannot function, and if it can, we never ever get to find out how (for example, I'd love to know how children are supposed to come about in a culture founded on the idea that strangers never physically interact). Perhaps the original comic book series addresses some of these issues; I'd be surprised if it didn't because they are essential. As it stands, the movie presents a thoroughly impossible society like the ones in those heavily allegorical episodes of Star Trek, except that the filmmakers have forgotten to put in any allegory here.

(Okay, there might be some vague metaphor about internet usage and the anonymity of online communication. But I am going so extremely far out of my way to meet the film on that point that it damn well ought to invite me to crash on its couch).

Let us say that every one of these issues was answered in a satisfying way. That would leave a brainy sci-fi action movie made by a man with a proven inability in the genre; and Surrogates is clumsy enough to make T3 and U-571 seem almost respectable. It is not enough for Mostow to film the action scenes using that nice, contemporary manner of fragmenting the individual moments such that you can't really piece together the physical relationship of characters; nor that the action, even so chopped up, is curiously placid and flabby; no, the worst of all is that Mostow apparently has embarked upon a torrid storybook love affair with the Dutch angle, and one shot after another parades by, tilted hither and thither without any earthly reason for it besides the fact that it could be done. Maybe In The Future, because of surrogacy, they forget how to build level floors. That's as decent a justification as anything Mostow has to offer. If it's not as egregious as the same sin was in Roger Christian's notorious Battlefield Earth, it is only because the angles in Surrogates, though quite as frequent, are not so obscenely acute.

As I began with a good point, let me so end: the production design by Jeff Mann is actually quite nicely filled with throwaway details that lend the universe of the film a realistic quality that the screenplay denies it. You can almost tell how the world of Surrogates works just by carefully attending to how it looks, and letting the subtle details tell their own story. It's a fucking shame that the rest of the filmmaking team was so bad at actually providing Mann with a story worth telling.


26 September 2009


When we last left the career of Alan J. Pakula, he had just completed the first of his major thriller-mysteries, Klute. Hindsight tells us that the director would become one of the decade's most important makers of such movies, and thus we could be tempted to assume that he'd found his "correct" path as a filmmaker; that he would (having dipped his toes into paranoid adventure) keep on going in the same vein. Hindsight would be a damn idiot, for Pakula's next feature instead reunited him with his screenwriter on The Sterile Cuckoo, Alvin Sargent, for a film that I would generally like to think of as "a version of The Sterile Cuckoo that almost completely lacks the sometimes great flaws which kept that film from being much more than an historic curiosity." With the magnificently wandering title Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, Pakula's third film is one of those immensely modest little 1970s dramedy gems that nobody talks about except for the couple that won Best Picture Oscars, but every time anyone sees one of them, their response is always the same: "holy shit, that was a great little movie - why haven't I ever heard of it before?"

For lo! Love and Pain... is indeed a great little movie that I had never heard of before doing my homework on Pakula, and now that I've seen it, I half want to call it one of the best films of the 1970s, not necessarily because it is one of the best films of the 1970s (it absolutely isn't), but because it's so absolutely pleasing that I want to clutch it to my bosom like a kitten and promise that I will do everything I can to rescue it from its present obscurity. It's one of those solid movies for grown ups that doesn't really "do" anything except be a well-mounted story of interest to those with a love of human behavior, a genre that was far more robust in those days when intelligent adults were still in charge of Hollywood, before the actuaries who didn't give a shit about people over the age of 18 or in possession of a vagina muscled into the studio offices.

The subject could hardly be simpler: a young man of precarious emotional state and debilitating asthma, Walter Elbertson (Timothy Bottoms), is shipped off to Spain on a biking trip by a family that clearly has little use for him. At the same time, Lila Fisher (Maggie Smith), a middle-aged Brit who lives with her aunts, has managed to escape her own dull life for a bus tour of Spain. Their paths cross when Walter's asthma proves too strong for Walter's biking, and he hitches a ride on her bus. Over time, and quite without either of them intending to, they begin to fall in love a little bit, and eventually agree to explore Spain on their own terms, and to learn more about each other. Which includes the awkward fact that Lila has a terminal disease.

Pakula and Sargent had come a very long way indeed in the scant four years separating The Sterile Cuckoo from Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (the latter title wouldn't have been half bad for the former movie). Where the first film was at times a bit too studied for its own good, and clearly the work of a director looking towards other films to figure out what he was doing, Love and Pain... is much freer in its style and story, breezy even at its most serious. This is nowhere clearer than the moment where the audience learns that Lila's film-long stretch of fainting and coughing is in fact the symptom of Something Dreadful: it's couched in a gently comic sequence where she's trying to stave off the affections of a duke (Don Jaime de Mora y Aragon), and presented without tragedy. We'll learn from watching Lila in the remainder of the film that she's done mourning, and while she's not excited at the notion of dying, she's not permitting it to be a crippling thing in her life - something the innocent Walter has to learn on the fly, when the time comes. It's her view, not his, that informs the movie's tone, as we could have figured out from the title: when a movie dismisses a fatal disease as "the whole damn thing", we're clearly not being asked to wallow in misery and pathos. This is maybe the chief difference between Pakula's first and third features: The Sterile Cuckoo is taken up with its own seriousness in a way that Love and Pain... avoids.

As I see it, there are two things that Pakula's films had mostly been concerned to this point, and Love and Pain... exemplifies them both. First there is the tendency, imported from the features he produced with Robert Mulligan, to tell what I privately think of as "fishbowl stories": put a person or group of people in a particular context, and observe what they do with themselves: a mentally imbalanced young woman and her inexperienced first boyfriend at college, a tired prostitute thrust into a race to save herself from a murderer, and now a dying woman and an asthmatic wandering through Spain. The biggest difference between Mulligan and Pakula is that generally, Pakula is more psychoanalytic, watching his characters rather than empathising with them; even as he asks us to agree with Lila that her impending death is not to be obsessed over, and dreaded, he does not really let us into her mind. Walter, meanwhile, is too unformed to have much personality, and he honestly seems more of a rare Manic Pixie Dream Boy than a proper character; yet he is still a far more complete figure than the male leads in either The Sterile Cuckoo or Klute.

And this is then the second thing that Pakula had made a pet theme by 1973: giving actresses a chance to be amazing as hell. Unlike Liza Minnelli or Jane Fonda, Maggie Smith does not actually give her all-time best performance with Pakula, but that's more a function of the tremendous quality of her work across 50-something years as a professional actress. She gives a subtler performance in Love and Pain... than is usually the case (none of the operatic broadness of her career-defining Jean Brodie here), inhabiting the meek Lila Fisher as a small, slight, receding figure. It is the most delicate aspect of a film drenched in delicate touches (the unassuming cinematography by the great Geoffry Unsworth is especially good), and continuing proof of Pakula's yet-underappreciated skill with using actors as the linchpins for the whole emotional palette of his movies.

Love and Pain... is unarguably the most emotionally rich of his films to that point, though not in other ways as good as Klute. Its story of an older woman awakening something in a young, untested man is not the rarest in the world (it's been used everywhere from the majestic Tea and Sympathy to the brand-new, please-God-cancel-it-soon Cougar Town), but it is well-done here, as well as I think I've ever seen it done, in fact. Small-scale personal narratives like this are one of the treasures of 1970s cinema, and it pleases me to know that after doing so much to inaugurate the "grimy urban" subgenre of that decade, Pakula could switch back into the other dominant mode of adult cinema of those years so gracefully. Love and Pain... is not one of the all-time great Lost Films, but it's infinitely better than its non-existant reputation suggests.

24 September 2009


It's not new for the monumentally prolific Steven Soderbergh to release two movies in a single calendar year, nor is it new that those two films should represent strikingly different styles and narrative interests, but I am comfortable in claiming that 2009 is something of a banner year for showcasing the man's chameleonic skills, particularly if we count the epic Che dyad as a 2009 release, on account of that nobody outside of New York or Los Angeles got to see it during its flash release in December. But from that film's classically-influenced digital cinematography and poetic-documentary style, the director leaped to the sometimes maddeningly opaque social commentary and meta-narrative play of The Girlfriend Experience back in March, before finally coming to the mock-Oscarbait true story of an agribusiness whistleblower, The Informant!

That wacky exclamation point tells us most of what we need to know about the movie, including what sets it apart from the great majority of Soderbergh's preceding work. More than anything else he's ever made - more than the cool zaniness of the Ocean's films, more than the sardonic yuppy parody of sex, lies and videotape - this is a full-on comedy, although it is still a Soderbergh film, and the people who allow the poster and ad campaign to fool them into thinking that it's a wacky romp will be in for at least a bit of a crippling disappointment. A comedy it may be, but a desperately cynical comedy about a man who wants to be a hero but can't square that with a career full of the most terrible, self-serving acts, and who eventually goes to jail. All the humor on display is pitched from the same angle: God, people can be atrociously dumb, ain't it great? At any rate, it's no The Insider, and indeed it seems as though the point was at least in part to take the piss out of the seriousness of that film and its ilk - it especially seems like a notoriously experimental, audience-unfriendly director attempting to apologise for once having given the world the fine but unexceptional prestige picture Erin Brockovich.

The Informant! is Mark Whitacre of Archer Daniels Midland, played with no small amount of zeal by friend of Soderbergh Matt Damon, covered in just-about-perfect fake hair and fat, though there's much more to the performance than just body modification. To the director, the actor, and theoretically writer Scott Z. Burns (with Soderbergh, it does not do to assume that the screenplay we get has very much to do with the screenplay on paper), Whitacre is a fascinating assemblage of tics, neuroses and contradictions, in possession of a rich and wholly demented inner life that keeps spilling out into the film in the form of voice-over that makes virtually no sense at first blush: why on earth, when talking to ADM executives or FBI agents, does this peculiar man start thinking a long, rambling think about the way that polar bears hunt, for example? After a while, it's obvious - okay, not obvious, but we're watching a character study above all else, and the primary way that Whitacre's character is made manifest is through the bizarre things he says and thinks, and the dull shock that seemingly everyone around him sports as their first and primary response to his musings.

The one thing that The Informant! (Goddamn, I love that punctuation mark) really isn't, is a satisfying, straightforward dramatisation of recent history, although almost everything that happens is square enough with my fuzzy memories from the mid-1990s. For a start, there's no real reason to believe that what we learn of Whitacre-the-man, rather than Whitacre-the-whistleblower, has any basis in reality whatsoever. If this is a truthful biopic of that individual, then it is only in the sense of Herzog's ecstatic truth, where movies can get at what is honest only at the expense of what is factual.

Moreover, the simple question of representation is given a rough workout in the film, which is not altogether as formally rigorous as Soderbergh's most obnoxiously brilliant experiments with narrativity, but still counts as wildly peculiar by the standards of mainstream cinema. The film takes place from late 1992 until 1997, with a pair of codas in 2002 and 2006, but you would never tell from looking at it. Oh, the hair and clothes are pretty much accurate, but the way it was shot; the font of the credits; and especially the score; these all date the film securely to sometime around 1978. Which I think to be a joke in and of itself at the expense of all those other whistleblower dramas, given that the 1970s were one of the all-time best periods in cinema history for anti-corporate thrillers. But whatever the justification, the effect is damned strange: watching a story of the '90s (with anachronistically late license plates, but not that many people are going to notice that and even fewer will care), and it looks like the 1970s. It's fascinating, somewhat inexplicable, and best suited for those viewers, like your humble blogger for example, who enjoy Soderbergh's compulsive dicking around just for the sake of it.

It also results in a tension between the film's single best and single worst element. To start with what's good, the score by the retired Marvin Hamlisch - arguably the greatest signifier of "the 1970s" in the picture - is nothing less than a flat-out fucking masterwork of film composing. I cannot remember the last time that a movie's tone and ultimate effect was so greatly influenced by the original music playing underneath it, but it has been years, at any rate. Taking what could in many places have been a dour or uninflected moment of men in suits wandering about, Hamlisch's jaunty, poppy music gives the film a constant light tone, a touch sarcastic, and devilishly funny (the best gag in the whole movie takes place on the soundtrack, involving a mariachi sting). Much of the film's comedy would be sour or just bland without the score giving it that certain "oomph".

And then there's the other thing, and I absolutely hate to say it, because I love love love when Soderbergh shoots movies under the pseudonym "Peter Andrews" - I think that Che was the loveliest film of 2008, and the first time I ever really bought into the whole "digital cinematography revolution" thing - but oh my lord, The Informant! is ugly. Obviously, part of that is because movies made in the late '70s and early '80s were ugly themselves, more than any other period in movie history; all flat and brown. But there's deliberately ugly (something Soderbergh does well), and then there's ugly digital crappiness, and The Informant! is ugly and digital in all the wrong ways. It seems impossible that a man who shot Traffic in no small part because he wanted to prove the supremacy of film should not find himself making a digital picture that bears all the watermarks of terrible digital production. But life is funny sometimes.

On its own, The Informant! is one of the most fun things I've seen all year, with a brassy lead performance that might even stand as Damon's best. But it's painful to look at; that has to cost it a point, and I daresay it even costs the film a spot as one of the very best films of the year-end run. A good movie it is, but to this Soderbergh junkie, alas, just a hint shy of great.


22 September 2009


Dedicated to Will and Brad, my partners in crime

For my triumphant return to blogging, I present what I feel to be a particular treasure: the single finest thing I've ever helped to make. And that includes every single essay I've posted on this blog in the last four years.

Eight years ago, I was one of three precocious film school sophomores (eight years! my God, when did I start to get old?) who decided, against all reason and good counsel, to make our very first narrative project ever an epic parody of and homage to la Nouvelle Vague française. And the Left Bank filmmakers, though none of us were aware of the distinction at the time.

I'm not going to go on any more, but let the film speak for itself, and so I give to you all Vous ne pouvez pas fumer ici. No, it's not an especially apt title - Défense de fumer would be worlds better - but between us we had my one wobbly year of high school French to go on. Also, between us we'd only ever seen Masculin-féminin, Last Year at Marienbad, La jetée, and the odd clip here and there (we knew nothing about Contempt, believe it or not), but I daresay you could never tell. I'm tremendously proud of this one. Enjoy

Special thanks to Cameron, without whom this video would have been technically unfeasible.

Vous ne pouvez pas fumer ici from Tim Brayton on Vimeo.

19 September 2009


I know that the past couple of weeks have been kind of slipshod, but things have been unduly busy in my personal life. That's reaching a crescendo in the next couple of days, but I promise that if everyone can just hold tight for a little while longer, I'm actually going to return to a semblance of a reasonable blogging schedule, including continuing this Pakulathon that I've kind of let die in something like a regular pattern.

Meanwhile, enjoy the unapologetic '80sness of this cartoon theme song:

17 September 2009


The emergent conventional wisdom is correct about this much: 9, the new animated feature expanded by director Shane Acker from his 2005 Oscar-nominated short, has atmosphere, and it has imaginative style, and that is just about it. The plot is, by all means, a bit of a shambles. Longtime readers have already guessed that I don't have much of a problem with that. Sometimes, a movie needs to have a rigorous screenplay and magnificently compelling story, and sometimes it just needs to be absolutely goddamn beautiful to look at. 9 is absolutely goddamn beautiful and there's no indication that Acker ever wanted it to be any more than that. One can respond to this in one of two ways: either by fuming about how much the film falls apart as a narrative, and thereby depriving oneself of the very rich pleasures 9 offers as a masterpiece of design; or one can get over the idiotic, Hollywoodised construction that movies must first and above all be about their stories. But that's an old rant for me, and I'll drop it.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world that is pretty clearly the ruins of Paris, or at least some kind of alternate-universe Paris where they print newspapers in English, 9 opens with an act of creation: a small man-shaped figure (maybe 8 inches, maybe a touch more) stitched out of burlap with little electric eyes and a zipper running up his abdomen is born into a dusky backroom, where the man who assembled him lies dead on the floor. Leaving the stillness of the interior, the burlap man wanders outside into a world just as still and silent, although arguably a touch better lit; and there it is that he finds another figure not unlike himself, who cobbles together a voice (that of Elijah Wood, but the star-packed cast is largely just here for the hell of it) for him out of a broken talking doll, and who give him his name: he is 9, as shown by the painted number on the back, the kindly stranger is 2, and there are more like them hiding somewhere in the ruins.

2 doesn't get to show 9 where that somewhere is, because they're immediately set upon by a fucking brilliant bit of nightmare fuel: a robot that has been roughly hacked together out of metal parts and a dog skeleton, with one glaring light poking through one of the skull's eye sockets, and it immediately runs off with 2. A bit later, 9 manages to find his way into a sanctuary where other little men - 1, 5, 6, 8 - live in terror from what they refer to in hushed tones as "The Beast".

It would be pointless to go on from there. The thrust is that 9 is clever and braver than the rest, and he ends up going into the wastes and back again and then back into the wastes, and he also finds 3,4 and 7, hiding not just from The Beast, but also the tyrannic 1. A while later, many explosions have happened. And obviously a poorly tossed-together story that serves as nothing more than a delivery system for explosions and action scenes is nothing to be proud of: on this level, 9 is closer in spirit to the work of Superstar Producer #1, Timur Bekmambetov, than Superstar Producer #2, Tim Burton. At the same time, it's more akin to Burton's work in that the very definite aesthetic that informs the whole film is genuinely unlike anything else you've seen (barring, of course, 9-the-short). Whereas most story-light, action heavy films are content to just look big and busy, 9 is unabashedly fussed-over; every detail of the mise en scène is there because Acker or someone on his design team had a most particular reason for it to be there.

Like all the best post-apocalypse movies - a genre for which I have an abiding weakness - 9 creates its environment through suggestion and hinting around, rather than splashing obvious juice all about everything. Not "what happened" - what happened is given out very frankly, in the form of a '30s style newsreel. But that's a plot issue - something 9 doesn't care much about - while the look and feel of the world, before and after the destruction of humanity - something that 9 cares about very deeply - is created with loveliness and delicacy. This is not a future-shock film; it is a vision of apocalyptic machinery and iron-fisted dictatorships straight out science fiction from 75 years ago (elements of the design owe a palpable debt to the endlessly influential Fleischer Superman cartoons). And the traces of the world we see all serve to reinforce the impression that what we're looking at is the '40s gone wrong, a version of the '40s in which Vichy France became its very own military hellhole maybe. And there are subtle differences all about, suggestion to extent to which this is a hardscrabble world of things being patched out of whatever they can be: the small men are all basically the same design, but made out of different fabrics, apparently whatever their inventor had to hand at the moment. Everything else we see in the film is constructed according to a similarly utilitarian discipline. Me, I'm happy as a clam to get my hands on a movie that lets me play around by observing fine details of design for an hour or more, just as a thought exercise - as always, your mileage may vary.

Then, there's the outstandingly creepy design of two of the film's monsters. The Beast is one; there's also a snakelike burlap creature with a terrifying disembodied doll's head (if you, like me, think that disembodied, broken doll's heads are one of the fucking scariest things ever, you, like me, will probably have 9-themed dreams afterward, and they will not be wholly pleasant). I think I can safely claim that in none of the many horror films I've seen this year has anything been as genuinely nightmarish as some of the horrors in 9, and that alone would be enough to get the film my earnest praise. As it stands, that's just the icing on a very wonderfully stylised cake.


15 September 2009


When I included Alan J. Pakula on my poll for who most deserved a full-on retrospective (mostly at the urging of a friend, who wanted to see Pakula get his proper consideration as one of the great directors of the 1970s), it was with no small trepidation; though I didn't think he'd come anywhere close to winning (oops), I was afraid that if he just so happened to manage it, I'd be stuck with finding something, anything interesting to say about his dreadful run of films in the 1990s. And so I shall be, in about three weeks' time. But there were two things that ended up pushing me over the edge:

-I looked forward to the chance to espouse unspeakable heresies about Meryl Streep's performance in Sophie's Choice;

-I wanted to write the review that I have never seen, defending Klute as one of the most important and influential movies of the early 1970s.

And here we are!

Pakula's second project as director took some behind the scenes wrangling before it finally started filming. Around the time that The Sterile Cuckoo wrapped up, he was apparently given the chance to make a never-realised film with Jane Fonda, that never ended up going anywhere. Still, his meetings with the actress left enough of an impression upon him that when he ran across a screenplay by TV writers Andy Lewis and David P. Lewis (who I'm assuming must have been related, though I cannot find proof), a thriller about a reforming prostitute and a taciturn detective, he immediately thought that Fonda would be a perfect fit for the protagonist. The studios apparently disagreed and sensibly pushed for Barbra Streisand, who declined on the concern that she'd been in too many hooker-based thrillers of late, and feared that she'd be typecast.* Even when Pakula managed to snag Fonda for the part, the actress was none to certain that she was the right choice; thankfully, the director kept pushing her, forcing her into ever-more intense states of emotion (she apparently burst out crying sometimes, leading to one of the truly great scenes in the film). The net result was a Best Actress Oscar, for a performance customarily - and rightfully - named the best in Fonda's career.

In Klute, she plays Bree Daniels, a New York call girl who, when we meet her, is attempting to break into acting, and leave the whole sordid underworld behind her. But we don't start by learning that. We start at a boisterous dinner party in the home of one Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli), a noisy and friendly affair that rather abruptly cuts forward some months to the same setting, now the site of a police inquiry. Apparently, in the space of that single edit, Gruneman managed to get himself disappeared, and the only clue to his whereabouts is a handful of obscene notes written in his name to that same Bree Daniels. Gruneman's old friend, a private detective named John Klute (Donald Sutherland), volunteers to head to New York to track Bree down and find out whatever he can, assuming that even bad news is better than nothing at all.

Then we meet Bree, at a casting call for a model. She's just one of a great many girls, and if we don't go into the film knowing what Jane Fonda looks like - and in 1971, I very much doubt that too many people went into Klute without so knowing - we'd have no reason to pick her out of the lineup as any more special than the rest. Which is no accident: the narrative is entirely driven by Bree's wish to become as unremarkable as she possibly can, to be just a random girl in New York, without the wretched past of even a relatively high-class hooker. Which is probably why she gives Klute the brush-off from the first, though he's persistent - after all, she's the only lead he has in the whole city - and eventually manages to rope her into a quest for a man she doesn't recall in even the smallest detail, though Klute manages to ferret out that Gruneman is somehow connected to a particularly violent John that Bree encountered all of two years earlier. And thereon hangs a mystery, as the two wander from pimp to prostitute, looking to find Gruneman or evidence of what happened to him.

When I first saw the movie, a good many years ago, I was somewhat perplexed why it was called Klute when it was unabashedly Bree's story. How very silly I was then. The film may be all about Bree, but it is not a character study, in the classic sense: only in the early going do we get a few quick, detailed sketches about the kind of woman she is at the start. The rest of the story is about what happens to change her; and while that involves a great many things above and beyond John Klute, he is the prime mover for everything that befalls after the first time they meet. So Klute is not the description of the film's content, but its conflict; "Klute" describes the inciting incident in what we might call "The Emerging Consciousness of a Self-Loathing Whore", which would maybe be a good title for a short story, but not for a motion picture (unless it were French).

In hindsight, chiefly knowing Alan J. Pakula as a director of procedural thrillers, it might be tempting to think about Klute primarily as it prefigures his later work. But here at Pakulathon '09, we're taking a chronologically-based approach to his work, which means we can only compare it to The Sterile Cuckoo; and the comparison is much richer for doing so. Frankly, Klute isn't much of a thriller: we learn the identity of the killer remarkably early (and we can fairly easily guess his motives), effectively crushing most of the tension right up until the final scene, where the only question is whether Klute will connect the dots fast enough to save Bree from said killer's clutches. This isn't a flaw, though, but a trick much like when Hitchcock gave away the answer to the mystery in the second part of Vertigo almost as soon as it becomes mysterious. Namely, the filmmakers don't want us to sit around wondering what's happening, looking for clues; we're supposed to ignore the "thriller" elements of the film, and attend to the actual meat of the piece, which is the character study at the center.

As a probing look at a broken woman attempting to un-break herself, Klute is far more successful than The Sterile Cuckoo. There, we were kept apart from Liza Minelli's Pookie with a merciless, clinical perspective; watching the film is not unlike reading a psychiatrist's notes. In Klute, we actually get the psychiatrist (Vivian Nathan), speaking with Bree at frequent intervals throughout the story, in scenes that were all shot at the very end of production, so as to give Fonda the most time to steel herself emotionally for what would prove to be the most introspective, draining moments in a film not shy on introspection or emotional drain. It's altogether more intimate than Pakula's other film, particularly in the way that the grand visuals, expertly captured by the brilliant Gordon Willis in his sixth feature, after five movies that have been essentially lost to memory. In contrast to The Sterile Cuckoo, there are more close-ups in Klute almost than you know what to do with; and even the medium shots are carefully set up to tell us more about Bree and her world than just depict the action happening on screen. The film is rich with deep dark scenes, so shadowy that I'm half-tempted to trot out that over-used comparison, it's like a German Expressionist film; except that German Expressionism was hardly a common touchstone by 1971. All in all, it's a film that doesn't just dramatise Bree's psychology, but lays it out right in the very fabric of its being, a character study in which something as elemental as a tracking shot tells us volumes about the woman onscreen.

It's a tremendous jump for Pakula's aesthetic, and for his control of theme: both of his films to that point are basically the same, in that they are both psychologically-motivated studies of a woman in a particular environment, with special attention to how that environment shapes her mind. But Klute is a far more mature piece of art, so much that it's almost hard to believe that the same director was responsible for both films. Only the skill with which he directs his actresses to incredible, even dangerous mental places really unites the two (his skill as a director of performers would not soon leave him, either, and this is perhaps the most easily undervalued element of his worth as a filmmaker).

Oh, but didn't I promise that I was going to defend Klute as one of the most important films of the early 1970s? Of course "early 1970s" is a bit of a misdirect. The age of New Hollywood Cinema arguably began as early as 1966 or 1967, so 1971 is a good third of the way through. But there's a qualitative difference between e.g. The Graduate and e.g. Dog Day Afternoon, and my admittedly un-authoritative view divides that point to roughly 1971. It was really only after that point that one of the most defining characteristics of a quintessential "'70s Film" started to become truly prominent: the nihilistic, urban setting. If there is one thing that films from that decade do extraordinarily well, it's to depict a certain vision of New York as the hellhole of all hellholes, from the relative opulence and romance of something like The Godfather to the boots-on-the-ground filthiness of the era's many exploitation films. That trend started in earnest, to the best of my knowledge, with Klute, from June of 1971, and The French Connection, from October of the same year. You could write an exhausting list of all the great movies that traffic in the same milieu, and treat it in much the same fashion, as one of these two films (you could also say it all started with 1969's Midnight Cowboy, but that strikes me as an isolated early example). Certainly, the rise in that decade of smart adult-oriented thrillers began with these two films, and given the number of those thrillers that used genre trappings as a mere veil to hide the actual character piece lurking in their heart, I'm inclined to cite Klute as a much more significant influence than the largely action-oriented French Connection.

There is also the matter of representation: in Klute we find one of the first great examples of the '70s Heroine: a woman struggling to maintain her identity in a male-dominated world. It has been argued (not be me, though I'd be sorely tempted to agree) that the 1970s witnessed the strongest female characters in the history of American cinema, and Bree Daniels and her fight to be defined as something other than a sexual object is one of the most fascinating and best-acted women in any movie of that time. Beyond that, the film is a fascinating snapshot of concerns as wide ranging as the emergence of a surveillance society (there is a recurring motif of reel-to-reel recorders that would make The Conversation sit up and take notice), to the fallout from the sexual revolution, a theme that has still never been given its due in an American film, but came closest in the years immediately following this film.

And stylistically, it's right at the cusp of the best parts of that decade. Of course, most of that is a side-effect of being the first prominent work of Gordon Willis, inarguably the best American cinematographer of the decade; but Klute does hold that distinction whether by accident or not, and so it get the privilege of being the motion picture without which The Godfather's magnificent visuals could not otherwise exist. Arguably, every film for many years with any pretension towards looking good owes something to Klute, a dynamite proof that the horrible-looking film stock that seemed to be the only game in town until sometime around 1981 or 1982 could be bent towards the service of real visual elegance.

Now, Klute would be bettered in all sorts of ways by films throughout the next eight years; Pakula himself would blow past it with at least one stone-cold masterpiece before half a decade was gone. But that is not to take away from its place of prominence as one of the earliest masterpieces of its era. Everything that we love still about '70s American filmmaking is in full force here, one of the indispensable films from the most indispensable period of the last 50 years in cinema.

11 September 2009


Before he became one of the most influential and arguably the most under-appreciated directors of the New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s (and long before he became one of the many New Hollywood filmmakers to turn into a parody of themselves in the '80s and '90s), Alan J. Pakula was a movie producer of no mean talent: partnering himself with Robert Mulligan, a director of mostly forgotten prominence during the 1960s, the two men were responsible for a small cache of films that, if not masterpieces, deserve more attention than anyone has given them in decades (such as Up the Down Staircase and Love with the Proper Stranger). Only To Kill a Mockingbird remains particularly famous out of their seven collaborations, and I at least wouldn't be too quick to call it the greatest of those seven, either: at their best, these films are smart, tiny jewels of character study and observation of events unfolding in a particular environment, sensitively mounted with a clean, unobtrusive style, and well-acted by casts assembled more for their skill than their name recognition.

I do not know what happened to create a rift between the Pakula and Mulligan, or if indeed it was a rift at all; perhaps just the gentle separation of two business partners who no longer needed each other. But in 1969, Pakula kicked off his own directorial career with The Sterile Cuckoo, a sensitively mounted character study that looks a whole lot more like the films he produced for Mulligan than the '70s thrillers that have mostly made his reputation in later years. That said, the film is anything but a lamentable waste of his or anyone else's talents: age has not been particularly kind to it, but its blend of very sober-minded drama and breezy sexual frankness - anchored by Liza Minelli in a sublime performance - is all carried off with far more competence and assurance than many directorial debuts have enjoyed.

The film takes place over nine months: beginning with the first day of college for two young people, and ending near to the end of the school year. Those two people are Jerry Payne (Wendell Burton) and "Pookie" Adams (Minelli) - he a painfully quiet, earnest young man, she a blithe chatterbox, full of ideas and whimsies, and an aversion to anybody with the temerity to behave like a normal, square member of society - people she disdainfully refers to as "creeps" and "weirdos". In modern parlance, Pookie is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, perhaps one of the very first: a crazy, vital young woman who shows an uptight young man how to actually enjoy life instead of just shuffling along through it. But what Pakula and his screenwriter, Alvin Sargent knew (and presumably, John Nichols, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based) that most later filmmakers don't quite get is that Manic Pixie Dream Girls, if transferred to real life, would not be very pleasant or very stable people; and that is why, as the year progresses, Pookie goes from being a charming introduction for Jerry to the worlds of love and sex, to a clingy, needy emotional wreck driven almost to a psychotic fit (driven far enough, anyway, to invent a pregnancy long before any outward signs of strains have entered the relationship).

Structurally, the story is about one thing: Jerry and how he responds to this interesting, flighty, draining person. But that is not the story that Pakula was interested in telling (allegedly, he was responsible for re-framing Sargent's first draft to be far more sympathetic to Pookie), and everything about the way he frames the action and presents his two leads makes the film something else: a not-unsympathetic but essentially clinical study of a profoundly broken person. Pookie comes from what we're given to understand, over the course of the film, to have been a cold, loveless home: her mother died in childbirth, and her father has apparently never accepted her as his own; the sterile cuckoo of the title, if you will. This has given her an intense fear of abandonment and a crushing, desperate need to love and be loved, and Jerry is literally the first male she set eyes on after leaving her father's home. She falls in love with him just because he's there, the first opportunity she has to find another human being to give her the warmth that she's been denied for 18 years.None of this is made explicit in the film; but at the same time, it doesn't seem possible to come up with any other reading. That has much to do with Minelli's performance, a heartbreaking bit of work indeed

For all that, Pakula clearly does not want us to pity Pookie, nor to identify with her. The Sterile Cuckoo is a movie unusually devoid of close-up shots: in fact it possesses a rather shocking plethora of extreme long shots of action. That is to say, many of the shots have the appearance of an establishing shot, yet go on for some length and have dialogue overlaid, so that we're clearly watching the plot happening in real time, at such a distance that it's not always clear what's going on. The director is keeping us a firm arm's length away from the protagonists, treating them as bugs in a jar, to be studied and understood but never sympathised with; not at all. Pookie especially is more of a subject than a character; the effect is not unlike the feeling we get in some of Kubrick's films that we're watching the plot with an omniscient degree of removal from the action, although the means that Pakula takes to create that feeling are completely different.

It is an odd thing to make such a claim for a movie that apparently wants to depict common behaviors, easy to relate to. First love in all its awkwardness, the pain of realising that first love isn't for keeps, and the beautiful absurdity of losing one's virginity; these are all the kinds of things that are typically played for the (presumably teenaged) audience's identification and recognition. Here, in a film that seems much more "for adults, by adults", these things are all presented as elements in a case file. The sex scene almost in the movie's dead middle is a masterpiece (easily the best part of the film), not least because it is so well-observed: Jerry's reluctance and desire crashing against each other, Pookie's nervousness manifesting as impatience. But it is also a scene that lacks virtually any trace of emotional resonance. Filmed almost entirely in one extraordinarily long take (long takes abound in this film, but this is the longest by far), the camera becomes a merciless observer, moving only to keep the actors in frame but never closing in on their bodies or movements. It simply watches, watches with maddening intensity, turning these young people into objects.

If all that makes the film sound bloodless, it really isn't. It's just a character study with a tremendously pronounced psychoanalytic bent (Pakula would find a way to make a similar study with a great deal more humanism and less clinical detachment in his next film and first masterwork, Klute). While I wouldn't call it a great film, it is a pretty good one, and more moving than I perhaps am giving it credit for. It's biggest problem, I suspect, is that the director relied a bit too much on a form he'd developed with Mulligan, but his own interests were far more analytical than Mulligan's much warmer humanism.

Okay, that's not the biggest problem: there's a horrid, quintessentially late-'60s easy listening folk song by The Sandpipers called "Come Saturday Morning" that keeps popping up on the soundtrack, particularly in a few poorly-executed montages (though in 1969, I don't suppose filmmakers knew how absurdly over-used the montage would become, and so did not studiously avoid it). It's a goopy sop to the romantic young folk (with bad taste) who were not apparently this movie's target audience, and the tone it sets is jarringly at odds with the story and Pakula's presentation thereof. But no matter; bad soundtracks happen, especially in those days. And if you take that out, The Sterile Cuckoo is still a credible first try for a filmmaker who didn't quite know what he wanted to make films about, just yet.

10 September 2009


In his scant but cult-addled filmography, director Mike Judge has earned quite the reputation as a satirical provocateur, starting with his live-action debut, the much beloved Office Space, a nasty-minded attack on corporate culture in all its forms and the deadening effect it has on the teeming masses of American workers. This was followed by the infinitely nastier and (to my mind, anyway), even funnier Idiocracy, a positively vindictive attack on what Judge perceives as the emerging crisis of the Idiot Class in American discourse: that as well-educated people become more and more aloof in their seriousness, there's nothing to prevent Fox News and its ilk, and the damnable rise of sensational "reality" entertainment from stamping out the last vestiges of intelligence in this country.

These films - the latter in particular - have earned Judge a not-completely fair reputation as a misanthrope, a filmmaker whose favorite pastime is to point out the flaws of everyone else in the world from a comfortable bastion of righteous superiority. While that impression may be the result of careless misreadings of what he's actually trying to argue with his comedies, I cannot help but find his newest, Extract to be something of a mea culpa, trying to work in a gentler, less confrontational mode without sacrificing the core of his worldview: that the way America is trending right now is good for nobody, least of all the many individuals being shoehorned into increasingly dull lives as a result of unchecked consumer culture. That said, Extract leaves itself open to the same kind of criticisms that the former did; but there is ultimately no accounting for taste, and if someone wants to ignore me and find Extract to be a wicked, bitter assault on how stupid everyone is who isn't Mike Judge or his cinematic alter ego, well, let them to their opinions.

For me, this film - while perhaps his least ambitious and almost certainly his least overtly hilarious - is a perfect late-summer tonic, a chill 90 minutes of decent people in indecent situations muddling about without ultimately doing any damage that can't be fixed. It is - dare I say it - a sweet little movie, a genial prod at the great problem facing comfortable people in late-stage capitalism: namely, that comfort carries with it a soul-destroying boredom.

Our hero is Joel Reynolds (Jason Bateman, exquisitely typecast), the owner of Reynolds Extracts, a small food-flavoring company based in what appears to be southern California, but could be any moderate-sized suburb anywhere in the country. Years after building a company from nothing but some keen insights he developed in a college chemistry class, Joel has the whole package of the American dream: a big house with an ostentatious pool, an expensive car, a gorgeous wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig), and the promise of an impending sale to General Mills. Joel is also mostly displeased: the company is staffed by disengaged workers with all the skill and grace of baboons, and Suzie has shut herself off sexually, an iron wall of chastity represented by her omnipresent baggy sweatpants. Things start to come to a head when three things happen: one of his best workers, a drawling redneck named Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.) gets a testicle blown off in a stupid accident; a gorgeous con artist currently named Cindy (Mila Kunis) worms her way into the company trying to weasel some money out of Step's misfortune; and in a horrible decision brought on by some might drugs provided by his blissed-out friend Dean (Ben Affleck), Joel has foolishly procured a beautiful and completely moronic gigolo named Brad (Dustin Milligan) to sleep with Suzie, on the grounds that it will free him up to have an affair of his own with Cindy.

We're securely in Sitcom Contrivance Land here, and every single character in the film (including Joel himself) is nothing but a packet of clichés; and yet Extract has the right rhythm and atmosphere that none of it comes across as insulting or smug. Conceptually, the film isn't terribly far from Office Space: a decent Everyman is surrounded by awful people who bring him down to their level. Except that Bateman is a vastly better actor than the game but somewhat vacant Ron Livingston, and the supporting characters in Extract are treated a whole lot more decently than they were in the earlier film. Yeah, pretty much everyone here is some degree of an asshole; but they're assholes who we can mostly identify with, except the shyster lawyer with the unspeakably terrifying hairpiece (Gene Simmons, in an flat-out brilliant cameo). There's a bit of asshole in all of us, seems to be Judge's argument, so let's not harp on other people being assholes, okay?

I think the key to understanding the film isn't to adopt Joel's POV at all; the film demands to be seen through the eyes of Dean, played by Affleck in a truly revelatory performance that almost certainly ranks as the actor's all-time best work. Be relaxed, don't make a big deal about shit, don't panic. This is an outstandingly mellow and low-key film, a marked rarity in American cinema (God knows, it's practically comatose next to the frantic, idea-packed Idiocracy), and Judge is a gifted enough filmmaker to let that laid-back energy sidle off the screen almost invisibly, infecting the viewer who comes the film sans preconceptions in a most pleasant if subtle manner.

All this comes with a hefty price tag, mind: the film is absolutely not "ha ha" funny (though there's a pot scene that probably qualifies for that description). It's more "heh, that's funny" funny: a knowing smile, the kind that comes when you suddenly recognise truth onscreen for a moment. It's a far cry from Office Space, which made high comedy out of the unmitigated tragedy of white collar labor (it's probably the only film I can name that gets literally breathtaking laughs by telling its target audience, almost in so many words, "your own personal life completely sucks, you know"); though I am certain that Extract will play very well to the Mike Judge cult on DVD - I ought to be certain, being in said cult - it's not anywhere near as much fun to watch. But it's still a more accurate than not observation of how a certain kind of life goes in America, filled with an easy charm that makes its ultimately harsh message - the pursuit of happiness as it currently works is sucking all the joy out of life - essentially painless and sweet on the way down.


09 September 2009


The direct-to-video sequel to a direct-to-video sequel; ah, the '80s! How have we survived 19 years without you?

To be completely fair, Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland doesn't really represent a drop in quality from Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers, for the unanswerable reason that the two films were made at essentially the same time by the same production team, with the same lead actress on several of the same sets. So it oughtn't come as a surprise that Teenage Wasteland (an indignity on par with naming one of the innumerable Jason Voorhees adventures Friday the 13th: I'd Love To Turn You On) is more or less the same as its immediate forebear. Oh, there are some variations within the story, of course, but the nugget of the two films is essentially identical: crazy Angela Baker (Pamela Springsteen) manages to sneak her way into a summer camp, and kills off everyone who doesn't show the proper camp spirit, that is to say, everyone. Which, now that I'm actually thinking about it, doesn't really mesh all that well with her personality as developed in the first Sleepaway Camp, but slasher franchises in general are not noted as hothouses for deeply nuanced character development.

So, what's the pretext for this one? It's a year after Angela killed pretty much everyone at Camp Rolling Hills in upstate New York, and a pair of dippy ex-hippies - Herman (Michael J. Pollard) and Lily (Sandra Dorsey) - have taken on the blood-soaked ruins to engage in a liberal social experiment that just happens to represent a nice chance to line their own pockets. This is Camp New Horizons, which seeks to assemble an equal number of privileged and low-income teenagers, on the assumption that class consciousness will just melt away when everyone spends some time together in the woods. Like any good psychopath, Angela can't wait to get back to the old killing grounds, and she arranges this in the very opening of the film, even before we've heard of "Camp New Horizons". A horribly stereotyped Noo Yawk chick named Maria (Kashina Kessler) wakes up one summer morning and yells angrily to her mother that she's going to camp, and her mother angrily yells to be quiet. This moment of urban domesticity over, Maria gets in her New Horizons shirt (giving us one of the very small doses of nudity in a film otherwise largely devoid of the signature tits 'n gore that are the common or garden variety slasher film's raison d'être), and schleps herself off to the bus. Or taxi. It's not made clear and it doesn't have to be, because she's just barely outside when a garbage truck starts barrelling down on her, and while this first seems just silly, it quickly becomes clear that the truck driver is aiming to run over our Maria, which is still silly, but at least it isn't like people in New York just randomly almost get hit by garbage trucks every day. It's no surprise to us who's driving the truck, and eventually Angela corners Maria in an alley, bops her on the head, and tosses her in the compactor. With either a bad wig or a worse hairstyle mimicking Maria's, Angela is ready to take over the much younger woman's place at camp, ready to once again spread her unique brand of pep.

Our introduction to the Expendable Meat is given by Tawny (Randi Layne), a local newscaster who is pretty much exactly as clichéd as Maria was. First introducing Herman (who is desperately non-committal) and Lily (who is just desperate), she gives us a walk-through of the kids, and let's just buzz through them really fast, because there's not a dime's worth of difference between any of them, anyways: Cindy (Kim Wall), Bobby (Haynes Brooke), Greg (Chung Yen Tsay), Marcia (Tracy Griffith), Peter (Jarrett Beal), Jan (Stacie Lambert); these are the rich kids. Riff (Daryl Wilcher), Anita (Sonya Maddox), Tony (Mark Oliver), A-Rab (Jill Terashita), Snowboy (Kyle Holman); these are the poor kids. And "Maria", who seems, as Tawny notes, a bit old. "Drugs" deadpans Angela. And in no time at all, she's managed to kill off inquisitive Tawny by selling her a bag of Comet cleanser, under the grounds that it's really cocaine. Not ever having snorted any major brand of cleansing powder, I cannot say if one would really die as quickly as Tawny seems to, but it seems implausible.

By the way, do you see what they did there? The owners are named for The Munsters, while the rich kids are named for The Brady Bunch and the poor kids are named for West Side Story. This, to me, has the distinct tang of a trick a screenwriting trick to keep the characters [sic] separate during the drafting phase, only Fritz Gordon didn't give enough of a shit to take it out when the thing actually went before the cameras. And bless him for it, really, because even through there wasn't a moment when I wasn't wondering why the hell I was watching the Bradys vs. the Jets in Bizarro World, at least it was easy to keep track of the Meat's names, and that is something rarely true in a slasher movie of such eminently disposable caliber as Teenage Wasteland.

Oh, and there's one last cog in the wheel to mention: counselor Barney (Cliff Brand), a cop whose son was killed the year prior in the Camp Rolling Hills Massacre (I swear he said John, but Sean was the one who had a cop dad in Unhappy Campers). He's come to help support the utopian vision of Camp New Horizons because, gosh darn it, he never did show his own son the love and pro-camp enthusiasm that he wanted to, and now it's too late. But oh, if he ever gets his hands on that Angela Baker...! And I must give the filmmakers this much credit, they did different things with Barney than I anticipated they would.

With everybody neat and pretty, it's on with the show: each of the three counselors takes four of the kids a separate direction into the woods for a two-night survival camping-a-thon. Angela ends up with Jan, Peter and Snowboy in Herman's group; Herman turns out to be a bit of a chickenhawk, so he and Jan are the first to go (proving once again that Have Sex and Die is a more important slasher rule than Be Black and Die; African-American Peter doesn't go until a solid five minutes later). She then hops from camp to camp, concocting an elaborate web of lies secure in the knowledge that since none of the counselors really trust each other, nobody will think to check up on her story until they're all dead.

And that points to one of the most surprising truths about Teenage Wasteland: it's actually a touch better than Unhappy Campers, no matter how little right the two films have to be any different whatsoever. Now, we are talking about extremely modest differences here, mind you, but enough modest differences can add up to a whole lot of difference at the end of the day. So let's start with the one I used as as segue: the plot is a whole lot less moronic in the third film. Okay, so "twentysomething psycho who was (theoretically) everywhere in the news uses a shitty wig to disguise herself as a seventeen-year-old, and gets away with it because 'there weren't any pictures of her', if you can believe that bullshit" is a pretty moronic hook for a film, but you're either going to accept the basic concept of a film or you're not. And once we get over that rough patch (it takes about 10 minutes out of the film's 79), the rest of the script is not remotely as contrived as Unhappy Campers. There, we had to believe that for three days running, Angela was able to convince the camp owner and head counselor that she was sending girls home en masse, without them ever thinking to check up on her. Here, she only has to keep a lie rolling through three isolated groups that don't expect to have any contact with each other in the first place, and she gets to exploit Lily and Barney's natural expectation that Herman is a wretched fuck-up.

There are two other points at which Teenage Wasteland is a marked step up: first, Pamela Springsteen is not remotely as awful as she was in that film, which makes not a damn bit of sense whatsoever: she was being directed by the same man literally days after wrapping the preceding film, so it's not likely that there was any lengthy soul-searching attempt to figure out a better approach to Angela than the one she used last time. Whatever happened, it's almost like watching a different person in the role: she's not remotely as stiff, and her line readings feel like an actual human being speaking.

Closely related to Springsteen's improvement, the snarky dark comedy that infects nearly every frame of the movie works a great deal better here than it did the last time. There, it was just unpleasant to see Angela toss unfunny one-liners at people as she murdered them in exceedingly nasty ways. Here - because Springsteen delivers the lines better, and perhaps because the deaths aren't as graphic - the unfunny one-liners are much easier to appreciate on the simple level at which they are offered: proof that this Angela cat is loony, but good-natured about her lunacy and not a raving monster. The film is hardly "funny", something its fans try to claim (and yes, Teenage Wasteland does have fans, not as many as Unhappy Campers, but still more than a resoundingly cheap years-later sequel to a genuinely interesting early slasher ought to have), but it's not as grotesque about as the last one.

Oh, but the blood; and the nudity; there are very few things a slasher film needs to do to actually succeed as a slasher film, and Teenage Wasteland manages not to do them, even in the uncut version available on DVD. The fact of that matter is that, in 1989 (the Year That Killed The Slasher, I like to call it), the well was pretty well dried up, and you could start to see horribly prim, bloodless slasher like this with some degree of regularity that would have been unfathomable six or seven years prior. They're not very fun to watch, even if they have things like marginally more sensible narratives and superior lead performances. In this respect, at least, I can support the consensus that Teenage Wasteland is the weakest of the series: take away the grue and all you really have is a plotless riff about a crazy girl who doesn't like cynical people. It's less interesting than I just made it sound.

Body Count: 16, a touch smaller than the last one, but still a truly awe-inspiring total for a film whose killer isn't a hypertrophic zombie in a hockey mask.

Reviews in this series
Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983)
Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers (Simpson, 1988)
Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland (Simpson, 1989)

07 September 2009


A belated apology for letting things get so quiet around her the last two days (which, irritatingly, were to have borne witness to a small explosion of reviews). I am suffering what appears increasingly to be really swell case of food poisoning, and expect to return to the keyboard tomorrow morning.

05 September 2009


Tim: Welcome back everybody, for the second installment of the incomparable Mike Phillips's and my exploration of the films of Japanese crime film master Seijun Suzuki.

So, first the bad news: the film we promised you last time, the irresistibly-titled Young Breasts, turns out not to be available in the US, or at least not in a version that English speakers can get much use out of. In its place, we're skipping ahead a little bit to one of his films from 1963, with an even more irresistible title: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards. This one is about Tajima, played by Suzuki's frequent collaborator Jo Shishido, who is not terribly young and - alas! - does not have breasts, but is the proprietor of Detective Bureau 2-3, which seems to consist of no-one but himself, a hapless assistant, and a sarcastic girl Friday. Their primary business model is to find incriminating snippets of blackmail, until Tajima manages to sweet-talk his way in with the local police agency to let him run a major operation to infilitrate the local yakuza organization, starting with his staged rescue of Manabe, a mid-level gangster (other than Shishido, it's not terribly easy to match up roles and actors), from a stand-off involving two gangs, one armed with samurai swords and one with machine guns. From that point, he works his way ever closer to the yakuza boss, despite never actually convincing anyone that he's completely above-board, and...

Oh, but this film really just isn't about the twists in its narrative, though, is it? It's about a dude fighting yakuza at a million miles an hour, with 90 minutes of one absurd set piece after another flying off the screen. I can't help myself: I completely loved it. Right from the the opening scene, in which a small army springs out of a Pepsi truck to ambush an arms deal, scored by energetic '50s-style jazz, this is such a flat-out fun movie. And surprisingly - at least, surprising to me - campy. For example, this is a crime movie wherein, for no real reason, we suddenly find ourselves watching a musical number (in fact, we find ourselves doing so on a number of different occasions). It's not just that Suzuki wants to keep the action buzzing along at a fast clip, and so keeps the film full of incident; that's to be expected. It's almost like the action always had to be the goofiest thing that he could think of, whether or not it was particularly well-motivated by the plot. It never gets quite as shockingly outlandish as that first song-and-dance scene, but throughout, it's such a silly movie, in such an entertaining way.

I could go on a lot further in that direction, but I'm going to kick it over to Mike now: what was the first thing that jumped out at you?

Mike:Don't worry too much, folks. I fast-forwarded through Young Breasts, and saw nary a young breast. Besides, I think Jo Shishido's hamster cheeks, reportedly puffed out with collagen implants, are a worthy replacement.

To answer your question, the first thing that jumped out was how it all works so perfectly according to its own demented logic—the logic of maximum volume and effect. Why did the hitmen in the opening scene conceal themselves in a Pepsi truck toting thousands of glass bottles? It's simple: so the bottles would shatter in a dazzling explosion of glass shards and foam when the machine guns started firing. Those musical numbers you pointed out are a perfect example, and they work much like numbers in a "real" musical: the characters onscreen build to such emotional heights that the can't help but break out in song. Here, it makes perfect sense for Shishido to jump up and do a little song-and-dance (surprisingly well!) because we've just had to endure a tense few minutes of his fear of having his cover blown. More logic: the hundreds of gangsters surrounding the police station, like something out of Assault on Precinct 13, are armed to the teeth and obviously waiting to kill a prisoner they think is a snitch, but because they possess valid hunting licenses, there's nothing the cops can do about it. It's completely ridiculous, but because everyone accepts it with a straight face, it's hilarious.

My overall favorite thing is that the deadly impeccable logic is carried to structural extremes: well over half the running time is devoted to the gangsters attempts to find out if Shishido is a cop and the cops' efforts to conceal that fact. Both sides go waaaaay beyond the call of duty, escalating things into a game of proto-Spy vs. Spy "gotcha!" Sherlock Holmes couldn't have blown Shishido's cover, but then again Sherlock Holmes couldn't have planned it either.

But the most important question, one that this film leave tantalizingly unanswered, is this: what the bloody hell happened to Seijun Suzuki in the five years since Underworld Beauty? (Aside from making nineteen [19] films, of course.) Those tentative steps, those inklings of the Suzuki form we saw in the earlier film are in full, mature form here, and I, too, was completely blown away. It's so incredibly assured, encompassing flawlessly executed action setpieces, broad physical comedy, unbearable tension, bawdy visual jokes (my favorite: when the boss's girlfriend tells Shishido that the boss is impotent, they're surrounded by construction cranes), utter joyful nonsense (the party girls in bikinis dancing around a Christmas tree to "When the Saints Go Marching In") Gone (mostly) is the noir-ish seriousness and mood of Underworld Beauty; in its place is a funnier James Bond movie, or a more artistic Our Man Flint, or an Austin Powers that can be taken seriously. Seven years into his directing career, he started making films that couldn't possibly come from anyone else.

Tim: I'm glad to hear that I wasn't alone in wondering how this could possibly be the work of the same man who did Underworld Beauty . If that was a somewhat inventive and edgy but ultimately typical crime flick, this is... God, I don't even quite know what it is. You have more experience with Suzuki than I, so I'll defer to you on this point, but I thought it was if anything even crazier than I'd been led to believe.

What it reminded me of, even more than a James Bond or Derek Flint film (though it certainly did; and it's worth pointing out, I think, that Flint hadn't appeared yet, nor can I imagine that Bond had made his presence felt in Japan), was actually Airplane! That's not perfectly appropriate, of course, because it isn't a straight-up comedy, no matter how much you or I laughed; but I got the same sense of a kitchen-sink mentality guiding the whole affair, sort of a "let's make sure that every idea that comes down the pike gets crammed into the film somewhere" thing. Which is by no means a complaint, because it results in some of the most magically oddball things I've seen in a movie for ages. The Christmas tree dance, you've mentioned; and while I know you're elliptically referring to the weird sequence where the Tajima somehow convinces a rural Catholic priest to pose as his estranged father, I think it's worth calling attention to it just on the grounds that it's pretty much amazing.

If I may set all of this aside for now, though, we haven't even started to talk about how the film was shot and cut. Sure, it's well and good to have all of these immensely, pleasurably silly and over the top comic bits and action scenes, but a major part of what gives Detective Bureau 2-3 its special kick is Suzuki's playfulness behind the camera. There's one shot early on that I actually rewound and watched a couple of times in a row, just to gawk at in in awe; Tajima and the police chief are facing off in a battle of wills, and the camera zooms in quickly to underscore the dramatic tension of the moment - but it goes too far, and both men's heads are partially bisected by the edge of the frame. Which rather tends to cancel out the dramatic tension, but since we already know that Tajima is going to win, I'm okay with letting Suzuki go nuts.

Or Manabe's girlfriend's apartment, which for no damn reason whatsoever is lit with urgent candy apple red and bright yellow. It's gorgeous, and absolutely memorable, and it is completely unmotivated by anything in the diegesis. He's breaking all sorts of rules, is basically what I mean to say, and largely just because he can. I shouldn't admire that, but I really do.

Mike:I can't believe I forgot to mention the color. Our first foray into Suzuki-land was in noirish black and white, but this film explodes with color (often literally). I noticed that candy-apple red you admired in Manabe's girlfriend's apartment throughout the film; it was used so deliberately to set things apart from the basic gray of this cops-n-robbers world that I rewatched half of the film to see if there was some pattern or meaning to it. I couldn't find one, but it could be that it's just yelling "Hey, look at this!" which in itself is a laudable message to send. I loved it in that apartment, but most memorable for me was the weird pseudo-mod jazz bar where everything is bright red stripes and the walls are covered with misspelled titles of American musicals ("Pal Toey" being my favorite).

But back to your question about the shooting and editing. I noticed several of those attention-grabbing--- I almost said "miscues," and I might brand them as mistakes in another filmmaker's work, but I feel like underneath all the visual mayhem, Suzuki was in completely control. I mean, at one point during the finale on the docks, a truck bursts through a door and then bumps into the camera, jostling it off-center, but Suzuki kept rolling, and he left that shot in the finished product. And there's another example similar to the one you mentioned, just before the big ambush at the scrapyard: Manabe and Tajima are in the backseat of a car, and the camera moves out the back passenger side door, around the car in herky-jerky movements, and stops with Tajima in the center of the frame and Manabe cut in half on the left side. They talk, and in the middle of a sentence, the camera shifts a bit so we get a more traditionally framed Hollywood two-shot. It looks like an error, but it's such fun that it had to be somehow deliberate. Right? It sounds odd to argue that, since I wouldn't make such allowances for a filmmaker I didn't love so much.

I'm especially enamored of the way he shoots his action scenes. He tends to eschew closeups, going instead for exquisitely framed long shots, sometimes extreme long shots, that artfully arrange the characters into tableaux in which the setting is more than just background: the shocking shooting in Manabe's girlfriend's red-and-yellow apartment, the action in the girder- and crate-filled basement, etc. I found myself wondering if it had something to do with kabuki theater or some other Japanese reference point that eluded me, but maybe our numerous readers and commenters can enlighten us on that.

Next up: a cabal of prostitutes in post-war Japan!

Previously in this series:
Underworld Beauty