Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Jenna Fischer and John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (dir. Jake Kasdan, 2007).

"Fuck Nobility. Fuck ancient Egypt. Fuck cats."



Amy Locane and Brendan Fraser in Airheads (dir. Michael Lehmann, 1994).

Nina Siemaszko and Adam Sandler.

Steve Buscemi and Michael McKean.

Trapped--nay, scuttled--in this genially lame farce about three rockers who hold a radio station hostage is a thoughtful group character study imagined through the chromatic and compositional visual sensibility of a Bellini or a Veronese, were those artists forced to work in cheap temperas and deprived of their usual dignified subject matter.

One thing that's nice is that everyone is played just slightly against type, at least at times. Adam Sandler has not yet crystallized into his more manically rageaholic persona, so he comes off as a sleepy, addled baby. Steve Buscemi is a steroidal satyr, all venom and cockiness (check out his Thor tattoo). Brendan Fraser simmers with an almost believable anger, albeit an anger of vague and risible origin. Chris Farley has some shining (almost dignified!) moments.



Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy in Wanted (dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2008).

Angelina Jolie's body is now its own product placement, so that the more naked she becomes, the more she recedes behind the abstracted symbols of her always once-removed identity. Isn't one of the tattoos actually a bar code? Maybe not, but all the same.

Perfect, then, for this sleek, brutish cyborg of a movie, in which each glistening image, each bit of aggressive voiceover, each digitized syntactical bitchslap is calibrated so as to afflict the viewer in some domineering, vaguely contemptuous way. The special effects have more personality than the human characters, though, to be fair, they have quite a lot of it (the effects, not the characters). How are we supposed to feel about seeing someone get his face mashed to pulp as he's pushed backward across the room in slow motion by the barrel of the gun doing the mashing? Elated, I think. And transfixed by the complex mechanics of the maneuver, both as a concept and a CGI rendering. And (especially) exonerated of any bothersome responsibility toward any residual respect for life we might have been harboring.

The movie ends with the line "What the fuck have you done lately?" (oh, quit your whining, that doesn't give anything away, and even if it does, live with it). One implication here is that I, like the rest of the audience, am a passive consumer of mass entertainment, safely cushioned in my cocoon of vicarious mindlessness. Fair enough. I even pay for the privilege of having this pointed out to me in the course of said entertainment. But the other implication is that the character speaking has ascended to a higher level of animal vitality and existential immediacy by mastering the art of assassinating persons whose names are randomly assigned by a big weird sewing machine. Sure, pal. By those standards, you win.


The Aristocrats

Sarah Silverman in The Aristocrats (dir. Paul Provenza, 2005).

Uneven but frequently hilarious "documentary" about the stupidest joke of all time. I put "documentary" in quotes because much of what is treated in it is pretty hard to take seriously as something that could be intelligibly considered documentable. There's this long, pointless, dirty joke that all comedians know and occasionally tell to each other (but rarely to an actual audience). End of premise. We don't really learn anything about the joke's origins, or how it became a familiar comedic meme, or why it maintains such a foothold in the profession; we're just treated to comedian after comedian talking about how foul and silly it is, and giving their own renditions (which, again, are sometimes flat, sometimes inspired).

The fascinating thing about the joke is the way in which its fundamental conceit causes all the obscenity in it to become emptied of signifying power. Since we know in advance that the point of the joke is to include as much filth and atrocity as possible, we never experience it as actually referring to any of the unspeakable acts involved. Everything is leveled into a purely prosodic or phatic device. The basic outline of the joke is as follows:
A man walks into a talent agency and says, "Have I got an act for you. It's a family act. My wife and I and our son and daughter and dog come out on stage and ... [insert long recounting of over-the-top pornographic, incestuous, pedophiliac, scatological, violent, and otherwise immoral actions the family is said to perform]."

Talent agent: "That's quite an act. What do you call it?"

Man: "The Aristocrats!"

The spectacular unfunniness of this skeletal set-up is what puts all the burden of the joke on whatever sick abominations the comedian can come up with to fill in the middle section. The movie itself takes on some of the structure of the joke in treating the joke as a subject worthy of having a whole documentary devoted to it, and filling ninety minutes mostly with examples of the depravity one is required to imagine in order to tell the joke.

So it's all pretty interesting and amusing. Some viewers have complained about the disgustingness. Like I said, the language itself gets entirely neutralized for me by the conceptual apparatus. I just wish I didn't have to see Carrot Top's butt.

Or the rest of him either.


The Happening

A dead cop in The Happening (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2008).

Anne Boyer writes:
I have no idea why you thought this was a bad movie. Perhaps there are two movies with this name and Roger Ebert and I and a few others have seen one which is quite good, and you are seeing something else?

I had to get online to see why people hated the film so much. Apparently American consumers do not like things that move slowly and do not consider nature a threat. But why would you hate this film?

Certainly an improvement on other recent apocalyptic films, esp. Children of Men. The only weak part was Zooey D. making moon faces and insipid sounds at the camera, but even that worked thematically.

K. Silem Mohammad replies:
I love slowness (I'm one of those "slow poets"). And I'm extremely scared of nature.

I'm even willing to grant that the bad acting (on both Wahlberg and Deschanel's parts) fit the overall "aesthetic" of the film somehow, as did the Monty Pythonesque absurdity of some of the gore (the guy in the lion cage, the guy who lies down in front of the riding mower). I'm just not sure if it was intentional, or if it was, what exactly the intention was, or if it wasn't, why exactly it's as interesting as it admittedly sort of is.

My favorite moment:

WAHLBERG: Close the windows and doors!

Phone conversation ensues in which Boyer points out that the riding mower scene is a visual quote of Tienanmen Square, along with other astute observations. Conversation ends with Mohammad provisionally assenting to proposal that Shyamalan's film is a minor antihumanist milestone in mainstream cinema.


Le Samouraï

Alain Delon in Le Samouraï (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967).

Melville's icy fantasia on This Gun for Hire unfolds with the pristine hyperelegance of a classical ballet or an MGM musical, only quieter. John Boorman's Point Blank came out the same year, and there are some striking similarities in color palette and general composition of shots. Someone can probably tell me if one film was an influence on the other.

Simultaneously more sentimental and more unemotional than Melville's earlier Bob le flambeur, Le Samouraï is nevertheless an exhilarating piece of cinema. It's among the very best of that play-of-cool-postmodern-surfaces neonoir subgenre to which it helped give birth, and within which we are still seeing countless newer directors find material for giddy invention, as drunk on its conventions as though they had emerged for the first time last week.


Diary of the Dead

Amy Lalonde and Chris Violette in Diary of the Dead (dir. George Romero, 2007).

For the first third or so of Diary of the Dead,, I was having a really hard time getting past Romero's determinedly low-budget mentality. I don't think we're talking entirely about an "aesthetic" here: the man is just plain not very sophisticated in about ninety percent of the ways one must be sophisticated in order to create a competent film. But then there's that other ten percent, which he owns.

Land of the Dead (2005) was a disappointment, in part because Romero's DIY ethic (that's what it is--an ethic rather than, or above and beyond, an aesthetic) got spludged up kerplunk against a slightly larger budget and some name actors (Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo). Also, the story was overly ambitious: a dystopic future Road Warrior style city-fortress premise that couldn't sustain its would-be epic weight. In Diary, we go back to square one, when the dead first start coming back to life, and everything is seen through the lens of a camera in the hands of a group of student filmmakers (who are trying to shoot a mummy movie[!] when the catastrophe starts).

The first hurdle is to accept that the film is not very scary. If you can live with that, it's fascinating to watch Romero fiddle with his topos like an equation he can't quite bring to solution, revisiting the old parts of the formula almost obsessively: the newscasts declaring that the dead have returned to life and are devouring the bodies of the living; the nightmarish encounters with undead family members; the bands of trigger-happy rednecks making sport out of the crisis, and so on. As commentary on national and global unrest, it's bald, blatant stuff, ground that has been more effectively covered countless times in the last few years by younger, fiercer filmmakers. In fact, all Romero really has going for him is a type of ramshackle soul, a faith in character (even in the absence of little things like believable dialogue), and a knack for isolated images of shocking eeriness--like the "human goldfish bowl."



Identity (dir. James Mangold, 2003).

Like David Fincher's Se7en or Robert Rodriguez' Sin City, James Mangold's Identity is neon bubble-gum horror noir that thumbs its nose at the very notion of textual depth or subtlety. Identity, however, has a cast that apparently believes they're acting in a real movie, so it's at least fun to watch them wasting their time. In particular, Ray Liotta is maybe the closest thing we've got to a modern-day John Garfield or the like: playing a man, not a good man, trying to pass as an upstanding citizen and constantly betraying his thug's heart through little shrugs and guilty glances, he is a marvel to behold. He should have won something for this (did he? I don't keep track of those things). John Hawkes is good too, and John Cusack ... well, you know, he's always the same, but it works. John McGinley is squandered on any role where he doesn't play a jerk. Amanda Peet is all over the map, as usual, but she has so much gusto. Alfred Molina is practically an extra. Then there's poor Rebecca De Mornay, who is cast, it seems, chiefly as a cruel joke at her expense. John Hawkes, behind the motel desk, looks at her ID and says with a look of delighted recognition, "Didn't you used to be that actress"?

As for the story, it's a colossal cheat, not quite as clever as it tries to be, and therefore unable fully to compensate for its root inanity. Visually, it's terrific. The motel set they built for the film is almost too perfect. The color balance and meticulously arranged iconic retro elements (flickering sign, etc.) are so stunning that you can never quite forget you're looking at a simulacrum. Which, in a way, is appropriate.


The Truth About Cats & Dogs

Ben Chaplin in The Truth About Cats & Dogs (dir. Michael Lehmann, 1996).

Janeane Garafolo and Lisa Marie Russell.

Ben Chaplin and Uma Thurman (in medieval saint's pose).

Upon watching The Truth About Cats & Dogs, my left brain automatically sets up a right-hand column of cons in opposition to the left-hand column of pros set up by my right brain, and neither ever emerges as the dominant column. There are some premises that are hard to get past, the most unbuyable being that a guy falls in love with a gal on the basis of her radio personality, then can't recognize her voice when talking to her in person. There's also the cop-out around the issue of beauty: Janeane Garafolo's character Abby is presented as a plain jane (or at least she perceives herself that way), but there's no getting around the fact that Garafolo is hot. The point is supposed to be that she overcomes her own insecurities, etc. etc. But what if Abby were actually homely? How would that affect the reaction of the male lead upon finding out that she's not actually Uma Thurman? The message seems to be that physical beauty is unimportant--as long as you've got some on reserve.

There are also some unsatisfyingly unresolved plot strands. What happens to Uma Thurman's asshole boyfriend? She realizes he's a loser at one point, but we never get to see his dismissal. He's set up as such an ogre that it seems unfair to deprive us of a comeuppance scene. Jamie Foxx is given almost nothing to do--a big waste. And maybe I blinked and missed it, but what was the job Garafolo sets Thurman up for at her station towards the end of the movie? The way the scene plays, it seems like we're supposed to wonder what's written on the little slip of paper Garafolo hands Thurman, as though it's going to be a big funny surprise when we find out. But nothing.

On the other hand, there's something interesting in nearly every scene (well, maybe every other scene). How many Hollywood romantic comedies are there where one of the couple reads Roland Barthes to the other as a prelude to phone sex? And the scene where Ben Chaplin feeds Thurman cheesecake is both funny and grotesquely erotic. The relationship between Garafolo and Thurman is the other, perhaps more believable love story in the film (though of course this remains at a commercially safe level). Same-gender friendship is, I suggest, the key component of the "chick flick," or its flip side, the "dick flick" if you will, which usually involves some guy trying to get laid, receiving extended counsel from his male cohort, and/but inevitably finding out he really wants intimacy. This is Lehmann's metier, on both counts: he directed last year's Because I Said So with Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore, as well as 2002's 40 Days and 40 Nights (perhaps the purest example ever of how dick flicks are actually chick flicks in drag) and 1994's Airheads. Most notably, he directed Heathers (1989), which hinted at a future career of dark satire and trenchant cultural critique. But like I said, Airheads.