Sandra Bullock in Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013).

One review I've seen called Gravity an "intellectual blockbuster," comparing it to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Actually, it's not particularly intellectual. It's a lot of things: emotional (in a way that some might experience as "spiritual"), spectacular (it looks like several brilliant artists' and scientists' minds exploded onscreen), somatic (not just in its ability to thrill and startle, but in the disturbing vertigo of weightlessness it induces throughout). What makes it feel like there's deeper thought happening is the cumulative effect of all these elements. There are few if any instances of blatant symbolism, for example. Instead, the "deeper meaning" of the movie insinuates itself via the wiped-out, vulnerable, imaginative mood that follows the viewer out of the theater, a mood in which the mind is primed to wander poetically through whatever mortal territories.

In other reviews, I'm seen complaints that Sandra Bullock's character Ryan Stone is portrayed as too weak, indecisive, dependent on others' help. These viewers would prefer that she be a take-charge badass like Ripley in Alien. But this shows a complete lack of sympathy with the aspect of the film that makes it most memorable and moving: Stone has largely given up on life. Her survival drive never kicks into full gear; it's always just the best she can do at the moment. The pathos of her extreme vulnerability is amplified by the audience's anxiety that she may be too beaten down by her own sorrow to confront the challenge that confronts her as aggressively as needed. And this in turn makes every little last-second thing she does right seem like a major victory.

I've also seen the complaint that the script is weak. This depends on how you define "script." True, Stone's dialogue is mostly stuff like "Oh no," "Help," and "I hate space." When she does start to soliloquize, it's spare and sentimental. Bullock, in other words, is made to play more or less the same person she always does: a slightly tongue-tied, above-average fumbler. Here, however, the traits that make her comic identity quirky and winsome make her dramatic one seem damaged and scarily real.

The strangest part of the movie is George Clooney's character, Matt Kowalski. His role as affable guardian angel is so exaggeratedly providential at times that he might as well be an actual angel--a laughable suggestion that's never quite made by the film, but still tangible enough that the visible signs of Kowalski's humanness (desire for vodka, flirtatious comments, general rakishness) seem almost like decoys to keep us from grasping the truth too soon. Even if we don't want to go all the way there, it's striking how Kowalski never seems quite real, and how this somehow doesn't seem like a problem. Clooney, needless to say, is perfect for the part.


Jesus' Son

Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton in Jesus' Son (dir. Alison Maclean, 1999).

Billy Crudup and Jack Black.

Denis Johnson's 1992 book of short stories Jesus' Son not only leaves its narrator unnamed, but it leaves open to question whether this narrator is in fact the same from story to story. It's easy to see why so many readers assume it is. The voice throughout goes back and forth between various levels of heroin-addledness, which one can reasonably imagine as representing one person at different stages of deterioration or (partial) recovery. But it's never made explicit. This narrative structure is crucial to the book's power: the very notion of continuous identity is one of the commonplaces rendered unreliable or even moot by the destructive force of addiction. Similarly, even if we decide the speaker is the same, it's not clear that the order of the stories is chronological. They could well represent randomized memories of a life in irreparable disorder.

These are the main reasons that Alison Maclean's 1999 movie version utterly fails as a whole, despite the impressiveness of many of its parts. The decision to treat the book as a novel with an unequivocally consistent central character is disastrous (though it would have been equally disastrous to come down explicitly on the other possibility, that the characters are different, and it may be that the book is simply unfilmable). It's always a bad sign when a film adapted from a book relies heavily on voiceovers of speech lifted directly from the original text, and in this case the offense is particularly grave. Though probably no one could pull this off, Billy Crudup has no idea what to do with Johnson's gnomically elliptical prose. He tries to make it sound natural, even jaunty: big mistake. It's not natural, it's literary. It's not a script for performance, not a realistic facsimile of someone's interior monologue, but a deft superimposition of a pointed authorial sensibility onto characters who, if they were real, might well not even share much of that author's vocabulary. In the same way, the decision to render the discrete stories as a continuous arc of dramatic crisis eventuating in cathartic self-realization flattens out Johnson's far more challenging avoidance of obvious sequentiality.


Where the Wild Things Are

A wild thing with James Gandolfini's voice and Max Records in Where the Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze, 2009).

J. Hoberman, in his Village Voice review, refers to Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are as a group therapy session with muppets, and that's not inaccurate. For Hoberman this is a problem, but to my mind, Dave Eggers' script is the most engaging application of neurosis as an impressionistic medium since early Woody Allen. A word I might use to describe the film is "druggy," which is also usually an insult. But these are really weird, powerful drugs that leave the viewer--this viewer, anyway--in an emotionally complex state.

Sendak's book was never much on my personal canon; I always thought of it as slight and ponderous at the same time, too infused with what seemed to me like pop Jungianism and cheap primitivism--which is sort of impressive, considering that there can't be fifty words in the whole thing. But you know, it was just a kid's book, so no big deal. The pictures were pretty. Eggers' script, however, takes the dated psychological undertone of the text and turns it inside out, using the threadbare therapeutic allegory as satirically baroque wallpaper. The satire is never harsh or overly cynical, so the resultant tone is a poignant mixture of farce and elegy. Says Carol (James Gandolfini), walking with Max through a desert that symbolizes the sadness of a young person's first apprehensions of universal entropy, rocks turning to sand, and sand to dust, "I don't even know what comes after dust."

The weakest moments in the script are the two or three instances in which Sendak's words are pasted reverently into the dialogue (e.g., "Let the wild rumpus begin," or "I'll eat you up, I love you so." Other than this, the overall mood of sloppy beauty is immensely moving. A lovely film.


Drag Me to Hell

Adriana Barraza, a goat, and Alison Lohman in Drag Me to Hell (dir. Sam Raimi, 2009).

Commercial horror with the vicious glee and exuberant silliness of an EC comic. Sam Raimi appears, on the evidence of interviews, to believe that his little film carries a moral message. This proves only that one does not have to be very deep to make a good movie. If we take Raimi seriously, we have to conclude that he has the moral vision of a radical Protestant bolshevik, and frankly he's not that complex a thinker. The "morality" of this story is really just stylized cruelty wound up tight like a mousetrap programmed to snap at well-timed intervals, which is the only thing that really makes it more interesting than any other PG-13 horror comedy. Because the main character is a loan officer who rejects an old lady's plea for an extension on her house payment, some reviewers read the film as a thoughtful socio-economic critique of some sort. Again, forget it. It's nothing but base carnival spookhouse manipulation that only asks to be taken seriously at the climactic moment--making that the funniest moment of all.


Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974

Miyuki Takeda in Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 [Gokushiteki erosu: Renka 1974] (dir. Kazuo Hara, 1974).

The intensity of some films makes one not only overlook their technical limitations, but embrace them as essential to its vision. Throughout most of Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, which was shot on bargain-basement home equipment, the voice synch isn't even close enough to be considered synch, and whole scenes, including a crucial one, are entirely out of focus. It's impossible to ignore these distractions--and they are distractions. There's no way to construe them as intentional, or even as accidental enhancements, in any direct aesthetic sense. But what one is aware of is the length to which one is willing to go to overlook the glitches, as though peering out a hotel room window at night, willing away the darkness and the noise of the traffic, voyeuristically trying to make out what's going on in the room across the street. The obstructions are not a means of invention for the artist, but a sacrifice the viewer is willing to make--and having made that sacrifice, our involvement is deeper.

Miyuki Takeda, the subject of Kazuo Hara's film (and of his own romantic obsession), is anamorphically chimeric: she is complex, and brutally simple; passionate, and cold; nurturing, and hard; sympathetic, and repellent; radically feminist, and thoroughly colonized by patriarchal ideology; quixotic, and realist to the point of cynicism. That is, she is real in a way that can never be fully captured by fiction. She drives Hara to tears on camera, and it's irrelevant whether we think she is cruel, or he is a sap, or both, or neither. "Character" dissolves into medium, and morality is transformed into memory. We feel the death that fills in the space behind each human experience like curtains of black ink, and that death sobers us out of judgment.

The streets and ports of seventies Okinawa are correlatives to both Takeda's toughness and Hara's sentiment. They are never picturesque, never lyrical, even in a noirish sense. They are just fleeting splashes of the historical Real, left as stains on film. Similarly, the two live births that are the culmination of the documentary defy any habitually conditioned emotional response. Takeda's relationship to children is somehow central to the film's "dramatic" movement, but by the end, all that can happen within that structureless structure is an overflowing or outpouring, a release of new life that is neither particularly hopeful nor particularly fatalistic. The final images of Takeda soaking in a tub full of babies arrest whatever prejudicial impulses might still be left flickering in the viewer's brain, and replace them with a simultaneously frightening and exhilarating readiness to see what new meanings can be forged there.


Pit and the Pendulum

Barbara Steele in Pit and the Pendulum (dir. Roger Corman, 1961).

Larry Turner as the young Don Medina.

Vincent Price.

The second of Roger Corman's eight or so Poe adaptations (depending on which ones you count as actually having anything to do with Poe). Richard Matheson again supplies the script, as he did for House of Usher the previous year.

Corman's Poe films have been celebrated often and vigorously, and for good reason. They are models of just how much visual and emotional power can be generated on a relatively low budget, and without worrying too much about things like logic, continuity, or decent acting. Barbara Steele (star of such horror-sleaze milestones as The Maniacs, Terror Creatures from the Grave, , etc.) is perfectly cast for such an enterprise: nearly rangeless as an actress, and creepy looking in a really hot way. And Vincent Price, of course, transcends conventional definitions of talent altogether. As the tortured Nicholas Medina, he gives a masterful portrayal of simpering guilt that slides abruptly into psychotic mayhem. The rest of the cast could be replaced by bookshelves wearing clothes, but the total effect is so good it doesn't matter.

The title contraption is all that remains of Poe's story (actually, that's all there really is to Poe's story). The rest is stock gothic plot elements woven into a flimsy and familiar shape: Nicholas's beautiful young wife Elizabeth (Steele) has died suddenly, and there are fears that she may have been buried alive. Elizabeth's brother (Michael Kerr) arrives from England laden with suspicions. Nicholas's doctor (Antony Carbone) and sister (Luana Anders) supply additional occasions for purple dialogue and advancement of the narrative, such as it is. But from start to finish, somehow, it offers everything one can reasonably ask of it, and the final shot is one of the great moments in horror cinema.

One more thing I have to add, speaking from purely poetic interest: I love the way the film omits the first article in the original title ("The Pit and the Pendulum") while retaining the second. It defies grammatical sense, and should by all rights never have made it past whoever was in charge of looking out for those things (well, there you go, I guess). And it's perfect. Any parallels out there that anyone else can think of?

The colorful title effects.


The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2008).

Mickey Rourke has never been one of my favorite actors, and it's odd that this stale dirty-realist draaaaama should show him to best advantage. He gives himself entirely over to the role of Randy "the Ram" Robinson, a wrestler who was big in the eighties and still clings to the decade's hair-metal ethic for dear life. The film gets just the right grainy look, and for the first twenty minutes or so, you're ready to believe that The Wrestler will plunge Cassavetes-like into the quotidian depths of its subject matter's spandexy squalor. But Darren Aronofsky is no Cassavetes, and after the insanely gnarly barbed wire and staple gun scene, which is almost worthy of Gummo, it's mostly clumsy emotion-wringing about the wrestler's relationship with his estranged daughter and the stripper with a heart of gold who tries to help him straighten out his life. (The stripper, by the way, is Marisa Tomei, whom I refuse to stop thinking of as my favorite actress despite not being sure if she can really act or not.) There are a couple of scenes with Rourke working behind the meat counter of a supermarket that nearly redeem the otherwise patience-testing stretches of generic triteness.


Top Ten Films of 2008

This year's list took some padding and slippery conceptualization before it would satisfy me. If it had been a list of just comedies, it would have been easy to complete: many of the top ten are comedies, and I would have felt OK about including Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Role Models, Semi-Pro, Baby Mama, The House Bunny, Ghost Town, and maybe even Tropic Thunder and the fatally flawed Zack & Miri Make a Porno (not What Happens in Vegas, though). None of these, however, felt quite strong enough in the context of a general list of all the new films I saw during the year. I'm not quite sure what principle I'm appealing to in this distinction. But finally, the ones that made the cut did so on the basis of how strong my combined emotional and intellectual reaction was to them, and as a result, how often I thought about them after seeing them. Note: there are still quite a few prominent releases from 2008 that I haven't seen yet (e.g., Milk), so it's possible that this list could be modified in the weeks ahead.

10. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (dir. Guillermo del Toro). I don't remember much of this one now, but I know that when I saw it I was impressed by the sensuous energy of its fantasticality: the kind of thing Terry Gilliam always aims for (when Gilliam hits, it's only because he uses a shotgun). It was drowned out by the thunderous release, a couple days later, of The Dark Knight, and it deserves some recognition.

9. The Happening (dir. M. Night Shyamalan). "Best" must be carefully qualified here. Like a lot of other viewers, I was at times slack-jawed at what was either ineptitude or tonal inscrutability on the part of almost everyone involved in this bizarre, dreary, eco-Jeremiad. But it has stuck with me. Some of the images have the irrational, troubling aura of nightmare, somehow made all the more eerie by virtue of their blank execution.

8. Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman). This would be either higher or lower on the list if I could decide whether it adequately critiques the middle-class white-male subjectivity it privileges, and whether it makes a difference even if it does. I think maybe I only put it on here at all because I just really like synecdoche.

7. Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (dir. Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg). Crass, unfocused, and adolescent. Anyone got a problem with that? Rob Corddry wipes his ass with the Bill of Rights. Enough said.

6. Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood). In his late seventies, Eastwood is looking more and more like Bud, the domesticated zombie in George Romero's Day of the Dead. But he wears it well, that beautiful, beautiful psycho.

5. The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan). Batman Begins was elegant, but narrow and overly prosaic; The Dark Knight is a steam-shrouded juggernaut, a Wagnerian spectacle. Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is like an ultraviolent aria. Oh, the film's politics are screwed up. Well, if they weren't, it wouldn't be a very accurate reflection of the state of our collective military-industrial fantasy life, now would it?

4. Pineapple Express (dir. David Gordon Green). Gratifying buddy antics with Seth Rogen and James Franco. Part of what recommends this, I will admit, is simply the memory of the trailer, so expertly edited to M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" (which I don't believe actually plays in the movie itself).

3. Step Brothers (dir. Adam McKay). "I'll kiss you on the mouth, Kenny Rogers."

2. Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris). Renée Zellweger is such a ho in this! And yet the film manages never to judge her. Rather, it makes her a central hub of sympathetic attention (without requiring her to move a muscle, really). And on top of that, it's just a fine old-school western: relaxed dialogue, tense physical confrontations, and bold, expressive vistas. Big cat sitting on a mountaintop, watching a train go by in the distance. Hallelujah.

1. Burn After Reading (dir. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen). The Coen Brothers squeeze into the number one spot for the second year in a row with their most pessimistic and contemptuous work to date. Burn After Reading is a grim downward spiral of a spy spoof that drags you around by the heels till your fingernails scrape off on the asphalt. It gleefully forces its cast to surrender all dignity, especially Brad Pitt and George Clooney. A cinematic tone poem blowing a shrill raspberry at the human species.


Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Brooke Chia Thao, Chee Thao, and Ahney Her in Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood, 2008).

The critical controversy surrounding Gran Torino is that Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a largely unrepentant racist: he calls the Hmong family living next door to him "gooks" and other unpleasant things, even after he develops fond feelings for them and befriends the directionless son, Thao (Bee Vang), who tries to steal his precious 1972 Gran Torino in a botched gang initiation rite. The ideological problem, in plain terms, is that Eastwood's character is depicted as simultaneously bigoted and likeable. Obviously this sends a clear message that racism is endearing, and as a result audience members will leave the theater hurling epithets at minorities and expecting that people will find it cute. A small percentage of viewers, it is true, may realize that it is a work of fiction and not an educational filmstrip on social etiquette.

It was pointed out to me after the movie by the people I watched it with that Bee Vang is a terrible actor. I guess this is true in retrospect, but it didn't bother me. He's such a likeable kid. The whole movie is immensely likeable. And if its likeability weren't in many ways troubling, it wouldn't be as resonant as it is.

At one point, Thao's sister Sue (Ahney Her) tells Walt that she wishes he had been her father. Her own father, she says, was "old school." Walt points out that he's old school too. "But you're an American," she replies. We're not told what that means exactly, but it's clearly supposed to be a good thing. I think it has something to do with allowing people (including oneself) to screw up. This is certainly presented as a major theme of the film, thus the subplot about Walt needing to go to confession so he can cast away the "burden" of the horrible things he did in the Korean War. And that's as good a way as any of describing what is best and worst about being American: the idea that you can be forgiven for just about anything, especially if you're charming enough.

As a director, Eastwood pushes the adjective "workmanlike" as close as it can get to "excellent." He's like Walt: he has a garage full of a bazillion tools specially made to cover just about any task that might come up. He has a masterful sense of detail, fluid narrative energy, restrained symbolic instincts--if at the end the total structure is still that of a 1980s made-for-TV movie, it is at least the one that you watch again whenever it is rerun. And as an actor, he is tops in his field (the field of stony, snarling, antisocial scarecrows who must one day make hard choices that are too big to be contained by their day-to-day moral world views, and that thus explode them). Like John Wayne, he embodies both the romantic and the repellent sides of conservatism at once. He performs jingoistic, self-destructive, guilt-ridden acts of paternalistic heroism for you so you don't have to get your hands bloody. In return, all he asks is that he gets to call you a pussy. I treasure the man. I can't help it.

Nutshell synopsis: combines the best aspects of About Schmidt and Death Wish.


Synecdoche, New York

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Samantha Morton in Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman, 2008).

The heading for one of the message board threads at the IMDb page for Synecdoche, New York reads, "Maybe this makes more sense to atheists."

Honey, nothing makes sense to atheists. That's the way we like it.

I am left deeply unsatisfied, nevertheless, by the incoherence of the frivolous Schenectady/synecdoche pun out of which I cannot but imagine the film initially sprang as an improvised whim. This dissatisfaction, in fact, is itself a synecdoche for my more general misgivings about Charlie Kaufman. Yes, I was entertained by the movie, even moved at times, but I could never quite get past the way it broadcast its sense of itself as the work of an intrepid junior genius. Prodigal precociousness became Being John Malkovich; a decade later, it smacks a little of wishful thinking.

And yet the perennially-on-fire apartment is a lovely metaphor, both humorous and haunting, and there are a number of these touches throughout.


Across the Bridge

Rod Steiger in Across the Bridge (dir. Ken Annakin, 1957).

A businessman (Rod Steiger) fleeing to Mexico to avoid prosecution for financial corruption throws a fellow passenger off the train in order to assume his identity. Upon deboarding, he finds he has inherited the man's dog. From a short story by Graham Greene. Despite the slightly distracting feature of having lots of Mexicans played by British actors, a fine, taut drama with a Wellesian feel (more, probably, on account of the setting and theme than anything else--stylistically, it's closer to Hitchcock). The central narrative problem is how to make the gradual development of the man/dog relationship interesting without resorting to tired sentiment, and it's handled very intelligently. Steiger becomes more likeable as he starts to fall apart under the pressure of paranoia and guilt, even though there's never any overwrought "moral transformation."



Angelina Jolie in Changeling (dir. Clint Eastwood, 2008).

I usually like Clint Eastwood movies best when he's in them--his own presence serves to distract him from his over-inclination towards redemptive aureate radiances and/or somber grey existentialities. Not completely, but just enough to make those excesses seem like evocative backdrops rather than strained auteurial strivings. In Changeling, it falls upon Angelina Jolie to do the distracting, and she puts in a heroic day's work of it. I think Jolie is one of the small handful of present-day cinematic leads who could have flourished in the old Hollywood star system. Not so much on the basis of her looks, which are solid evidence of whatever evolutionary transitions have occurred in the species over the last three decades or so, but her unabashed self-glorifying gaze, her confident sense of herself as a strange and wonderful idol whose human feet are just for show: she doesn't really need them to glide around as she does.

As Christine Collins, the real-life mother of an abducted child in 1920s Los Angeles, Jolie doesn't so much display authentic human emotions as invent new ones, on the spot, as she faces the camera. It's never as moving or pathetic as a more traditionally mimetic depiction of the event would be; instead, it's fascinating in a mechanical way. The anguish and grief is there, but it's bracketed, subjugated to its function as a narrative torture device. And the torture is very effective. It wrings from the viewer a confession of sorts. That confession is that we enjoy witnessing the progress of others' pain, at least when it is schematized and coordinated into narrative. Confessions like this are invariably followed up with the prospect of absolution, and to the film's credit, it does not try to force this sell. It does, however, try to sneak some pamphlets in your pocket at the last minute.

Besides Jolie, the other visual focal point is the ridiculously beautiful recreation of 20s LA. It's more than we need for this story, but as ostentation, it's admirable as hell. One historical detail, however, has bothered me since seeing the film (about a month ago): at one point, Collins tells her son that there is a "sandwich in the Fridge" for him. This sounded anachronistic to me, so I did some Google-searching. Frigidaire was indeed already a popular brand by this point, but I couldn't find any evidence one way or the other as to whether the casual abbreviation "Fridge" was yet current. Anyone?



Ida Lupino in Moontide (dir. Archie L. Mayo [replacing Fritz Lang], 1942).

Jean Gabin as Bobo.

Alcoholic montage sequence courtesy of Dalí.

The massive publicity campaign undertaken by Twentieth Century-Fox to make French star Jean Gabin into an American heartthrob was largely a failure. It's interesting to think what audiences made of him in Moontide. He's aggressively aloof, ungainly, almost simian. It appears at times as though America is an alien planet for him, with an unbreathable atmosphere. But it's also clear why he was a star in the first place: he seems in control of every interaction between every part of his body and the camera, down to the minute shadows cast by his facial pores and wrinkles.

The same can be said for Ida Lupino, whose ethereality is always compellingly at play with her back-alley sickliness. She glides limpingly, you might say. You might say that's what this entire movie does. The limp can partly be attributed to the replacement of Fritz Lang as director with the terminally prosaic Archie Mayo, but fortunately enough of Lang's touch remains to give Mayo a healthy push start.

The entire movie is shot on sets, creating a dislocated, dreamlike sense (or the sense that you are watching a filmed play, depending on how generous you want to be). A brief, surreal montage sequence by Dalí is barely a departure from the general mood.


Forty Guns

Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1957).

Gene Barry, Robert Dix, and Barry Sullivan.

Sandra Wirth.

Barbara Stanwyck's role in Forty Guns is in some ways similar to the part she played a few years earlier in Anthony Mann's The Furies: a gutsy frontier matriarch who rules her ranch with an iron (albeit nicely manicured) hand. In both films, she's the core of emotional energy--her presence is inimitably, passionately electric. She vies compellingly with Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar for the distinction of ultimate western dragon lady.

The plot here is almost shapeless. It's been about a month now since I watched it, and I couldn't tell you the storyline if my life depended on it. What I remember is Fuller's riveting staging, and the overall mood of psychological wryness translated into kinetic strings of sexually charged code-images. If Hitchcock had ever done a western, it might have resembled this, at least visually. (Wow--don't you wish Hitchcock had done a western?)



Anselme as le chanteur de faïence in Avida (dir. Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine, 2006).

Velvet as Avida.

Claude Chabrol as le zoophile débonnaire.

At eighty-three minutes, Avida still feels long. There are a few inspired moments, notably a brief appearance by Claude Chabrol as an aged connoisseur of roebuck flesh, the performance by one Anselme of a grating yet somehow eerie and compelling synth ballad about faience dinnerware ("nice and stored away"!), and a taxidermy scene that will test the endurance of pet lovers in a manner similar to Gummo. The casting of Velvet (whom I understand to be in her extra-cinematic profession some sort of online BBW courtesan) as the titular Avida is hit or miss depending on your tolerance for extreme amateurism. She can't act even when she's pretending to be unconscious.

The surrealism throughout is strained and mostly tired, flashing only occasionally, as I said, into arresting visual and conceptual vignettes. Totally worth seeing, however, for the elements mentioned. Thanks to Lanny for loaning me the DVD!



Renée Zellweger in Appaloosa (dir. Ed Harris, 2008).

When the only two bad things about a movie are the title font and the song that initiates the end credits, it's an occasion for celebration. Ed Harris has annoyed me at times in the past with his sincere, oaken maleness, but he knows how to make a western. He knows, for instance, the effectiveness of good banter, how it can account for up to 73% of the script. A good reference point here is Howard Hawks' triumphant Rio Bravo, which is really just John Wayne, Angie Dickinson, and Dean Martin trading small talk with a little jailhouse siege thrown in towards the end.

It's very satisfying watching Harris, Viggo Mortensen, and Renée Zellweger respond to each other's verbal and nonverbal cues with acute sensitivity and humor early in the film. It makes it even more satisfying when the easy conversation runs up against betrayal and disillusionment, and when those traumas are in turn met with pragmatic, stoic reason rather than stock bursts of violent passion (in the romantic plot, at any rate--there's plenty of frontier vengeance on the shoot-'em-up front).

It's an old-fashioned movie, but never blandly nostalgic. Zellweger's Allison French might be perceived as gendered in retrograde ways, but this depiction actually serves as an energizing constraint for both actor and script. Early on, Harris' Virgil Cole asks her if she's a whore. She takes it as an amusing affront, laughing in response, "Don't be crude." And it seems obvious to us as well that his question was inappropriate--until later events recolor our judgment. But then all is carried yet further to a delicate balance of grace and realism. Her "weakness" is what makes her interesting, not because she is able to transcend it, but because like most of us, she works around it, and finds others who are willing to do the same. Some viewers have complained that her character is underdeveloped; really, it is developed exactly to the right point. We are kept just far enough outside her interiority for it to take on a conjectural weight no concentrated performance could match.



Josh Brolin in W. (dir. Oliver Stone, 2008).

W. is a movie almost entirely without a point of view. Oh sure, it depicts the Bush presidency and the Iraq invasion as a massive travesty, but that's not a viewpoint; it's just current events. What Oliver Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser fail to include is any rationale for why we ought to be interested in W.'s personal background on any level beyond that which should interest students of politics and history. So he had issues with his father and he really liked baseball. So he was really into jogging. So he was ambitious but kind of dumb. So he was human. So what? If the point is that he was a simple, ordinary man who got thrust into a position far beyond his capabilities, fine, but we should then be given either a valid reason to feel sympathy for him, or a mercilessly satirical caricature of the monster this experience turned him into. As it is, he is presented as too oafish for us to like beyond a mild pity, and too confused for us to hate beyond a weary exasperation. The film reduces both his actual humanity and our legitimate outrage to a series of Lifetime TV moments. Everything is too programmatic and too disorderly at the same time: the plotting is both inert and sporadic, lurching and peakless. Moments of "genuine drama" are interspersed with bits of SNL-style lampooning. Stabs at serious journalistic exposé are squeezed uneasily between episodes of parodic soundbite collage. There are interesting performers, but they aren't allowed to give interesting performances. Josh Brolin is very good, but it doesn't do any good. Although I did laugh in the scene where the bespectacled young waiter comes up behind him in the restaurant to tell him he has a phone call, and he looks at him, jumps a little in his seat, and says "whoa, Buddy Holly!"


The Mack

Max Julien as Goldie in The Mack (dir. Michael Campus, 1973).

Could director Michael Campus possibly be the same Michael Campus responsible for this year's made-for-DVD Thomas Kinkade's Home for Christmas, as IMDb indicates? I guess so. The other two films I recognize from the list there are ZPG (Zero Population Growth), which I never saw but remember from the newspaper ads in the movie section of the Modesto Bee circa 1972, one of those sensationalistic sci-fi current-events-jobs that partly defined the cinematic mood of the era, and Survival (1976), about which there is surprisingly little info, and which I actually did see on its release, a gross-out docudrama about the Rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes and who resorted to cannibalism, based on a book called Alive, which was filmed again in 1993 under that original title, and which I did not see, being suitably scarred by the first version.

As for The Mack, it's a fine, earnest pimp drama, filmed with some real feeling and style, and featuring an agreeable mix of amateurish stiffness and poignant emotiveness on the part of its principal, Max Julien. The real highlight, though, is Richard Pryor's performance in the supporting role of Slim. He's just over the verge into grotesque, moueing and gasping and keening like that stock cartoon figure from earlier in the century, the one who pounds his fists against someone's chest, screaming, ya gotta help me, don't let them take me away, his body twisting into impossible attitudes of desperation and alarm. Disturbingly, Pryor's mannerisms here seem to prefigure his later state of actual physical disintegration.


Hang 'Em High

Bruce Dern and Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High (dir. Ted Post).

If you stare at that title long enough, it stops looking like English.

The biggest surprise for me about Hang 'Em High--a movie that's been on my must-see list for years--is how novelistic it is--and by "novelistic" I mean slow and talky. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but by about thirty minutes in, you get the feeling that the cast and crew lost the script and just had to wing it. Again, that makes it sound interesting, and it sort of is, as long as you don't have your heart set on a raucous, bloodletting revengefest like High Plains Drifter, or even Unforgiven. There's a segment with James MacArthur as a preacher delivering a sermon before a hanging that seems like it goes on for fifteen minutes (the sermon, not the hanging). In its own way it's as mind-altering as a John Cage composition.

I'm intrigued by Ted Post. His other films include Magnum Force, the underrated Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Harrad Experiment (god, I'd love to see that: it looks terrible!), and lots and lots of TV stuff from the early fifties through the early nineties. His lack of basic directorial competence sits in an uneasy relationship to his instinct for arresting imaginative scenarios and high moral speculation.

The other noteworthy thing is just how fully developed as an actor Eastwood already is by this point. That could be taken as a backhand compliment, suggesting that his range is extremely limited. Well, that's true, but as narrow ranges go, it's an extremely compelling one. I'd say range-wise he's somewhere between Bela Lugosi and Dick Van Dyke. Like most of us.


Smiley Face

Anna Faris in Smiley Face (dir. Gregg Araki, 2007).

[Thanks to Mike Hauser for recommending this!]

The little I remember of Gregg Araki's doom-and-gloom extrusions of decadent Gen-X trauma from the 90's has long since settled into a puddle of muted indie hysteria, but last year's Smiley Face is a flawed, sweet treasure. It is no more nor less than a vehicle for Anna Faris to push one button over and over and over: the "I am so stoned" button. And she does this with such determination, such high (get it?) seriousness, that if this turns out to be her best performance ever, it will be enough.

The plot of the film is as elegantly simple as one can imagine: woman ingests way, way too much pot and must subsequently go around trying to do things. There are at least two ways this premise could go wrong: by idealizing her cannabis haze so that what is really just stupor emerges as a privileged mode of insight that yields ultimately happy results, or by squashing its comic aspects under a pessimistic mass of neo-Menckenesque social excoriation. If Araki errs in one of these directions, it is more the latter than the former, but for the most part he doesn't do either in an obvious way, hence the arguments over whether this is a hedonistic stoner comedy or a tendentious anti-drug satire.

Even if he does err, it doesn't really matter. It all comes back to Faris, and her ability to be completely winning and completely pathetic ("pa-thet-tick," roommate Danny Masterson sneers) at the same time. In the throes of her wastedness, she looks up into the sky as a huge golden smiley face forms, gleaming and twinkling. She returns the smile, religious rapture spreading outward like sunshine from her own face. Suddenly the face in the sky morphs into an angry skull that levels a growling damnation at her. She cringes and cries out, in that instant becoming the most vulnerable and wounded of beings. It all passes with the next sensation. Or, catching a ride from a friendly prole (John Cho), she switches abruptly into libidinous abandon, swiveling around in the passenger seat, gaily leering: "Why don't we just fuck?" before it's revealed as only a brief fantasy. She's absolutely irresponsible, and absolutely blameless. This is the naked American fantasy--seductive as a sticky green bowlful, and destructive as an all-consuming cloud of paraquat.