Perşembe, Şubat 28, 2008

Transformers Cause Head to Hurt

Transformers (U.S., 2007) * 1/2
D: Michael Bay

What caused me to rent Michael Bay's Transformers? Was it nostalgia for my childhood toys and cartoons? Was it the exposure to too many Oscar films at once during this Oscar season, that I needed a lowbrow, big budget chaser to clear the palate? Was it just the sheer number of boxes on the shelf at the video store, that seemed to insist that my only real choices were either this or 30 Days of Night? Was it a morbid curiosity to see if Michael Bay is really as bad as all his detractors claim, since I've seen none of his films? The film does not start promisingly. The opening image is of a cube standing still in some distant galaxy, a narrator explaining that this object, called, imaginatively, "The Cube," is at the center of an alien war. At this point I am given to wonder if Uwe Boll has been handed a budget, and these are the results. What follows is one scene after another, each compressed so tightly that it might almost form a diamond, or a mushroom cloud, although the actual result is just a lot of frenetic camera-whippings and Shia LaBeouf, not entirely unappealing, reduced to sweating a lot and desperately delivering his lines before Bay cuts to the next scene. Sometimes he manages to get all the words out. Sometimes Bay is forced to interrupt him to cut to an unrelated comedy bit by Bernie Mac or John Turturro, or to leer at the hopelessly tanned Megan Fox, or to show a helicopter or tank or truck turning into a giant robot and smashing the bejeezus out of things. It is not enough that the robots stand around and look mighty. They must also behave like wacky Jim Henson Muppets, as a stealthy Decepticon spy does, or like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as most of the "heroic" Autobots do. I place "heroic" in quotation marks because I'll be damned if I can isolate a single scene in which one of the Autobots does anything remotely admirable. True, "Bumblebee" does try to help LaBeouf score with Fox, but my memory of this scene is almost entirely erased by the moment in which the adorable Transformer pisses on Turturro's head. While the score by Steve Jablonsky ("Desperate Housewives") shamelessly steals from The Terminator, we watch the Autobots slowly form an allegiance with the two teens in an effort to battle the Decepticons for control of the Cube. Can you think of a nobler cause? Meanwhile, in War Games (1983) as well as this film, another group of attractive young hackers match wits with the military-industrial complex, leading eventually for all these story threads to sort of collapse into the shape a cat makes with a ball of yarn after an hour of effort. Like climbing a mountain, this film exists because it's there.

But I'm worried. What if Bay has made his film so impatient, so childish, so tightly-edited, so Ritalin-deprived, that it will, if watched too often, actually open up a black hole in the fabric of the universe, sucking into it all that we hold dear (reality)? What if it is creating some kind of cosmic imbalance that must be dealt with as though it were equivalent to the global warming crisis, only more urgent? I see only one solution. Michael Bay is 43. We must find a 43-year old director the equal of a Michelangelo Antonioni. This director, who may or may not exist, must immediately set to work on a feature film adaptation of Gobots. However, unlike Transformers, this Gobots film will be set to the pace of a L'Avventura, a L'Eclisse, or a Blow-Up. The takes will be extended, and the camera will glide slowly. For God's sake, we must not be in a hurry. The plot will revolve around the mysterious disappearance of Cy-Kill, the villainous motorcycle. Fitor, the jet-robot, tries to discover if he was murdered, kidnapped, or simply wandered off in a fit of existential ennui. Although it is equally important that the viewer must work to discover that this is even the plot, and no resolution must ever be found. Despite the fact that almost all the characters will have wheels on their backs or windshields on their chests, none of them ever transforms into anything, reflecting the state of psychological and emotional stagnancy in which they are trapped. If we can get this film in production quickly, equal the budget of Bay's film and get it into the theaters before the end of this summer, we might be able to prevent cosmic collapse. Get to work.

Çarşamba, Şubat 20, 2008

2007 Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films

This year the Oscar category for Best Animated Feature Film is unusually strong, with two extraordinary animated films, one CG and aimed at families (Pixar/Disney's Ratatouille), the other 2-D, and a personal film intended for adults (Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis). I'd be pleased to see either win. But let's not forget the animated short films, and it's worth noting that if you live near a major city, there's a good chance that you can catch Shorts International's program of the 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films. In Madison, both of the Shorts International programs (for live action and animation) are playing at the Sundance 608 Theater through tomorrow night. Unfortunately, the animated films I watched this evening were screened via DVD instead of film (and it was a bit contrasty and blurry), but you take what you can get. The selection of nominees this year is definitely a step up from last year's, since the 2006 crop featured only one excellent film ("The Danish Poet," which thankfully won), and this year's features two. "Only two?" Well, I'm also consoled by the fact that only one of the five shorts is generic 3-D CG, the others using digital animation only to augment more traditional techniques. Canada's "Madame Tutli-Putli," by Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, is a semi-parodic tale of pulpy horror, as the title character--a puppet with what appears to be live-action eyes, overlarge and filled with terror--boards a train and witnesses bizarre, otherworldy events. The technique is interesting, but apart from a few, scattered clever ideas, the piece is aimless and disappointing. "I Met the Walrus" (Canada) is better, if slight; it's a 1970's audio interview conducted with John Lennon by a 14-year-old boy, with Lennon's twisting language (about peaceful protests and the Beatles) artfully illustrated in black-and-white collage. The clunker of the program is "Even Pigeons Go to Heaven" (France), with dreadful CG animation and a story (a huckster pitches a machine that can transport you to Heaven) that is under-developed, with a cheap, unfunny punchline. Nevertheless, your attendance will be rewarded by the two longest films in the program, which are mini-masterpieces. Russia's "My Love," directed by Alexander Petrov, utilizes gorgeous animation which looks like living, swirling oil paintings. A rarity for animation, the story lives up to the technique, telling an unexpectedly mature tale of a 15-year-old Russian poet wrestling with his first loves--for an earthy, impetuous servant girl, and a mysterious, bespectacled older woman--and struggling to maintain a "pure" love despite all that might compromise it. It's the first animated film I've ever seen that aspires to something akin to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and it mines emotionally and intellectually rich material. It's deserving of the Academy's recognition, yet I would be also pleased to see Suzie Templeton's "Peter & the Wolf" win. This UK/Polish production uses charmingly simple stop-motion animation, but with a wit and humanity that elevates the approach, even while poking fun at the familiarity of the Prokofiev source material. I guarantee that when the familiar theme music finally, belatedly kicks in, the film will hold you captive. Too often animated films look like resume-builders; talented or proficient artists with nothing to say and workmanlike results. "My Love" and "Peter & the Wolf," like "The Danish Poet," are the work of artists expressing themselves by any means necessary. They're beautiful works of animation, but they're also vital pieces of art.

Pazar, Şubat 17, 2008

Two by Haneke

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (Austria/Germany, 1994) * * *
Benny's Video (Austria/Switzerland, 1992) * * *
D: Michael Haneke

The Madison Cinematheque on Saturday night continued its Michael Haneke series, A Cinema of Provokation, with two films from the director's "Glaciation Trilogy," oddly enough shown backwards. (The first film from the trilogy, The Seventh Continent, will be screened on March 8.) All three films are connected thematically, and it would be premature for me to comment on exactly what those themes are since I've yet to see The Seventh Continent - but judging from the second and third films, most evident is Haneke's preoccupation with how families negotiate and respond to violence in contemporary culture, and how television and video package it. Even more than David Cronenberg, Haneke's "thrillers" function primarily on an intellectual level; he is not interested in manipulating the audience per se, but in making the audience aware of the manipulations of cinema (and, by extension, the media). His films are self-reflexive, at times postmodern (as with Funny Games), but they nevertheless seek to restore the impact and trauma of violence, with visceral results. Perhaps the loudest and strongest reactions I've ever witnessed from a theater audience were during two Haneke films, Cache and Funny Games. For the former, it was in horror at a sudden act of violence - the audience had been lulled into a passive state by the carefully-paced film before it was jolted by Haneke's hand, and one woman screamed. In the latter, the reaction was a cheer for a long-awaited vengeance against the film's villains - a gesture swiftly revoked and negated by Haneke (which brought about another loud cry from a few viewers). Haneke's manipulation is more subtle than one at first realizes; although he makes you aware of the manipulation, it nonetheless is functional. His films are absorbing. Yet in many cases they are as absorbing as studying a surveillance monitor. There is an untraceable moment when boredom switches over to hypnosis, before he slaps you into a sharp sense of awareness.

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is the final film in the Glaciation Trilogy, and it begins with an announcement of its ending: that on Christmas Eve, 1993, a 19-year-old student will go on a shooting spree in a bank before putting a bullet in his head. Haneke then cuts to the evening news, which we watch for several minutes, and which will recur throughout the film: massacres in Kosovo, organized protests against United States policies, the immigration problem in Austria, the child abuse case against Michael Jackson. The 71 scenes cut between the news footage vary dramatically in length, and follow seemingly disconnected characters: a homeless child eating from the trash and stealing from train station vendors, an unhappily married couple, a couple looking to adopt a child, a grandfather scorned and isolated by his family, and a pair of students working on a puzzle for a computer programming class and handling a stolen weapon. The moments seem to be selected at random, but we become slowly aware of the rhyme and reason: all of these characters are ultimately headed toward the fateful encounter in the bank - though Haneke refrains from commenting. We focus our attention where we like, although some characters prove more compelling than others. Most naturally one will be looking for "warning signs" in the student who will become the killer, although we're given scant clues; he holds up a cheery veneer to friends and family, although we know he's stressed by his training to be a table tennis champion (there is an exhaustive four-minute, uninterrupted sequence of the young man robotically smacking at the ping pong balls launched by a ball machine, and later his coach forces him to watch repeated video playback of his loss in a game). When the act of violence finally comes, at the very end of the film, we are unsurprised but nevertheless feel unprepared. The shooting now seems senseless because we see that it didn't have to happen; there is no real motive. We may be conscious, in the 90 minutes leading to it, that Haneke wants us to see that it's pure chance that these characters would be victims - that they would arrive at the bank at just the wrong moment. But once we have seen it unfold, we realize it was chance that the shooting happened at all. Nevertheless, those 71 scenes depict a contemporary culture that effects an intense psychological strain against its populace. One gets the feeling that random acts of violence are inevitable when society creates barriers to leave every person in a state of emotional isolation. The film's trump card is its final scene, when we see the bank shooting as processed (like a McDonald's hamburger) into a brief thirty-second snippet on the evening news.

Haneke's earlier film, Benny's Video, has a more linear narrative, as well as a structure like a Hitchcock film, although it is more disorienting and disturbing than 71 Fragments. The title character is a spoiled middle-class adolescent who spends night and day watching rented videos and maintaining a surveillance of the outside street through a video monitor. (The central ironic metaphor of the film is that Benny watches a video of the outside rather than simply looking out the window; it is somehow more important that reality get processed into pixels.) He is obsessed with video he took on his parents' farm of a pig getting executed. It's this footage, played once at regular speed, then rewound and played in slow motion, which opens the film, initiating a series of re-viewings which are threaded through the film. When Benny's parents leave him alone for the weekend, he invites a teenage girl over to his place to watch movies. With a strange fascination he shows her the pig video, and then the gun used to shoot the pig, which he keeps in a drawer. He dares her to pull the trigger. She won't, so he does, shooting her multiple times in an extended, agonizing sequence whose brutality is expressed from the point of view of the video monitor, where we can only get brief flashes of movement while the sounds of the girl's screams and pleas burn into our ears. It's a violent scene, but the paradox is that although Haneke places it within a doubled frame - within the video monitor, within the film we are watching - it is somehow even more disturbing than if he had just shown everything to us directly. True, the best suspense directors know that sometimes it's more effecting to not show, but to imply. But Haneke is not after suspense. He is after "nausea," to use one of the key words spoken in the film. And somehow to watch this scene as filtered by the imperfect eye of the video monitor is to render the action more real. It becomes a documentary.

Haneke is not interested in "torture porn," a trend that wouldn't emerge for another decade, and what's most surprising about Benny's Video is that there's so much left once the murder has been committed. Benny cleans up after the body (but not until he's videotaped the corpse, to complete his snuff film), then attempts to resume his normal life. He almost tells a friend, when he sleeps over at his house that night, but resists; he goes to his sister, and we're not certain if he would have told her if she'd been in that day. He defiantly shaves off all his hair. He gets into an altercation with his friend at school. If his rebellion seems like a cry for help, it's blunted when he actually sits his mother down and shows her the video of the murder. Her reaction--and his father's, when he enters the room--is the film's centerpiece. She is watching with horror and fascination. Her expression suggests that she is watching it as one might watch a thriller--as a passive viewer held in suspense; she is struggling to grasp that what is on-screen has actually come to pass. She doesn't switch off the video and call the police. She and her husband watch it to the end. And in the interest of double-framing everything, Haneke has us watch the footage for the second time, but the conditions upon which this video is being viewed seem to transform what we are seeing and how we react to it. We are watching the film through the parents' eyes, and we are also watching the film through Benny's eyes, watching his parents watching the video. This might all seem hopelessly intellectualized if it weren't for the visceral reaction the scene provokes. It's as though Haneke isn't just interested in indicting the viewer's voyeurism; he wants to study the texture of it.

There's more to Benny's Video, which I won't spoil, except to say that it may sacrifice believability for the sake of making a point about the fractured values of the contemporary family. Ultimately, what the film might present most successfully is a portrait of an emotionally disconnected youth (the parents are less convincing). It certainly has a lot more plot than 71 Fragments, although both films are more interested in theoretical explorations than storytelling. As cinematic sticks of dynamite, they're noteworthy: angry, shocking polemics which avoid the sensationalism of directors like Todd Solondz and Lars von Trier, substituting instead pungent doses of reality. Or Reality TV.

Çarşamba, Şubat 13, 2008

In Bruges

In Bruges (U.K., 2008) * * * *
D: Martin McDonagh

There are a number of points upon which In Bruges places great emphasis. A bottle is a deadly weapon. Bare hands can be deadly weapons, too. Many famous dwarfs have committed suicide. You cannot be held responsible for what you say or do under the influence of cocaine, but neither can those actions be easily forgotten. But most of all, it is stressed that Bruges is in Belgium. If you didn't know that, you could take (small) comfort that neither did Ray (Colin Farrell), a novice, Irish hitman who's been sent there with his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) for reasons unknown to either one of them. They suspect they're on a job, but they won't know until their short-tempered boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), calls them at their hotel. In the meantime, Ken is intent on showing Ray the local medieval architecture, although Ray thinks Bruges is "a shithole." While they wait for that fateful call, and sightsee, we see Bruges from Ray's point of view: as a dull tourist-magnet whose most promising attributes are (a) a film production in progress "with midgets," and (b) the drug-dealer servicing the Belgium film crew, attractive and, inexplicably, romantically interested in him. While Ray becomes entangled with the locals, Ken is alone when he receives the call from Harry--which will change everything.

As In Bruges is a black comedy about hitmen, you might suspect you've walked down this path already. Grosse Point Blank (1997), for example, or Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005). What's refreshing and remarkable about In Bruges is that, despite its basic plot structure, the individual scenes are unpredictable, playing to the rhythms of the characters--characters you have not seen in films before. In Bruges is a black comedy aimed at intelligent adults; it expects you to keep pace with its imagination, while understanding when it's appropriate to laugh and when it is not--and why some key scenes play to both ends. It's written and directed by playwright Martin McDonagh, and the script sharply uses the characters to drive the action. So diverting are its characters that although you know guns will eventually be brandished, and bullets will fly, you'd rather they didn't; you like these people too much to see them go down in a bloody battle. Thus, murder carries a weight rare in black comedies of this vein, although violence of other sort is dished out with abandon. After all, if someone comes at you with a bottle, however you react is just self-defense.

The cast is perfect, Farrell in particular a revelation as Ray, whose childlike qualities are pivotal to the film's major theme (never kill a child). Ray has all the depth of a thinly-sliced piece of sandwich cheese; when he struggles to come up with a clever scheme to convince Ken to let him leave the hotel room, you can see the thoughts working across his face as though pulled by slave labor. The real wonder is why Farrell, with talent like this, keeps getting typecast in films like Alexander (2004) and Miami Vice (2006). He seems more at ease playing the fool, and here he's a fool so instantly iconic that you could slap him on a Tarot card. Gleeson has been granted a more versatile career as a character actor, best known lately as "Mad-Eye" Moody in the Harry Potter films (there's a nod to the Potter films here that may make you weep with laughter). Like Farrell, he's exceptionally funny, and has a pair of scenes with Fiennes late in the film which are so good that you can rest assured he will not be recognized come Oscar time 2009. Fiennes essays a low-class crook chafing at the high class his money has bought him; he's quick to offense, with an impeccable since of honor and pride. It's the sort of role Bob Hoskins used to play, but since it's Fiennes--a man who could have had a career like Farrell's, but has instead played fat Nazis, disfigured sorcerors, and shy gardeners--the result feels like something completely new. It may be that Harry feels like a unique human being, even though his character--in this kind of film, in this genre--doesn't have to be. That's what's brilliant about In Bruges. It didn't have to be, but it's a deeply soulful and human satire. Plus it has the range to make dwarf jokes and Bosch references, sometimes in the same breath.

Cuma, Şubat 01, 2008

The Best Films of 2007 (Hers)

Because she is married to a film buff, my wife is a film buff by proxy. This is her list of the best films of 2007 (mine, previously posted, is here).

1. Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
This is a film made for me. A female scientist creates an alternate personality to interact with patients in their dreams. The imagination in the dream worlds results in really beautiful scenes, and the philosophy that allows dreams, the internet, and movies to intertwine is fascinating.

2. Once (John Carney)
A musical for the indie crowd. A street musician meets up with a struggling mother with a good voice. I loved the music and the bittersweet tone of the film.

3. The Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin)
The second film in Guy Maddin’s "Me" trilogy. We saw this in Chicago performed live by Crispin Glover, a castrato, and orchestra, and several foley artists. We saw it again in the recorded version with Isabella Rosellini, but unfortunately it wasn’t quite as good that way. I love the silent-film-era effects and the confused sexual expression.

4. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)
I agree with the critics on this film, as it is very good. A film about a man who finds some money and becomes hunted, but it's really about how the characters in the film deal with life, death, their ideals, and their responsibilities.

5. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet)
This is one of those films about a perfect crime gone horribly wrong. It’s also about dealing with life and death, but from the coward’s perspective.

6. The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson)
A Wes Anderson movie. Three brothers go on a pilgrimage to India to speak to their mother. The film has wonderful comic moments and is held together by the belief that the brothers really do love each other and depend on each other no matter what their actions might show.

7. Zodiac (David Fincher)
A crime movie without a solution. I loved the inside look on how these brutal murders, with so much evidence, could go unsolved. The film has gone out of its way to be accurate down to what the characters are wearing and even where the trees are located, and while several theories are presented, the audience is left to figure it out for themselves. I’m working on my own theory about the killings (I think there was more than one Zodiac).

8. Across the Universe (Julie Taymor)
Another of those films that is made for me. This musical uses Beatles songs as a base, then re-imagines and re-records the songs adding beautiful, often fanciful imagery. The songs turn out wonderfully (and this is from a person who hates most Beatles covers). The story is done well, but the film could have fleshed out the minor characters more.

9. Juno (Jason Reitman)
This is a comedy about teen pregnancy. The pregnancy is actually treated rather seriously as it deserves, but allows humor to mask some of the pain and fear that comes with being pregnant so young.

10. King of Kong (Seth Gordon)
This movie made me care about who has the high score in Donkey Kong. That is a major accomplishment. The documentary proves that real life can be funnier and more outrageous than fiction (although for some reason, probably involving a lot of money, they are remaking this as a fiction film).

Next 5: Sunshine (beautiful, but serial killer plotline is uninspired), No End in Sight (very informative look at exactly how close we came to getting the Iraq war right, and how much better everything could have been), Ratatouille (a story about being yourself no matter how impractical it may be), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (legend vs. reality of two very complicated men), Eastern Promises (such a great fight scene)

Note: I have yet to see Michael Clayton, Persepolis, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, or Atonement. And I'm not sure I will see all of those.


Okay, enough of letting my wife write on my blog. Back to my reviews...