Friday, January 28, 2011

Yes, That Was a Comedy: The Hilariously Cynical Films of Todd Solondz

What is going on in there?
     You ever seen a movie that hurt your feelings? You know, a film that seems to just attack your soul and everything it stands for?
     Was it a comedy?
     If the answer is yes, then it was more than likely directed by Todd Solondz, a man who has made a living creating some of the most offensive comedies ever made. And when I say offensive, I don't mean that the content is necessarily atrocious or that any particular group of people is getting picked on. I mean it in the way that the first line of this article means it. Todd Solondz wants to hurt your feelings. And how does he do this, you ask?
     It's pretty simple, actually. He just takes situations we have all been through and displays them in the way that we remember them. Solondz doesn't have much interest in how things actually were, and if you really think about it, neither do we (See: Forrest Gump). Solondz, instead, shows us the things about our childhood that we have tried to forget, and in the process of forgetting we have ended up making far worse in our minds. Yet, somehow, when confronted with these projected atrocities of our childhood, the scenes inexplicably make us do this instead of this. What makes us do that? Why does this guy have the gall to make us laugh at a movie that includes a scene where a little boy confronts his father about...something. How could he possibly call this scene a roaring rampage of delicious comedy?
    I don't think he does, actually.
    What Solondz is doing here is making you uncomfortable, and then interjecting each scene with something funny so that the audience can breathe. It's actually pretty scientific. I mean, this style of comic relief has been around for centuries. (there's evidence of it in Shakespeare's plays) Solondz's deeply troubling scenes, interspersed with humor, wouldn't find too much trouble working their way into Hamlet.

    Now before you get the wrong idea, I'm not comparing the previously indicated scenes to Shakespeare, but I do think that the same logic is being used here. However, the trouble with Solondz finding mainstream success (other than his total lack of enthusiasm for mainstream cinema) is that he does not make genre specific films. Probably his most straightforward comedy, Welcome to the Dollhouse, is still (as you saw in the bathroom scene) pretty dark for a comedy. I mean, in a movie where the comedic punchline is that the protagonist is constantly being threatened with rape, you're not going to find too many guffaws in the room.
     So are they comedies? Well, to put it simply, yes and yes?
     But this is a kind of comedy that seems to be going out of fashion. Strangely enough, I think the last time we saw real mainstream success in this kind of comedy, the kind that shows you a mirror and then laughs hysterically at how dumb you are, is when the first Meet the Parents movie came out. The sequels seem to have dumbed down the awkwardness, but they may still marginally apply. Yet Solondz is taking that basic structure and creating films with almost merciless attacks on every person of every belief and background.
     He is trying to offend. He is stirring you up. The films he makes challenge us to look at ourselves and laugh at how ridiculous we can be. While I would agree that using pedophilia (in no less than four movies!) as a consistent plot point is a little over-the-top, I would also suggest that it is the smaller things that he is really trying to show us, and he is merely using these large, blanket issues to distance the characters just enough to make us feel safe in our skin.

     When we're too busy feeling disgusted by the pedophilia and narcissism of his characters, Solondz throws in difficult break up scenes, characters who are casually racist, homophobic, exploitative, and incapable of finding joy in others. In what is perhaps his most successful film, Happiness, Solondz introduces his audience to an ensemble of characters with serious social issues, and the film ends with no real resolutions to any of them.
     It's nice to see a filmmaker who clearly has no filter and appears to see everything with clear eyes. It's also nice to know that that filmmaker is, at his heart, a comedian who is showing us these things to help us, not to hurt us. Well, not entirely to hurt us. As Helen says to Joy in the final moments of the trailer for Happiness, "Don't worry, I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing with you," I feel that Todd Solondz is saying the same thing with his films.
Only...What does Joy say in return?

     [If you haven't seen any of Todd Solondz's films, I would suggest viewing them in this order: Welcome to the Dollhouse, Storytelling, Happiness, Life During Wartime, Palindromes. Here is a short list of similar filmmakers: Luis Bunuel, Bobcat Goldthwait, Jody Hill, Miranda July, Jim Jarmusch, and the Mid-Period works of Robert Altman]

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Good Job, Us!

Christian Bale as Dickie Eklund in The Fighter
     While I'm a huge fan of Oscar predicting (and the award giving itself, if I feel it's deserved), I must admit that the whole process is sort of like, pardon my English, watching people masturbate. Woody Allen said it best in Annie Hall when he said that people in Los Angeles don't do anything but sit around and hand out awards. "World's Greatest Dictator: Adolf Hitler," he quips before he turns his car into a bumper cart.
     Well, as you could have guessed, the Oscar nominations have come out today and the arguments began, absolutely immediately, about who was snubbed and who was falsely rewarded the "nom" as people who call themselves "insiders" like to say. All of this is very interesting for about ten seconds. That is, the amount of time it takes for the brain to realize that it is watching the world's most expensive senior superlatives section of the school yearbook. Does it not feel to anybody else like we're watching an employee of the month awarding ceremony?
     The problem about this feeling I have in my gut is that it is coupled with another feeling. Perhaps an ever truer feeling that pulls me, paradoxically, into the depths. I love the Oscars. It is like the Superbowl, and I love both of the teams. I love the spectacle, the nominations, the speeches, the long, boring montages, and the arbitrarily stuffy atmosphere of it all.
     I know that it is absurd, but I love it.
      With that said, I'm going to ask you guys how you feel about the nominations. Personally, I'm pretty satisfied with what has been acknowledged. I have yet to see Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right, but I have heard that those films are great and good respectively.
"Really? Not even editing?" Joseph Gordon-Levitt said.
  The Shockers

  • Whaaaa? Inception gets no editing nomination? 
    • Say what you will about the plot, characters, narrative, or ideology of Christopher Nolan's giant budget sci-fi mindbender, but I think we can all agree that the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream conceit worked mighty well given the convoluted script behind it. This film was well-paced and never confusing, which is a huge feat for a film that is, at times, absurdly complicated. If any award is to be handed over to this movie, it should be editing. So of course we get a nomination for The King's Speech in that category. Speaking of which--
  • King's Speech gets more nominations than any other film with 12. 
    • Alright, I guess that sort of debunks the whole Social Network thing we had going there. Don't get me wrong, I thought The King's Speech was an absolutely charming movie, but it seems strange that the academy, after nominating so many young names would choose to go for a more contemporary film. No, they're going with the stiff upper lip British drama based on a true story. Way to be predictable, Academy, sheesh. 
  • True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld nominated for supporting actress. 
    • Not really a shocker, as we all expected her in this category, but it still makes me mad. She is clearly the protagonist of that film. She is in every scene and guides the entire picture. However, she is young, not very famous, and has to make room for Anette Benning. If Natalie Portman had played the same role, with the same amount of screen time, it would have been best actress. No question. Oh well, as is life. 
Any excuse will do if it means I can use this image

Pleasant Surprises
  • Amy Adams and Melissa Leo get nods for The Fighter
    • I really did not see both women getting nominated. Melissa Leo's performance is, I think, the more note-worthy of the bunch. There is a scene between Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in that film that involves window-jumping, car singing, and lots of crying that should win an award all in itself. But hey, if the academy wants to give my favorite movie of the year some credit, go right ahead. 
  • True Grit gets 10 nominations after receiving zero recognition from the Golden Globes
    • This shocker is a pleasant one, much like the Amy Adams surprise. I feel, strangely enough, like I am sometimes the lone defender of the Coen's new film. It's an adaptation of a novel that spawned a famous John Wayne film. It's a tough sell, especially for the image savvy audience they have built for themselves over the past couple of decades. But that film truly deserves the honor of everything it gets. 
  • David O. Russell receives best director nod over Danny Boyle
    • For the past month it has been a close race between Boyle and Russell for that final spot in the directing shortlist. As a fan of both directors, I was rooting for both men, but as you all know, The Fighter holds a very special place in my heart. I'm glad that Russell got his directing nod, but I bet Lily Tomlin is playing a different tune...
What do you guys think about the nominations? Pleasant surprises? Shockers? Lets talk. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dick Laurent is Dead: Five Films that Intentionally Confuse the Viewer

     I am not one to judge a film for being confusing. As a man who openly supports films like Synecdoche, New York, INLAND EMPIRE, and Zerkalo, I like to think that I am a pretty good sport when it comes to films with complicated narratives and unusual methods of displaying them. With that said, I sometimes find myself extremely irritated by movies that seem to, in place of actual storytelling, include small details that are out there to intentionally confuse the audience.
     Jackdawgs Love Swifter Poets.
     To me, there is a difference between enticing a viewer with interesting visual style and unusual pacing, and including the possibility of a subplot that most likely has nothing to do with anything.
     My case in point, the David Lynch film Lost Highway involves an impotent man who murders his wife and is sent to prison. Once he enters prison, he dreams that he is a teenage sex magnet with the swagger of Samuel L. Jackson. This is all fine and good. Yet, at the end of the movie (spoiler warning if you care) the teenager turns back into the original man, drives away, and gives the audience pretty clear evidence that a time loop has occurred.
    What? Why?
    The film, already pretty unusual, even as far as Lynch goes, just up and decides that there has been a time loop when no indication whatsoever is made before or after this loop occurs that said loop is even relevant. It literally does nothing to the story. It is almost as if Lynch was sitting around, thinking, "You know, my film is not adequately 'Lynchian.' I shall place an intentionally confusing, and ultimately arbitrary, time loop in the midst of my film!"
    (Yes, David Lynch talks like that.)
     Anyway, after watching Lost Highway recently, and being reminded of this pretty clear manipulation of the audience, I began thinking of other films that practice this same logic.
     "If I'm looking for a young, hip audience, I need to place things in my film that no human being can understand. That way, my audience will think I am very smart indeed!"
     Here's a list of arbitrarily weird things in movies that should bother everybody.
This is a real screenshot from Europa

 Hey, you're in color! Wait...Why?                      In Lars Von Trier's World War II traincar mystery, Europa, Trier decided, for reasons that seem to be unclear to everybody, that the film would work better if sections were in color, and other sections were in black and white. So all throughout the film we see some characters in color, some in black and white, some sets in color, some weapons in color, it doesn't even make sense. What doesn't make sense is the fact that it has no continuity. Some color characters are sometimes black and white. What makes them color sometimes? Who knows.... This is during the section of Trier's career where he did this sort of thing a lot. Make arguments if you want to, but it honestly makes no sense to me.

Who is that guy on the left?

I thought you said you was Charles.  In the beginning of the film The Shining, the owner of the Overlook Hotel tells Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) that a man named Charles Grady killed his daughters and wife one winter in the hotel. Later, when Jack meets this Grady fellow, he introduces himself as Delbert Grady. In Stephen King's original novel, the man's name is always Delbert. Now, you could attribute this as a mistake in the film, but given that the film was directed by the notoriously perfectionistic director Stanley Kubrick, it's likely that he was just messing with the audience. By why? What purpose does that serve? Let's put this one under libbity-flam slap'nslap.
What about that guy on the left? why are they here?   Okay, so maybe I'm going deep off of the edge here, but this is something that has bothered me for years. You remember A Kid in King Arthur's Court? Well, the movie is pretty simple enough. It's about this kid that played for the Chicago Cubs who goes back in time to hang out with future James Bond and that chick that survived the titanic and King Arthur. Okay...I'm kind of following. Then the Cubs kid saves King Arthur by inventing roller blades or something. Anyway, when the kid returns to his normal time period, it is clear that the whole thing was a dream. Only when the kid comes out of the dugout, seemingly after a mid-game nap, he realizes that King Arthur and his love interest are in the stands. And they are the same characters. And it's present day. And they're there. And it's present day. What in the--
This is a poster.

I love pancakes too, kid. For any of you who have seen Cabin Fever from director Eli Roth, you know that the movie splits audiences. Some people think it is a perfect deconstruction of the '80's horror film, some people think it is completely stupid. Well, I don't really know which of you are right, but I bet you can all agree that Cabin Fever contains one of the most famous intentionally confusing scenes in recent memory. That is, of course, the pancakes scene. What in the world is this all about? Roth says in the commentary for his film that he just liked this kid and wanted to put him in a movie. The only problem is, this scene makes absolutely no sense. Yet, for some reason, I kind of like this one. 
Excuse me, but your boat sucks.

I'm on a boat, and I think I'm traveling through a nightmare?  This, I'm sure, is the most famous scene of the ones I have described. Basically, it's the scene that caused all of you to have nightmares. Now, this movie is by no means a light children's film. However, this scene has been (at various times) banned from television, stricken from certain DVD editions, and even eliminated completely from all German versions of the film. Why? Because this scene is scary, strange, and completely inconsequential to the plot. It might be kind of fun, strange, and interesting, but what in the world is it doing in this movie?

Can you guys think of any other intentionally confusing things in movies? Let me know in the comments section. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Forrest Gump: The Scariest Horror Film of the 20th Century

He's watching.

     Within every moment of high school, Forrest Gump is being shown to a class full of students who find themselves laughing and crying with a movie that is scientifically designed to make them exuberant about America. What's not to love about comedic scenes involving cigar-toting warlovers and men obsessed with shrimp recipes? There is solid acting, solid cinematography, a well-rounded story about forgiveness and love, and...wait...his mom slept with the head of the school district to...hmph...he's a baby daddy to a needle-junkie with AIDS...
    Okay, enough pandering to my audience. I'm just going to lay it to you straight. It is my firm belief that there is something much more sinister going on in Forrest Gump beneath that sugary exterior we've all come to love. Yes, readers, Forrest Gump is one of the most well crafted horror films ever made. "How can this be?" You ask.
     Well, before I can tell you this story, I have to tell you another one.
     You see, there was once a time where Tom Hanks was the most profitable leading man in Hollywood. Tom Hanks, being the late baby boomer that he is, was quite popular with his generation at the time this film was made, which is to say, around 1993/1994. You know what else was (and still is) popular?

  • Literary Adaptations! 
  • War Films!
  • Road Movies!
  • Oscar Bait HIV-Themed Films!
  • Sports Movies!
  • Racial Integration!
  • Nostalgia!
     Well, check all of those off the list. 
     People like to be reminded of how important their time on Earth has been. I respect that, good for us. Some of you may be saying, "Hey, Forrest Gump may be capitalizing on all of those things, but it does a darn good job of it!"
    You know what, you're right, this film uses all of those things in a story that is fast-paced and engaging. The audience follows all of the action easily and nothing gets bogged down or confused. 
    The thing that bothers me, the thing that should be scaring all of you who gave Forrest Gump its $330,000,000 in the box office, all of you who gave it its 6 Academy Awards, is that the film is making fun of all of you. 
He's watching.
    Yes. Forrest Gump, one of the most beloved American films of the last twenty years, is none other than a big, fat bully pretending to be our friend just so it can douse us with a bucket full of pig's blood. All of those ingredients, all of those things that practically forced all of you to see it, those are the film's weapons. 
     Forrest Gump, the character, is bordering on retarded (says a spiffy chart from the government!) and only goes to normal school because of the sexual advances of his mother. When he grows up, Gump becomes a nationally recognized football player, a medal of honor recipient, a ping pong champion of the world, a millionaire shrimper, a millionaire stock-trader with Apple, and a deified vagrant when he runs cross country over and again. In other words, Forrest Gump is better than you. 
     This film, one that baits you with every single trick in the book, is now shoving its all A's report card into the eyes of mostly C average students. And we like it? How can this be? A retarded man accomplishes literally everything any human wants to accomplish by never questioning anybody about anything and running through life following the orders of the government, his college, his parents, and his employers. 
     Is anybody else disturbed by the message of this film? Because I certainly am. 
     Let me break it down. Forrest Gump is a man with minimal intelligence. He begins his life simply, you know, teaching Elvis how to dance and teaching Jenny how to swing, but then he finds himself in college, where he is told to play football, never questioning how he will get through college with his limited intellectual capacity (he did to the academic expectations of college what his mother did to the head of his school district). So has he made an independent thought yet? 
     Well, he likes Jenny. 
He's watching.

     So college is over, and he immediately (literally) joins the army in order to fight in Vietnam. He enlists because some big guy told him to. Naturally, a man who can do nothing in his life but take orders fits in pretty well in the military. 
     "Wait, Cameron! You've forgotten! Jenny told him to run away, but he saved those guys in Vietnam and won that medal of honor legitimately!" 
    No, Bubba offered Forrest a job in the shrimping business. Gump's tour will come to an end and he'll need to work with Bubba because he has no idea how to find a job. If Bubba dies, he has nowhere to go. If he has nobody there to guide him, what's he going to do? In other words, he does not choose to save Bubba, he has to, because his reality depends on the requests of others. 
     So what happens? Bubba dies. And without that source of dependence, Forrest finds himself in a hospital where a man tells him to play ping pong. He does. And he's good. Because he is never told to stop. So naturally he becomes a world champ because nobody had the common decency to tell him he could sit back down. 
     Anyway, he goes shrimping even though Bubba died. What else is he going to do? He can't generate independent thought. 

     Yadda yadda, you get the idea. 
     The real kick to this film is its insistence that whatever you have done with your life, whatever decision you ever made, that decision was wrong. You see, you should have done nothing. You should have listened to the government and your parents and your college and never, ever stepped out of line or come up with any sort of creative, independent thought. 
    The perfect American is one that does not ask questions. The perfect American simply does what he is told. 
    Is this the kind of message you want to teach your kids? Is that what America is all about? 
    I think Forrest Gump takes place in a horrifying dimension where all independent work is punished, and all work dependent on the motivations of authoritarian figures is rewarded. 
     This movie shows the audience that everything they have ever done has been wrong. That every opportunity they had was a wasted one, one where they should have just done nothing. 
     If the message of Forrest Gump is not scary to you, then you are not me. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I'm My Own Grandpa, and Other Reasons Why Great Scenes in Bad Movies Are Evidence of Parallel Dimensions

     Remember The Stupids? You know, the one where Tom Arnold plays that dumb guy who talks loud and smiles a lot? No, not that one with Rick Moranis, it's the one---No, not the one directed by James Cameron---
     Anyway, there's this scene in that dreadful movie that is too funny for its own good. You can watch it  here.
     There is also a scene involving a cigarette, an airbag, and a surprise fender bender that is particularly amusing. Both of these scenes are rare glimpses into a movie that does not exist. You see, there is a world where The Stupids is a delightful slapstick comedy. And in order for us to glimpse that world, we have to watch the version we have in our world and search for holes in the fabric of space-time.
     This phenomenon is not limited to The Stupids. In fact, there are many, many bad movies which offer glimpses into this parallel dimension. Sometimes a film comes along that includes, between its incomprehensible plot, unconvincing acting, poor pacing, and uninteresting set design, a scene that peels back the layers of matter between our world and another, similar world where things are opposite. Much like great films with bad scenes (I'm looking at you ridiculously staged smack-around scene involving Sonny and Talia Shire's beau in The Godfather), bad films with great scenes are rare, precious stones that can make people do and say crazy things, like, "Come on, guys The Stupids wasn't that bad. What about that one scene?" or "Really? You thought Knowing was a bad movie? What about that great tracking shot of the plane crash?" (Seen here )
     Yes, these scenes do not just display another world, they intentionally confuse well-meaning folks about what it means to see a good movie. The previously mentioned tracking shot from Knowing is impressive in its ability to show absolute realism with a tragic plane crash, yet the scene is surrounded by muddy, poorly scripted premise-with-no-plot narrative. However, as a well-meaning folk, I walked away from that movie thinking only one thing. (Hint: that second bit of dialogue was yours truly.)
     It's true, what I'm talking about is purely subjective. I mean, Roger Ebert loved Knowing, giving it four stars out of four. He was not so kind to The Stupids, but maybe he never saw the veil of space-time open up before him during his screening of that particular movie.
     Or maybe something happened, something sinister, something that will reveal the true nature of opinion.
     What if there is no opinion? What if what we like is based on another dimension's version of a film you saw in our world? Perhaps, during those great or bad scenes in otherwise opposite films, the fabric of space-time opens up too wide for some people. Maybe sometimes that fabric breaks, and we are left with a perfect film that others see as nothing but lameburgers.
     This could be what happened to me when I saw Southland Tales. Maybe the scene involving a particularly rousing dance number broke something in the universe that caused my brain to view the film as perfect.
     There are infinite examples of this phenomenon. You can find great scenes in bad action movies. In bad horror films. And you can even find them in bad Surf Ninja movies.
    Have any of you ever experienced this break in the fabric of space-time? Please, tell me when this strange and dangerous occurrence has happened to you in the comments section.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Films That Didn't Beat The odds but should have: Southland Tales

     Think back to 2003. In this magical land of yesteryear, a filmmaker named Richard Kelly is finally gaining recognition for his 2001 film Donnie Darko. The DVD release of the film (as well as a contract with HBO that stipulated almost constant play for a year) makes Donnie Darko a coveted film for teenagers who view themselves as outcasts, whether that is true or not. The film feeds into the belief that outcast, misunderstood teenagers are actually magical, and not just seemingly so. While Darko has plenty of flaws (some silly moments that are inexplicably highly regarded such as the "Why are you wearing that stupid man suit" line...), it is definitely the debut film of a director with true talent. From the perfectly realized soundtrack to the excellent casting, the film, the original edit, not the director's cut,  really does hold up. So you can only imagine the immense interest in Richard Kelly's follow up to the cult phenomenon.
     But don't forget, this is still 2003. Kelly has just announced the title of his follow up film, Southland Tales, and he promises more characters, more story, more budget, and more soundtrack. People are floored, they can't wait. Internet forums are abuzz. We can't wait to see his newest magical outcast movie.
     Then something happens...
     Something strange....
     It is announced that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is attached.
     Not only is Johnson attached, but Jon Lovits and Justin Timberlake. Keep in mind that it is 2003, and Timberlake is years from proving himself worthy of acting chops (Social Network, Black Snake Moan). There's more! Sarah Michelle Gellar is in it too! And she plays a porn star! Oh yeah, don't forget Stiffler from American Pie...
     Okay, so he loses interest pretty fast. Now it's 2004, and the hipster cult of Donnie Darko is outright confused and angry about the bizarre (and, like, mainstream) casting of Kelly's new film. So interest in the project falters, and is later almost completely lost.
    2005: Domino, written by Kelly and directed by none other than Tony Scott, is released. It is given adequate reviews and adequate box office returns. In other words, it is not a failure or a success, so Kelly is given no real press. Besides, the hipster cult has now all but moved on to follow the slightly more prolific Wes Andersons and Darren Aronofskys of the world. No harm there, they're both great.
This poster didn't help, either...
     In late 2006 Southland Tales finally reaches DVD shelves all over the country. Although it enjoyed a limited theatrical release, people tend to go ahead and believe that it is a straight-to-DVD film with mildly famous celebrities in it. Except for Timberlake, who is still fairly successful before his career renaissance.
     The film has a soundtrack by Moby (yes, that Moby), a 145 minute runtime, a wildly complex plot, a couple of musical-style scenes, and near infinite references to other films, novels, television shows, and religions. It features characters with personality and drive. It features Wallace Shawn! And the scary lady from Poltergeist! We see cars having sex! There are blimps, shoot-outs, flying ice cream trucks, time-loops, and political agendas! To put it mildly, the film is a mess.
     Yet somehow it works. From the narration that gives the film a thread (lacking in the Cannes release) and the soundtrack that ties scenes together, the audience experiences the film as a ride in a sort of alternate universe. The scenes don't really mesh because we are given a glimpse into a "what if?" world. It's like a David Lynch film, a director that has clearly influenced Kelly, you watch it like a dream that only threads thematically, not through narrative.
     Filmmaking with this kind of passion and honesty does not come very often. We are given the rare opportunity to see directly into his head without any sort of manipulation by producers. Aronofsky did this with The Fountain, David O. Russell did this with I heart Huckabees, and Lynch did this with INLAND EMPIRE, and all of these films have found a niche audience based mainly on the names of the directors. Kelly's Southland Tales has found very little success in the years since its release, but I would say that its quality is ten times what his The Box is, and I would rate Tales over Darko any day of the week for its absolute dedication to its world and to the many, many references it makes to other works. There is always something new to find in the film, and always some subplot that is opening itself up to be discovered.
     If you missed this film upon its release, or if you saw it and didn't let its zany, strangely toned atmosphere sweep you off your feet, I ask you, please reconsider this outstanding work.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Uncaged: How Nicolas Cage Reveals the Faults of Others by Being Generally Awesome

     Call me crazy, but Nicolas Cage is one of the best actors of his generation. Make no mistake, Nicolas Cage has been in some horrible, devastatingly repulsive films in his day, but I have never watched Nicolas Cage do anything that I didn't totally believe. It's interesting, Cage can exist in a horribly written, sloppily directed film and only exude total belief and certitude in the world he is in. In his Wicker Man performance, Cage punches women, hates bees, screams, punches more women (in a bear suit!), and then questions the reasonability of flammable objects flaming, and I believe every cheesy, horrible second of it. Can we blame Cage for how terrible this movie is? I'm sure some of you are saying, "Yes...yes we can."
I'm not balding.
     But we can't!
     You see, Nicolas Cage is the amplifier for his writer/director's electric guitar. And believe me, Nicolas Cage goes to 11. Neil Labute, the man to blame for Wicker Man's existence, is also the man to blame for its supreme suckage (it's a word, look it up). He gave Cage lines of dialogue to read and perform, and he set up scenes for Cage to run around in. Cage was just doing his job. The man is a working actor, he needs to get paid. Yes, Labute is a working director and he needs to produce films, but Labute is in the wrong, here. You see, he decided that a movie containing the previously stated elements would be a good idea (not to mention the fact that it's a totally needless remake), and he hired Cage to make all of these things happen onscreen. The previous Wicker Man is a solid thriller with a semi-cult following, and Labute had a good track record before this film started shooting. The script, when Cage signed on, was not yet finished, and Cage signed on because of the quality of Labute's previous efforts. 
     Of course, we can say that Cage could have backed out during filming, but Cage is horrible with money and really cannot afford quitting. Plus, we have to remember that an amplifier might blow out, but it will continue making a horrible noise until you unplug it, mixed metaphors aside, that is the science of an amplifier. 
     Anyway, yes Wicker Man sucks, but Cage's performance in the film is totally and exactly what the movie calls for. He is simply a vessel for the movie's terribleness (also a word), and we cannot blame a car on the highway for being too fast, it's the driver. 
     Cage's amazing gift of doing exactly what is asked of him has done him well in the past. You see, there was once a time where Cage didn't have enough money to be broke. I know that sentence doesn't make sense, but it really really does. During these years, Cage was utilized in films like Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas, Wild at Heart, Bringing Out the Dead, and Adaptation. All of these films are highly regarded, especially Cage's performances in them, and for a while he seemed to be one of the shining Coppola's. 
I'm not balding. 
     But something happened, something terrible, Cage got too rich. Now he is an equally amazing vessel, a perfect concert amp, being used by $20.00 guitars. We have John Turtletaub, (3 Ninjas) director of National Treasure and The Sorcerer's Apprentice making films specifically for Nicolas Cage. Cage is giving his all for his performances in these films, but the directors can't handle his perfectly detailed sound. There is no distortion, no grunge, it is perfect sound coming from people who cannot play their instruments correctly. 
     Case in point, we find Cage in a place where he will literally accept any film role (Money problems are the culprit, but maybe, just maybe, he accepts anything because he is performing some sort of experiment that weeds out the good directors from the bad) that he is offered. So we have him appearing in Ghost Rider, Next, Drive Angry 3D, and Season of the Witch. None of these movies seem particularly amazing, but we also have his outstanding, mesmerizing, bewitching, transcendent performance in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and his fun performance in Kick-Ass. With these last two performances, at least personally, I think Cage is showing the public that he is more than capable as an actor. In fact, Cage seems to be showing us what he really is. 
     In Kick-Ass, Cage is totally believable as an insane man that has taken it upon himself to be Batman. He has the voice, the physicality, the charisma. Cage leaps off of the screen as this character and brings life the film. He is amplifying the smart writing and making everything around him seem even better than it is because the person playing their instrument is doing something right. 
     In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Cage is working for the totally insane, yet brilliant, film director Werner Herzog. Cage's performance as the titular lieutenant escalates the film to mythic proportions with lines like, "Shoot him again, his soul is still dancing" and "These iguanas are playing the harmonica." The actor completely devotes himself to the director, and in turn makes the film that Herzog wanted to make. Any other actor would have gotten lost in the material and become self-conscious: not Nicolas Cage. He can totally lend his abilities to the maker and let them do whatever they can with him.
     Some people may take Cage's more bombastic performances as hamminess, but what we are really seeing is the work of a director who does not have the maturity of talent to know how much is too much. Like an amplifier turned up too loud, Cage is sometimes used too much and drowns out the other players. This is not his fault, but the fault of the people in charge. 
     So please, if you're a director, only use Nicolas Cage if you trust in your skill. Because his ability to be whatever you want him to be only showcases your flaws, not his. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Stephen King's IT: A Pleasant Surprise

Watch your fingers! That boat will hit them!
     I just realized that my blog isn't just about movies, as the posts so far do not suggest, so I'm going to broaden the river here a little bit and talk about (GASP) a novel. Not just any novel, but a novel that contains strong parallels to Moby-Dick and includes not one, not two, but three hundred speaking characters. Of course I'm talking about Stephen King's IT. Yes, the very novel that inspired the mini-series that inspired millions of eight year olds to declare that "clowns are scary".
     Well, as it turns out, sometimes clowns are scary. However, King presents his audience with a story here that is far more interesting as an intense, 1100+ page character study than a horror novel. Sure, there are some frightening moments. One scene in particular, one that did not involve the monster at all actually, literally made me stop reading for the night. It involves an abusive, woman-hating man breaking into this lady's house and almost beating her to death. This scene is really the only truly frightening part in the novel. That's not to say there's nothing else to be scared of in the book, but what happened in that particular scene is far more believable than a giant eye attacking me in a sewer pipe. Just sayin'.
     I read this novel before, somewhere around thirteen or fourteen years old, and I'm pretty sure I either didn't finish it or I got lost in the prose, because the second half of the book came as a total surprise to me. The novel, which begins as a pretty standard King affair (Maine, Writer Protagonist, Mysterious Monster, Bullies, etc) ends up being surprisingly tender story about relationships that feels closer to his story "The Body" (later adapted as Stand By Me) than something like The Stand or Cujo.
     What surprises me most is that the characters feel totally three dimensional, not because I think King is a bad writer, but because I have never found his characters to be particularly real. I have found his stories compelling, and I have always had enough interest in how the story ends to continue, but very rarely does a King novel contain characters that I believe could exist in a world where cats don't come back alive and a hotels don't haunt your psyche.
    Although I'm impressed by the epic quality of the novel and its compelling characterization, I am not saying that the novel is without flaw. There are four interludes throughout the novel, three of them are fine enough, but one of them is over 100 pages long and could have literally been one sentence and had the same impact. It felt a lot like King was tired of his novel and just wrote a novella in the middle that has very little to do with anything. Arguments can be made, but I dare anybody to tell me why Mike Hanlon's father's deathbed story just had to be in here for me to understand the novel more fully. Also, I'm not sure why he finds it necessary to include scene after scene of Beverly (in flashback) discovering sexuality when the boys in the novel never once speak of sex. There is a point in the novel where the audience has no choice but to close the book and say, "Steve, please, don't ever make me read something like that again. I feel like I've just committed statutory rape." If you don't feel like closing book and saying this, there's a cell somewhere waiting for you.
    Despite those things and a couple of other strange literary choices (A mummy? Frankenstein's Monster? Balloons?) the novel holds up fairly well given its age. As a novel that relies heavily on its 1980's setting, it really has aged gracefully. The thing that surprises me the most in IT is King's insistence on experimentation with prose. He includes interjections, point-of-view changes, ambiguous timelines, stream-of-consciousness, and sometimes completely unreliable narrators. There are even passages told from the point-of-view of the monster. I was consistently surprised, pleasantly, by King's strong prose and his ability to take risks with his style. The novel was hugely successful upon its release, and it established King (if he wasn't already with his previous efforts) as a writer who can write hugely successful, and just plain huge, novels with commercial and artistic appeal.
     I must say, though, after reading this novel I'm going to take a long break from Mr. King. Hopefully, when I return to his work and read his Dark Tower series I'll feel the same as I do about IT, which is that that novel is hugely successful in what it does, and that it is now forever tainted by a pretty standard mini-series with subpar everything.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Films that didn't beat the odds but should have: BUG

     Maybe it isn't the seventies anymore, but give William Friedkin some credit. He made The French Connection and The Exorcist and the strangely forgotten To Live and Die in L.A., and for some reason dropped off of the map. Well, not just some reason, there are several good reasons (I'm looking at you The Hunted), but it seems like he went from a well respected, bankable director to a television movie director (literally, he directed a television adaptation of 12 Angry Men). Okay, so his career is questionable, but you can't ever rule out the guy who created two of the most iconic films ever made.
     But it seems like we have.
     I have no other explanation for how the deliciously insane horror film Bug(2006) failed at the box office and with most critics than to say that the public consensus of William Friedkin is that he is no longer "with us". I assure you that he most definitely is. Bug is not just a horror film, it's a drama, a comedy, a character study, and a surprisingly heartbreaking tragedy. Of course, you wouldn't know it from the terrible trailers that marketed the movie, nor could you tell from the ridiculous categorization of this movie as a thriller.
    To put something straight, if a horror movie is looking for acclaim, those who market the movie call it a thriller. The Sixth Sense, clearly a horror film, was marketed as a thriller. I understand that horror as a genre has always had a stigma, like it's low art. Granted, a ton of horror movies are low art. This shouldn't stop us from calling something what it is. The Silence of the Lambs is a horror film, as is The Exorcist, and I think everybody knows that by now. But when a movie like Bug comes along, with a slow moving story that settles into the back of your mind and then slaps it, don't tell people that they are going to be thrilled. They won't be. National Treasure is a thrilling movie. Psycho is a thriller. There are moments that come out of nowhere, as part of a ride, and shock you. Movies like the ones previously mentioned, work slowly to draw you in and scare you. Their entire purpose is to scare you. A thriller is to make you sit on the edge of your seat and occasionally jump out of your seat, but a horror movie, a true horror movie, simply lights a candle in the back of your mind and lets the wax seep into your synapses. Now, isn't that a delightful little image?
     Now that I've gotten that out of the way, it's important to note that Friedkin did not write Bug. The screenplay, as well as the play from which the screenplay was adapted, was written by Tracy Letts. The writing is sensational. The film involves the slow transition of a woman from her lonely need for companionship to a truly terrifying mental instability. It does this realistically and with no sign of pretension.
     Michael Shannon reprises his role from the stage play and hits the right notes, doing crazy as he seems to always do, but the real standout performance here is by Ashley Judd. She is absolutely mesmerizing in her depiction of a woman who is handicapped by the loss of her son and the controlling hand of her recently paroled ex-husband (played by an admittedly hammy Harry Conick Jr.). Judd has control of every scene, and she guides the audience through a transition that is, to put it lightly, difficult to believe. Yet she somehow makes it look completely effortless.
    Perhaps the biggest problem with this movie is what makes it so good. Friedkin, a director who has never left the seventies in terms of his style and content, treats the movie with no sense of ironic detachment or tongue-in-cheek asides for the audience. The story is simply told, and disintegrating minds simply disintegrate. The line "I am the super mother bug!" is delivered without a hint of humor. Audiences these days, especially in my generation, don't take kindly to films that expect you to take them seriously. And this line, I must say, would break the walls of even the most stalwart 16 year olds, the current market and obvious demographic target for recent "thrillers" and horror films.
     But please, if you can even find it these days, look up Bug and take ninety minutes out of your day to watch what happens to be, in my opinion, to be one of the most criminally overlooked and devastating horror films in quite some time.
     (If you're interested, check out another strangely overlooked film, Rob Zombie's Halloween II)