Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Underrated: Life During Wartime

          Like Kevin Smith, Todd Solondz has created his own universe of characters who interact from one film to the next. These are not sequels as much as they are investigations. For instance, Mark Wiener, the older brother from Welcome To the Dollhouse and the character who most resembles Todd Solondz physically and temperamentally, shows up in three of the five Solondz movies made since his first appearance. Mark never lasts long in the film, and usually says the exact same line, but the context is always dramatically different. In Welcome To the Dollhouse, Mark tries to help his sister deal with her unpopularity in school. In Palindromes, Mark tries to help Aviva realize that human relationships, and human love, are much more complicated than the grace she seeks. And in Life During Wartime, when a young man asks how to forgive and forget, Mark wonders aloud if anybody could ever forget, but not forgive. What makes people feel the need to forget when they've already decided to forgive?

         Life During Wartime is about forgiveness. It is also about how dumb it is to forget what you've forgiven. If you don't remember what you've forgiven, what's the point?

        Solondz's film is a quasi-sequel to 1998's Happiness. I call this particular film a sequel because it is, more or less, a continuation of the story from that film. Of course, the characters of other Solondz films make appearances throughout, but the bulk of the story is still centered around Joy's many problems. Joy, now played by Shirley Henderson (of Moaning Myrtle fame) in an even more pathetic, childish manner than Jane Adams's version of the character in the previous film, is a middle-aged optimist who cannot catch a break. After several failed relationships and losing a job helping imprisoned rapists sort out their lives, Joy decides to visit her sister, Trish, now played by Allison Janney, who lives in Florida. Which brings me to the most written about aspect of the movie.

         Instead of casting the film with the same actors he used for Happiness, Solondz decided to recast all of the characters with new actors who could bring new life to the characters. In some cases, the actors don't resemble the previous ones at all. For example, Dylan Baker's red haired, pasty-faced, boring Bill Maplewood has been replaced by the tall, dark and handsome Ciaran Hinds. Jon Lovitz's Andy has been replaced by Paul Reubens, who plays the role uncharacteristically straight. It is Reubens, strangely enough, who delivers the finest and most powerful performance in the entire film. Other odd choices abound in the film, most notably Ally Sheedy taking Lara Flynn Boyle's spot from the previous film. Sheedy's performance is the hammiest and most underwritten of the film, but I believe that fault lies more with the director not really knowing what to do with her than Sheedy's talent.

           Although Solondz's films are classified as comedy, he has become famous for taking dark, disturbing subject matter and looking at it through sympathetic eyes. His characters often harbor dangerous secrets and strange habits that are often considered unforgivable or strange. However, Solondz has never dismissed a character because of their behavior. In fact, the kind of person most often abused in these films are the "normal" people. The people who shop for matching rugs and order incredibly specific salads are the ones under attack in these films. This is because Solondz sees these people as phonies. He believes that everybody has a darkness inside of them, and that those who do the judging are the most guilty of exerting this darkness.

           Solondz often skirts the boundaries of tragedy and dark comedy, usually ending up somewhere in the middle. When Timmy, the son of a pedophile in Life During Wartime, tells his mom that the other kids at school call him a faggot because his father molested boys, his mother tells him that he is "not a faggot. [He] will never be a faggot as long as she is alive." She says this to him in a protective, babying manner. It is like she is protecting him from some evil force that, if he isn't looking, might take over. The scene is all at once funny and horrifying. The shooting style, mixed with the music, is reminiscent of early '90's sitcoms, but the dialogue itself is deeply disturbing.

       Life During Wartime, while definitely a comedy, is by far Solondz's most bleak affair. The characters in the film are exhausted by the world in which they live. They are tired of the war. They are tired of behaving the way their parents expect them to and the way society urges them to be. Joy is exhausted by the world's cynicism and condescension toward her unique brand of optimism. While Happiness was about America's search for happiness in a world full of sickness, Life During Wartime is about the difficulty of living in a country that is all about appearances. It is no longer enough to be happy for these characters. They want to be forgiven for who they are. They want to be accepted for their idiosyncrasies and loved because of them.

      Life During Wartime is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

I give the film 10/10 miscast Ally Sheedys.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Movie Review: Drive


           "I used to produce movies. They were violent, sexy little films. The critics called them European," says Albert Brooks's Bernie about halfway through Drive--a violent, sexy film that many critics are also calling European. However, this critic must say this up front, Drive is an excellent, thought-provoking, controversial and violent film that seems to not care about its own hype, and I love it for this reason. But I must also say this, the film does carry hype, and it may not live up to thing you're expecting.

          First off, Drive is not The Transporter, as many people have been saying. Of course, a film containing a good looking man who drives a car and gets in a fight must be a rip off of a Jason Statham film. Because, you know, it's the only other movie that contains such things. Forget Bullitt, Mad Max, Gone in Sixty Seconds (The good one and the crappy one), Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop, and a whole host of other films, The Transporter is the movie that Drive is totally ripping off. Okay, enough bitter sarcasm.

          One of the first things I read about Drive, after its director, Nicolas Winding Refn, won the best director award at Cannes, was that he had intended the film to be some sort of hybrid between Purple Rain and Blue Velvet--filled with dark, moody atmosphere while simultaneously oozing some sort of pop-rock vibe. After reading that interview, Drive immediately became my most anticipated film of the year. Add that to my admittedly frightening love of Ryan Gosling and my admiration for Refn's previous work, and you're looking at somebody who was fully prepared to love every waking second of Drive. 

         But the movie really is not a hybrid of two strikingly different '80's films whose titles begin with a color. It actually feels a whole lot like American Gigolo. From the font of the opening credits to the synthesized, soundscapey soft-rock soundtrack, to the way in which the main character seems to only exist because of his profession, all I could think about was how similar these two movies are. However, instead of male prostitution gone wrong, Drive is all about a heist gone wrong. Or perhaps it's about more, perhaps it's about a choice gone wrong. Or maybe a lack of choices. Or maybe it's about something totally different, like the violence of American cinema, or the evil of greed. Maybe it isn't about anything. I don't really know. I don't think you do either.

         The main character, played by Ryan Gosling, is named Driver in the credits. In the film, his name is never mentioned. He has no past, no family, no goals, and no real personality. He's a good enough guy. He's loyal to his boss, he's fiercely protective of his girlfriend, Irene, and her son. He is even protective of his girlfriend's husband, who returns from a two-year stint in prison during Driver and Irene's courtship. But who is he really? He loves fixing and driving cars. That's about it. Driver keeps mostly to himself, usually letting those around him do the talking. In this way, the characters who surround Driver are the ones who define him. The ultimate existential protagonist.

         In fact, the only time Driver seems to have some sort of humanity inside of him is when he explodes into a violent rage. Like a switch going off, Driver is able to unleash a violence more intense than anybody in my theater, including me, expected. And the most terrifying part of it is, the people he hurts only deserve so much. When he decides to fight back he goes all the way, whether the audience is rooting for him or not. Sometimes the violence is so shocking and so sudden that it takes a second to even register that it happened.

       Of course, movies today contain violence far more shocking than what can be found in this film. Gore levels have reached an all time high in Hollywood films. Even Refn's previous film, Valhalla Rising, contains far more violence in its first half hour than Drive's entire runtime. But there is a difference. Valhalla Rising lets the audience know what kind of movie it is right away. Drive does the opposite, letting the audience think it is one thing, before changing drastically halfway through the picture.

      The film begins in typical heist movie fashion. We are treated to a scene in which Driver helps two men escape from a crime. Driver is calm, collected, confident, and amazing at his job. The opening chase sequence, hands down, is one of the most riveting sequences I've seen in the theater since The Dark Knight's bank robbery opener.

       We then get to see Driver at his other job, performing dangerous maneuvers as a stunt driver for Hollywood movies. In this job, he also excels because of his amazing talent and seemingly infinite calm. However, after the film gets into a nice rhythm and falls into the formula we've come to expect from movies like this, it goes off and becomes something totally different. Something totally, unbelievably chilling. The film turns into a wrestling match between two ideas: whether or not we like the protagonist. At first, Driver is exactly the kind of action movie star we've paid to see. But then, after some time with the character, we learn to fear him. We begin to question his morals. Who is he exactly? How much do we really know about him?

       He is an action movie star performing action movie stunts, but he is missing that Jason Statham charm. Which makes us wonder, why do we pull for the protagonist of action movies in the first place? Because they are usually the best looking and most charming characters? Surely such grisly acts of violence should be met with shock and horror instead of high fives and laughter. Drive is a film that seems to question the audience's morals. It seems to be constantly asking us if we should trust such a protagonist.

     Drive is superbly directed in a style somewhere between European Art-house and Mumblecore minimalism. The performances are exceptional, especially those from Albert Brooks and Ryan Gosling, and the music (excluding a couple of questionable choices) is perfectly, ironically chosen. If you were a fan of the George Clooney espionage thriller The American, or you are, for some reason, a huge fan of American Gigolo, I recommend you see the movie immediately. If you like action scenes where the camera captures the scene by shaking incoherently, then look elsewhere. I'm sure Paul Greengrass is working on something new.

       As the film finally reaches its dark, violent end, it leaves us with one last joke. Will there be a sequel?

I give Drive 9/10 bloody hammers.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Good Horror: Insidious

I have less than ten minutes of screentime!
          It takes a certain wisdom to make a good horror film. Until now, I never figured director James Wan to be a guy to have this wisdom. His previous films, Saw and Death Sentence, while moderately suspenseful, don't really provide any evidence of good horror. The first Saw film was, obviously, a hugely successful film that became a franchise, but the original film doesn't really constitute as a horror film. The Saw franchise is usually categorized as horror because of its shocking imagery and even more shocking body count, but the first film is actually closer to a police procedural than a full blown horror film. James Wan, however, believes that Saw is a horror film, and this is why I have always believed there to be a crack in his wisdom.

       Death Sentence, like Saw, is a film that James Wan would describe as a horror film. While I understand this categorization a little more (the pointless murder of your family is rather horrifying), Death Sentence is actually filmed like a pretty straight forward revenge thriller. Both of these movies have their charms, and Death Sentence in particular has that spectacular parking garage chase sequence (one shot!), but neither film really shows a horror director understanding the genre with which he works.

    This is why, last summer, I decided to skip Insidious. The film, starring Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy, Little Children) and Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids), was advertised as suspenseful, haunted house fare full of jump scares and creepy children. Who hasn't seen 454352 horror films with creepy children and lousy jump scares? Do we need another one really? So without having seen the movie or read the reviews, I used my anti-lazy-creepy-children-horror-movies-dar and decided to skip out on the fun.

     Fast forward to a month ago. I was reading an article on the best horror films of the last few years, and the writer would not stop gushing about Insidious. However, earlier in the article, he made a remark about torture porn that was less than favorable, torture porn being a genre brought into the mainstream with the help of Saw. This intrigued me. I looked around on other sites and found that Insidious is pretty highly regarded as a horror film. So I decided to give it a go.

     I know what you're thinking--"What a movie snob"

     That's only partly true. It's not that I'm a movie snob, it's that I am a horror movie snob. The horror genre is plagued by derivative crappyness, poor acting, poor funding, cheap scares, cheap gore, and boring formulas. A great horror film needs to understand horror. It needs to understand the audience's experience with horror. Like a good comedy, a good horror relies on surprise, originality, and execution. A poor drama can get away with more mediocrity if it is based on an "important" subject. Case in point-- Crash.

Here are some rules a horror director needs to be aware of:

  •     Good horror needs to be believable. We need to relate to the characters, identify with them, fear for them, and fear with them. 
  • The scares need to be real. None of this cat jumping out a closet nonsense. 
  • The characters need to be smart. If there's something horrifying happening in your house, move out of your house
  • If you're going to use a creepy kid, use him/her sparingly. However, I prefer you don't use one, because what else is there to do with that dead, dead subgenre?
  • If you're going to include demons, ghosts, etc, give them a motivation. If they haven't killed the protagonist yet, there had better be a good reason. Because what's stopping them? They've kind of already been punished.
  • We need to know the setting just as much as we know the characters. 
  • The characters need dramatic arcs. Static characters do not make for interesting horror. Or fiction for that matter. 

          Insidious does an excellent job of enforcing these rules. Not only does it follow these general guidelines, it also provides an excellent variation on the haunted house genre. The usual suspects are there from the beginning--an emotionally fragile mother, a distant father, a creepy old house, inexplicable noises coming from the attic, small children being creepy, but all of these factors turn out to be secondary scares. The movie uses our own knowledge of the haunted house movie against us. It expects us to look for figures in the shadows. It knows we expect a cheap, cat from a closet jump scare, so it sets us up for the jump scares without delivering.

        When the audience is met with silence and suspense, instead of a cheap jump scare, they prepare themselves for the fake out scare. This is when the jump scare doesn't occur, only for the character to turn around and notice their husband was standing right beside them, scaring them. Of course, we don't get a fake out scare either. We just get silence, confusion, uneasiness, and thwarted expectations. We know the film is horror because we saw the loud trailer, we know something terrible is going to happen soon, but it always seems just out of reach.

        So when the horror does start to creep in, about a third of the way into the movie, we have been looking for something in the shadows for almost half an hour. The tension has been building. The characters are uneasy. The atmosphere of the film becomes claustrophobic. The horror does not unfold in typical formula fashion. It does not make the audience jump with a loud noise every 5-7 minutes. It explodes at random. The film, in its most brilliant scenes, is ripped from its hinges at the most shocking and unexpected moments possible. The scenes don't startle you, they scare you. There are things in the house, but you can't see them. You can only catch glimpses.

      And when the family is finally, after over thirty minutes of buildup, sent into complete terror, they do what any intelligent person would do. They move out. And that's when the real horror movie starts.

     Insidious is an amazingly competent horror film. It does almost everything right. The scares are genuine, shocking, and original. The performances are naturalistic and engaging. The writing is smart and knowing. The film works. My only problems with it lie in the admittedly left-field third act, but the lead up is so smart, so original, that I can't even fault the film for it.

    I suggest you rent it or buy it as soon as possible. It is very, very worth the watch.