Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Scarlet Empress

What can you say about a film set in the 1700s that concludes with the triumphant strains of the 1812 Overture? The Scarlet Empress may not care much for historical accuracy, but it sure knows what works. Josef von Sternberg’s penultimate—and greatest—pairing with Marlene Dietrich is, among other things, hilarious, decadent, ravishing, and one of the great clothes-horse epics to boot. This broad telling of Catherine the Great’s rise to power is overstuffed with style to the point of delirium (it almost seems like Sternberg assigned someone to follow the camera around and hang a chandelier over every shot). The visuals are so dense that they almost overwhelm, but that’s also what makes them so incredible—an abundance of artifice so vivid it is more real and undeniable than your own hand in front of your face. Forget wispy dream worlds: Sternberg is after sheer material depth. You couldn’t walk five steps in this film without tripping over a drape or statue or courtier. The force and beauty of Sternberg’s work is best understood when you see Marlene Dietrich in close-up through a veil, reduced to innumerable squares as if in a pointillist masterpiece—abstract realism, you could call it. But whatever it is, it works.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Set on Martha’s Vineyard during a particularly wind-swept, weather-beaten season, The Ghost Writer is a model of dread. Roman Polanski’s new film has provoked a great many comparisons to Hitchcock, and who am I to fight the tide? I can’t think of a better way to sum up this film’s virtues, which include Polanski’s masterful sense of narrative economy (his eye is always open for the telling detail or gesture) or the balance of suspense and mordant humour that makes the film so engaging.

Ewan McGregor stars as the Ghost (like any self-respecting ghost writer, he remains nameless), who takes on the difficult task of polishing up the memoirs of an embattled politician after the body of the original ghost writer is found washed up on shore. The politician in question is Alan Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a former British prime minister modeled on Tony Blair—although unlike his real-world counterpart, Lang is facing the prospect of being tried for war crimes as a result of authorizing the illegal deportation and torture of terror suspects.

You can usually tell when an actor really relishes his role, and Brosnan devours this one with gluttonous glee right from the start, when we first see him stepping off a private jet and offering a dainty little queen-mother wave to the waiting crowd. In his next appearance, he is wearing sweatpants and splayed on a couch post-workout, dripping with sweat and insouciance. Brosnan clearly enjoys building up and deflating this little political puppet, and his performance, half-mocking but still sympathetic, adds to the ambiguity of whether or not Lang actually knows what is going on.

As Lang’s wife, Olivia Williams, who doesn’t get nearly enough high-profile roles these days, also excels at obscuring her character’s motivations. McGregor, on the other hand, is given a much more difficult part in the Ghost—a character who lacks the forethought to have any motivations worth hiding. I’ve never much cared for McGregor, who strikes me as too bland to make a compelling anchor for any film, but he’s well used here. Polanski seems to have chosen him for the very blankness that makes him so dull most of the time. He truly seems like a person who could make a living lending his voice to other people.

That willingness to become a mouthpiece for others is at the heart of this character’s troubles, in fact. The Ghost is a passive person, rarely the motivating agent behind anything that happens. More through stumbling folly than any real sense of purpose, he finds himself tangled up in the mystery of what happened to his predecessor. Even when he intends to leave the whole mess behind, he can't help himself. Driving away in the dead man's SUV, he follows the preprogrammed route on the GPS unit straight back into the heart of the mystery. Rarely thinking past the next turn in the road, the Ghost is easily led along the path of his worst judgment.

Despite what initially seem like missteps, the film avoids any serious lapses in judgment on its own part. At first glance, The Ghost Writer might even seem like Chinatown-lite. Polanski’s earlier depiction of a corrupted world in which all of the elites conspire against justice returns here, albeit less persuasive as it makes the jump from municipal to international politics. Based in Los Angeles history, Chinatown spoke to specifics, while The Ghost Writer necessarily deals in generalities.

However, the despair of Chinatown has given way to droll detachment. The high-stakes games of power and intrigue are treated with breezy disdain, just as the murder mystery is treated with an almost patronizing patience (the film even climaxes with one of those eureka moments where someone rearranges some words and discovers the secret to everything). What really matters is the moral education of the Ghost, who must come to terms with his own complicity in Lang’s actions—it’s no surprise that the Ghost admits early on to voting for Lang, simply shrugging and saying everyone else did it at the time. Polanski, who lost a mother to Auschwitz, is surely familiar with the dark purposes such an apathetic, passive mindset can be called to serve.

Rather than settle for the mostly academic outrage at the behaviour of our leaders, Polanski—admittedly, not the most ideal ethics teacher—prefers to inquire into our own guilty consciences. The most chilling moment in the film comes when the Ghost is drafted to write Lang’s press response after the war crimes investigation is announced. Afterwards, Lang’s assistant dryly informs him, “You’re an accomplice now.” It’s a disturbing realization: just because your name isn’t on the cover doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for what’s inside.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sukiyaki Western Django

Visceral and stylish, Sukiyaki Western Django is another harvest of red making use of that well-worn Dashiell Hammett plot. This loopy Japanese tribute to spaghetti westerns—all the actors speaking in stilted English—showcases director Takashi Miike’s ability to stage aesthetically pleasing gore and mayhem, but that’s about all there is to be found here. The main conceptual twist is combining the samurai-era Yojimbo with the gunplay of its western remake, Fistful of Dollars. But beyond the initial shock of the strange, the film never provokes much beyond dude-this-is-messed-up reactions, which can only carry you so far. All of the mythic posturing never really connects to the outrageous emotion necessary for this story to work (a concluding speech about choosing between love and hate is particularly ridiculous, feeling like tacked-on thematic substance after Miike realized all of these films he’s paying tribute to were actually about things other than their own coolness). However, there is one powerful scene: the wife of a murdered man relives his death through an erotic dance for a room full of killers, concluding by throwing herself on the stage and pulling from her throat a string of bells. Blurring the lines between violence and sex, hate and love, it’s the only moment of potent emotion in the entire film. The rest is self-regarding movie trivia. Quentin Tarantino, unsurprisingly, has a cameo.

Monday, March 15, 2010


I think it’s time to reconsider this whole zombie thing. I enjoy them as much as the next fellow, but there’s only so much you can take. Once upon a time, they served as handy-dandy all-purpose vehicles for free-floating dread and social satire. Now they’ve become so much less than that—just another warning sign on the road to obnoxiously self-aware and overly referential filmmaking. The joke has been told too many times. Not that we don’t laugh anymore. Oh, no, now everyone laughs before you even get to the punch line.

Of course zombies were always ridiculous as a threat. I understand that. I know how difficult it must be take them seriously. The lumbering, moaning things are really only terrifying in that mystical cinematic world where a person can’t run more than ten steps without tripping on his own feet. And so people come to think zombies need to be fast and agile, just to prompt audience members to momentarily jump in their seats. Don’t they realize the point of the zombie is its excruciating slowness? They’re meant to pin you in your seat and make you squirm uncomfortably as they implacably break through the door and dismember some poor sap, all while signifying the class struggle or racism or the conflict in the Middle East or whatever. Sure, they were slow, but those bastards could really multi-task.

But we’re past that point, and there’s no going back. We’re now living in the era of zombie kitsch: zombie parades, zombie escape plans, and finally, inevitably, Zombieland.

There’s no returning to more innocent (read: irony-free) times—which actually sums up the general thrust of this film, directed by first-timer Ruben Fleischer. The usual rag-tag group of survivors band together, their guiding concern being not quaint niceties like survival, but rather the yearning for lost childhoods. That’s right: we’ve taken the first step towards a Wes Anderson zombie film.

Led by a neurotic loner named Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), all of the characters rather fittingly take their names from their hometowns, but this clinging to the past often comes across as little more than an affectation. This is particularly true in the case of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), who searches the ravaged wasteland for Twinkies, which apparently symbolize happier days (instead of, more reasonably, the artificiality of our culture or meagerness of ambitions, both of which probably cut too close for this film).

The Twinkie gag grows stale quickly (certainly more quickly than it would take one of those creamy sponge-turds to expire), but the film does have more poignant reminders of innocence lost to compensate. Two con-artist sisters named Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) make their way across the country to reach Pacific Playland, an amusement park both visited when younger. The older sister, Wichita, suggests this is for the sake of the still-adolescent Little Rock, whose childhood has been interrupted by the complete collapse of civilization. But there’s something a little sad in how they talk about the park being zombie-free. The pair is essentially seeking refuge in an idyllic place from childhood, hiding in a happy memory to avoid the horrors of the changed world.

Such somber realizations—which flicker by only briefly before disappearing like ghosts—bring a touch of poignancy to these otherwise unremarkable characters. While the actors are uniformly likeable, they’re stuck with dull characters in a dull plot, all of it too familiar to be engaging. Jesse Eisenberg as the insecure nerd who gets the girl in the end? Woody Harrelson as the crazy tough guy with the soft side? With such predictable casting, it’s a credit to the actors that they manage to stay so alert in their performances. Wake me when the next zombie attack is over, boys, will you?

Buried in all of this is a promising idea for a film that uses an apocalyptic shock to mark the definitive and irreversible break between childhood and adulthood. Unfortunately, Zombieland, while never totally devoid of pleasures, is too unimaginative to build on that promise. For all its nice little digressions and details—the wonky joy of hanging out with Bill Murray after the end of the world, Woody Harrelson dabbing his teary eyes with a fistful of dollars—the film is too happy to settle for spicing up generic characters and a ready-made plot with a bit of splatter and a few movie references. Like the people in this film, I’m stuck yearning for simpler times that are long gone, back before self-awareness came along and screwed everything up—zombie nostalgia.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Crazies (2010)

Note: click here for my review of the original version of The Crazies.

Several questions occurred to me while watching The Crazies, Breck Eisner’s remake of George Romero’s 1973 film about a small town ravaged by a military-made biological weapon that sends ordinary people into a violent frenzy. Namely: where are the crazed geriatrics stabbing soldiers with knitting needles? Where are the loony ladies wielding brooms whilst running through dew-kissed meadows? And most importantly, where’s the incest? Damn it— where’s the love?

Eisner’s remake of Romero’s messy, unhinged original sticks mostly to a bland, tasteful competence: more money, more talent, and yet so much less personality. In the place of Romero’s frenzied satire we get a lot of look-behind-you moments, remarkable only for the fact that Eisner seems to take such hoary tropes seriously. Is there anything quite as absurd as an actress awkwardly craning her neck to avoid noticing the deadly threat right beside her? The pounding noise on the soundtrack that accompanies the scene is the only way of jolting audiences used to such an old gag, but even then the whole tired set-up is more ridiculous than frightening. With only the slightest nudge towards self-consciousness, this might have made a fine comedy.

Sadly, the caustic humour of Romero’s film is almost entirely absent here, save for a glimmer of irreverence in the film’s use of Willie Nelson singing “Bring Me Sunshine” over the closing credits. Not to say the original was a masterpiece, but at least it possessed brazen energy and a kamikaze wit. Its self-immolating style—the film itself seemed to be collapsing faster than the world it portrayed—was a perfect fit with its depiction of social order crumbling into violence and depravity. And even if the acting was amateurish, at least the characters were sharply drawn. The lunatics were genuinely bizarre (rather than the dull parade of thugs the remake gives us), while even anonymous soldiers were distinguished with little personal details. Despite having greater resources for building a more vivid world, Eisner’s film feels comparatively drained of colour.

All of the subtext and idiosyncrasies of the original have been shaken off like dead weight. Why then does this film feel so leaden and heavy footed? In the original, the hero David and his sidekick Clank were both ex-military, which accounted for the tense and complicated dynamic between the two. In the remake, the hero David and his sidekick Russell are simply sheriff and deputy, and that’s all there is to know. The relationship follows the same pattern in both films—sidekick grows increasingly violent and unstable, hero is uncertain if his partner is infected or not—but the remake removes any back-story that might have made this progression meaningful.

Everything is recognizable, only now devoid of consequence. The original was stirred by the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings: chilling reminders that the military serves the interests of political elites, not the public good. It had something to say, a reason for its madness. Unfortunately, Eisner really has no comparative viewpoint to energize this hollow film. He whitewashes the original’s incendiary vision, or more accurately, plasters over it with a healthy coating of red corn syrup.

This is a prime example of cinematic gentrification. The original was pure ghetto—shoddily made, dangerous, fun for only the most dysfunctional of families—and its distinctive character naturally attracted a more upscale demographic. But whereas Romero’s film had a purpose and a passion to justify its existence, the remake lives only to gut its source material. Everything subversive and transgressive in the original gets pushed out for the sake of increased production values, all aimed at satisfying the demands of an audience that wants to be scared and surprised only if it is done in the safest, most predictable way possible. All of the original charm of the neighbourhood gets destroyed in the process. Such is the progression from no-budget to low-budget, though I suspect this is the end of the line for this story. Who, after watching Eisner’s dull film, could possibly be inspired to remake it?