Monday, April 08, 2002

Rules Of Attraction, or On The Talented Auteur As Intolerable Dick

Rules of Attraction has the feeling of a bright kid in their late teens, sitting in their room, doodling on their guitar, writing wistful songs wondering why the world is so fucked up and their friends are so phony and girls won't date them. Sometimes it's beautiful and moving and works wonders with its raw, honest young emotions. Sometimes it wanks around and fucks with the grammar and looks a bit silly. It's always ambitious and lyrical, the lyrics just aren't always that good.

The movie's strengths and weaknesses are summed up near the end of the second act, when one single shot, going on for an ingeniously excruciating length, is soundtracked with what, if I were to explain it, you'd laugh at, but under the circumstances, works wonders, and the whole shot is gruelling and harrowing and moving like no other single shot I can remember. (Rope doesn't count and I haven't seen Russian Ark yet).

And then a shot follows that is not only horribly cliched, it's also as trite and literal as the previous shot was raw and visceral; and then a shot follows THAT that's just so disgusting in its expectedness, it's probably the worst POSSIBLE shot in the entire library of cinematic grammar that you could use at this point. And then, just to rub salt in the wound (and at this point, if the rules of cinema that Avery so college-level-iconoclastically picks-and-chooses his adherence to would allow it, I'm sure we'd SEE a closeup of salt being rubbed into a wound), a little montage plays that would be at home in a direct-to-video movie with a fraction of the quality Rules of Attraction manages, at times, to have. That's the trouble with working magic: when you go back to doing ordinary stuff, it looks fucking awful.

See, on the whole, this Roger Avery character pisses me off. Getting famous by working with Quentin Tarantino, then working bitchy little references to your work with him into the first ten minutes of your movie. Using your Oscar speech as the opportunity to announce to the world your need to urinate. Running the credits of your movie backwards. Yes, Roger, you're all daring and you don't let the Man tell you what to do and the opening scene of your movie is a humorous depiction of a girl being vomited on while she's being date-raped. How very clever you are, Roger. Fuck off.

But despite this, he's still a rather talented irritating little troll. Like the kid sitting in his room smoking pot and thinking every lyric he writes is going to change the world, a lot of Avery's decisions are just plain awful. Labored, visible, amateur mistakes. But one time out of maybe five, he manages to do something that's genuinely great and goes under the radar to underpin Rules of Attraction with a good solid style.

What's probably most impressive here is the degree of weight his characters have. Seeing Dawson fucking and cursing and snogging boys has an impact that lasts approximately a minute; but the three protagonists in Rules of Attraction are invested with such weight and resonance that's the polar opposite of college movies' standard young-carefree-best-days-of-our-lives thesis.

When any of the principle players, onscreen or off, try to literalise it, to spell out what's going on, be it via the spoken word (or lack thereof - what a silly ending line) or the grammar of film (which, as you may've gathered, calls attention to itself often in this movie), they fall flat and make you wish you were watching American Pie, where the rules of cinema are adhered to but it makes you laugh instead of groaning. But when Avery or Van der Beek or tomanandy or editor Sharon Rutter or anyone else involved just cut loose and allow things to happen, freely and honestly, the results are often amazing, lively and, in their fucked-up little way, beautiful.

Sunday, April 07, 2002

Spider, or On Surprise Endings

I am firmly of the opinion that if M. Night Shyamalan ever calms down a little and gets over the whole ending thing, he'll be one of the standout moviemakers of his generation. David Cronenberg, meanwhile, is already one of the standout moviemakers of his generation, so it's a shame that Spider, far from the deep, unsettling unwinding of a tangled knot (you'll be glad to know I refrained from using the word "web", not for the last time, at this point, thus consciously eschewing at least the most obvious of clumsy metaphors - a favour Spider is loathe to do its audience) of madness it sets out to be, is, basically, a Surprise Ending movie inverted and gone terribly wrong.

Here's how the Surprise Ending movie goes. The audience is drawn deeper and deeper into a twisted plot, fed details which may or may not be important later, and then, midway through act 3, BAM!, something happens that makes the entire movie seem relevant in a whole new light. You have to go back and view it again, just to pick up on all the clues that were there all along, and have now become a join-the-dots puzzle that, when completed, give the movie a satisfying sense of, not just wholeness, but multi-facetedness. A good Suprise Ending movie is a joy because it manages to operate simultaneously on an immediate level, entertaining from minute-to-minute, and a subterranian, hidden-clues-for-the-cognoscenti level. It's a somewhat worn template by now, but still a rewarding one when done well.

Cronenberg is always lauded as the master of bodily horror, an auteur who brings his peculiar fascination with the literally visceral through his career and dots different angles on it into every film he makes. But what I've always liked about him is his singularly ambivalent view on reality (quotation marks deleted mid-edit) - Videodrome and eXistenZ's delvings into emergent technology and its implications on the mapping out of the popular consciousness, Dead Ringers and Crash's refusal to portray as sexy anything that's not pow'ful gross. Who better to add to the Surprise genre, effortlessly negotiating the prescribed balance while crafting a rewarding and unique movie around it?

But, rather impressively, Spider, while quite obviously placing itself within the milieu, manages none of the things that usually make a Surprise movie worth watching, and doesn't bring anything else either. The Surprise at the end of the movie, in fact, manages to quite actively nullify what were previously interesting, mulled-over details - deeper we go, deeper into the mind of Spider, wondering why he did (sorry, dun) the things he did (dun), wondering what made him this way, only to emerge at the eventual conclusion of: cause he's mental.

Unfolding like the Rorschach diagrams that the film's most unsettling moment, its title sequence, takes as its cue, Spider seems more and more to be presenting us with a moving, three-dimensional, multicolor inkblot test, suggesting multiple interpretations of the events Spider narrates then forcing us to consider our interpretations, horrified not at the goings-on onscreen so much as what we make of them. That may sound like a load of old horseradish, but it's a pretty palpable thing to do to an audience, and one that Spider is just getting into the swing of, when BAM!, oh, there it is. The Surprise Ending. So we weren't viewing subjectively; there was one empirical truth all along, and it was: Spider was mental. Why'd he do his mum in? Cause he was mental. Yes, but what made him mental? I'unno, some people just ain't right.

It reminds me of the an exchange I had with the worst director I've ever been directed by, where I was playing a flatmate (oh dear) who flips out and makes life difficult for the young girl he's obsessed with.

Me: This yelling really doesn't feel motivated to me.

DIR: Yeah, it does.

M: No, I'm telling you, it doesn't. Can you tell me why I'm doing it?

DIR: If you can't find any motivation, it's because you're a psycho who might do anything. That's your motivation.

That don't work, see, cause if you're exploring madness, right, you've got to provide a better excuse than "The guy's a loon!". And if you're not going to, you damn well better not build your whole movie up to the point where the spelling-out of such an unsatisfying fact is the culminating point of all that's gone before.

What is there to go back to in Spider? Miranda Richardson making a valiant effort to carry the whole ambiguity-of-madness thing, but being let down by the very unambiguous, dull sanity of the whole affair? Ralph Feinnes directing a performance so inward and implosive it's a wonder there's anyone there at all? The terribly contrived spider's-web motifs that spring up every few minutes (perhaps to confound a FOAF, who was loathe to see Spider on the basis that she hated spiders, even when promised there were no actual spiders in it)?

No, it just don't work. Spider is not a good Cronenberg movie, it's not a good movie about madness, and it's not a good Surprise movie. BAM. It's just plain not very good.

Friday, April 05, 2002

Tears Of The Sun, or On Bad Movies

This is one of the worst movies ever made. Not only is it bad, but it falls into that worst of traps where it's not even entertainingly, Showgirls/Species 2 bad. It's just a terrible, terrible movie.

Here's what happens about 20 minutes into Tears Of The Sun: the Baddies are closing in on Bruce Willis and his Team of Lifeless Cliches, and they pass through the village where Bruce and his Team of Lifeless Cliches have been. The priest has elected to remain in this village, tending the people Bruce couldn't take with him. The baddies have the priest on his knees, and a muscular fellow has the machete poised over his head. The head baddie narrows his mean-looking eyes and the machete swoops down and there's a big noise and we cut to BIRDS FLYING OUT OF A FUCKING TREE, and as if this weren't terrible enough, one of Bruce's Lifeless Cliches hears the birds flying away, and goes, "what was that?"

Here's what happens about half an hour before the end of Tears Of The Sun: Bruce has broken a whole bunch of rules that Tom Skerritt told him not to break then went, "oh well, if you feel like you gotta..." Bruce has his Team of Lifeless Cliches gathered about him, and he asks their Lifeless Cliched opinions on whether they're happy to keep on breaking the rules. After they're done expressing their opinions ("well, you are Bruce, and these guys sure are oppressed"), Bruce and his Black American Lifeless Cliche share a moment. Bruce looks to BALC for his approval. BALC says - this is what he says - "These Africans - they're my people too. You're doing the right thing".

I mean really, people. Fucking seriously.

I've been trying to get my head around this whole bad movie phenomenon. My take is that most Bad Movies - as in, movies that tank, or that are a critical bomb, or movies that the vast majority say of them, "that there, that's a bad movie", they're just misunderstood. Somewhere, thought they were making a movie they weren't, and thusly it became a confused, misguided effort in God only knows what. Yer Hudson Hawk, yer Last Action Hero - well, everyone knows how I feel about The Last Action Hero - it's grossly misunderstood and underrated. These aren't terrible movies. These are just movies that someone tried to make something out of that they weren't - a huge blockbuster (if I told you to go see The Object of Beauty, and of course you hadn't heard of it, because it's this wack little movie, and you rented it, but for some reason Hudson Hawk was in the case instead, but you watched that anyway having heard nothing about it, you'd like it just fine. It's only if I told you to go rent Die Hard but they gave you Hudson Hawk instead that you'd be dissapointed), or a kids' movie, or an Arnie Action Pic. These are movies, people, that are bound by the conventions of genre film, and because they don't give us that old genre hit in a slightly different shade, we hate them for it.

But we ought to get over that, because funny little movies that start as one thing and end up as another aren't the problem here. Hell, even Showgirls is an entertaining, funny piece of exploitation. If Showgirls had a poster that said, this is dumb blond girls doing silly stuff that might make your dick hard, Showgirls would be regarded as a qualitative success. (Showgirls made about $10m less than it cost. That's what we call a flop. But that was in 1996, within one year of release - well encompassing the time that matters to execs, to be sure, but well before the subsequent repackaging and rerelease as an Ed Wood-styled misguided masterpiece of camp. I'm no Griffin Mill here, but frankly, I'd be surprised to learn that Showgirls hadn't, at time of writing, broken even). Really bad movies are those that set out to do or be something established, stick within a genre (Last Action Hero flies wildly outside the borders of whatever genre you try to put it in; even Verhoeven thought he was doing something new) and fuck it up totally.

No, scratch that, what's terrible about Tears Of The Sun isn't that it wants to be The Deer Hunter Platoon Casualties Of War Saving Private Ryan Heaven And Earth Apocalypse Now blah blah et cetera. What's wrong with Tears Of The Sun is that it arrogantly thinks that if it plays all the right notes, it'll have a symphony, where said notes, when played by the virtuosos who first played them, were parts of decidedly unconventional pieces (apart from Private Ryan, which was rubbish), here working in the service of an exercise in formula. And, most grievously and, it's done with zero life, an empty, hollow, computer-aided exercise in gun-fetishism that employs actors only so people can say dumb shit while they shoot people.

Fuck it, I don't know why Tears Of The Sun is worse than any other bad movie you care to name. It just is. This is one of the only movies ever that actually made me regret the 2 hours it stole from me. It's a terrible, terrible movie, and I make it a practice to forget that the whole fucking sorry mess every happened, and I'll thank you to do the same.

(Oh, and here's what never happens in Tears Of The Sun: anyone makes any reference, however muffled or convoluted, to what the stupid-ass title might mean).

Thursday, April 04, 2002

Brotherhood Of The Wolf, or On Selling Foreign Movies To The Great Unwashed

Before I go to see this movie I chat with the fellow behind the counter at the Rialto about it. Following is the gist of our discussion. He made me good coffee.

“Have you seen it?”, I ask.

“No, but it looks good.”

“Yes, I saw it on your website a whiles ago and decided I’d best see it because the Beast of Gevaudan has always scared and interested me, even if that ‘Matrix meets Crouching Tiger‘ baloney is a bit of a worry”.

(It’d be below-the-belt to mock the fellow, at the time or after-the-fact, for getting a little lost at this point. What kind of nerd is aware of the historical backstory of Brotherhood of the Wolf from a cryptozoological rather than cultural/revolutionary perspective? This kind of nerd).

“Mmm. I just think you gotta go in without expectations. That Matrix stuff is just there to hook Joe Punter, whereas if you don’t look for it to be better than the book (sic) and don’t compare it to other stuff, you’ll probably enjoy it. I mean, it‘s got to be doing something right if it‘s the #1-grossing French film of all time”.

“Better than Petits Arrangements Avec La Morte, then?”

“…Mm. Yeah”.

“I hope so! Cheers for the coffee”.

Well, it’s easy to see why Brotherhood of the Wolf is the top-grossing French film ever. It’s because (unlike Petits Arrangements Avec La Morte) it knows that Predator kicks ass.

Brotherhood of the Wolf
is big-old derivative of everything, lifting d├ęcor from every other good werewolf movie ever (one review called Wolf the last decent example of such; I’d go further back and maintain that there hasn’t been one since Neil Jordan’s In The Company of Wolves), cinematography from, well, The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, and tiresome man/beast/savage musings from any number of movies which deal with The Savagery Of Nature or Ethnic Folk In Times Gone By. (In fact, dialogue in many of the isn’t-Mark-DaCascos’-character-a-heathen scenes could’ve been lifted straight from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ isn’t-Morgan-Freeman’s-character-a-heathen scenes, but far be it from me to suggest that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was a pinnacle of innovation worthy of stealing from). It’s also Predator with a monster that’s not as cool as the Predator.

In fact the monster is the weakest thing about the movie: legends of the Beast of Gevaudan are evocatively scary, and the first reel’s vague, dark, misty depictions of said are excellent. As are people talking about the Beast when it’s not around. But when it is around, it’s a great big porcupine with appalling CGI animation, and every shot it’s in is a vast disappointment. You want it to get the fuck off the screen already, so you can go back to being scared of the monster the movie has built up, rather than disgusted with the one it’s dredged up. (Oohh, look, wordplay). Other awful CGI threatens to ruin what would be terribly well-laid-out scenes, characters and plotlines (Vincent Cassel‘s character, in particular, is a masterful piece of action-movie characterisation, written, performed and physicalised to a tee, and damn near ruined by that gimpy great CG bone-sword dealy he pulls out in the climax); maybe everyone except me likes looking at something and knowing some geek knocked it together on a computer, I don’t know.

So basically, by being an unashamedly Hollywood-style martial-arts monster movie, Brotherhood of the Wolf gets to sidestep all the things that dear old silly old Joe Punter dislikes about subtitled movies; but it also gets to be most of the things that dear old tired old Tom dislikes about unashamedly Hollywood-style martial-arts monster movies.