Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Dead Girl, or On Remaining Misinformed

Beautiful, unsettling, near-relentlessly grim, The Dead Girl gives a million different meanings to “missing” - and of the pic’s many dead girls, only two are literal corpses. But nonetheless, as a sober meditation on the phenomenon often referred to as Missing White Woman Syndrome, the film does little to temper that phrase’s inherent cynicism.

Not that it’s not clever – at times, the film’s emotional turns of the screw are downright ingenious. The beauty, though, is in the heartbreak of words unsaid, the things seen that can’t be unseen and yet must remain unspoken.

Masterfully – there’s no other word for it – spiralling ever-closer to the last hours of Brittany Murphy’s titular pretty corpse, the film progresses through melancholy curio, into heartbreaking irony, and winds up managing to wring hope from a scenario fair drenched in despair.

The most ethereal chapter belongs to Collette’s hopeless shut-in; the cleverest (and saddest) to Byrne’s desperate Quixote; the darkest the film will get without putting a foot wrong will be Hurt’s doomed duel with escape-velocity, before Harden will round off the tale of Murphy’s lonesome existence.

Would that it ended there: after three acts of such well-turned elegy, you feel that looking the film’s hidden demons in the face may be too much to bear. It’s unfortunate, then, that the monster behind the door turns out to be somewhat pantomime: Murphy, brave and honest as she may be, just can’t bring her story anything approaching the wonderful pathos of those she leaves behind. It’s just not within the material.

It would be easy to twist a phrase and call this despair-porn: every faded surface is lovingly shot, ever despairing glance lulled into perfection by the understated alt-country soundtrack. That would be easy, except that everything else – the unboxing of the Russian-doll plot, the perfectly-fulfilled characters, the subtle rhythms of motif and symmetry – give the story such weight and power that that despair never becomes self-serving.

It’s a film that asks a million questions, a character-study in murder-mystery costume. And yet its biggest failing is easy to pinpoint: that the one promised answer on which it seeks to hang all its lasting musings, is the only one it tries – and fails – to provide.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fred Claus, or On Kidult Christmas Popcorn

Who’d a thunk it? Turns out Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti and (surprise!) Kevin Spacey are really just the world’s most charming kids.

Fred Claus (the character) may be a barely redeemable, cynical schmuck of a guy, but Fred Claus (the movie) may be the least cynical holiday-based overture from Hollywood toward the young folks in years.

Since time immemorial (or at least since the demographic-marketing explosion also known as the 1990s) the kids have had to put up with ugly, malformed hybrid-cinema: pics that tried to drag in the youth market while packing incongruously grown-up references for the parents; horrible, skate-board-dad movies focus-grouped all to hell; soulless exercises in guerrilla marketing branded within an inch of their poor sitcom-star-does-cinema lives.

And at last, affectionate, with goodwill and good humour, bringing all the sly wit of its illustrious cast, steps Fred Claus into cinema, viewing like a movie unaware that there ever was such a thing as synergistic product-placement, or such a being as a “kidult”!

Vaughn, peddling the same schtick he’s brought to most every role since Swingers, works a treat here, slotting perfectly alongside Giamatti (whose lack of self-consciousness within the world’s most iconic fatsuit manages to make the guy even more respectable) and the always-compulsively-watchable Spacey.

They’re saying, down on the street, that earnest is the new ironic: that our tongues are sore from being wedged so firmly in our cheeks for so damn long. What they’re whispering is that the kids are sick of being branded to, and just want something to take them away and tell them a fun story; and that the adults, if they could get over being so arch and cleverer-than-thou, are probably going to be right there with them.

And if that’s the case, then baby, Fred Claus is just so money.

[originally appeared at Flicks]

Monday, November 12, 2007

Lovely Rita, or On Arthousewife Documentary

Lovely Rita at once falters in its exploration of an artist, and succeeds perfectly as testament to the eloquence of her work.

Unpretentious, not given to mystique, Angus was determined to make a living in art. But the overwhelming picture Lovely Rita gives, mixing tryingly glowing testimonies with the delightfully frank insights of her friends, is that here’s a woman who either liked to keep you guessing, or – more likely – just didn’t care what people thought of her, except what they could glean from her work.

So the picture is at once a vexing cipher – seventy minutes of people skirting around any real insight into who this person was – and a loving exploration of the woman through her paintings. Here was a person who believed passionately in her ability to leave a trace of herself on every canvas, and Preston is at her most lyrical when attempting to tease out that essence.

That lyricism fails somewhat elsewhere: Alun Bolinger’s camera takes a game stab at recreating Angus’ stark watercolour palettes through the digital lens, but even he can’t save the misguided attempts at re-enactment. Loren Horsley’s beauty is at odds with Angus’ stern features, and her “evocation” seems underdirected and floaty. (Surely a truly brave choice would be to have Rita portrayed by an actress closer to her own idealised self-image in works like Rutu).

No attention is paid to why she painted how she did. If there’s interesting insight to be gained from comparison of Angus’ painterly aspirations and her social beliefs, it’ll have to be made elsewhere.

So this is where we’re left: a picture whose core statement seems to be, if you want to know Rita Angus, you can’t go past the paintings themselves.

[originally appeared on Flicks]

Friday, November 09, 2007

Poor Besieged Nerds, Vol XMXCLIII In A Series

The interestingly-named Advanced Media Network is rakin' in the diggs with yet another uninformed slog through nerd-rage siege-mentality comparisons between movies and videogames. Appropriately enough, it's called "Ignorance".

The basic argument is facile: "why oh why do the squares gotta bust gamers' balls?" But it's augmented with a pinch of the standard "if this was a MOVIE..." crap, which fits in with what I laughingly call my theme; and so I think it bears a little stroll through their more ridiculous errors. Ostensibly because I'm sick of people taking these woefully ignorant positions, but mainly because little is more fun than ridiculing nerds' poor powers of reasoning[1].

If video games are getting criticized, then the same should apply to movies and the like. People should be out there arguing over R-rated movies, but for some reason that doesn't happen. Movies like Saw and Hostel are out there, and they rack in quite a bit of money. The director gets the liberty of expressing himself in any way he pleases, whether it be with an exciting car chase or a gruesome murder scene, but a video game developer is restricted. It goes to show that people just want something to blame, and video games are easy prey.

(Emphasis mine; for this quote I have chosen the "bold" option, mainly because there's no way to format text so it's wearing great big ridiculous clown-shoes).
Well, the nitpickery first: it's widely whispered that the torture-porn genre has jumped its economic shark, Hostel 2 having disappointed and Captivity having registered as nothing more than a somewhat unpleasant blip on radars both critical and financial. And also, you mean "rake", not "rack".

But more importantly: get down off the cross, sweetie, we could use the wood! A, movies have been regulated far longer than games have existed. Has Anthony LeBella, I wonder, heard of the Hays Code? I Spit On Your Grave? Salo? Do you think he's aware of the long-term illegality of owning, distributing or viewing A Clockwork Orange in the UK until recently? "The director gets the liberty of expressing himself in any way he pleases, whether it be with an exciting car chase or a gruesome murder scene, but a video game developer is restricted." Even for a topic so desperately overplayed, I'm impressed at the sheer myopia of this sort of assertion.

B, if the videogame industry could decide whether it was a "business" or an "art form" (or, heaven forbid, get with the 21st century and realise that it's both), maybe people could make mature decisions like, "well, this game has been rated adults only but we'll take a punt and sell it to adults only". LaBella's model doesn't stand up because it ignores the fact that filmmakers will as a matter of course decide what rating they're aiming for and tailor content appropriately. If the games industry was as creatively-driven as its exponents like to make out, Manhunt 2 would have been released as an AO title and damn the consequences; displaying admirable pragmatism, the kind of re-edit that's common practice in Hollywood was performed, an M pressed for. (Perhaps Take 2 are just more media-savvy than the nerds, and realised that films released with an unashamed NC-17 tend to tank, like Showgirls or Henry and June).

That's fine and dandy, and he does pay deference to the notion that maybe that's fine and dandy, but I don't see how a company freely making this decision, rather than coping with the headaches of distributing a game nobody wanted to sell, equates to unprecedented levels of persecution toward the poor beleaguered gamers. A clear parallel would be House of a Thousand Corpses, which got made then languished for years because nobody wanted to release something so distastefully violent. I didn't see the film industry grinding to a halt and wailing about some ill-understood constitutional amendment over that one.

The nerds can't have it both ways: if they want adult-oriented games (and as an adult gamer, I'd argue that most of the "adult" games released thus far have been fairly juvenile attempts to prove how matoor we all are; the control-pad-holding version of the average Vertigo comic), they have to accept that media, ALL media, that specifically skews itself toward an adult audience, is ALWAYS going to kick up a stink. Don't come the persecuted martyr with me till you're familiar with the releasing and distribution woes pertaining to books like American Psycho or Lolita and films like The Last Temptation of Christ.

And for God's sakes take the Jack Thompson disc off the platter, it's skipping something wicked: everyone else has figures like this presenting dissenting viewpoints every day of the damn week. It's only videogame-geeks who, a lifetime of persecution behind them, make like these guys are some sort of bogeyman out to spoil the pure artistic expression of their chosen pastime.

And I'm not even going to bother with the blindingly obvious discussion around the relative interactivity of games and other media and its implications for age-appropriateness[2]. If someone's not going to allow for the inclusion of this argument into their writing, I don't know what business it has being published in 2007.

So in conclusion: I am smarter than a fifth-grader.

[1] I'd like to think Emilio Estevez could've played me in The Breakfast Club, but popular consensus is it would've been Judd Nelson.
[2] A recent study suggested that third-person interactivity may actually lessen audiences' identification with a character; makes sense, but for God's sake nobody tell the nerds.

Friday, November 02, 2007

1408, or On The Lonesome Death of Lloyd Dobler

Delightful and totally true movie trivia: the working title for this movie was I Like Shinings, But I Couldn’t Eat a Whole One.

The big question in 1408 is: How did John Cusack get to be stuck in this horrible situation, and what sins is he being punished for? As the picture progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that 1408 is the place you get sent when you’ve lost touch with your higher self: it’s where you get stuck when you’ve been peddling your charmingly-burnt-out-cynic schtick for too long and the Universe figures you need a wakeup call. So how do you get out?

To which the answer would seem to be: maybe the guy just needs to drop it with the powerfully-average genre pics and do a good movie once in a while, passing mediocre dross like 1408 on to a Robert Patrick or a Jason Bateman or anyone more suited to its solidly okay brand of mildly perturbing silliness.

And silliness abounds in 1408: before the picture has run its course, Cusack will have screamed hysterically at a coke can, been attacked by a painting, and run around pursued by an illusory hobo with a claw-hammer, whose presence is never elaborated on.

It’s not hard to imagine Cusack between takes, having a touch-up on the makeup that bizarrely makes him look incredibly like an elderly lesbian, pondering how he got to this point.

And maybe Samuel L Jackson might have sidled up to him, and said something like, “Don’t sweat it, man. These kinda gigs don’t mean we’re compromising our integrity. Just look at Black Snake Moan, am I right?”

And Cusack, with a resigned sigh, would have explained that his next movie after this one was like K-Pax, only with a preschooler.

To which Jackson, quite rightly, would simply reply, “Motherfucker.”

[originally appeared on Flicks]