Friday, July 31, 2009

Dollhouse — Unaired Pilot and "Epitaph One"

I'll be honest: I picked up the Blu-Ray for the first season of Dollhouse as much if not more for the exclusive episodes as it did the season proper. While the back half of the season certainly grabbed my interest and mostly held it through the end, I found myself far more taken with the idea of watching both the original pilot, dumped when the networks called it "too dark and confusing" in favor of that tepid and largely pointless iteration that uneventfully debuted the show, as well as the fabled 13th episode, the post-apocalyptic "Epitaph One." When I got home to my PS3 I didn't even watch any of the aired episodes before diving into these bonus treats, and my thoughts on them are as follows:

[Note: This review avoids spoilers for the two episodes under discussion, but it assumes that you've seen the season's aired episodes]

Unaired Pilot -- "Echo"

The studio notes for this episode cited it as too confusing to appeal to a broad audience, the first sign that FOX would end up meddling with this show just as they had with Firefly before it. It (perhaps justifiably) put people on the defensive months before the show ever came out, and got the ball rolling on all the cancellation talk as well.

For all my love of artistic freedom, though, and especially for someone I adore as much as Joss Whedon, I'd have told him to re-write it as well. Where the studio feared that its tone would turn off the Idol crowd or something, I would have suggested that he simply cut the thing down a tad. For you see, "Echo" is a two-hour pilot extravaganza crammed into your average one-hour time slot. Even with the 5-10 extra minutes offered by that Remote-Free TV business, it simply contains too much plot, too many character moments and far, far too many answered questions.

For example, in this version of the pilot, we see Saunders' hatred of Topher, the Feds knowing too much about the Dollhouse to dismiss it, Boyd saying too much about the Dollhouse's evil before Whedon has fully established what a disgusting organization it is and, worst of all, Echo meeting Ballard. These scenes pepper the first five or six episodes of the season, and condensing them into one hour of TV gives us too much information about what should be a shadowy organization.

Nevertheless, it's a massive improvement over the version we got. "Ghost" didn't even feel like a Whedon-penned episode: its exposition was obvious to the point of cringe-inducing, this interesting world was ill-defined and, most surprising of all, it lacked humor. "Echo," as a strange contrast, contains too much of these elements. It's nice and clever, but it gives us too man details, and a running gag concerning Topher's use of the phrase "man-friend" simply grates (it actually builds to a nice dark one-liner from Boyd, then Topher uses the phrase once more later). Other lines contain real, working humor though, and for all the flaws of the Echo/Ballard interaction, it clearly set up Caroline's story far earlier, something that would have silenced a number of critics who cited the show as misogynistic for not immediately establishing a strong female lead. Rather than a revelation of Whedon's original, assured vision, "Echo" is more the polar opposite of the flaws of "Ghost" -- somewhere between the two lies the perfect pilot, but I'd likely place it on that line far closer to this.

Epitaph One

Now this is what I'm talking about. Joss Whedon is nothing if not bold: his four shows each contain wildly different tones, styles, approaches to humor, and themes, yet they all feature certain flourishes that make them immediately recognizable as his. His best work (as well as the best work of his finest writers) stands in open defiance of what might normally pass on TV, or that which takes him far out of his comfort zone (though the jury's still out on this show, which is one giant removal). I'm of course speaking of episodes such as "The Body," "Hush," "Objects in Space," and "Not Fade Away."

"Epitaph One" belongs on this list. Though neither written nor directed by Whedon, you can feel his guiding hand behind the script more than anywhere in the season's aired episodes, including one of the two that he wrote. It, more than "Man on the Street," "Spy in the House of Love" or either of the two parts of the finale, demonstrates that the show, despite its rocky opening and a continued set of unanswered, important questions (such as "What's the point of this anyway?"), indeed has a direction, and Whedon is a steady hand at the helm.

Set in 2019, ten years after Echo started exhibiting problems with her programming, "Epitaph One" shows us a world in chaos. A small band of filthy survivors moves through the streets of L.A., carrying with them a small child and her wiped father. At some point between now and the first season timeline, the Rossum Corporation (the owners of the Dollhouse) sold or allowed their technology to fall into other hands, and China discovered a way to imprint massive sections of the world populace in a manner similar to the cell call in "Gray Hour."

This group heads for the Dollhouse to find the imprinting chair to see if they can piece together what went wrong. They don't know what the construct really is, and when they discover that the institution that brought about the apocalypse was originally nothing more than a glorified whorehouse they don't know whether to laugh or find something to shoot.

They discover two things, though, that are far more important that the Dollhouse's original design. One is Whiskey, now scar-less and wiped, and the other a set of memories waiting to be uploaded into an Active. Through these memories we are given brief glimpses into the events that link the present with this horrible future, as well as character moments and even some relationship news. My favorite moments involved De Witt and Topher finally accepting the evil of their profession and their role in this cataclysm.

Giving us this information in the form of memories is a masterstroke, because memory is subjective. Some, perhaps all, of the scenes Whedon shows us could be slightly different if not outright false. We know that he's the king of continuity jokes, with callbacks and cross-references abounding in the Buffyverse, but this presentation ups the stakes: now the fans will look not only for these scenes to unfold but check up to see if anything differs.

"Epitaph One" is many things: thrilling, horrific, cerebral, gripping and darkly witty. Most of all, though, it is fearless. Written by his Doctor Horrible cohorts Maurissa Tancharoen and brother Jed Whedon, it's based on a pitch by Joss, one that would bring the high concept of the show to the fore while slashing the budget down to peanuts. Its predominantly hand-held direction (courtesy of David Solomon) lacks the spastic nature of shaky cam footage, and instead successfully creates a feeling of tension and realism without making us reach for the barf bags. Only someone with a firm grasp of a show's direction -- and let's not forget, Whedon also sowed hints for more than one future season in Buffy episodes "Graduation Day" and "Restless" -- would be so bold as to give away so much detail for a show's future. In anyone else's hands, something like "Epitaph One" would cause me worry. With Whedon holding the reins, however, it is a promise to the fans who stuck with this series out of faith in him that Dollhouse is going places, and I for one can't wait until September.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Apocalypse Now

The real stars of Francis Ford Coppola's troubled epic are not Martin Sheen or Marlon Brando. They're not even Coppola or writer John Milius. No, the real people behind the success of the film are cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and sound editor Walter Murch. Murch's fluid, deeply troubling sounds pervade the film, bleeding into one another seamlessly. Indeed, he grabs you in the first shot, when the sounds of helicopter rotors fade into the dull hum of a spinning fan. For the rest of the film, he skillfully combines Carmine's haunting, ethereal score with diegetic sound, to the point that you can't trust your own ears, much less the hell that unfolds on-screen.

If war is hell, then Apocalypse Now is as much an adaptation of Dante's Inferno as it is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Some may complain about its disjointed nature, particularly in the final chapter in Kurtz's compound, but Coppola isn't out to give us a simple story. He doesn't even want to make a film about the effects of war. No, Apocalypse Now is a film about the deepest, darkest levels of human conditioning, the kind we've spent our thousands of years on this Earth attempting to outgrow.

"Saigon. Shit, I'm still in Saigon," Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) growls in the first lines of the film. He signed up for a second tour and wants to head back into the jungle, but not for the clichéd gung-ho reasons. He's been back home, but Vietnam so changed him that he could not re-assimilate into society. His restlessness leads him to get high and destroy his hotel room, eventually cutting his hand on glass and smearing himself in the blood. In the very first scene, the notion of the poster boy multiple-enlistee has been viciously perverted, shown to be the victim of war, not the ideal man who stands above it.

He eventually gets a new mission, classified like all his others. A general invites him to lunch and assigns him the task of assassinating decorated colonel Walter E. Kurtz, who disappeared into the jungle after accusations of murder and built his own empire of natives to take the fight to the North Vietnamese without the setback of arbitrary rules of engagement.

Willard heads upriver to Cambodia in a PBR with a motley crew consisting of the surly Chief (Albert Hall), tripped-out surfer Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms), New Orleans saucier "Chef" (Frederic Forrest) and 17-year-old "Mr. Clean (Laurence Fishburne). Apart from Chief, these sailors are all just kids, all spit and vinegar, ready to take on Charlie anytime, anywhere.

Their picaresque adventures through Vietnam are by turns horrific, absurd, hysterical and deeply, deeply unsettling. The film's centerpiece, an Air Cavalry assault on a NVA-controlled village, is as terrible as it is exhilarating. Led by the certifiably insane Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall, in a show-stealing performance), the sequence, famously set to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," must be the largest set piece ever constructed. Now, CGI fills the screen, and entire wars can be waged in a single scene, but the sense of placement, of meticulously construction, camera set-ups, and stunt co-ordinations required for this one 10 minute stretch demonstrate the true craft of filmmaking.

And Kilgore is more interesting than any of it. With a handful of lines, Duvall crafts the craziest SOB you'll ever see. Shells fall all around him and he doesn't flinch, and only when they come within inches does he react, and then only with annoyance. When Willard's boat runs into an operation already in clean-up, the captain can't get the colonel to pay attention long enough to relay orders from COMSAC, but the Kilgore perks up when he learns that Lance, his surfer idol, is among them. With only a small hunk of screen time, Duvall gets two of the three most memorable lines in the film: the hysterical call to arms "Charlie don't surf!" and the insane, poetic rant that starts with, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." As he commands his soldiers to break out their surfboards to ride waves that are still under fire, as mortar shells burst around him, he says with sadness in his voice, "This war's gonna end someday." We look on bewildered, but Willard knows the truth, that life will never be the same for any of them.

Elsewhere, Willard and Chef take a stroll through the woods looking for mangoes, only to be ambushed by a tiger. In the middle of the river, the USO erects a garish stage to host a couple of Playboy bunnies, and it appears to double as a thriving black market. The bunnies so rile the cheering men that some storm the stage and attempt to possibly rape the women, who run back to their helicopter and depart. In the scene that ensures that no member of the audience can mistake the movie for some fun epic (many point to the Valkyries scene as exciting over horrific), Chief orders a Vietnamese boat stop for boarding, and confusion leads to accidental massacre of all aboard, shattering the young boys and forever turning the Chief against Willard.

Storaro manages to make each segment look entirely different without losing visual flow. The reason so many of us love that Air Cavalry scene is that it's filmed from the POV of the soldiers. One must step outside of the film for a moment to look at it objectively to see how terrible it all really is. That scene with the tiger is funny in retrospect, but Storaro makes the lead-up as frightening as anything in a proper horror film. My personal favorite piece of the film, the Do Lung sequence, strikes me as being shot from the perspective of Lance, who drops acid shortly before the boat pulls up to this nightmare. As a result, light flows in and out, as flares arc over the trees, momentarily blinding before all is plunged back into darkness. Willard searches for the commanding officer, finally asking one of the entrenched soldiers, "Who's in charge here?" to which the manic kid replies, "Ain't you?"

Storaro's cinematography at Kurtz's compound alone earned him his Oscar: Marlon Brando got the job after convincing Coppola that he'd read Heart of Darkness, only to show up having read neither the script nor the book, as well as 40kg overweight. Already guaranteed $1 million even if fired, Brando created a dilemma for the director, which Storaro fixed by covering Kurtz in shadow. The night shots of the compound are bathed with a jaundiced yellow, reflecting the sickness and "slow death" of the camp and its leader. Shadow, in cinema, naturally reflects the moral complexity of a character, but Kurtz and even Willard are so enshrouded in these scenes that they're practically invisible. Willard remarks in his narrations throughout the film that the colonel's methods actually display a brilliance and ingenuity, and he's certainly got a number of deaths on his conscience, and he does not yet know whether he will kill Kurtz or join him.

Brando, difficult as he was, really was perfect for the role. In a mixture of scripted and ad-libbed dialogue, Brando captures the manic insanity of Kurtz. No, not insanity; I read an interview once -- I can't remember who said it, perhaps Grant Morrison -- that discussed the Batman villain the Joker. In it, the interviewee described the Joker as possessing not a madness but a kind of "super-sanity," one that worked on a level that was utterly mad but made sense on a level no normal person could process. Kurtz reached this level after witnessing the VC hack off the arms of every child in a village that his Special Forces team inoculated, simply because they refused that the children receive aid from the enemy. "If I had 10 divisions of such men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly," he intones. Kurtz, a decorated, respected officer who'd seen combat in Korea and in a previous tour of 'Nam, snapped not because of war but because the jungle brought out his primal behavior, the kind that resides in all of us.

There's no truly satisfactory way to end such a film, one that mixes the visceral here-and-now of warfare with metaphysics, but the juxtaposition of two ritual sacrifices, one of tribesmen killing a water buffalo and the other of Willard slaying Kurtz, the bloated, weakened king so that he might die with dignity, is brilliant. Willard emerges to a tribe of warriors already willing to bow to him, but he simply heads back to the boat with Lance and sets off, as Kurtz's immortal "The horror. The horror" plays over a shot of a stone face of the compound. While he's been completely broken by the experience, forever haunted by what he did and what happened to him, he stands as the better man, for he did not lose himself in the jungle.

According to some, Apocalypse Now stands as the last great American film (those who disagree cite Scorsese's Raging Bull). While I would venture to say that 2007's one-two punch of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood changed that, you could certainly argue that no other films in the interim combined the epic scale of Coppola's final masterpiece with its personal and psychological themes. Coppola began production on the film in 1976, seven years after John Milius completed the first draft of his screenplay. Three years, one heart attack, a hurricane and numerous other production delays later, it finally reached screens.

"What must people have thought then?" I often wonder when seeing a film ahead of its time. I know that Gene Siskel famously gave it a negative review when he first saw it, only to later perform a mea culpa and give it a positive review. Mainstream Vietnam movies had only just started getting releases, and they tended to convey how the war affected its soldiers, who were always brave and cruelly destroyed by a pointless war. Apocalypse Now dared to suggest that this war simply brought out the worst in us, that its soldiers were by and large terrified and looking for any chance to get home, that we were still responsible for our actions even if the government forced thousands to fight.

The film netted Oscars for Murch and Storaro, but it's safe to say that it was robbed in every other category in which it received a nomination, and how Duvall didn't get a nod for Supporting Actor will keep me scratching my head for hours. Apocalypse Now is more than the greatest Vietnam film ever made, more than the best war film period; it is a document of a part of man that no amount of conditioning and evolution will ever fully eradicate, and it's a beast that can emerge with only a strong push.

Fanny and Alexander

By 1982, writer-director-genius Ingmar Bergman had slowed his prolific pace to a more manageable level, only to announce he was leaving the cinema forever. He would continue to work in the theater, his first love, but this would be his defining swan song. As such, he put everything into this intimate epic: costume and set design, characters and cinematography are meticulously crafted to feel as though they exist right outside your doorstep. Bergman called the film "the sum total of my life as a filmmaker," a statement that carries added weight for the creator of masterpiece after masterpiece. (Does any other director have as many classics under his belt as the Swedish philosopher? Only John Ford and Howard Hawks come to mind).

Originally a five-hour TV miniseries, Bergman reluctantly cut it down to a three-hour international version to be shown in theaters. Considering the personal nature of the project, I decided to watch the longer cut. Now I cannot see myself ever watching the theatrical version that comes in Criterion's wonderful box set for any reason other than curiosity. You see, I don't ever want to see a shorter version of this movie. For five hours I sat transfixed, swept away into a story that touched upon Bergman's usual themes of melancholy and despair, but it also contains his most overlooked sentiment: hope. Fanny and Alexander, his most autobiographical film, is also his most uplifting, and I defy anyone not to walk away from this film without feeling anything.

By placing the film in the perspective of 10-year-old Alexander (Bertil Guve), Bergman can get away with anything he pleases. Born to a family of thespians and theater directors, Alexander's imagination runs even deeper than the average child's, though anyone could relate to the grand adventures in his head. We meet him and the rest of the Ekdahl family in the midst of their Christmas celebration in 1907.

The first act of the film is jubilant and free, interweaving the mad lives of these eccentrics as they revel their heads off before church the next morning. Alexander plays with his younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), a more sensible and quiet child who nevertheless enjoys her brother's sense of adventure. Their father, Oscar (Allan Edwall), is the eldest child of the family; when he gives the dinner toast, he suddenly finds himself overcome with emotion and cries. His wife Emilie (Ewa Fröling) is beautiful but composed, though she lets down her hair a bit for the festivities. Alexander's two uncles are polar opposites: Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle) is a boisterous philanderer, and his wife accepts his affairs because she loves who he is. One of his conquests is the beautiful but lame maid Maj, who cares for the children as deeply as their true relatives. Carl (Börje Ahlstedt), on the other hand, is a failed professor married to a German woman whom neither he nor anyone else in the family likes. Why is unclear, as she is overly doting and completely amicable.

Heading the family is the matriarch, Helena. Bergman himself cited Gunn Wålgren's performance as the best of the film, and you'll find no argument here. Helena is kind and giving, and she respects all in her home, including the many servants. A widow, she finds comfort in a Jewish merchant and family friend, Isak (Erland Josephson). Their relationship breathes even more life into this raucous first act. Shortly thereafter, Oscar is practicing at a rehearsal for Hamlet. The sets are unfinished cardboard, and the performances amusingly histrionic. Then Oscar suffers a stroke, and the children's world is upended. The family takes him back to Helena's summer home (which is equally as lavish as the winter palace), and Alexander awakens that night to his mother's wrenching screams that herald his father's death.

The real drama of the story enters the story in the third episode. Emilie, still grieving, turns to the local bishop, Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö). In her attempts to find solace in God, she equates Him with the bishop, and soon the two are wed. Quickly, though, we see Edvard's true demeanor. Emilie and the children move from Helena's opulent, inviting homes, both full of color even when the walls of one are white, into ascetic coldness. Edvard's house is a paean to Protestant efficiency: the house is white and barren, with just enough furniture as necessary. Before he invites them into his home, Edvard instructs the mother to bring nothing with them, not even the children's toys or even books. Edvard treats his new wife and stepchildren as prisoners: they may not leave the house, nor may they communicate with the other Ekdahls.

Interspersed with these scenes of intense emotional drama are moments of Alexander's imagination and the supernatural, which blur the line of reality and fiction until they become one and the same. The initial shot of the film, of Alexander playing with a miniature theater until his face is at last framed within the proscenium, tells you everything about the nature of this film: shown through a child's eyes, it has no filter on emotions or thoughts. We watched a rehearsal of Hamlet earlier, in which Oscar played the ghost of Hamlet's father, and so Alexander sees his father's ghost, warning him about Edvard. He tells a maid of a vision of Edvard's first wife and children who told him how they drowned when they attempted to escape the house after the bishop denied them food and water for five days. The maid brings this to the bishop's attention, and he viciously beats the boy, who nonetheless stands his ground and makes clear his hatred for the old man. That night, the ghosts of the children indeed visit him, but they accuse him of fibbing.

The ghosts who visit him in this episode unsettle us because Alexander is frightened, but the magic of the final installment takes on a lighter note, even when it's far darker. Isak manages to smuggle the children out of the house in a dresser. When Edvard runs upstairs to check on the children, however, they're sitting calmly in their room. Alexander meets Isak's nephew Ismael, who is played by a girl. She reads Alexander's mind, and later that night the bishop dies horribly when his house catches fire.

As with Cries & Whispers, red is a dominant color in the film. The scenes in Helena's winter home bookend the film, and they contain all the passion that was restrained in Cries & Whispers. Gustav's revelry in the opening act gives him a baby daughter in the benediction, which he proudly displays to the family. Carl, so morose and defeated at first, finds a renewed purpose in his role freeing his relatives from that horrible bishop. Those middle passages obviously reflected the director's childhood with his authoritarian father, a Calvinist minister who actually served the king. But these moments with the Ekdahls work both as recognitions of the beauty of family as well as his ideal, in which private life is inseparable from the theater.

At the start of the review I called the director a genius, a word that has been sadly stripped of all meaning because of overuse, particularly when it comes to popular artists. (If all the people who proclaimed their favorite performers "geniuses" really were, there would be more Nobel Prize laureates touring arenas than there would be curing cancer.) But when I watch a film like this, or Persona, or Winter Light, or many others, I see an insatiable passion and an understanding of humanity. For all the supernatural, religious, existential themes and ideas that float through his movies, he rarely puts forth one solution as conclusive. When he does (Through a Glass Darkly, The Seventh Seal), these seemingly didactic conclusions invite enough differing interpretations to reward multiple viewings. In Fanny and Alexander I see everything that makes the director great, arranged in such a way that I was never bored for a second of its five-hour length.

Bergman once said, "The theater is my wife, and the cinema is my mistress." As with Gustav Adolf, he loves the two in equal, open measure here. Bergman clearly grew up with the theater, and made a comment in recent years that praised the theater as artistic truth while "cinema belongs to the whoring and slaughterhouse trades." But he also acknowledged the power of cinema to capture unrehearsed emotion, and that the doldrums of constant re-takes could give him something that the hectic, ever-shifting nature of live performance never could. Fanny and Alexander is a love letter to everything -- theater, cinema, life itself -- a richly photographed work that displays Sven Nykvist's talents with a number of style and tones over the course of a single film (the cinematographer won his second and final Oscar for his stunning work) and Bergman's ability to capture the raging contradictions of the human condition with an inimitable mixture of objectivity and boundless vigor. In the career of a man with enough masterpieces to set up at least five lauded filmmakers, Fanny and Alexander stands out as one of his defining creations. It's such a thorough valediction to the cinema that I almost had a hard time believing that people continued to make films afterward. Its beauty, the beauty of all performance art, is summed up in the final lines, recited by Helena from The Dream Play as she comforts young Alexander, who saw the bishop's ghost and fears a lifetime of haunting:

"Anything can happen, anything is
possible and likely.
Time and space do not exist.
On a flimsy ground of reality
Imagination spins out and weaves new patterns."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

1989 Rewind: Say Anything...

Cameron Crowe's films are distinctive because he gives us characters that somehow straddle the line between offbeat quirk and total relatability. When you see a teenager touring the country while tricking Rolling Stone into thinking he's a qualified writer, your first inclination is disbelief, yet you know it could happen because that's how Crowe himself got his start. An energetic sports agent suffering a crisis of conscience who loses every client but a single football player who lets his mouth get in the way of his talent is just so crazy it works.

The characters of Say Anything... are no different. Its story concerns three people: a book-smart valedictorian who's sweet and friendly but was too busying studying to ever make friends, her protective father who enjoys more of a best friend relationship with his daughter, and the lad who attempts to woo the girl. Each of these characters, however, as well as the supporting actors who populate this world, has his own unique trait. Lloyd Dobler himself is often described as being so perfect that no guy can ever reach his level.

The film opens with Lloyd (John Cusack), Diane Court (Ione Skye) and all the other seniors graduating from high school. In her graduation speech, Diane has her first moment of connection with her peers when she admits that she's scared of what the future holds for her. Lloyd decides to ask her out before it's too late, and his gal friends Corey (Lili Taylor) and D.C. (Amy Brooks) back him up. Both clearly are somewhat in love with their best bud, and it's not hard to see why: Cusack plays Lloyd with a dopey, clumsy charm. He has a propensity for incessant talking when he's nervous, and his big dream is to become a kickboxer because it would allow him to make a living without working within the corporate world. Lloyd espouses this political opinion with such a humble matter-of-factness that you can tell he genuinely believes it and is not simply putting on a show.

He's also unflinchingly sweet. When he calls Diane to ask her out, he gets her dad Jim (John Mahoney). He stumbles through an awkward conversation and sort of flubs, "She's pretty great, isn't she?" to which the dad can only smile and attest. When Lloyd eventually does get a hold of her and she agrees to come to a graduation party, she has to field questions from rude partygoers as to why she would come with Lloyd. Without hesitation, she says, "He made me laugh." Diane is that girl in high school that everyone noticed but was too afraid to approach. Coupled with her own obliviousness to the school around her, she's just as naïve and maladjusted as Lloyd; she's just smarter and not as awkward.

Lloyd and Diane's relationship must be one of the most romantic in all of cinema. When the two do eventually have sex, we are treated to an actual love scene. Not a sex scene, a love scene. The day after, Lloyd sends Diane a short note that expresses his feelings for her beyond getting in her pants, and Corey and D.C. are visibly moved. Diane is so taken with Lloyd's complete earnestness that the two grow close in no time, much to the dismay of Diane's father. Diane keeps nothing from Jim, and even admits that she and Lloyd had sex. The initially genial man who lavishes gifts upon his daughter and recognizes Lloyd as a harmless and sweet sap grows increasingly cold, until we discover that he's been defrauding the IRS and stealing from the residents of the nursing home he runs.

Jim's dark secret struck me as unnecessary the first time I watched Say Anything..., but after a few more watches and a few listens to the commentary, I see it as vital to the story. Watch from the beginning: Jim knows that the hammer will fall any day, but he keeps up the façade just long enough to ensure that his daughter receives her fellowship to England. He wants to keep everything together until he can get her out of his corrupt life, and the title takes an ironic undertone as we see what appeared to be an ideal father-child relationship crumble to reveal itself as a part of a giant lie. Re-watching the film gives me an understanding and a sympathy for Jim, despite the heinousness of ripping off a bunch of invalids.

The supporting characters are no less interesting. Jeremy Piven makes a great cameo as a wild, drunken fool, while Phillip Baker Hall's IRS agent creates a sinking feeling in your stomach when he tells Diane that her father is guilty in that deep, merciless voice of his. Lili Taylor, though, walks away with the entire film. Corey is neck-deep in a tumultuous relationship with a callous, cheating jerk named Joe, but her reactions to her despair never fail to make me laugh. Crowe frames every shot placed in her room to contain a picture of Joe or something he wrote. At the graduation party in the first act, she spends the entire night playing a myriad of songs, some remorseful, some angry. Lloyd notes to Joe, "She's written 65 songs...They're all about you. They're all about pain." Taylor has a way of getting big laughs effortlessly, but she also conveys deep pain and a thinly veiled longing for a person like Lloyd.

Everything about this film is perfect. It doesn't make grand proclamations about the human condition, nor does it feature any memorable direction -- it was Crowe's first time behind the camera, though his camerawork has never been the main draw of his work. However, the direction fits this simple but profound piece, and it captures the story perfectly. The actors are so natural that you stop viewing them as characters despite their quirks, and they become so much more memorable for it. When Lloyd gives his fantastic speech to Jim and his business partners about not wanting to work in any occupation that buys, sells or processes, he casually mentions that his army dad wants him to enlist, but he "just can't work for that corporation." It's a brilliant line, but Cusack delivers it so casually you'd just assume the Army was a corporation.

The actors only bolster Crowe's knowing script, one that contains its fair share of platitudes about love that are on-point enough to stave off cloying sentimentality. Honestly, Crowe must be the finest director of sentimental pictures since Frank Capra: neither is perfect, but they have a knack for capturing a fundamental optimism and hope even in the midst of darkness. The difference between the two is that Crowe's films are more intimate more -- as he says in his commentary for Almost Famous -- "shamelessly personal," and I just can't help but love them.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pushing Daisies — Season 1

With all due respect to Mad Men and its impeccable set and costume design, Bryan Fuller's Pushing Daisies must be the most beautiful TV show since the lavish Rome. Clearly drawing upon the lighter side of Tim Burton (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), cinematographer Michael Weaver created a lush storybook of a series. To complete the tone, they hired Jim Dale, a prominent narrator who's won a number of Grammys for his audio recordings of the Harry Potter books. This off-kilter feel allows the dodgy, heavily used CGI of the show to fit easily within this world, as it should not look realistic.

Fuller of course is the creator of several "brilliant but canceled" series, a category in which this show now tragically falls. Still, it could have been worse for Fuller; he could have stayed on Heroes and stay with that sinking ship (thank God that brief return was just that). That hardly takes the sting off the cancellation of such an intriguing show.

What Fuller created with this truncated season -- this first season contains only nine episodes thanks to the writers' strike -- is a bittersweet tragicomedy, concerning a hero with a gift of simplistic convolution. You see, Ned (Lee Pace) can bring the dead back to life with a single touch, but this power comes with two catches. 1) Anything he brings back to life he will kill forever with a second touch and 2) If he does not kill that which he returns to life within a minute, another creature of similar build in the near vicinity will perish. Ned discovers this gift as a child when he revives his struck dog, and learns about the horrible downsides when he revives his mother after she suffers an aneurysm.

His mother's resurrection results in the death of the father his childhood crush, Charlotte "Chuck" Charles (Anna Friel), and his father ships him off to boarding school when the mother dies again. Years later, Ned owns a pie shop, naturally shaped like a pie. A private investigator, Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), accidentally witnesses Ned's ability and strikes a deal with the pie-maker: when a body shows up the morgue, Ned revives it, asks the deceased who or what killed him, then touch him again before the minute runs out. That way, Cod can take the info in for reward money, which he splits with Ned.

Business is good for Ned, both pie- and mystery-wise, but his life takes a turn when one of the bodies he's sent to revive is actually Chuck. Chuck's agoraphobic aunts came to live with her after her father's death, and soon afterward Ned's father sent him away, but Chuck never forgot his feelings for the girl who shared his first kiss. Ned revives her, but cannot bring himself to kill her again, so he must bear the guilt of causing another death when the funeral home director suddenly collapses. Soon, we learn that the director robbed his corpses of valuables, which takes the edge off Ned's actions. Now, I think that's too convenient and it lets Ned off the hook, but I can understand them not wanting to exacerbate Ned's inner turmoil in the very first episode. After all, he has enough on his plate hiding his role in her father's death from Chuck, to say nothing of the searing pain of never being able to touch the woman he loves again.

The rest of the season plays out as a series of standalone whodunits, but they each contain ongoing character arcs that make this kooky world interesting. Ned's pies play such a large role that it's hard not to want a slice of pie, any pie, after watching an episode or two. Chuck adds her own celebrated honey to the mix, which only makes them more delicious. Chuck pities her aunts (Ellen Greene and Swoosie Kurtz), now more introverted than ever following the "death" of their niece, and much of the season is spent with these two weird but sympathetic characters, who are nursed back into the real world by, what else, pie.

With the exception of two Fuller scripts, every episode of this season features a different writer, which boggles the mind. I couldn't spot an break in Fuller's establishing tone and humor, and that's hard. Don't believe me? Watch a Buffy episode written by Diego Gutierrez or (*shudder*) Tracey Forbes. Even Guiterrez, who can pen an interesting plot, has a loose grasp on the characters. And it can't be easy to capture the off-kilter comedy of the show: duplicate and alliterative names abound, from the Boutique Travel Travel Boutique to John Joseph Jacobs. Jim Dale often sums up a conversation, the last line of which a character will invariably repeat. Gallows humor flows freely as you'd expect in a show about resurrecting people just long enough to kill them once more. Each character brings a new quirk and offbeat sensibility.

Pace doesn't marvel as Ned, but he nicely captures a neurotic man who must fret over every potential skin graze. McBride is lovably gruff and greedy, with a bizarrely hilarious passion for knitting. Emerson has no time for Ned and Chuck's puppy love, and he always flies off the handle for even the slightest tangent in a conversation. Anna Friel is adorable from top to bottom, but Chuck has more to do than just stand around and look pretty. She brings a wide-eyed innocence that offsets Ned's neurosis, but she takes to the notion of solving crimes with vigor and often proves capable of figuring out some details. But it's Kristen Chenoweth who steals the show. Her Olive pines for Ned but her love goes unrequited, especially after Chuck comes back into his life. Olive has a winning combination of vapidity, understanding and kindness that allows her to thoroughly miss the point, then somehow do the right thing anyway. Chenoweth's loopy characterization and her astounding musical numbers would keep me watching even if everything around her was crap.

For all its morbid humor, though, Pushing Daisies is unerringly sweet. Both of the female leads give you a reason to root for them in the race for Ned's heart, be it Chuck's sunny disposition or Olive's lovesick jealousy and ultimate kindness, and they have their own quirks that make them interesting outside of their tangled relationships. When Ned responds to Chuck's question about what he needs to make him happy with a simple "You," even this hardhearted cynic let loose an "aw." If it has one flaw, it's that each episode has a clear disconnect between the kooky mystery of the week and the deeper character arcs. A mystery show needs fresh plots, yes, but a show like Veronica Mars knew how to blend each mystery into the larger arc as well as develop the characters (at least at first).

No matter, though. Pushing Daisies is a show that cannot be compared with anything else because nothing else looks or feels remotely like it. I've never been the biggest fan of Fuller -- the two or three episodes I watched of Dead Like Me didn't wow me, and Wonderfalls never fully established itself before cancellation -- but this alone makes me want to go back and re-evaluate his other work. By the end of the ninth episode I found myself wondering how such a show even secured a second season. The writers' strike cost everyone viewers, but this show started slipping before the short seasons forced people to wait even longer and, eventually lose interest. A show like this is simply too original to appease base demographics because nothing about it is conventional and relatable. Great performances, memorable characters, loopy dialogue and gorgeous set design and direction make Pushing Daisies an absolute must-see of the post writers' strike creative fallout.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you the perfect action movie. I do not mean to say it is the "best" action movie, but every aspect of its structure allows for the most kinetic action on the planet. What the hell is going in on the fistfights? Who knows, but I bet it hurts. Why do we care about Bourne's story now that we learned his real name? Because there are people in this world who still need a good punching. In this film series, Bourne's identity was just a MacGuffin anyway.

Even Bourne doesn’t seem to care about his past, at least beyond figuring out enough to know who he needs to punch next. Damon is a torrent of rage hidden behind an impassive veneer; we have seen him weather everything the CIA has thrown at him so far, but now he is simply ferocious. Greengrass' direction will always divide viewers, but I thought it worked in the last film and it's necessary here. Every shot, every line of dialogue, every chase, every punch will keep you on the edge of your seat. I don't count more than three relatively calm conversations, though I can't trust my senses after sitting through this barrage.

The conversations are the only weak parts of the movie, because it gives us a chance to breathe. The camera seems to be as riled up as we are, because it cannot stay still in these long conversations. When the dialogue is punchy, Greengrass can keep the shots relatively stable and keep editing before any shakiness becomes apparent. But these longform exchanges display all the weakness inherent in the shaky style. Thankfully, even these scenes don't provide us with more exposition than we need, and the sheer panic in the voices of the normally composed CIA heads Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) conveys what a fearsome, unstoppable force Bourne has become.

Allen continues to shine as the conflicted Landy. Her final scene in Supremacy actually occurs late in the timeline of this film, and that may seem grossly unnecessary but it's interesting to see what leads her to the decision to tell Bourne his name and to genuinely reach out to him (as opposed to all the traps attempting to lure him into an easy kill). Julia Stiles never stood out in the series even though she appears in all five films, but her work is a bit more substantive this time around. Like Landy, Nicky discovers that the real enemies are the CIA bosses and Bourne protects her when she divulges information about the upgraded Treadstone, Blackbriar.

Strathairn isn't as good a villain as the first two deputy directors, but anyone would look weak compared to Chris Cooper and Brian Cox. Actually, his acting isn't even the problem; he just has far less a personal stake in the action than Cooper and Cox's characters. Gilroy's scripts brings him into the story enough to make him interesting by the end, but the bad guy I found myself drawn to this time was the doctor who brainwashed and conditioned Bourne to prepare him for his missions. Albert Finney plays Dr. Hirsch as an indifferent, clinical physician who barely reacts when Bourne finds him because he's been expecting this day for years.

Of the three films, Ultimatum veers the closest to reflecting Bond (which by then had enjoyed a magnificent revival, mainly thanks to taking a page or two from this franchise) with its roaming tour through some of the world's most beautiful cities. The foot-chase through Tangier itself is an acknowledged lift from The Living Daylights. But the cast and crew didn't travel to Tangier, New York, Berlin, Madrid and London (some locations double as other cities like Moscow and Turin) to get paid to go on vacation. Take that Tangier scene: in The Living Daylights, Bond's run across the rooftops highlights the expansiveness of the scene. It wants you to know the trouble the producers went through to take you here. The Ultimatum version could have been anywhere. Bourne doesn't care where he is, and the action is visceral and personal. The only reason it's in Tangier is because it's more likely that he would be able to leap off roofs into apartments, run through them, jump through windows in adjacent complexes. Greengrass makes the action personal, which makes you a part of it even when its editing style bewilders.

Simply put, this is the best action film of the decade. It lacks the spectacle of the Pirates of the Caribbean, and it's certainly not as fun as the first film of that franchise. Yet it knows how to keep you hooked with a style that roots you to the back of your seat. The first film's plot informed the action, and the second worked vice-versa. Here, the two are one and the same. What I see in this trilogy now that I watch them back-to-back is the only trilogy I can think of that gets better with each installment. Star Wars slipped with Return of the Jedi, Army of Darkness, though still excellent, didn't match the quality of what came before. Even Lord of the Rings, the best narrative trilogy ever made (thematic trilogies such as Three Colors and Bergman's Faith trilogy are superior), stumbled with its rampant aside in the last act The Two Towers which added a brand new subplot that didn't work, not because it deviated from the source material but because it repeated themes established in the first film and ruined an interesting character (Faramir).

Bourne, however, is an action trilogy that delivers with all of its installments. Whatever major changes it may have made to the source material, the result is one of the most exciting franchises of all time. Its breakneck pacing and ability to make you care for this mysterious hero with only a scant moment of pause here and there gives it an edge no one else can touch. So please stop trying, Mr. Bond.

The Bourne Supremacy

A friend of mine commented on my review of The Bourne Identity that he would never watch the films because the sequels follow not the plots of Ludlum's books but stretch out the first book to fit the framework of the whole franchise. That might explain why plot takes a backseat in both of the sequels. Now, I can appreciate his feelings and of many other fans who might feel they lost the chance to ever see the books they enjoy on the big screen, especially a series as lauded as Ludlum's, so I hope he isn't too offended when I say that, from the bottom of my heart, I don't care. I don't care that Tony Gilroy decided to stick with the first book for three whole films, and I imagine I won't care when I finally read the books, no matter how much I love them. Why? Because with these sequels, Doug Liman, Paul Greengrass and Tony Gilroy made the best action films of the decade.

Greengrass takes over the director's chair for Liman, who still stayed on as a producer, to controversial results. Greengrass of course is the fellow to thank -- or blame, as many of us would -- for the rise of hand-held camera usage in major Hollywood films. His style of constant movement and breakneck editing makes even scenes of dialogue or a man packing a bag as visceral as a shootout. Greengrass' style spawned a wave of imitators, some of which benefited from this style (Collateral) but mostly detract and annoy (Public Enemies, Quantum of Solace).

The problem is that no one has Greengrass' knack for using this technique. His editing creates a disorienting, visceral experience, but he knows to give us at least some clue of what's going on. His restlessness comes with a vague hint of restraint, and his most interesting shots contain not action but dialogue, for he loves to quick-zoom on his actors' faces, better to read their buried emotions. I was also taken with a tracking shot through a subway that was so stable I pegged it as a Steadicam shot, only for the frame to bounce ever so slightly, signifying as a regular hand-held shot like all the rest.

Greengrass is perfectly suited for the task of filming Jason Bourne's ongoing adventure to recover his identity and memories, as The Bourne Supremacy takes some dark turns that push our hero to the edge. Still hiding from the CIA two years after the events of the last film, Bourne enjoys a bit of happiness with girlfriend Marie. They both are ready to run at any moment, but the CIA has relaxed the pressure enough for them to get a bit complacent. That, of course, is when the strike come, and Marie is tragically murdered as she and Bourne attempt to get out of a crowded village in India.

So now, Bourne turns from the hunted to the hunter. He still evades capture, but his thirst for revenge drives him to take the fight to the agents who will not leave him in peace. In the first film, Bourne was always surprised when he instinctively drew upon his fighting prowess, and that held him back somewhat. Here, he knows that intelligence agencies turned him into a killing machine, and his fighting is significantly more brutal. Greengrass photographs these vicious fistfights in such a way that every punch feels as though it breaks bones and ruptures organs.

The car chases are better, too. The biggest action piece of the film concerns a chase through the streets of Moscow, as exciting and confusing a sequence as you could ever hope to see. While I can certainly buy MI6 outfitting James Bond's Aston-Martin and BMW's with heavy armor (I mean, wouldn't you start there before trying to make it invisible?), but I never really bought his fancy little speedsters taking all the crashes and bullets and rockets they did. But Bourne commandeers boxy Euro cars, the kind that look as though they can take some punishment. And Lord knows Bourne's antics put them to the test more thoroughly than the best crash ratings.

While the story means far less here than in the first by virtue of stretching out the final act of a single book, The Bourne Supremacy is no less intriguing thanks to its actors. Brian Cox and Joan Allen deepen the levels of distrust and secrecy even within a single organization, as Allen's Landy attempts to sort out the bureaucratic mess left in the wake of Treadstone's failure. Abbot spends all of his efforts laying the blame for any loose ends on Bourne's feet and further raises Landy's ire against the agent when he pins the deaths of some of her agents on him as well. Allen is marvelous as the initially ruthless boss who begins to uncover the truth and doubt the necessity to find and stop Bourne.

Damon only improves upon the role he excelled at in the first film. He's got movie star looks, but also a plainness that allows him to fade into a crowd in any part of the world. Bourne only has about three facial expressions -- blank, tense and furious -- but Damon captures the torrent of emotions flowing underneath and presents a character who works as a three-dimensional study, not just some cartoonish, indestructible spy. Performances like this add to Greengrass' impeccable use of shaky cam (if only he was the sole person using the technique, because he embarrasses everyone else) to make a pulse-pounding thriller that lacks Identity's story but improves upon it in every other way.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Nobody, and I mean nobody, does stop-motion like Henry Selick. I would not go so far as to proclaim the greatest in the field -- I'd likely place him third behind Wallace & Gromit creator/animator Nick Park and the king, Ray Harryhausen -- but Selick made three of the greatest children's films of all time with his stop-motion prowess. All of them, by the way, are totally and gloriously unsuited to children. Coraline continues to grow on me now that I can marvel over its gorgeous 2-D flawlessly transferred to Blu-Ray (though I maintain that its 3-D version is the best I've ever seen the format offer), while James and the Giant Peach is one of the finest book adaptations a fan could ask for. The Nightmare Before Christmas, however, still stands as the pinnacle of his career.

An easy explanation for its lasting relevance and entertainment factor is the benefit of one of the greatest like-minded collaborations of the last 20 years. Selick directed the film based on Tim Burton's story and sketches, and together they craft the most perfect Expressionist world ever captured on film. Freed from the confines of reality, of using real sets (no matter how strangely designed), Selick and Burton design an entire world unlike anything you've ever seen: trees branch into jagged claws. Characters can stretch and dismember themselves and return to, well, not normal but whatever passes for it in this world. Even the fences are bent and craggy. The only straight lines in this film seem to be the ones of Jack Skellington's suit.

At a scant 76 minutes, The Nightmare Before Christmas plays like an extended, animated episode of The Twilight Zone, in which each holiday has its own special town filled with creatures who spend all year planning for their holiday. That does not hurt the film, though; no, if anything it helps. Burton and Selick know that they're making a gimmick, so they get in and out of there before you're tempted to ask any questions.

Most of the film occurs within Halloween Town, a garish, terrific display of graveyards, ghosts, goblins and zombies. Skellington, the most popular chap in town, reins as the Pumpkin King. His genial, giving nature stands in humorous contrast to his ability to frighten more effectively than anyone else. After a particularly successful Halloween, Jack goes for a walk in the woods and stumbles through door in one of the trees that leads to the portals to the other holiday towns. He finds himself in the Christmas world and is struck by its beauty. So, he decides to give "Sandy Claws" the year off and plan his own Christmas.

It must be said: even at 76 minutes, Burton cannot keep a narrative together. The main plot is sound, but an aside involving a romance between Jack and Sally, an animated rag doll created by Dr. Finklestein (a clear take on Rotwang and all the other mad scientists of Expressionism and old horror films), goes nowhere. Likewise, Jack's showdown with Oogie Boogie is too much of a left turn, even if it's totally worth it for Oogie's demented casino lair.

Nevertheless, the film works because of its stunning design, seamless animation and a heaping slice of self-awareness that takes pressure off a number of its flaws. Halloween Town is run by a literally two-faced mayor, and Jack's misinterpretation of Santa and his subsequent description of the jolly fat man as a fearsome tyrant is hysterical. It also rings true for me -- there is a large, rather embarrassing photo somewhere in my parents' house of a 2-year-old me bawling on the lap of a mall Santa in terror. The creatures of Halloween Town fall behind Jack and his Christmas plans with vigor, but they're so used to creating frightening pranks that they have no idea how to make a Christmas present.

Danny Elfman's lyrics also contain a wonderful wit, and the songs boost The Nightmare Before Christmas from a technical marvel to a technical marvel that'll make you sing along with glee. Coraline may one day overtake this in my estimation with its superior writing and flawless plotting, but I still profess a soft spot for this movie. Beautiful as Coraline is, it doesn't strike me the way this film does, or even as it did as a child, a decade before I'd even heard of the names Lang and Murnau. As with anything involving Burton (save Ed Wood), it's all about style over substance, but few films contain such an abundance of style, and I'll always love the movie for it.


Sam Raimi spent the first decade of his career straddling the line between potential hit-maker and one-trick pony. After his over-the-top gangster pastiche Crimewave tanked, he ran back to his debut film, only to silence any cynics by creating the greatest horror-comedy in the history of the genre. It renewed faith in the director, who decided to throw his talents into another genre film, albeit about comic book heroes instead of criminals. Released a year after Tim Burton's Batman proved that the genre could be taken seriously (though that film still has one foot planted firmly in cartoonish abandon), Darkman built upon the raves the director received for Evil Dead 2 by showcasing his ability to make a good film outside of the horror genre.

That is not to say that Darkman fully breaks from Raimi's bread and butter. Based on his own short story, it pays homage to classic Universal horror films as much as it does the superhero genre. After all, the story of a man, hideously disfigured, inventing disguises that allow him to cover his wounds as well as seek revenge calls to mind The Phantom of the Opera and The Invisible Man more than Batman or Green Lantern. Comic books inform the dialogue, however, which is gleefully over the top without slipping off the edge as it did in Crimewave.

Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) receives his hideous wounds when mobster Durant (Larry Drake) confronts him in his lab. Durant wants an incriminating document held by Peyton's girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand), and his thugs burn the poor scientist's face with acid before blowing up the whole place altogether. Peyton survives with massive burns that leave him with an inability to control his emotions and a thirst for vengeance.

He salvages his project, synthetic skin developed just for burn victims and the like, and finds that his overactive adrenal glands give him super-strength and a high tolerance for pain. The only downside to his fake skin? Something within it reacts to light, so his masks deteriorate after 99 minutes. Ergo, he becomes the titular Darkman, a mysteriously, bandaged hero who can also assume the identity of anyone he chooses with his skin molds.

Raimi, clearly still operating at the peak of his camp, has great fun with the movie. His offbeat style of rapid cutting and sudden, swift camera movement doesn't integrate into the story as well as it did for the Evil Dead movies, but it's a noticeable step up from Crimewave. The action is so slick and pulpy the frames might as well be cels of an actual comic. The final fight, on an unfinished building, contains all the joyous revelry that was so sadly lacking in the similarly constructed climax of Spider-Man 3. Its special effects should also be noted; some of the prosthetic make-up cannot be said to look realistic -- particularly around the skeletal mouth -- but the effect of Peyton peeling off a flawless skin mask to reveal a perfectly acceptable face underneath is impressive. Action scenes, though surprisingly few and far between, contain all the visual invention of Raimi's early films but on a budget that allows him to really display his acuity. What a shame that the director later turned to limp, unimaginative CG.

Raimi's dialogue is cheesy, but it works because the actors play it straight enough to give it some weight but light enough to lets us know they're in on the joke. Neeson can't help but ooze gravitas, and even with his face hidden in prosethetics and bandages and his voice altered for much of the film, he makes you care about this strange, frightening hero. McDormand has little screen time, but she establishes Julie as a capable person with her own drives, far removed from the two-dimensional Vicki Vale of the previous year's mega-hit. Casting "real" actors in action flicks doesn't always pay off, but it allows for the opportunity of that actor crafting a three-dimensional character with shades of moral gray, and Neeson and McDormand do a wonderful job.

Supposedly, the studios tampered with the film a bit after some test screenings went badly, though apparently it performed better after some crazier elements were cut and Danny Elfman's score was added. Even without whatever footage the studio hacked out of the film, Darkman remains a thoroughly fun ride. It obviously follows in the footsteps of Batman, but its embracing of old horror pictures made some comparisons with Burton's Expressionist vision inevitable. Far from perfect, Darkman nevertheless demonstrated that Sam Raimi could well become one of the most visually inventive directors to come out of the '80s, and you can see why someone might hand him the reins to a franchise as big as Spider-Man.

S. Darko: A Donnie Darko Tale

Say what you will about Donnie Darko -- Lord knows I have -- but you have to admit: it's unlike anything you've ever seen. That doesn't make it a good film, especially when you take into account how the script reads as if Richard Kelly was sitting at his computer with some science and philosophy books and just copying whole passages with no care for flow. Nevertheless, Donnie Darko was made by a man with ideas, albeit ideas he couldn't come close to combining into a truly thought-provoking whole. The creators of S. Darko had ideas too; the difference is that the chief idea knocking around director Chris Fisher and writer Nathan Atkins' heads was, "How can we milk that Darko teat some more?"

Made without an iota of involvement from Kelly, S. Darko plays like a photo album of frames of its predecessor, albeit with some editing in Photoshop to replace Jake Gyllenhaal with Davleigh Chase, the young sister with only tangential importance to the original. So many shots, ideas and plot points are directly lifted from DD I'm not entirely unconvinced that they didn't just re-cut the film and slap a new title on the reels. S. Darko is such a cheap, shameless cash-grab that I'm almost willing to retroactively declare Donnie Darko a masterpiece in comparison.

Samantha is all grown up now, but she's still affected by her brother's death (understandable). At the start of the film, Sam's car breaks down as she and her best friend, Corey (Briana Evigan), are on the way to California to become professional dancers. Clearly the two are angsty and rebellious, because they are insufferably rude and arrogant to everyone they meet. When a perfectly amicable Born Again preacher attempts some idle chat, Corey insults the sexual restrictions placed upon him, which doesn't even make sense because he's a pastor and therefore likely Protestant (though he does wear a priest's collar). Either way, it's completely unprovoked and repellent.

So, where Donnie Darko at least had an interesting take on teen ennui before it splintered off into too many tangents, S. Darko starts bad and only gets worse. Sam begins to experience the sort of visions her brother suffered, as does a homeless veteran of the first Gulf War, "Iraq Jack." They are told that the world will end, because nobody can catch a break in this universe.

What follows is, as I've already said, a lame pastiche of the original. While Kelly's writing was clichéd in its philosophy and its handling of themes, it at least presented quirky characters and strange situations that created the façade of depth. The characters themselves are stereotypes in this film: Corey and Sam play like your parents' idea of disaffected youth, and they move through a world that includes a sexy stud shrouded in indifferent intrigue, a nerd as obsessed with a meteorite (which serves the purpose that the jet engine did in the last movie) as he is with Sam, and that insulting caricature of a veteran suffering from PTSD. At one point that preacher does make a pass at Sam out of sexual frustration, but his devout parishioner (Elizabeth Berkley -- yikes) blames Sam for tempting him.

I apologize for being unable to mention a single aspect of the film without comparing it to the original, but I have never seen a sequel that so demands to be compared with its predecessor. That's a bold move, considering Donnie Darko remains a cult hit and this, this is awful. Evey line of dialogue smacks of laziness, and they sound even worse when delivered through the actors, who all seemed to realize just what a steaming pile they signed up for just before the cameras started rolling. Even the music selection makes Kelly's facile song choices look about as ingeniously chosen as the tunes that light up Scorsese or Tarantino pictures.

S. Darko isn't the worst sequel ever made, but it's one of the most pathetic cash-ins of recent years. I can't think of a nice thing to say about it. We're never given solid reasons for Sam's hallucinations, and Fisher embraces the elliptical nature of the first film but omits any scenes of thematic payoff. If Donnie Darko was a great film buried under an unnavigable series of poorly fleshed-out ideas and theories, S. Darko is a film that builds it core with those tangential distractions, leaving nothing of interest to even the most devoted Donnie fan.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest became and remains Disney's most successful film in their history, grossing over $400 million in the United States alone and over a billion worldwide. Über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and the filmmakers, unfortunately, interpreted this as some sort of mandate, that the tonal shift of the film drew audiences in, as opposed to the hype of seeing Johnny Depp. It's understandable, I guess; many people confuse box office gross with quality. Why, right after Transformers 2 came out, I found myself in an argument with someone who cited its high gross with proof that I was just being "difficult." Hell, Ben Lyons is a paid...I don't want to say professional who receives money for offering up thought about whether a film will make money or get Oscar noms and bases his opinion entirely on those two criteria.

Then again, the filmmakers clearly didn't underestimate the Depp factor, because they did the unthinkable with this movie: they gave us so much Johnny Depp that I finally didn't want to see any of him by the end of it. Trapped in Davy Jones' Locker after being devoured by the Kraken, Jack Sparrow is to spend eternity captaining a beached Pearl with a crew made entirely of copies of himself. These scenes allow Depp to be even crazier than usual, but they elicit no laughs, only glaces at watches. Perhaps Verbinski thought that drawing out these scenes to excruciating lengths would make them existentialist or at least deep in some way, but they are simply turgid.

"What exactly is going on here anyway?" you may ask yourself, unaware of what a mistake you just made, because the first hour of this insufferably long picture is all about endlessly, endlessly explaining things. Barbossa's back from the dead? Why? Because he's a pirate lord, and the pirate lords must all convene for the Brethren Court to combat Beckett, who know controls Davy Jones and, therefore, the seas. Barbossa never transferred his "lordship" to another, so he must attend regardless of living status. Jack didn't either, so he, Will, Elizabeth and the Pearl crew must travel to the edge of the world and beyond to save him. Wait, if Jack never passed on his piece of eight, how did Barbossa, a lowly first mate before he stole Jack's ship, become a lord? Oh, whatever.

The voyage to the beyond is disorienting and bewildering, and not even the wondrous special effects can distract you from trying to piece together the logic of these sequences. I can appreciate Verbinski trying to make something deeper than just a threequel for a movie about a ride, but damn it, where did the fun go? But they get Jack and all is well, at least until he hallucinates the other Jacks every now and again.

The second hour doesn't improve vastly on the first. Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) is a wasted character who removes Elizabeth from the rest of the crew just so she can be promoted to pirate lord when this vacuous plot killer finally ventures down to Davy Jones' Locker himself. At least it provides Knightley with the opportunity to become a full-on ass-kicking machine. She reveals some half-decent comic timing, but you'll be too busy watching her fight to focus on it.

Knightley is one of the bright spots of the film, as is that worst-kept secret of Keith Richards' cameo. He barely has any lines at all, but he's such a natural I imagined him showing up on set already wearing the clothes he wore in the scene. "Oh, wow, you brought your own costume," Verbinski would have said. "What costume?" Richards growled quizzically. It didn't take a psychic to predict that Richards, the basis of Sparrow to being with, would work, but his too-brief (though perhaps just right) scene gives us a blast of fun that is so terribly missing in the rest of the film.

Occasionally, that darkness pays off, though. In the final 40 minutes, Verbinski and ILM throw everything under the sun at us. You've giant whirlpools, battles between not two or three ships but entire fleets, a marriage in the middle of swashbuckling. You've even got a woman-god who turns into a bunch of crabs, and for what else could anyone ask? It's a freewheeling marvel that contains all the fun of the first film and what patches of it there were in the second into one glorious package, only to end on a, frankly, brilliant and dark climax.

But those 40 minutes cannot salvage the nearly 2-1/2 hours that precede it. Even Davy Jones, so magnetic and sympathetic in the first film, actually becomes less interesting when the totality of his story is explained. Geoffrey Rush is a breath of fresh air as Barbossa, but he lacks the intimidation factor he had in the first and now does little more than play straight man to Depp. Bloom is on-screen for such a minute amount of time that I can scarcely remember seeing him only a few hours after watching it. Depp too, for all his clones, takes up far too small a percentage of the film's length, and that affects the film more than anything else.

When I sat down in the theater and endured this movie for the first time, I found myself so incensed by its interminable length and turgid exposition that I never watched any of the other films again. While I feel know that said reaction was harsh, I find myself only slightly more charitable now. At World's End is a bad movie. It's bad as a sequel and on its own. Elizabeth is the only one to walk out of the film more or even just as interesting as she was at the start, while formerly fascinating characters such as Jones and Jack are buried under exposition and self-parody. When Jack and Mister Gibbs recite the pirate code, "Take what you can, give nothing back" at the end of the film, it's hard not to think of Bruckheimer and Disney, letting Verbinski haphazardly throw in ponderous, arty elements to what should be nothing more than an action thrill ride, simply because they know the people will come.

1989 Rewind: Batman

Perhaps it's fate that I've always loved Batman. Growing up, I never read comics but I watched this movie religiously, tuned in for the legendary Batman: The Animated Series whenever it was on, and my bedroom was decorated with all things Batman: Batman wallpaper, Batman bedspreads, Batman toys. And I was born only a few weeks after Batman premiered, so I like to think that the ubiquitous advertising imprinted my fetal brain. In fact, considering how my mom always waits two weeks to see every new film anyway, I'm convinced that I was so excited to see the film for myself that, soon after she left the theater, I decided it was time. And then the stork came to deliver me because that's the only way this theory can be more absurd.

Regardless, Batman is likely the single biggest icon of my youth, which makes it all the stranger that I have not revisited this film in, oh dear, nearly six years. I hadn't sat down with it since before Batman Begins came out, so I spent a good 10 minutes in the store holding the Blu-Ray in my hands wondering if I should shell out the cash. How would Burton's film stack up now that the frame of reference included Christopher Nolan's superb installments and not just Joel Schumacher's travesties? I finally caved and timidly loaded the disc into my player.

To my great surprise, Batman holds up, albeit in ways I could have never expected. As a Batman film, it's almost laughable: it retcons the backstories of both Batman and the Joker to entwine their fates at the expense of any plausibility. The Joker's backstory as a whole grates; clearly Burton, openly averse to comics, based it on the backstory given in Alan Moore's seminal book The Killing Joke, but what he and writer Sam Hamm failed to take into account is that the book openly reveals that past to be a figment of the Joker's mad imagination, and he's a character who should never be explained. Hamm pleads innocent, however, to the Joker being tied into the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents and cites a writers' strike for him not being able to stop this nonsense from happening.

Batman also suffers from some weak supporting characters. Kim Basinger works well within an extremely narrow range, but Meryl Streep couldn't have given Vicki Vale enough of a personality to hang a hat on. Women have long been fabricated in Batman movies expressly to provide a love interest to a man who is too absorbed in his own pathos to ever hold down a steady relationship -- not even Nolan handled this aspect well, though at least he found a way to make Rachel important to the story -- but Vale just sucks the life out of scenes. Even worse is Robert Wuhl's Knox, a snobbish reporter who smacks of the clinging third wheel Albert Brooks played to Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver, only not nearly as funny.

Nonetheless, the film succeeds, and it succeeds brilliantly. Not as a Batman or even a comic book movie, mind you, but as a demented slice of neo-noir. Burton's Gotham City is neither a realistic city nor a comic book city; instead, it is a glorious hybrid of German expressionism, Gothic architecture and Art Deco. As with Taxi Driver, colored steam hisses out of vents and manholes at all times, the streets are wet with fetid, stagnant water and the city as a whole almost feels like a criminal.

Michael Keaton's casting caused a great deal of controversy at the time, but he proves to be a great Batman, the best of the entire series, in fact. He can alter his voice and body language between Bruce Wayne and the Bat without lapsing into death metal growls (sorry, Christian), and this comedic actor brings serious intimidation to the part. He's such a natural in the role that he almost overcomes the complete lack of writing on the Bruce Wayne side of the character. The film's chief flaw, Bruce isn't so much mild-mannered as downright milquetoast.

I'd wager that's because Burton put all of his energy into capturing the Joker. He never nails down what makes the character so interesting -- that he reflects the sort of person Batman has to struggle daily to prevent himself from being -- and the closest he comes is a simplistic equation of the two as "freaks." But Jack Nicholson is the reason remember the film: of all the roles in which Jack Nicholson plays Jack Nicholson, none benefits as much as the Joker. A synecdoche of the film proper, he straddles the line between the campy, over-the-top nature of the old serial (which bears more similarities to the film than any of the makers would care to admit) and a more serious tone that Burton and everyone else involved with the project. While I find Keaton's performance far more of a revelation than Nicholson's, his Joker leaps off the screen with his gleeful, prankster insanity.

Burton obviously designed the film around his set pieces, but that makes for a visually resplendent noir, one that you can't help but love. Audiences in 1989 certainly did, as Batman was the biggest phenomenon ever, even bigger than Star Wars. Where movies like Star Wars or The Exorcist became mass hits through word of mouth and saturation booking, Batman became the first film to make a spectacle out of the marketing itself. A retrospective documentary of the entire first run of Batman films, broken up over the four movies, discusses the marketing, and images of fans buying merchandise months before release, of vandals stealing posters from bus stops and entire walls plastered with that simple, effective logo are staggering.

I wasn't there -- well, I guess I kind of was, but it's impossible to fondly recollect fetal memories -- but Batman is as much a nostalgic experience for me as it must be for all those who worked themselves into a frenzy for this movie. As such, perhaps my opinion is weighted by fond remembrances of my childhood. I do see the flaws, however, and they are glaring. I simply don't think they detract enough from the experience of walking through Tim Burton's world. It's actually better than I remember, because now I don't feel the need to hold it to rigid continuity (as if comic books only follow one set timeline anyway). While Basinger and Wuhl take away from the film, the two leads as well as strong actors such as Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, William Hootkins and Jack Palance keep you paying attention to them, which is impressive considering how tempting it is to simply sit back and admire the sets. Not even Prince's dated, ill-fitting soundtrack ruins it thanks to it playing second fiddle to Danny Elfman's excellent score (and that theme...oh, that theme). While it's nowhere near the best of 1989 I've seen, it remains a personal favorite and a film I'd care to re-watch just as many times as I would Nolan's franchise.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

The first Pirates of the Caribbean was the biggest surprise hit in years, maybe since Titanic turned a cloying melodrama into the highest-grossing film of all time. A joyous blend of action, comedy and a tinge of romantic melodrama, it proved to be the best piece of escapist fun in years. It was its own nice, little, self-contained story, but I can't blame anyone for wanting to see more of Captain Jack Sparrow.

Unfortunately, the drive to make things bigger and better for a sequel resulted in a bloated, aimless affair that expands both the spectacle and the moments with no idea how to balance the two halves. It also makes the fatal mistake of believing that anyone cares about the mythology of this little world, as opposed to just wanting to have some fun. So, what might have been the creation of a seafaring Indiana Jones instead became an 18th century version of the Matrix saga.

Following the events of the first film, the East India Trading Company cracks down on piracy in its waters and sends Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) to Port Royal to clean up the place. A personification of ruthless imperialism and greed, Beckett will manipulate or kill anyone who stands in the way of profit. He arrives at port ordering the execution of Will and Elizabeth for aiding and abetting piracy. To make matters worse, he does this on their wedding day.

Beckett gives Turner a chance for redemption by offering to give pardons if he can retrieve the compass that led to the Isla de Muerta in the previous film. Turns out, it can also lead to a chest containing the heart of Davy Jones, captain of the Flying Dutchman, who ferries dead souls from the world of the living to his Locker. Jones, played by Bill Nighy, is a technical marvel. A monstrous amalgam of sea creatures, Jones has a crab claw and tentacles for a beard. All of this looks so realistic you'd swear he was wearing prosthetics with only a few digital touch-ups here and there, but it's all animated.

He's not the only beautifully rendered object in the film. His crew, also a hodgepodge of sea creatures -- the hammerhead shark man in particular catches the eye -- are covered in barnacles and starfish. The crew members who have served for decades are stuck in the very walls of the ship. The large-scale fights, too much though they may be, look flawless. Even the water effects look indistinguishable from shots taken on actual seas. ILM's work can be hit or miss -- their numerous innovations rub against sloppy work on such films as the Transformers series and the early Harry Potter installments -- but their work on Dead Man's Chest is among the very best CGI has to offer.

What a shame, then, that we must sit through so many scenes of exposition and backstory to pad out the length to an overlong 2-1/2 hours. The notion of Jack owing his soul to Davy Jones seems pointless, because it would appear that Jones claims all of the dead anyway. Would working on his ship really be that bad? And Will's dad serves on the Flying Dutchman? Death means so very little in this world. There is also an insufferable obeah priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), who explicates heaps of mythology in a thick, manufactured, nigh-unbearable Jamaican accent.

This half-hearted stab at severity, however, does offer a few boons. Nighy excels as Jones beyond the shimmering CG, because we're given reasons to fear and care about him. There's a sadness in his eyes as he wanders the seas still grieving over lost love, and the wrath that pain engenders is fearsome. Norrington, disgraced after his failed attempts to capture Sparrow, appears in an alcoholic stupor before sobering up long enough to plan a path to redemption. Beckett himself is terrifying in his detached sadism: apart from his quest to reap revenge on Jack for some long-ago dust-up, he orders the deaths of large swaths of men with cold indifference.

Hollander and Nighy are wonderful, but the film hits a real snag with its star attraction, Johnny Depp. Depp, who was so energetic, fresh and unpredictable in the first film, has compacted Jack into a ready-made formula: sarcasm and bumbling idiocy give way to a meticulously thought out plan and yet more sarcasm. Perhaps he's just not as interesting now that we know him, now that we know the other shoe will drop for every dumb thing he does. It's not that Depp sleepwalks through the movie, but he just doesn't light up the screen like he did in Black Pearl.

On the plus side, Keira Knightley's part is much expanded, and she does a great job with it. No longer simply a damsel in distress, she actually sets out to save the guy when Will is trapped aboard the Dutchman. Most interestingly, the filmmakers decide to give her a dash of sexual tension with Jack, to great effect. Where her relationship with Will feels tepid and melodramatic, sparks fly instantly with the rakish pirate. You know it won't lead anywhere, but the give and take between the two is hysterical and exciting.

What makes Dead Man's Chest so interesting (and so infuriating) is the tonal shift of its fighting. The original drew on the madcap fencing beauty of Errol Flynn, but this is more Three Stooges than anything. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- the Stooges informed the action of Evil Dead 2 to great effect -- but it takes attention off the impressive dueling and places it onto ridiculous spectacles like fighting on a rolling wheel, or running away from cartoonish cannibals. Had these scenes been toned down and shaped into something exhilarating instead of vaguely comedic, Dead Man's Chest might have come close to the level of the previous film.

Nevertheless, it offers up enough fun and interesting characters (even a slightly subdued Depp steals the show without effort) to make it worth your money, especially if you have the Blu-Ray. I thought Black Pearl looked amazing, but this puts it to shame. Just watch the scenes with the kraken and you'll that, however much you spent on your Blu-Ray player, it was worth it. The film looks so gorgeous it actually improved in my estimation over the DVD. What once hovered around a 2.5 now gets a solid three stars for being that much more entertaining. Where Curse of the Black Pearl is a great action film period, Dead Man's Chest is more a lazy Sunday sort of picture. Now only one question remains: dare I go back to the end of the world?