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Thursday
Feb112010

In the Loop, 2009 (Home Video Review)

F@#&ing Brilliant!

On the opposite end of the spectrum from The Room is In the Loop, a brilliant political satire by director Armando Iannucci and an army of screenwriters. The film is based on a BBC television series called The Thick of It, which I haven’t seen, and chronicles the snowballing screw-ups in the British and American governments that lead to war in the Middle East. It’s a fictional account, and deals in generalities as far as the year and geography of the conflict, but In the Loop is a contemporary fable about good intentions and bad governance.

The film opens with the Minister of Communications, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) taking heat for an interview he’d given in which he denounced claims that war was brewing. His aides and superiors are flustered and in full damage-control mode when Simon decides to give a follow-up statement to a gaggle of reporters; his lack of a prepared statement—or even an idea as to what his real thoughts on the matter are—leads to another gaffe (“In order to walk the road of peace, sometimes we must be ready to climb the mountain of conflict”). Simon’s anti-war stance attracts the attention of U.S. Senator Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), who plans to use him as leverage in stopping a Washington war hawk named Linton Barwick (David Rasche) from starting a war committee.

From there, In the Loop explodes with sub-plots and supporting characters who all get ground up in the march to war. One of the things I love about this movie is that it’s a government drama in which we never see the President or other world leaders making big decisions; it showcases just how many earth-moving ideas are formulated and executed in the lower, unseen levels of the bureaucracy. There are back-room deals and double-crosses, love affairs and bloody mouths all over the place and, though farcical, this film depicts the pluses and minuses of modern politics.

Did I mention that it’s extremely funny? Okay, maybe you won’t laugh out loud a lot (though I did), but the rapid-fire dialogue and the manic actors who speak it create a dizzying atmosphere of parody and exhilaration that I haven’t seen since Alec Baldwin’s cameo in Glengarry Glen Ross. The dialogue is the heightened, perfect speech of brilliant movie characters; the zingers and insults are bone-breaking (or, as my wife put it, “Gilmore Girls on crack”).

I appreciate a movie that rewards intelligent audiences. While a base knowldege of world affairs would be helpful, In the Loop gives viewers everything they need to know to keep up. The key is keeping up. There are many different accents and fragments of slang flying about here, and they're often servicing story points that, if one isn't paying attention, can disappear in the course of a "Huh?" This is the anti-blockbuster. It invites you to engage your brain and appreciate solid writing and outstanding performances, rather passively accept pretty 3-D aliens and explosions as default quality entertainment.

The standout in the cast of great performers is Peter Capaldi as Malcom Tucker. He’s like the British Rahm Emmanuel, running from office-to-office, busting heads and getting things done for the higher-ups. His foul-mouthed diatribes can go on for minutes, and he might be considered a joke if it weren’t for the blackness behind his eyes. Tucker destroys every scene he’s in with confidence and cuss-words, but we do get to see...a “softer side” would be exaggerating, but he does get taken down a few pegs, and I appreciated the extra dimension.

In the Loop is the closest we’re likely to get to a remake of Dr. Strangelove (not that we need one). While it doesn’t end on nearly as dark a note as Stanley Kubrick’s seminal statement on war, this movie examines the absurdity of granting so much power to so few flawed, greedy human beings. It has a slightly less cynical view of government than Strangelove, though, in that we get to see noble (but, again, flawed) people working to make things better. I’m a sucker for smart, well-written political films, and this is the best I’ve seen in awhile.

Thursday
Feb112010

The Room (2003)

Did He Just Say "Tommy"?

Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is the most satisfying film I’ve seen in a long, long time. Not since The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man have I felt so full of love for movies that I felt like my head might literally explode.

For those of you not familiar with this cult gem, it's a low-budget drama about a guy named Johnny (Wisseau), whose fiancée, Lisa (Juliette Danielle), is cheating on him with his best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero). It’s as simple as that, with absolutely no surprises, twists or revelations that couldn’t be found on Days of Our Lives. The mastery is in the execution.

The IMDB listing for this movie says that it’s a black comedy, and I’ve gotta call bullshit on that one. Such a label gives the movie far too much credit, and there’s no way to accept that all of the terrible acting, weird dialogue, atrocious camerawork, and mind-blowing music was intentional. For that to be the case, Tommy Wiseau would have to be an autistic auteur on the level of Francis Ford Coppola or Steven Spielberg. The movie magic here, I’m convinced, is a once-in-a-century perfect storm of awful that leaves good filmmaking in its hilarious wake.

It’s easy to see why The Room has become a midnight-movie sensation all across the country. It is jam-packed with instantly quotable lines (“You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” Technically, this was ripped off from Rebel Without a Cause, but the delivery forever transfers ownership); its first two-thirds are nothing more than poorly shot soft-core porn (there’s a five-minute sex scene about every three minutes); the rooftop set is not only the weirdest use of green screen, it also hosts half the movie’s best, most riotous scenes. This was made for large, kitsch-craving audiences, and I can imagine people showing up dressed as their favorite characters, tossing footballs back and forth in the theatre (watch The Room and you’ll understand).

If you do plan to check out one of the film in a traveling show, I recommend renting (or better yet BUYING) the DVD and watching it first. Otherwise, you might miss Lisa’s awkward conversation with her mother about breast cancer; or the last-minute addition of a random character at the end, who acts as if he were in the rest of the story all along; or, best yet, Philip Haldeman’s final scene as Denny, the young boy who lives in Johnny and Lisa’s building: he calls out to Johnny and, I swear to God, calls him “Tommy”—twice. You may even miss Tommy's bizarre laugh, which would be a crime. I guarantee that if you aren’t familiar with the material beforehand, eighty percent of the best stuff will be lost in the howling laughter around you.

In the end, the question remains, is The Room a good movie? By most accounts, the answer is “no”. All of the elements that comprise a traditional drama are so mishandled that one could rightly call Tommy Wisseau an incompetent filmmaker. On the other hand, since the resulting movie is hilarious and has obviously struck a chord with fans of the absurd, credit must be given to Wisseau, even if only for accidentally birthing something that is bad in ways that the average audience member could never anticipate. On those terms, I would have to call The Room one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen.

Note: Tomorrow night, Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre will be screening The Room at 8pm and 12:30am. Better yet, Tommy Wiseau will be in attendance! If I realize my dream of shaking the man’s hand and thanking him for changing my life, I’ll be sure to report back.

Additional Note: If you're still not convinced, take forty seconds to watch these two clips. You're welcome.

Wednesday
Feb102010

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

(Hopeless)ly in Love

Gene Siskel once said that a movie is not what it’s about, but how it’s about it. (500) Days of Summer is the rare film that requires two kinds of reviews: one objective, one subjective.

I wasn’t on board with the film’s premise, which tracks the span of the relationship between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a love-starved greeting card writer, and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), an emotionally unavailable flake who Tom believes to be the love of his life. The movie flashes forward and backward, mixing up day four—on which they meet—with day 344—on which they’re broken up, but not really, finally so. I don’t doubt that there are desperate man-children who will put up with mental abuse and consistent heartbreak by a woman who gives him frequent, obvious signs (while still stringing him along, out of boredom)—I just don’t want to watch them for an hour-and-a-half when all of his problems could be solved with a simple, “I’m annoying; you’re annoying; let’s not speak anymore.”

So that’s the subjective issue, and I understand that it’s mine alone. Objectively, how does the movie play? Sadly, not very well.

The movie is undeservedly smug. It’s drenched in a sort of knowing irony that is meant to evoke laughs from hipsters (I guess), but that merely serves to stall the plot and astound the non-suckers in the audience with a clown-car’s worth of tired quirk clichés. From the wise-old-man narrator to the fantasy dance number sequence in a park (which proves that screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have seen 9 to 5 and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) to Summer’s heart-shaped birthmark, (500) Days of Summer plays like really bad teen poetry (or just teen poetry).

Brief sidebar: why is Peter Parker’s impromptu dance number in Spider-Man 3 considered the death knell of a franchise, but Tom’s dancing with an animated bluebird is supposedly a lively and inventive stroke of genius? Sorry, back to the review...

The one sequence that’s executed well is a split-screen trip to a party at Summer’s apartment, in which we see Tom’s expectations on the left and his reality on the right. Director Marc Webb makes those three minutes sing by laying off the wackiness and going casual. If the rest of the picture had been as subtle and honest as that moment, the film might have been really special.

Instead, we’re treated to speech after speech about how pointless love is and how everyone feels the need to label everything; it’s just inauthentic noise that smacks of young, coffee-shop liberals who don’t know thing one about true love (it A. exists and B. is amazing, but not easy). Now, I don’t mind watching a movie that challenges my beliefs, but I need either a compelling argument or at least sharp, insightful dialogue to hold my interest (unfortunately, the “comedy” in this film is telegraphed sitcom pabulum; no offense to people who consider spit takes to be the best that indie screenwriters can deliver).

I would love to see an honest romantic comedy/drama featuring the lead actors from this film, as shot by the same director, but in the service of a story that actually says something about modern romance. And, no, there’s nothing wrong with a traditional three-act Hollywood structure that favors meets-cute over funky time jumping—as long as the writing and performances hold up.

In fairness, the movie begins by informing us that it is not a love story. But it’s also not a story about any people I’ve ever met, nor would I like to get to know. Tom’s puppy-dog desperation wears thin by the second time Summer tells him their relationship isn’t going to evolve past the “friends-with-benefits” stage; by the fifth time, I really just wanted to turn the movie off. (500) Days of Summer is the romantic comedy equivalent of torture porn.

Saturday
Feb062010

Frozen (2010)

Gangrene with Enmity

It’s okay for some characters in horror movies to be unlikable—that’s part of the catharsis in seeing them creatively killed off; but in a straight thriller, it’s usually a good idea for the audience to care what happens to them. In 2006, writer/director Adam Green gave us the 80s horror throwback Hatchet, an uninspired Friday the 13th rip-off that—according to who you ask—is either a brilliant genre satire, or just boring, generic and sad (guess which camp I’m in). The movie is full of ditzy, young idiots who meet their doom at the hands of an axe-wielding swamp-dweller. The only thing that abated the depression of watching them speak and do really stupid things was watching them die in quick succession.

Green’s newest film, Frozen, is masked in legitimacy, but commits a fatal crime: Porting over one of the slasher genre’s best archetypes (the jock asshole), multiplying it by three, and then expecting us to care about them being stuck on a chair lift for sixty minutes. Two best friends, Joe and Dan, and Dan’s girlfriend, Parker (played by Shawn Ashmore, Kevin Zegers, and Emma Bell, respectively) wind down a weekend at a Massachusetts ski resort that is only open from Friday through Sunday. Joe, bitter because he and Dan have had to forego real skiing in order to look after Parker the novice, convinces Dan to go on one good run before they leave. Parker, of course, tags along and—through a series of small mistakes beyond their control—the three end up on a stopped chair lift, in the dark, hovering fifty feet over hard snow. Frozen unfolds as they struggle to survive amid harsh weather and hungry wolves stalking the woods below.

This sounds like a great idea for a movie—or maybe an hour-long short—but the problems all go back to the characters (and, by extension, the script). The first twenty minutes of Frozen sees Dan and Joe convincing Parker to sex it up for the rube lift operator, hoping that her tits and a hundred bucks will get them all a discounted ride up the mountain; since they bicker about what minimum wage is, I assume they’re just being cheap. Next, we’re treated to several (yes, several) conversations about how Dan isn’t the same now that he’s dating Parker; the boys at the local bar all miss him; she’s tearing two best friends apart ‘cause she’s an icky, dumb girl. At first I thought these were supposed to be high school students; turns out they’re in college (though Shawn Ashmore is 31 years old), and have apparently learned everything they know about male/female relationships from Maxim Magazine and reruns of Home Improvement.

By the time they get stranded, I felt queasy. Not because of the heights or the sub-zero cold, but by the realization that all three characters are horrible to each other in the best of times. I could only imagine how quickly and ugly matters would get when death became a possibility. Sure enough, they continue to get on each other’s nerves and fight.

Luckily, this is the point where Frozen briefly becomes a comedy. Dan decides to jump out of the seat and try his luck on the ground. Following a hilarious POV shot of his legs hitting the snow and shattering, we’re treated to five minutes of him sitting on the ground with bones jutting out of his bloody pants, screaming. Joe and Parker throw clothing at him to help tie up the wounds, and all three performances make a ridiculous looking splatter gag play out like the Mad TV version of a Magruber skit. The capper is the awkwardly staged first appearance of the wolves, which made me laugh out loud.

The rest of the film is a series of weird vignettes in which something awful happens, the characters ignore the awful thing, and eventually, so does the plot; these include, but are not limited to frostbite on the cheek, a bare hand frozen to the safety bar, and a loose bolt in the lift support that threatens everyone’s safety—for a couple minutes; the loose bolt takes a break from being menacing and returns to full dramatic capacity later on.

Frozen is supposed to be a “drama/thriller”, but there’s no tension in a story when the people it’s about are neither interesting nor sympathetic. It doesn’t matter how many stories Joe tells Parker about crushes he had in school or meeting Dan in the first grade; he’s more often than not selfish and dumb. I’ll give Adam Green this: the things the characters do to survive are—for the most part—reasonable. But the arrogance, jealousy, and pettiness that led to their predicament are hard to overcome. I got the feeling that the main reason Dan, Joe and Parker wanted to survive was so that they could hold the incident over each others’ heads for the rest of their hateful lives.

Saturday
Feb062010

Diary of the Dead, 2007 (Home Video Review)

TrainREC

George Romero needs to stop. It’s been about forty years since he defined the “zombie” horror sub-genre with Night of the Living Dead, and twenty-five years since he made a zombie movie that was worth a damn (Day of the Dead). Sure, he tried to make a comeback with the chronologically deficient Land of the Dead in 2005, but it was such a slick, action-packed spectacle that it became an altogether different type of film; Land also jumped the shark on Romero’s trademark social commentary, ending, literally, with an “eat the rich” bloodbath. After that movie, it was clear the writer/director had run out of fun things to do with the walking dead.

Which is why watching 2007’s Diary of the Dead was such a chore. Romero rightly believed that his franchise could use some updating; he was wrong to assume that (poorly) aping The Blair Witch Project was a good creative decision.

The conceit of Diary is that it’s a film cut together using footage taken by University of Pittsburgh (Ontario campus) students in the first days of the zombie apocalypse. This collection of hip, ridiculously attractive kids are making a mummy movie out in the woods when the first reports of zombie attacks come in over the radio. Soon they’re driving a Winnebago across the state—with their drunkard professor in tow—trying to reach their respective homes, capturing everything on a pair of what look to be big, clunky TV cameras.

Diary of the Dead has three major problems. The first two are the acting and dialogue, which make the movie nearly unwatchable. The group of kids tries way too hard to bring really bad writing to life; it’s as if they believe Romero’s monologues about pervasive media (“If it’s not on camera, it isn’t real”) are too profound to be understood by the audience, so they over-emphasize EVERYTHING. The constant asides and obviousness bog down the film’s first hour, which might have been okay if the third issue were not so glaring.

Whereas Romero’s first three zombie movies used amazingly gruesome practical effects, Diary of the Dead suffers from an over-reliance on CG gore. Worse yet, one can tell that the digital effects ate up so much of the budget that the practical stuff was apparently left to half-drunk interns. All of the gunshots-to-the-head look like they were generated with the default settings of an After Effects plug-in, and the zombie makeup and eviscerated body cavities could have been pulled from behind the counter of a costume store. Part of the joy of watching the original zombie pictures was marveling at how wizards like Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero pulled off such believable kills; Diary comes off as a tutorial in an on-line film course.

The most frustrating part of the movie is that the last half hour is much better than anything that preceded it (including Land of the Dead). By the time the group holes up in a rich friend’s fortified mansion, most of the annoying cast has been killed off. The owner of the house, Ridley, has gone insane and still roams the halls wrapped in the mummy costume from their movie. It’s here that Romero recaptures some of the claustrophobic magic of Night of the Living Dead; he even makes his media concept work, via omnipresent surveillance cameras, which are put to good use in the story. However, not even the last act is immune from idiocy, as the script calls on the characters to act in ways that defy belief for the sake of padding a pretty slim run-time.

In the years since Diary of the Dead, two films have come along and fared much better with the concept. Cloverfield set the bar for the authentic-feeling “found footage” monster movie (I thought the characters were kind of annoying until I watched Diary), and Paranormal Activity dialed back the visceral shocks in favor or more subtle scares. What the creators of both films understood is that the foremost point of a horror movie is to take the audience on a terrifying, believable ride; it’s not to hit them over the head with generic anti-establishment ideas and rely on the “gee-whiz” niftiness of modern technology.

George Romero has been known to complain about studios not giving him enough money to make the really big zombie movies he has in his head. Based on his last two pictures, I’d say they’re justified in holding back. Romero needs to revisit the simplicity of Night, Dawn, and Day. He knows how to direct tense scenes and get great performances from real (read: adult) actors, and it was the lack of money that led to some of the most memorable splatter moments in horror history—because his crew had to be inventive, instead of simply able to press a “Render” button. If he decides to work in the zombie genre again, I would suggest that he direct someone else’s material; specifically, Max Brooks’s superb novel, World War Z. Otherwise, he really should just stop.

Note: Perhaps the worst offense in Diary is the sloppiness of one particular scene in which the kids encounter a black militia that has taken over a small town. Their leader claims that anyone “without a natural sun tan” fled when the outbreak began. Yet, ten minutes later, this smiley, creepy looking white guy is helping our filmmaking heroes load canned goods into their mobile home. This makes less sense than the movie-length suspension of disbelief that a guy would not once put down his camera to help people (including his friends) in immediate danger—a problem Cloverfield solved a year later.