Thursday, February 26, 2009
This is all preface to my statement that this is by no means a definitive list of the year in film. For one thing, there are many films that "everyone" has seen that I have still not managed to check out, the most notable here of course being Slumdog Millionaire, the recently christened Best Picture winner that, for whatever reason, I have passed on up to this point (I'm planning to check it out once it opens at the second-run house near my apartment; Oscar or no Oscar, it's not one I feel like paying fourteen dollars to see). Also, there are films which were enormous critical successes which just left me cold, the best example here being The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a textbook violator of one of the Zombie's cardinal rules of cinema: you can't fake profundity. All this list represents are the ten cinematic experiences of 2008 that did the most to breathe fresh life into the dessicated brain and rotted spirit of this old undead film wonk.
And roll 'em...
THE MOVIE ZOMBIE'S TOP 10 FILMS OF 2008
I have now seen John Patrick Shanley's noose-tightener of a drama (adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play) twice, and I still am no closer to unearthing the truths behind its tale of a kindly but potentially pedophiliac priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) caught in the gunsights of a suspicious nun (Meryl Streep) who is willing to trample the law of God if it means proving her all-but-unfounded assumptions correct. It's a story that asks big, tough questions, that provides no easy answers, and that trusts the audience's intelligence enough to not give us all the facts, to let us think and draw our own conclusions. The second time I saw this film, like the first, I found my sympathies naturally lying with the priest...until I asked myself, do you feel this way because you really believe he's innocent, or is it just because you loved the priest and despised all the nuns at your own Catholic school growing up? Doubt is the kind of film that'll have you questioning both its intentions and your own, and in an era when intellectual exercises are seldom seen at the multiplex, it's a rare treat.
9. TROPIC THUNDER
Ben Stiller's brash, vulgar satire of war movies and the dimwits who make them was the funniest Hollywood film of the year. A pitch-perfect send-up of that bag of neuroses, addictions, egotism and self-importance known as the Actor, this film sends up everything from the desperation of pigeonholed performers trying to break from the mold (witness Stiller's transformation from lunkhead action star to the "full retard" hero of Simple Jack) to the laziness and crudity of other contemporary comedies (as Jack Black's smack-addled comic buffoon readies for the release of his latest flick, The Fatties Fart Two). The movie's supreme comic achievement, however, is in the creation of Kirk Lazarus, a ballsy goof on every actor who's ever gone to ridiculous lengths for the sake of, honestly, a big expensive game of make-believe. This character, a brutally intense Aussie so committed to his role as a black soldier that he surgically alters his skin, is knocked out of the park by the brilliant Robert Downey Jr., whose Oscar nomination for this performance was as much a testament to his comic mastery as to his guts for spending an entire big-budget Hollywood summer blockbuster in blackface.
In his illustrious career, Sean Penn has played many different types of characters, but he has never embodied the life force so thoroughly as in Gus van Sant's surprisingly ebullient biopic of the martyred San Francisco city supervisor, the first openly gay man to hold elected office in America. A film with none of the staid stuffiness of the typical Hollywood biography, Milk vibrates with energy, passion and optimism, all while managing not to soft-pedal its provocative issues or give short shrift to its still-timely themes of tolerance, unity and the very human desire for justice. The fact that its release came just after the passing in California of Proposition 8, a law denying gay men and women the right to marry in the state, just serves to make its message all the more urgent. Hats off to Penn for his soaring Oscar-winning performance, and to fellow Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black, who managed to write a screenplay that is at once funny, moving and politically astute, a high-wire act that I believe fellow fact-based filmmakers will be studying for years to come.
7. OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES
If you live outside a major city, chances are you never got to take in a theatrical screening of the funniest film to play American theaters in 2008. A smash hit in its native France, Michel Hazanavicius's uproarious spoof takes a now-obscure French James Bond rip-off and feeds him through the Zucker Brothers meat grinder. The result is both a spot-on parody of the original early '60s Bond classics (the cinematography, set design and costuming are so right, you could run this side by side with a real Connery Bond pic and not spot the difference) and a rather bold needling of the smug imperialist attitudes that have resulted in such catastrophes as the current war in Iraq, a war, remember, that the French opposed all along. Still, the politics never get in the way of the absurd laughs to be had here in abundance, and it's all held together by the amazing Jean Dujardin, an actor handsome enough to be a real movie superspy and daffy enough to pull the rug out from under his own suavity for 99 minutes. What can you say about a film where a man smoothing back his hair provides the year's biggest laugh? I hear there's a sequel on the way. I cannot wait.
Clint Eastwood's first theatrical release of the year got left in the box-office dust by Gran Torino, but this one-of-a-kind film, part true-crime docudrama, part political expose, part Grand Guignol horror tale, was a true spellbinder. The picture chronicles the unbelievable story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother whose son's disappearance pits her against a corrupt police force, the psychiatric establishment, and the crimes of a sadistic chicken-coop ax murderer. It's an utterly convincing evocation of a rough-and-tumble era of Los Angeles history, a story of a woman's triumph against a system that would conspire to oppress her just because of her gender and life choices, and a necessary resurrection of a remarkable but nearly forgotten true story. That the film does not fly apart amidst the whirling cacophony of its disparate parts is a testament to the power of J. Michael Straczynski's forceful screenplay, Eastwood's firm-but-tender directorial hand, and especially Jolie's wrenching, Oscar-nominated performance as a giant-killer who takes on the world armed with nothing but her sense of right.
5. CADILLAC RECORDS
The year's most underrated film was Darnell Martin's colorful and evocative chronicle of the advent and evolution of Chess Records, the label that launched the careers of Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Berry and more, and in the process gave birth to that disreputable and glorious beast known as rock and roll. The picture luxuriates in all the fast cars, flashy clothes and good times that these men and women lived for, but it never short-changes the artistic intelligence that made their music take wing, or the very authentic pain and anger that gave that music its fire and wisdom. The film also showcases arguably the year's finest acting ensemble: Eamonn Walker as the volcanically talented Howlin' Wolf, Mos Def as elfin firebrand Berry, a surprisingly good Beyonce Knowles as the troubled-but-soulful James, Jeffrey Wright as the edifice of blues truth that was Waters, and especially Columbus Short as Little Walter, capturing both the man's blistering talent and his equal painful inability to control the fury at the core of his being.
4. BIGGER STRONGER FASTER (THE SIDE EFFECTS OF BEING AMERICAN)*
I saw about a dozen documentaries in the theater this year, and none stayed with me like Christopher Bell's flashy and probing examination of the steroid controversy in America. A former competitive power lifter, though never himself a steroid user, Bell understands better than most how the ingrained American desire to be the best at everything could drive otherwise rational young people to acts of chemical self-abuse, and his film is, despite its occasional lapses into Michael Moore-like stylistic japery, refreshingly free of histrionic finger-pointing. What makes the film so remarkable, however, is how Bell combines his far-ranging examination of a major national issue with the intensely personal story of his own family, namely his two brothers, one a fellow power lifter, one an aspiring pro wrestler, both, unlike their brother, steroid users. Amidst all the facts and statistics the film throws at us, Bell never lets us forget one thing: that all it boils down to is that people are dying, people Bell loves, and maybe people we love too. This is powerful stuff, and sadly neglected by the Oscars.
3. U2 3D
The most purely joyous experience I had in a theater this year was at this feature-length presentation of the greatest rock band in the world today doing what they do best: taking a live audience to new heights of musical ecstasy, and in glorious three-dimensional images. Let me just say right now that they have really got this 3D thing figured; in the opening moments of the film, I thought that people in the audience with me were waving their hands in the air along with the music...until I realized those hands were on the screen, and leaping out at me with utter believability. The band is in fine form, with the Edge swirling his epic sound canvasses around our ears and into our souls, and Bono reminding us why he is arguably modern rock's most electric frontman. The music is of course tremendous, the undoubted highlight being a soaring rendition of "Where the Streets Have No Name" that almost had me in tears. Probably another one you might have missed in the theater, and I for one feel sorry for you.
2. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
I spent the last 45 minutes of Sam Mendes's adaptation of Richard Yates's classic 1950s-set novel hunched into a ball in my seat, a wince on my face, unable to look away from the brutality that the film's characters inflict on one another. This was the nastiest, most violent film I saw all year...and all it's about is a young married couple that just can't work things out. From such humble material, Mendes and his brilliant screenwriter, Justin Haythe, paint an indelible portrait of an era when men were meant to turn off their dreams and bring home the bacon, while women were expected to look pretty, spit out kids, and keep the smile plastered on, no matter the roiling emtions inside. It's an under-the-microscope examination of frustrated ambition, shattered dreams, soul-draining compromises, and the horrors that ensue when remarkable people realize that the only thing remarkable about them is how thoroughly average they've become. Kate Winslet gives a festering open wound of a performance, and Leonardo DiCaprio, as an overgrown boy smashed asunder by the realization that he's becoming his father, turns in a volcanic, rage-fueled piece of acting that I think should have won him a Best Actor Oscar (he wasn't even nominated). He just keeps getting better...and never more so than he is here.
1. THE DARK KNIGHT
Box office, Oscar controversy, the Heath Ledger tragedy...in my mind, all of it takes a backseat to the fact that, at the end of the day, Christopher Nolan's sprawling, brilliant, thematically rich crime epic was the best Batman movie yet made, and the best movie of 2008. This is a film that delivered on all possible levels. It's a compelling character study of a man torn by his twin desires to lead a normal life and to sacrifice his humanity so that the people of his city can have their own, of a crusading "white knight" driven to madness by the simple facts of man's inhumanity to man, and of a genuine psychopath who drives a city to the brink of apocalypse simply to prove that he can. It's also a political allegory which probes deeper than any fiction film of the Bush era into the psychology of terrorism, the limits of the law, and the dangers of becoming that which you battle against (it's telling that both conservatives and liberals have found fuel for their arguments in the film's message). And it's just an overwhelmingly effective work of cinematic storytelling, with image, music, dialogue, character, action and movement all combining in a seamless, powerful whole. This is a film that people talk about afterwards, a film that engages people's minds, gets their adrenaline pumping, and touches their hearts in ways few films ever do. And, in Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance, the best of the year by any actor living or dead, lead or supporting, the film sets a new benchmark for cinematic villainy: funny, wounded, and truly, terrifyingly unpredictable. The Dark Knight is the kind of film that renders Oscar contests, and indeed top ten lists like this one, irrelevant. You can leave it out of as many Best Picture races as you like. But this film lives on, and it will as long as people care about good stories well told on film.
Friday, February 20, 2009
Why It's Here
Titanic is the first Best Picture Oscar winner on my countdown. It was in fact nominated for 14 Oscars, tying a record set by 1950's All About Eve, and it received 11 of those awards, a record it shares with Ben-Hur and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. However, Titanic is also one of the few Best Picture winners to not even receive a nomination in the screenplay category (Return won the writing Oscar, which was the one award Ben-Hur lost). Though recognized with nominations by the Golden Globes and the Writers Guild of America, James Cameron's screenplay is what you most often hear people complain about when they set to bashing the highest-grossing motion picture of all time. I of course knew about the lack of an Oscar nod for the screenplay, but so dismal is the reputation of Titanic's script that I was honestly surprised to find that it was also passed up for a nomination by the Golden Raspberries, "honoring" the year's worst in film.
Now here's the weird part. I agree with most of what the critics have said about the quality (or lack thereof) of Titanic's writing. For anyone who has ever read a Syd Field book or at least knows a little something about classic Hollywood screenplay structure, Titanic is, to put it bluntly, something of a mess. A standard film script requires a protagonist to experience change and growth all the way through to the end, with the events of the third act prompting the most radical reversals in a character's worldview or personality. In Titanic, however, the film's protagonist, Rose (Kate Winslet), achieves the pinnacle of her character development at the end of the SECOND act. A former child of privilege fallen on hard times, Rose is being forced into a likely loveless marriage with Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), an elegant but often callous Pittsburgh steel heir, in order to save her family. Rose is an independent-minded young woman, fond of abstract art and Freudian psychology...qualities that are the polar opposite of what
Hopeless, Rose attempts an admittedly melodramatic act of suicide, planning to throw herself from Titanic's stern into the ocean. She is rescued, however, by Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), an itinerant artist from
Now, with this structural hole gaping as wide as the hull of Titanic, why am I still putting this on the list of my favorite screenplays of all time? In this case, the devil is in the details, and when the great ship starts to go down, Titanic has almost no peer in popular filmmaking in bringing to life one of the great disasters of the modern era. In a break from the structural norm that DOES pay off, Cameron tells us in the first half-hour of the movie exactly how and why Titanic sank. The film opens with a modern-day underwater expedition team investigating the wreckage of Titanic, and research scientist Bodine (Lewis Abernathy) uses a computerized simulation of the sinking to guide the now-elderly Rose (Gloria Stuart), and us, through the great ship's death throes. Therefore, when the iceberg hits and the ship starts to founder, Cameron isn't forced to waste time explaining the structural breakdown and scientific wherefore of the sinking. We already know the drill, and can only watch mesmerized as the passengers, trapped like rats, struggle to deal with the carnage that we already know is coming. Cameron brings the sinking to life with a vivid sense of place and an unerring eye for detail. From the rats running up the flooding aisles ahead of the steerage passengers to the priceless paintings washing away under the encroaching waves; from the elderly couple holding each other in bed as water rushes in under their door to the Irish mother, trapped in steerage, putting her children to sleep for the last time; from the helpless passengers being sucked through smashed portholes to the priest leading the desperate faithful in one final prayer ("...and there was no more sea")...Cameron chooses just the right moments and puts them together in just the right way. It's chaos, danger and watery death, and it's about as close to it as you'd ever want to get.
Some critics took Cameron to task for making the old Rose, who tells us her story in flashback, an omniscient narrator. As the ship goes down, we are witness, in the course of Rose's story, to many events that Rose herself does not personally witness, events that have nevertheless become part of Titanic lore. We see the band playing as the ship sinks around them, the captain going down with his vessel in spectacular fashion, tycoon Benjamin Guggenheim refusing a life jacket, preferring to face his doom "like a man". Rose saw none of this; we see all of it. This structural discrepancy, however, actually works to the film's thematic benefit. Rose is not speaking only for herself here, but for ALL those who survived the disaster...and those who didn't. For the purposes of the film, she is the voice of Titanic, and so we must see all the action through her. It makes dramatic if not structural sense, and it works.
I have also heard quite a few knocks, mostly from casual viewers, at the film's principal characters. They say Jack and Rose's story, though presented as such, is by no means a great cinematic love story. They say Rose is nothing but a selfish, spoiled young woman, that she falls into bed with Jack much too quickly, that Cal, for all his arrogance and ungentlemanly ways, does not deserve the treatment he gets from Rose (I have an ex-girlfriend, who I once watched this film with, who referred to Rose, unequivocally, as a whore). And truth be told, these criticisms are not wrong. Rose does exhibit more than her fair share of petulance over what does not seem like it would be the world's most unbearable marriage, and she does throw herself at Jack with unseemly haste. But do you remember how caught up in this romance we all were a dozen years ago? All the teenage girls and middle-aged housewives who went to see this film three, five, TEN times? For whatever flaws a clear-eyed viewing might reveal, Titanic taps an elemental nerve in its viewers. Cameron presents a fantasy of romance as a blissful escape from all the obligations, hardships and hassles that make our daily lives so troublesome. Rose loves Jack not so much for who he is, though he is certainly agreeable and affectionate, as well as a talented artist. She loves him for what he represents: the freedom she has longed for and been unwilling to take for herself. And though it ultimately costs him his life, Jack does indeed save Rose "in every way a person can be saved", by teaching her that there's more than one way out of a bad situation, and it's up to her to choose that way for herself. In the world of Titanic, it seems, it's not only a man who makes his own luck.
Jack and Rose aside, Titanic also excels in the creation of colorful supporting players, executed with swift, sure character strokes and counting on a talented corps of character actors to do the rest. White Star bigwig Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) embodies the arrogant faith in modern technology that doomed Titanic to a watery grave, and Captain Edward Smith (Bernard Hill) has a crusty English reserve and sense of duty that sends him to the bottom along with his ship. There's the spirited and indeed unsinkable Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), who develops a motherly rapport with Jack in just a few brief exchanges, and Rose's starchy society-bound mother (Frances Fisher), who willingly sends her daughter into marital servitude to save her own skin ("We're women, dear. Our choices are never easy"). Most vivid of all is Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), chief designer of Titanic, who saw all the flaws that doom the ship but is bound to obey his White Star masters, and thus feels solely responsible for a ship that causes the death of over a thousand people. Cameron gives Andrews the film's most poignant moments, apologizing to Rose for not building her a stronger ship and resetting the clock in the foundering great hall as glassware slides off the slanted mantel around him.
The Titanic screenplay's Achilles heel in the eyes of many has always been its dialogue. They say that it's too contemporary, that it's hackneyed and cliche-ridden, that too much of it is just Jack and Rose yelling each other's names as they run through waist-deep water. Once again, all true. But thinking about the movie this time through, I came to an interesting realization. Titanic went down in 1912. In that era, film was still silent and at its height of melodramatic excess, with title cards putting florid, overbaked dialogue in the mouths of grandiloquently emoting characters. One realizes that if one had been able to shoot a "talkie" in 1912, its characters might sound an awful lot like those in Titanic. Cameron, perhaps unintentionally, has given us a dramatic language that is spot-on appropriate for the era it recreates, or at least for how that era created stories on film. Besides, most of the criticism of Titanic's dialogue is aimed at Jack and Rose's conversations. Some of the other characters, honestly, have some terrific things to say, lines that nail their characters and circumstances beautifully. Irish immigrant Tommy Ryan (Jason Barry), racing by the band sawing away at their instruments on the flooding deck: "Music to drown by. Now I know I'm in first class." Andrews tells Ismay, in a perfect word choice, that it is "a mathematical certainty" that Titanic will sink. Even Jack and Rose have their moments; when Rose, having her nude portrait drawn by Jack, teases him that Monet wouldn't be blushing in such circumstances, Jack deadpans, "He does landscapes." And any film that adds a phrase to the common American lexicon ("I'm king of the world!") cannot be completely counted out.
I concede that, writing-wise, Titanic is one of the more flawed films on this list. But this is a list of my FAVORITE scripts rather than what I think are necessarily the BEST scripts ever written. I can think of ten scripts that are more structurally sound and linguistically inventive than Titanic that did not make this list. They don't work like Titanic does. And for romantic melodrama, not many movies do.
AWARD NOMINATIONS (BOLDFACE INDICATES A WIN): Golden Globe, Best Screenplay; Satellite Award, Best Original Screenplay; Writers Guild of America Award, Best Original Screenplay
Monday, February 16, 2009
Pauline Kael once said that one of the skills a true connoisseur of film must possess is the ability to appreciate good trash, and Bruce Campbell has been responsible for more good trash than perhaps any modern actor. Possessor of a Dudley Do-Rightish square jaw flanked by a tongue firmly implanted in his cheek, the handsome but goofy Campbell has swaggered and wisecracked his way through such B-movie classics as Alien Apocalypse, Mindwarp, and The Man with the Screaming Brain, which he also directed. The movies aren't always up to snuff, but Campbell has always been one of those actors who gives his all even when the material is short-changing him, and every once in a while, he finds a script that's worthy of his skills and really knocks it out of the park. He won several film-festival awards for his portrayal of an aging Elvis Presley in Bubba Ho-Tep, he was the slick-shooting star of the short-lived cult western TV series The Adventures of Brisco County, and, most memorably, he was the chainsaw-slinging, shotgun-toting Deadite slayer Ash in the Evil Dead trilogy, the role that has, in my opinion, assured his place in film history (I'll be writing about the best of these three films, 1987's Evil Dead II, in a future column on this site). In the process, Campbell has cultivated a unique cinematic persona, the ersatz B-movie hero who's blissfully aware of the absurdity both of himself and of his own career.
That self-awareness is the driving force behind Campbell's latest directorial effort, My Name Is Bruce. This comic horror romp serves as a love letter to Campbell's fans, a cheeky send-up of the actor's own career and persona, and as a comic corollary to last year's similar but much grimmer JCVD. In that film, former martial-arts superstar (and current direct-to-video mainstay) Jean-Claude Van Damme, playing himself, stumbles into a hostage situation strikingly like one of his own thrillers, and the resultant standoff leads to a probing metacinematic examination of Van Damme the persona vs. Van Damme the man. That film is unflinching in its presentation of Van Damme as a broken man, a delinquent father, plagued by his past drug-abuse issues and excesses; the centerpiece is a confessional monologue, delivered straight to the camera, that ends with the startling sight of Van Damme in tears. Now, take that same idea, push it to Looney Tunes-scale levels of comic absurdity, and you've got My Name is Bruce. The result, provided you know enough about Campbell's career to be in on the joke, is one of the funniest recent films that I've seen.
As our story begins, B-movie actor Bruce Campbell has hit the skids. He's deep into production on a dirt-cheap, piss-poor sci-fi "epic" called CaveAlien 2. He's developed a bad habit of drunk-dialing his ex-wife (Evil Dead co-star Ellen Sandweiss) at 3:30 in the morning to ask if she's really willing to throw away their good years together just because of the dozen dogwalkers he slept with. He's living in a broken-d0wn trailer, he's reduced to swilling his booze from a dog bowl, and his bizarrely multilingual agent (Ted Raimi, brother of Evil Dead director Sam, who gave Campbell memorable cameos in all three of his Spider-Man films) has nothing better on his radar than back-to-back CaveAlien follow-ups, to be shot in Bulgaria, of all places. So, when Jeff (Taylor Sharpe), a young Campbell fanatic, arrives to ask his favorite movie actor to come to his small Oregon mining town and rescue the townsfolk from an ancient Chinese war god resurrected from the ruins of an abandoned gold mine, Bruce assumes it's all just a lark. But when he discovers that the monster is no film fantasy, he realizes he's going to have to suck it up and find out what square-jawed, wisecracking, babe-scoring heroism is really all about.
The screenplay by Mark Verheiden (who, with The Mask and the Van Damme-starring TimeCop, has the distinction of having written one of the best and worst films of 1994) is full of winking in-jokes that are meant for the true Campbell die-hards in the crowd. In addition to Sandweiss, other familiar faces include Dan Hicks (the angry redneck from Evil Dead II) and Tim Quill (the blacksmith from Army of Darkness), here cast as gay lovers who run the local gun shop. Bruce's agent greets him with a hearty "Give me some sugar, baby!", recalling a fan-favorite line from Army of Darkness, and there's a throwaway reference to a movie called Moonwarp, a hybrid of the Campbell-starring Mindwarp and Moontrap. Everyone in the film's world seems to be intimately familiar with Campbell's work, not just the super-fans who mob him outside the studio to assail him with ridiculous questions about his films (his most common answer: "Ask the writer, man. I don't know."). A toothless hillbilly, upon first meeting Bruce, says, "Hey, you that demon-fightin' sumbitch, ain't ya?", and even his critics are unexpectedly knowledgeable, like the old lady who, after Bruce steals her car to try to escape the monster, gets his goat by shouting "McHale's Navy sucked!" Man, I consider myself one smart zombie, and even I'd forgotten that he was in the movie version of McHale's Navy! The movie is also smart enough to goof on the elitism of Campbell fans when faced with those who only know his better-regarded works; when one kid who otherwise hates his movies declares that he liked Bubba Ho-Tep, Jeff lets out an eye-rolling "Everyone likes Bubba Ho-Tep!" Even the costuming is a sly joke, as Campbell's Hawaiian shirt resembles the typical attire he wears on the popular USA Networks series Burn Notice. The result is a picture with enough broad references to satisfy the casual Campbell fan, and enough inside-baseball stuff for the die-hards.
The good news, however, is that you don't have to be a hopeless Campbell fanatic to appreciate this movie, as there's plenty in here that's funny on its own terms. A slide-show presentation about the history of the mining town and its Chinese legacy includes a side-splitting (and pretty accurate) gag about newspaper headlines. The on-set glimpses of CaveAlien are a brilliant portrayal of B-movie badness in the making (and given Campbell's career, there's surely plenty of accuracy to this portrayal as well), and there's a great running gag where Bruce, perpetually about to plant one on Jeff's hard-edged but warm-hearted mom (Grace Thorsen), keeps getting stymied by his inability to keep his hand off her ass. The first monster assualt is hilarious, with chaotic comic gore and perhaps my favorite sex-causes-death moment in horror-film history. Heck, there's even some funny stuff in here about bean curd, of all things. Standing above it all, of course, is Campbell's performance, and he handles the tricky role of Bruce Campbell, B-movie has-been, with his characteristic aplomb and self-aware good humor. He's appropriately laughable in the CaveAlien scenes, surprisingly sincere in the chips-are-down third act, and shockingly willing to portray himself as a stumbling, drunken failure. It's as if he's gotten to live out his worst nightmare, and is trying to gag his way through it to keep the real demons at bay. Whistling past the graveyard, if you will.
Campbell is no slouch as a director, either. The low-budget film has crisp, atmospheric visuals from cinematographer Kurt Rauf, fast-break editing by Scott Smith (the film runs a just-about-perfect 84 minutes), and the monster costume is surprisingly cool-looking, the creature ably portrayed by the impressively imposing James J. Peck. Campbell knows how to pace and shoot comedy, and he gets solid performances from his cast, especially the comely, sharp-tongued Thorsen and engaging newcomer Sharpe. In addition to his role as the agent, Raimi has two other small parts, as an ancient Chinese prophet and a fussy Italian sign painter, and these two characters, honestly, are the film's biggest misfires. Granted, this movie is a live-action cartoon, but that doesn't mean it should be populated with characters who seem like cartoons even in the context of this universe.
One of the nicest things about My Name is Bruce is the good-natured quality of its satire. Sure, Campbell is portrayed as a boozehounding wreck of a human being, a second-tier actor stuck in fifth-rate movies, and the films themselves are depicted as cynical exercises in naked buck-hustling at best. But the very fact that it's Campbell behind the camera, directing himself as a lowlife drunk, somehow takes the sharp edges off. The tone is bright, the absurdity of Campbell's portrayal obvious to anyone with some sense, and the affect like that of a rollicking Friars Club roast, minus the really below-the-belt stuff.
Many of you might think a feature-length homage to the star of movies usually found haunting the Best Buy bargain bins doesn't seem like your idea of a good time. But as any longtime Bruce Campbell fan can tell you, his films are not your typical low-budget sci-fi T&A slashfests. And My Name is Bruce is not your typical inside-the-industry send-up. It's a film with a lot of heart and energy, plenty of low-budget filmmaking chutzpah, and a quota of laughs as high as pretty much any other comedy of 2008. I came within a day of seeing this film in the theatre, but the Nuart on Santa Monica Blvd., which had booked the film for a two-week run, canceled the second week the day before I was going to check it out, in favor of a limited engagement for the complete 4 1/2-hour Steven Soderbergh / Benicio del Toro Che Guevara biopic. Which I did see, and which almost killed me deader than Roger Ebert's review did. My Name Is Bruce is more fun, more entertaining, and a hell of a lot shorter than Che. You might even learn more about Che Guevara from watching it than I did from Soderbergh's vague-to-the-point-of-coma picture. Either way, give My Name is Bruce a rent, be sure to invite over plenty of film-geek friends, and raise a glass in honor of the modern master of B-movie mayhem.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
Why It's Here:
If I were to tell you that Stanley Kubrick was nominated for a best director Oscar for 2001: A Space Odyssey, you would probably nod and say "Sounds about right." And the nomination was apt. With its evocative cinematography, groundbreaking visual effects and art direction, brooding pace, and brilliant juxtaposition of music and imagery, 2001 is perhaps the quintessential film from one of the cinema's premier "director's directors". But would you be surprised if I told you that the film's screenplay, co-written by Kubrick and venerated science fiction scribe Arthur C. Clarke, was also nominated for an Oscar? (Kubrick and Clarke lost the writing Oscar to a film that came very close to making this list, Mel Brooks' The Producers.) Personally, I know I was surprised to learn that the writers were thus honored, not because I don't think 2001 is a great piece of writing (I wouldn't be writing about it here if I didn't), but because this film, essentially a philosophical essay masquerading as a science-fiction epic, works as well as it does mainly by flying in the face of what most people think a screenplay should be.
While cinema has produced some great works of experimental art, the medium is not generally best known for its facility with abstraction or ambiguity. Perhaps owing to the unforgivingly literal eye of the film camera, the movies are usually at their best presenting solid, straightforward narratives, with character arcs that are easy to track and messages that can be digested in a single sitting without the need for any mental heavy lifting on the part of the viewer. With 2001, Kubrick and Clarke turn their backs on this sort of pat, simplistic storytelling, and present a narrative (inspired by Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" and novelized by Clarke simultaneously with the writing of the screenplay) that plays more like a filmed poem than like anything resembling classical Hollywood three-act structure. Standard screenwriting rules are broken left and right. The film is driven by ideas rather than action, the characters are pulled along by unseen metaphysical forces rather than making decisions that move the story forward, and most radically of all, the film features no clear-cut, easily comprehensible resolution. Kubrick and Clarke are not afraid to deal in abstracts both thematic and visual (witness the kaleidoscopic "Star Gate" sequence near the end of the film); they leave the meaning of the mind-blowing final sequence up to the individual viewer to interpret for themselves. Far from spoon-feeding simplified homilies to an easily coddled audience, Kubrick and Clarke's film demands that the viewer (gasp, shudder!) think about its implications and meaning in order to be fully and truly appreciated by the viewer. Thank God for the sixties, I say. If a present-day filmmaker were to attempt a major-studio film this open-ended and philosophically probing, the bean-counters behind the scenes would be reaching for their heart pills and the viewing public for tickets to another movie. Witness the chilly commercial reception Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh received for his 2002 remake of Solaris, or more recently, the rejection by audiences of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, both films which, like 2001, have deep roots in the science fiction genre and attempt to tread the same narrative minefield of philosophical ambiguity.
Kubrick and Clarke's reluctance to spell out anything for their viewers extends to the film's dialogue...or lack thereof. 2001 runs 141 minutes (edited from a premiere running time of about 160 minutes), of which about ninety are dialogue-free. The first line is spoken almost 26 minutes into the film, the last about twenty minutes before the end, and in between there are vast stretches of silence that is not even always filled with music or sound effects (Kubrick, daringly, renders several outside-the-spacecraft scenes with fidelity to real science, shooting them in total silence to reflect the aural vacuum of space). Indeed, 2001 is the closest thing you will find to a silent film on my entire list of 101 screenplays. Well, then, considering how little dialogue there is in the picture, what's there must serve major importance to the story, correct? Don't make me laugh. Nine-tenths of what's discussed by the characters in 2001 consists of either nondescript banalities or expositional dialogue the content of which we could have figured out just by what's on the screen. In one of the film's supreme ironies, only HAL, the virtually human super-computer guiding the spaceship Discovery on its voyage to Jupiter "and beyond the infinite", delivers any dialogue with a semblance of emotional resonance. 2001 is one of the cinema's supreme examples of that age-old screenwriting instructor's maxim, "show, don't tell". I assume that if one were to remove all the dialogue (with the possible exception of HAL's) from the film, it would be just as comprehensible as it is now, and perhaps even more profound, without the humdrum exchanges of the human characters cluttering our ears.
So, there's no classically structured beginning-middle-and-end story. There's no crackling, tattooed-on-the-brain dialogue. The only character who affects the audience emotionally is a cold steel box with a voice chip inside. Just what in the world, then, makes 2001 a great piece of writing? Simply put, Kubrick and Clarke took a series of daring philosophical concepts, married them to just the right genre and images, and created perhaps cinema's most profound meditation on the nature of man's place in the cosmos...and beyond.
The film is structured like a symphony, with distinct movements that create a thematic rather than narrative continuity. In the film's first, half-hour sequence, we visit "The Dawn of Man" and watch as primitive proto-humans begin to exhibit the first signs of higher intelligence, learning to use tools and weapons, a leap in mental development seemingly instigated by the mysterious black monolith that appears as if by magic in the creatures' cave. Who or what put the monolith there, and why? What does it unlock in the creatures' minds, and how? Questions that Kubrick and Clarke never answer, at least not definitively. Already, the film is engaging our minds, making us think, drawing us into Kubrick and Clarke's quest.
Suddenly, in what may be cinema's longest jump cut, it's the year 2001, and man has reached what would seem to be the apotheosis of the evolution birthed by the monolith. Human technology has conquered the moon and mastered the stars, computers are capable of as much abstract thought and emotional investment as the men who have built them...and still, men are as alienated from one another as they were when they were grunting hairy beasts. Their conversation conveys nothing of meaning, their living environments are sterile and bleached of life, their interactions seem to be the barest minimum necessary to still qualify as a "family of man" (this alienation is underscored by Kubrick and Clarke through the ironic inclusion of not one but two birthday celebrations, conducted through video screens between parties thousands of light years apart). Clearly, "higher" man still has a lot to learn about what it means to be human...which may be why another monolith appears on the moon, beaming a signal to Jupiter and sending U.S. astronauts Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Bowman (Keir Dullea) into space, on a quest for...what?
Poole and the three additional crew members in hibernation aboard the Discovery never learn the answer to that question; they are killed en route to Jupiter through the machinations of HAL, who has detected a threat to the successful completion of the mission and asserts, in his always cool-and-even voice (supplied, in the film's only real "performance", by Douglas Rain), that he cannot allow that to happen. The final survivor, Bowman is forced to disconnect HAL as the computer, voice slowing to a crawl, begs for his life. The shutting down of a machine somehow becomes the emotional high point of the film, moving us much more than the death of Poole, a testament to Kubrick and Clarke's brilliant notion of making a computer the film's most fully realized character.
A man alone, Bowman aims his craft for Jupiter and the monolith hovering in its orbit, where he finds...well, for those of you who haven't seen the film, I'm going to leave it to you to discover, for the ultimate destination of Bowman's voyage, as it turns out, is that of man himself. 2001, as I see it, is a story about evolution, a story in which Kubrick and Clarke pose a simple but potentially bottomless question. If man reaches the apex of his earthly potential, and keeps pushing forward, what then? What does he find when he reaches beyond the infinite? What does he become?
While 2001 seems to make no secret of the fact that the monoliths guiding man forward on his evolutionary path are of non-human origin, Kubrick and Clarke never show us these black slabs' source. No alien beings appear onscreen, extraterrestrial, celestial or otherwise. Nevertheless, it is clear that Kubrick and Clarke are positing the existence of a higher intelligence, guiding mankind on his constant quest to be better than what he is, urging him to reach beyond himself, beyond the infinite, to the source of all greatness and light itself. Whether this is a Christian God, an extraterrestrial power, or simply a metaphysical unifying energy, Kubrick and Clarke never say. Nevertheless, 2001's implicit but unambiguous endorsement of the twin concepts of a higher power and of man's seemingly infinite capacity for betterment render this easily the most optimistic and hopeful film from a director often noted for his cynicism and lack of faith in the better angels of man's nature.
Science fiction has often been a medium for thoughtful writers to explore major metaphysical themes, using space-opera narratives as a metaphor for man's struggle, both at ground level and in the realms of the empyrean. 2001 is science fiction cinema at the peak of its metaphysical-probing powers, a film that sci-fi filmmakers are always thinking of when they reach a little further to draw their pictures into the great debates that define our species on this earth. Steven Spielberg called 2001 "the Big Bang" of his filmmaking generation, and it's no accident that it was Kubrick (with Clarke) delivering the bang. After all, he annihilated the world in his previous film, Dr. Strangelove, so his next film had no choice but to feature man reborn.
And thus spake the Zombie.
AWARD NOMINATIONS (BOLDFACE INDICATES A WIN): Academy Award, Best Original Screenplay; Cinema Writers Circle of Spain Award, Best Foreign Film
Friday, February 13, 2009
It should come as no surprise that The Reader is a Best Picture nominee at this year’s Academy Awards. It’s got pedigree stars: past nominees Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. A pedigree director in Stephen Daldry, who has helmed three films and been nominated for three Best Director Oscars. Pedigree source material: Bernhard Schlink’s novella, an international bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club selection. And pedigree subject matter, as the film tackles German guilt in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust. But The Reader, handsomely made and intriguing though it is, doesn’t quite live up to all that pedigree. It’s certainly no dog, but it’s hardly best in show either.
Daldry fashions the raw materials of Schlink’s tale, adapted for the screen by David Hare, into an interesting meditation on such tough subjects as the relativity of shame (in Hanna’s mind, her secret is a greater blot on her character than the war deaths she may have caused) and the novel concept of guilt as a sexually transmitted disease. If I love a Nazi, the film seems to ask, does that make me a war criminal, too?
Still, despite a potentially touching and admittedly unexpected third-act turn in which the now-grown Michael (Fiennes) finds the perfect way to extend a lifeline to his former love, this is a picture that engages the head more than the heart. Its themes are fascinating from a philosophical standpoint, but they don’t resonate deeply or personally, and for all the sex and nudity in the film’s first half, the picture gives off a vibe that is (there’s no better phrase for it) distinctly German: austere, cerebral, and really rather forbidding.
Still, with the usual tough-to-beat Weinsteins backing the film’s Oscar campaign, The Reader has made it all the way to the big dance. It’s getting its moment in the sun, but even for a film with some admirable qualities, I have a feeling it's no candidate for cinematic immortality. Personally, I’ll take a film that wins awards over a film that’s supposed to win awards any day of the week.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
Steven Zaillian; based on the book by Oliver Sacks
Why It's Here
I find it a little strange to be writing about Awakenings for this list of my favorite screenplays...mainly because it's a little strange that Awakenings was a feature film in the first place. This picture, the chronicle of a group of catatonic patients who experienced a miraculous and all-too-brief drug-induced resurrection in a Bronx hospital in the late sixties, is the type of story that has fueled countless maudlin, over-the-top television movies over the years (so many, in fact, that the phrase "disease-of-the-week" was coined to describe the stereotypical medical telefilm). So why did Awakenings not only make it to the big screen, but prove to be so successful there that it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar? I think a large reason for the film's artistic triumph is the screenplay by Steven Zaillian, which almost serves as a textbook on how to present material that, in lesser hands, might have been forgotten by the time the 11 o'clock news came on. When Zaillian is at the top of his game, he is one of the best screenwriters we've got, and Awakenings is close to Zaillian at his very best.
One of the reasons Awakenings transcends the average disease-of-the-weeker is a matter of perspective. These stories are typically told from the point of view of either the medical victim or his/her loved ones, which makes the raw, unguarded emotions disease often provokes in those it strikes impossible to control. The result: unfiltered, heart-on-the-sleeve melodrama, histrionic performances, and treacly predictability. Zaillian cleverly mutes Awakenings' potential for corn by telling its story not from the p.o.v. of a patient or loved one, but from that of a doctor who, while emotionally committed to his patients, is nevertheless able to view their problems from something of a remove. This distancing technique curbs the melodrama, rendering the film's examination of its patients' suffering much more clear-eyed and mature than is typical for films in this genre. Still, Zaillian does not place us at such a distance that we are not emotionally engaged. On the contrary, he draws us in brilliantly by giving the doctor the same problem as that of his patients, just in a different form, thereby allowing doctor and patients, in elegant structural style, to follow parallel paths to the same basic outcome.
When Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams, in a role loosely based on Dr. Oliver Sacks, the author of the true-life memoir on which the film is based) arrives at
Dr. Sayer doesn't realize it, but in his own way, he's as closed off from the world as his patients. But while they have had their isolation thrust upon them, Dr. Sayer has chosen it for himself. He lives alone in a far-too-empty house, displays keep-away body language (he tends to sit with his hands pulled up to his chest almost fetally), and when kindly Nurse Costello (Julie Kavner) asks him out for coffee, he tells her he already has plans...to play piano by himself at home. He takes his lunch alone at a conservatory, surrounded by plants as inanimate as the vegetables in his ward, as ghostly as himself. But the "plants" in his ward are as alive as the plants at the conservatory, and when Dr. Sayer looks at them, something sparks in him, and he decides to get to the bottom of their condition. Perhaps he senses kindred spirits. It's the beginning of a breakthrough for doctor and patients alike.
Since most of Dr. Sayer's patients have been in their condition for decades, he is forced to become medical detective, poring over old articles and film footage about the epidemic that led to their catatonia, tracking down long-forgotten medical experts to pick their brains. Awakenings at times plays like a medical Sherlock Holmes film or a precursor to the popular television drama House, in which an unconventional doctor battles medical mysteries using only his intuition and deductive reasoning. Since Dr. Sayer cannot at first communicate verbally with his patients, Zaillian beautifully visualizes his breakthroughs, as a patient slumping over to grab her dropped glasses leads him to determine that these vegetables can "borrow the will" of inanimate objects, channelling their misfiring neurons into pure, laserlike focus on one object that allows them to eventually engage in a spirited game of catch in the ward. Not surprisingly, it is not the closed-off Dr. Sayer, but the warmer Nurse Costello, who determines that the patients can also be moved by human contact, which she demonstrates by leading a patient on a walk around the hospital's common room.
Dr. Sayer eventually determines that an experimental drug that has helped Parkinson's patients may bring his charges out of their trance, and after winning over the skeptical hospital board (indeed, the presence of this obstructionist hospital bureaucracy is one of Zaillian's few lapses into cliché), he receives permission to test the drug on Leonard Lowe (Robert DeNiro, an Oscar nominee for this performance), who lapsed into his catatonia when he was a youth and has been vegetized for thirty years. And, lo and behold, "it's a fucking miracle!" Leonard awakens, bright-eyed, lucid, and ready to experience all the life that thirty years trapped in a dysfunctional body has denied him.
As Leonard's fellow patients are likewise awakened and begin to truly live again for the first time in ages, Zaillian's script enters its first major cheap-sentimentality danger zone. How do you portray this earth-shaking rebirth without resorting to mawkish emotional displays and too-on-the-nose dialogue? Smartly, Zaillian doesn't completely eliminate sentiment from his film; he just doesn't allow it to become cheap. Nothing in the picture seems put there solely to provoke our tears; they're naturally occurring story beats that just happen to deliver a solid emotional kick. A man saying hello to his mother and giving her a hug for the first time in three decades doesn't need to be tricked up; Zaillian presents the meeting simply, with a minimum of dialogue, and it melts our hearts (as does Dr. Sayer, who hangs in the background, arms crossed tightly around himself, unable to share in, maybe even unable to comprehend, such unalloyed love and affection). Likewise, Leonard's awkward, tender courtship of Paula (Penelope Ann Miller), the daughter of a fellow patient, never gets too saccharine, and when Leonard tells her that her father, a catatonic like he was, knows that she visits him, he says it not with bathetic emotion, but with the solid honesty of a man expressing a hard-learned truth.
Zaillian also cuts the sentimentality with a generous helping of humor (ably presented by director Penny Marshall, best known as a comedy actress and director). Dr. Sayer's experiments determine that certain pieces of music can move his catatonics to action...and one will only respond to the wailing guitar of Jimi Hendrix. Once they are awakened, the patients react unexpectedly to their rebirth. One, played by comedy veteran Anne Meara, expresses nothing but relief when she learns her husband divorced her while she was in her trance. A former flapper (Judith Malina), finding herself in a bar for the first time in forty-plus years, asks if alcohol is legal again before ordering. One revived patient is so demanding that one of his orderlies sighs, "I think I liked him better the other way."
But Zaillian does not use the re-awakened patients simply for the sake of some good jokes. While he does not dwell on the pathos of a person losing years of their life to illness, his script nevertheless addresses their pain, their confusion, their sense of loss. Leonard seems almost shocked the first time he sees his now fifty-year-old face in the mirror, and Malina's character touches her now-wrinkly visage with sad-eyed disbelief. Lucy (Alice Drummond), a woman who was in a forty-two-year trance, wearily tells a nurse, "I know it's not 1926. I just need it to be." Another patient, Frank (George Martin), expresses his feelings about his situation as bluntly as possible: "I feel old and I feel swindled." Re-emerging into the world has been as much of a curse as a blessing to these people, and Zaillian doesn't shy away from that.
Leonard, re-awakened to the possibilities of life, begins to assert the manhood he never got a chance to fully develop. He cajoles Dr. Sayer to truly embrace life, to not waste the gift of consciousness he's been given. He begins to insist that he be allowed to leave the hospital on his own, and when his request is denied, he attempts to foment revolution in the ranks, haranguing the psychotics to rise up against the oppressive doctors and even physically assaulting Dr. Sayer. By this point, however, the blessing has begun to wither and the curse is experiencing its own re-awakening, as Leonard is now twitching, trembling, and once again losing control of his body. These scenes of Leonard's physical degradation are Zaillian's second skillful avoidance of cheap sentimentality. Leonard is unafraid to call his breakdown what it is; he declares himself grotesque, and when he is told the other patients are scared by what is happening to him, he doesn't sugarcoat it: "They should be." Still, despite his awareness of his plight, Leonard never begs for sympathy from the other characters or the audience. His final meeting with Paula is powerful in its quietude, as an uncontrollably spasming Leonard tells her that he can't see her anymore. In perhaps the film's most devastating scene, Leonard, locked in a violent seizure, forces a reluctant Dr. Sayer to get his movie camera and make a filmed record of his torment, groaning a barely understandable "Learn!" over and over. By this point, patient and doctor have slowly and subtly begun to switch places. Leonard, against his will, is decaying into stasis and isolation, while the formerly isolated-by-choice Dr. Sayer has become so attached to another human being that he can barely bring himself to film his friend's struggle.
Finally, the disease wins the day, and Leonard and his fellow patients return to their former state (a simple, dialogue-free shot of Leonard's mother putting an adult diaper on her re-vegetized son is shattering). But in an elegant realization of his film's theme of embracing life no matter the obstacles, medical or personal, the patients have transferred their now-dormant energy and love of life into the formerly dead-in-life Dr. Sayer. In an earlier scene, soliciting financial support for his experiment, Dr. Sayer speaks to his hospital's patrons in purely clinical terms, viewing his patients as an interesting medical possibility and nothing more (Nurse Costello slips him a note that says "Less Scientific and CALM DOWN!"). Now, after the experiment has more or less failed, Dr. Sayer again addresses his patrons, but this time speaks of the value of living, making the most of what time we have, because it can be taken away from us, in so very many ways that we'll never see coming. And Dr. Sayer practices what he now preaches, as he ends the movie inviting Nurse Costello..."Eleanor"...to the coffee he denied before. Leonard may be back in his trance, but through Dr. Sayer, he and his fellow resurrected live on.
There is only one major moment in Awakenings where I feel that Zaillian's script succumbs to excessively "movie" sentimentality. When Dr. Sayer attempts to get the pre-awakening Leonard to spell his name using a Ouija board, he finds that Leonard is spelling something else. That something else turns out to be "Rilke's Panther", and Dr. Sayer, looking up the author's famous poem, told from the point of view of a sad old panther in a zoo, finds an elegant symbolic expression of Leonard's entrapment. It's thematically effective, but it's just a little much. Honestly, if I had finally been given a chance to communicate for the first time in thirty years, I definitely wouldn't waste it giving out book recommendations. Still, I have not read Sacks' memoir that was the basis for this film, so this story could very well be the most factual thing in the whole picture. The unbelievable often has a wonderful habit of being true.
And true Awakenings is, the first film on my list to be "based on a true story". It will not be my last. Historical and fact-based films are often among my favorites; bringing past events to life again is one of the best ways to restate their lessons and make them speak to us anew. This possibility is one of the things that made me want to be a screenwriter in the first place, and Awakenings, which I first saw when I was all of twelve years old, was one of the first films to bring me alive to that possibility. It was, in that way, a Dr. Sayer to my Leonard...or, really, a Leonard to my Dr. Sayer.
AWARD NOMINATIONS (BOLDFACE INDICATES A WIN): Academy Award, Best Adapted Screenplay; USC Scripter Award (shared with Oliver Sacks); Writers Guild of America Award, Best Adapted Screenplay