Saturday, November 04, 2006


Alejandro González Iñárritu's informal trilogy of alinear ensemble dramas - Amores Perros, 21 Grams and the new release Babel - center on accidents and traumas that unite disparate strangers. Taken together, they insist that we discover ourselves in times of crisis as opposed to peace, that the only true and honest moments occur when our perceptions about the world collide with harsh reality. Call it the Accidental Trilogy.

Though all three of these films have their merits, I remain unmoved by Iñárritu's passion for non-chronological storytelling. It makes some measure of sense as structural metaphor - we see the stories unfold in a jumble to simulate the fog of interconnectedness in which we all live. Our actions all directly impact others and yet we remain blissfully unaware of the far-reaching consequences of everyday decicions, operating under the illusion of randomness. Iñárritu jumps around, always showing us the how's of any given situation but leaving all the other important answers - who? why? - for the end, because that's how we live. We don't get to know everyone we meet up with during our daily adventures. We just encounter them and proceed from there.

Theoretically, the notion is sound, if a bit cerebral and High Modernist for a 21st Century filmmaker. In practice, Iñárritu doesn't really get the most out of the technique. His films tend to feel as if they are about to reveal some grand, transcendent truth about human life, but they never quite get there. Amores Perros makes the best, if most gimmicky, use of the chaotic structure. 21 Grams always felt to me like a great movie buried beneath a bunch of pointless, busy and intrusive over-direction. Babel employs Iñárritu's favored method with the most grace and subtlety of the three but nevertheless fails to turn its handful of interesting short stories into something more than the sum of its parts. All the tangential elements feel as if they're going to come together, they seem on the verge of coming together, but they never truly come together. Unfortunately, it's a well-made, interesting miss.

What's most impressive about Iñárritu's direction this time out is his ability to maintain intensity over the course of a 2.5 hour film. Babel darts between four different sets of characters, all of them in the midst of a crisis situation. It's the anti-Crash. Paul Haggis' miserable disgusting failure focuses on a variety of interconnected stories in which the mundane details of a typical day in Los Angeles (or what was meant to signify a typical day) paint a broad picture of race relations in modern America.

(He goes so far as to suggest that secret, unspoken, burning desires guide our everyday actions. For example, that we Angelinos get into car crashes not out of carelessness but a need to meet n' greet our faceless neighbors.)

In Babel, Iñárritu examines abstracts like Hope and Dread by putting his characters into severe distress and then watching them claw their way out. These are not everyday frustrations and annoyances, the kind of encounters to which any of us in the audience can theoretically relate, but wrenching and life-altering tragedies. The latter approach yields a more compelling and watchable, if emotionally draining, finished product.

In Morocco, two brothers (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani) fire their father's new rifle off a mountaintop. When they connect with a bus full of tourists and realize that the game has suddenly turned deeply serious, they ditch the gun and run home to feign ignorance. The bullet has entered with the chest of the unsuspecting Susan (Cate Blanchett), an American on vacation with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) as an escape from troubles at home.

In trying to save his wife's life, Richard will confront a number of perplexing obstacles. The nearest hospital is 4 hours away and Susan is in no shape to travel. The local ambulance cannot be found. The other tourists on the bus don't feel safe in a Moroccan village after dark. Even the American embassy won't help - there are concerns that this might have been a terrorist attack, which could cause diplomatic complications.

Pitt's pretty solid in these sequences. It's a demanding role, developing a character who spends the entire film in a cold sweat. With his wife unconcious most of the time and the locals speaking in halted, broken English, he's at the center of almost all the Moroccan material, which makes up a little under 1/2 of the movie. Along with Fight Club and 12 Monkeys, it's one of his rare worthwhile performances. (He's fun in stuff like Ocean's Eleven, but generally the guy's coasting on his looks and charm and you can tell.)

The film's other two stories take place in Mexico and Japan. Iñárritu does eventually explain the connections between these stories to the "main" action in Morocco but they're both pretty thin and not particularly meaningful.

Richard and Susan's blonde moppets (Nathan Gamble and Dakota Fanning's clone sister Elle) have been left behind in San Diego, in the care of the family's faithful Mexican nanny Amelia (Adrianna Barraza). When Mom and Dad are delayed in-country by that regrettable stray bullet, Amelia is forced to take her charges across the border into Mexico for her son's wedding. The intial portion of their trip provides the film's lone upbeat, happy scenes, with Amelia's nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) driving the kids on a whirlwind tour of Baja California followed by the actual wedding, but the journey back into the United States proves more problematic.

Meanwhile, in Japan, a deaf-mute teenaged girl (Rinko Kikuchi) and her befuddled father (Kôji Yakusho) come to terms with one another in the wake of her mother's suicide. Thematically, Chieko and her search for a human connection mirrors the film's other sections, which all focus on communication breakdowns, but Iñárritu properly connects this story to the others at the very end. When the explanation finally comes, it's fairly far-fetched and not exactly the momentous turnaround the movie seems to anticipate.

Over the course of the four narratives, Iñárritu and co-screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (who collaborated on the entire trilogy) develop a number of provocative ideas. As a part of their larger examination of the collision between perceptions and reality, they spend time probing the stereotypical, simplistic and frequently damaging perceptions people hold about one another, particularly Americans as they regard foreigners.

Susan and Ricahrd's kids are afraid at first to go to Mexico, because their parents have told them it is a dangerous place. (Santiago agrees, pointing out that it's full of Mexicans.) Despite Susan's worsening condition, Richard has a hard time convincing his fellow busmates to stick around in a remote Moroccan village. They are afraid the Muslim locals will rob or murder them whilst they sleep.

Unfortunately, Iñárritu takes on so much in the film, working on a canvas that's so broad and filling it with so many scattered insights, a lot gets lost in the shuffle.

The Japanese sequences would probably work better as a stand-alone film. The connection to the main story about the bus shooting doesn't really do anything to advance our understanding of Chieko and her encroaching isolation. Her story closes out Babel and brings Iñárritu's Big Themes into the clearest relief.

What character could better express feelings of separation from humanity, an inability to make oneself understood, than a girl who cannot hear or speak? And what more clear invocation of raw human pain could be imagined than a girl desperately trying to find love after being abandoned by a beloved parent? Kikuchi's fantastic in the role - clearly one of the best female performances of the year - and her chemistry with Yakusho felt lived-in and palpable. Their final scene together ranks among the film's best, and ends the film on a moment of significant power.

Like The Prestige, The Black Dahlia and several other moderate 2006 disappointments thus far, Babel gets a whole lot right. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who shot the entire trilogy, along with 8 Mile and The 25th Hour) ably gives the various segments unique visual styles and color patterns. Again, I found the Japanese segments to be the most accomplished. That final shot works as well as it does in part because of the contrast between the blackness of the night sky and the vibrant neon lights of Downtown Tokyo.

Most of the performances, in addition to the standouts I already mentioned, are warm and vivid. Gael Garcia Bernal, who has already demonstrated his considerable ability in Y Tu Mama Tambien and Bad Education, had a huge year in 2006 with Science of Sleep, the exceptional direct-to-DVD The King and now Babel. His reckless chatterbox Santiago is the film's most funny and immediately likable character.

But taken as a whole, Babel is essentially a roiling mass of ideas in search of a movie, a humane vision of the meaning behind the randomness of our lives that's too big for one film to contain. I don't want to knock the film, really, because I admire its outsized ambition. But it's a bit too disjointed and messy to strongly recommend either. I left the movie feeling confused and a bit let-down, like I had seen something worthwhile but also incomplete.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Pardon My Zinger

John Kerry is not a funny man. Anyone who was alive and conscious during the 2004 election could tell you that. He was not my #1 (or even #2 or #3) choice for the Democratic nomination for President, but JK has a number of good qualities - he's an intelligent, courageous war hero with decades of political experience and a solid reputation as a strong leader. He's just woefully unfunny.

Which is fine with me. I don't think we need a funny guy in the White House. In fact, I'd rather the Commander in Chief not be constantly cracking wise. Schtick is undignified in a world leader. We've got a real joker in the office right now and he's not doing so good. (Why do I have a feeling that some of the time he was supposed to spend thinking about Iraq exit strategies were actually goofy nickname brainstorming sessions?)

So, yeah, Kerry's attempted burn of GWB (in essence, calling him stupid) backfired. Here's Keith Olbermann with the background:

Senator Kerry, as you well know, spoke at a college in Southern California. With bitter humor, he told the students that he had been in Texas the day before, that President Bush used to live in that state, but that now he lives in the state of denial.

He said the trip had reminded him about the value of education — that quote "if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you can get stuck in Iraq."

Okay, a few points. First, no matter what the lying Republican liars say, this joke has nothing to do with the troops in Iraq. Admittedly, it's not a funny joke and the meaning is somewhat muddled. But Kerry's referring to George Bush, not the troops in harm's way. "If you make the most of things [unlike Bush] and you do your homework [unlike Bush] and you make an effort to be smart [unlike Bush," things will work out. If you don't, you can get stuck in Iraq [like BUSH!]"

Does anyone out there really believe John Kerry thinks our troops are stupid? That they didn't do their homework? The guy's a veteran! So, I wish he had phrased it a bit more clearly, but Kerry's not actually saying anything wrong. If telling bad jokes were a crime, Jackie Martling would be doing 40 to life in Sing Sing by now.

What irks me is that Kerry has now apologized to any members of the military whom he may have offended. Why! WHY! That's just what they want, John! To put you on the defensive, to make it look like you said something wrong because you are fundamentally unserious about the war! This is the case they've been making against the Left for years now, and the only reason such a stupid argument keeps working is that gullible fools such as John Kerry keep falling for the rhetorical trap.

John Kerry says: "George Bush is a dumbass who got our troops bogged down in an unwinnable quagmire."

George Bush says: "On behalf of the troops, I find that deeply offensive."

John Kerry says: "Oh, well, I apologize. Never mind."


John Kerry should say: "I find everything the President does to be deeply offensive, and that's worse than finding my comments offensive because his actions have real-world ramifications. My poorly-worded joke may have hurt someone's feelings inadvertedly. George Bush's poorly-considered policies have led to the deaths of thousands of Americans."

How hard is that? Really, how hard?

Cenk Uygur has it exactly right at HuffPo. Not only should Kerry have turned this non-scandal into an opportunity to criticize the president but he could have used it as a rhetorical trap of his own.

John Kerry's joke about the president -- which was twisted for propaganda purposes by the Republicans -- was an ... opportunity! It was an opportunity for Democrats to bring up every error that Bush and his Republican enablers in Congress have made -- and then demand an apology to the troops for those actions.

Anytime a reporter asked about Kerry's remarks, every Democrat should have started the sentence with the words, "Let me tell you who has to apologize to the troops, these Republicans in the administration and Congress for what they have done..."

Precisely what I'm saying. Republicans come out swinging, making a big issue out of Kerry's joke, and then Democrats turn it around on them and take advantage of the publicity to challenge Republicans on Iraq. Which is their weakest issue going into the elections!

I think the fact that Kerry's statement isn't even a provable falsehood, but a mere gaffe, makes this even easier. If any Democrat is asked about John Kerry's quote, they could just respond that the poor guy misspoke and that we don't go after George Bush every time he butchers a sentence. There are literally thousands of examples of our President mangling his words and thus distorting his overall meaning. But people let it slide bcause they understand that he's an idiot and it's mean-spirited to attack an idiot for their unavoidable idiocy.

John Kerry is not an idiot. He's just not funny. It's a key difference.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Not Another Atene Movie

Can this clip possibly be real? The story goes that Brian Atene, second-year student at Julliard, sent this audition tape to Stanley Kubrick when the great director was preparing to shoot Full Metal Jacket. But, I mean...come on...



[This video appears courtesy of my friend Kaz and the good people at The Panopticist.]

This is Not a Blog

Hey, John Boehner, why is a raven like a writing desk?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me just ask one more question on this. Your own senators, I said Mike DeWine, thinks Rumsfeld has to go. Do you agree?

BOEHNER: I think Donald Rumsfeld is the best thing that’s happened to the Pentagon in 25 years.

Boehner went on to say that Yoko Ono was the best thing to ever happen to The Beatles, to lavish priase on Mad Cow Disease and all it has done for the British beef industry and to warmly embrace the BTK Killer before injecting himself with Hepatitis C and pouring a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew over his head.

The actual TV appearance, of course, was to announce that Boehner will be leaving the Republican Party for the growing grassroots movement known as the Slighty Silly Party, where he and Kevin Phillips Bong will campaign jointly for the local positions of Sargeant-at-Arms and Assistant Public Swimming Pool Inspector, respectively, in the small German hamlet of Bremen.

The Bloodening!

Every Halloween, I try to come up with a cool list of horror films. I watch intensely gory or scary movies all year, just because I'm sick like that, so during this one night a year that the normals set aside to sample such forbidden pleasures, I get a rare opportunity to apply my knowledge.

These are, in my view, horror films that don't enjoy an appropriate level of noteriety. It's not that I don't think The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, Child's Play and The Shining are great films. (Well, Child's Play is actually kind of lame.) But everyone, movie fans or not, knows about them and rents them on Halloween. Let's see if we can't find something new...

Village of the Damned (1960)

That woeful John Carpenter remake kind of robbed the movie of its sterling reputation. But Wolf Rilla's chilling sci-fi/horror classic is still creepy to this day. It's something about the flat, emotionless child performances. We're so used to seeing kid actors trained to be full of energy and, let's face it, obnoxious that really restrained, subtle performances from the very young are always deeply unsettling. (See The Sixth Sense, The Bad Seed and The Omen for other examples.)

The central conceit has become something of a pop culture joke. On one strange day, all the residents of a small English village fall into a deep sleep. When they awake, many of the town's women find themselves impregnated. 9 months later, they give birth to eerie, ultra-intelligent children who seem to possess a kind of hive mind.

Stir of Echoes (1999)

Box office juggernaut The Sixth Sense overshadowed David Koepp's adaptation of a Richard Matheson ghost story back in '99. Looking back years later, though, I still admire the intelligence and creativity behind Shyamalan's film, but I find Stir of Echoes more rewatchable. What lingers about the film is the intense, unstudied naturalism of Koepp's writing. The uncertain blue-collar family at its center feels so real that the intrusion of ghostly apparitions and madness into their lives becomes more personal and threatening. This is not some paranormal fantasy world where anything is possible, but a recognizable modern American town.

The Black Pit of Dr. M (1959)

I know it's a Spanish-language black and white horror film from the '50s, but please don't let that stop you from checking this one out. (The original title: Misterios de Ultratumba!) I swear, this is one of the most diabolically clever and atmospheric horror movies ever made. Fernando Mendez's clever spin on the Faust legend contains just about every permutation of classic horror cinema - reanimated corpses, midnight deadlines, seances, ghosts, carriage rides through fog-covered swamps, an isolated spooky manor and a brutal slaying. A death bed promise leads Dr. Masali (Rafael Bertrand) to exchange his immortal soul for knowledge about the afterlife in a film that's ceaselessly inventive and immensely entertaining.

The Virgin of Nuremberg (1963)

I'm not sure this actually qualifies as a true giallo. It's a mystery, but the setting is Germany, not Italy. Plus it's a bit early. I've always thought of giallo as a late '60s and '70s phenomenon. But director Antonion Marghariti certainly infuses his film with the same grotesque, expressive style as the famous masters of Italian horror, filling the frame with vibrant red blood against deep black backgrounds, sweeping his camera past baroque dining halls and into ghastly torture chambers.

A disfigured Holocaust survivor haunts a German castle, bringing women into the basement's torture museum and visiting on them all manner of horrors. (In the film's most famous sequence, a woman's face is gnawed off by a rat). An obvious metaphor for the complicity of all those Italians and Germans who looked the other way at the atrocities of the Nazis, The Virgin of Nuremberg has a lot to say amidst all the revealing bodices and carefully-shot bloodletting. Plus it features Christopher Lee in a small supporting role as a creepy butler!

Marebito (2004)

Like most movie fans, I'm a little sick of J-horror at this point. I can only watch so many movies about eerie, uncanny, wet little children with hair in their faces before it's just not that shocking any more. (Okay, Ju-On adds the fact that the kids make cat noises, but it's still wearing a bit thin).

Takashi Shimizu's Marebito, the story of a fear-obsessed cameraman who journeys to an underworld beneath the streets of Tokyo, plays with a lot of the same elements as other J-horror films but inverts them in new, more provocative and ambiguous ways. It may be the first film I have ever seen that's equally inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H.P. Lovecraft.

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

The second film on this list inspired by the work of Richard Matheson, The Last Man on Earth is an Italian take on the short story "I am Legend." This story also was the basis for The Omega Man, that Charlton Heston camp classic of the '70s. But this version is much better, with Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, trapped in his suburban home after a worldwide plague turns the rest of the population into flesh-hungry zombies. Price is at his scenery-chewing best here, but what makes Last Man on Earth really memorable are the zombies, who unlike most of the walking undead, speak in dulcet, clear baritones.

Ravenous (1999)

Antonia Bird's brilliant cannibal western works simply as a terrific snowbound gorefest. A group of disaffected soldiers, mainly veterans of the Mexican-American war, are set upon by a ferocious man-eating cavedweller (Robert Carlyle). But it's also a large-scale metaphor for Manifest Destiny and the conquest of America by European whites.

Cannibalism in Bird's film has a supernatural element - the old Indian stories about devouring one's enemies and absorbing their strength is taken quite literally and at face value. Carlyle's fiend becomes exceptionally hard to kill, and only others willing to ingest human flesh themselves will have a chance to destroy him. Interesting little observations and dialectics like this run just under the surface of every scene in Ravenous, making it surprisingly dense for a film that's superficially about a bunch of soldiers eating one another. (The key to the entire film is the opening scene, in which Guy Pearce's disgruntled vet eats and then vomits up a rare steak in a tent with other military officers.)

Ravenous was a flop upon its initial release (in 1999, the last truly great year for movies), probably because it's difficult and idiosyncratic and, yes, violent. But it's time this stunning achievement had a serious critical and popular reappraisal.

Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974)

Brian Clemens, one of the creators of the original "Avengers" TV show, wrote and directed this swashbuckling vampire adventure that's arguably the most fun film ever produced by Britain's legendary Hammer studios. Goofy-looking German actor Horst Janson and his hunchbacked assistant Dr. Hieronymous Grost (John Cater) and the busty Caroline Munro scour the countryside looking for vampires, who suck out their victim's youth and beauty along with their blood.

Working from a template that has been used and reused thousands of times, Clemens brings his considerable wit to the exercize, making Captain Kronos a near-perfect blend of swordfighting action, gory horror and dry comedy.

Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

Half-documentary and art film, James Marsh's Wisconsin Death Trip focuses on the true and grisly events that took place in Black River Falls, Wisconsin from 1890 to 1900. Using actual newspaper clippings from the time (read in the voice-over by Ian Holm), recreations and photographs from the period, Marsh paints an occasionally funny and always fascinating portrait of a town poised on the edge of madness.

Something must have happened in Black River Falls to create such bizarre behavior, everything from elaborate suicides to young children going on murder sprees. Individual cases seem to have some kind of rational explanation (for example, a woman who habitually smashes shop windows was has an addiction to cocaine), but other stories seem to reflect a general malaise or uncertainty. The modern clashes with the Victorian, the immigrant clashes with the native, but can any of these conflicts alone explain the sudden uptick in remarkable and horrifying police reports?

The Brood (1979)

Interestingly, David Cronenberg's big crossover titles tend towards dramas and psychological thrillers - like A History of Violence, The Dead Zone or Crash - when most of his work more closely resembles The Brood. This is dark, violent, wrenching horror in which the source of the fear comes from within the protagonist, and thus can't be "faced down" or conquered. Nola Carveth (Samatha Eggar) is under the care of a mysterious psychiatrist (Oliver Reed) for a strange disorder that has in some indirect way led to brutal attacks. Her husband (Art Hindle) is suspicious about the doctor's methods and does some investigating, uncovering a truly far-fetched and seriously messed-up diagnosis with a lot of intriguing ramifications. I'll grant that this is not among Cronenberg's all-time best, but more people are familiar with Scanners and Videodrome and some of the others, so I thought I'd highlight this less-known early entry. (Also, Rabid and Shivers are both essential viewing for horror fans.)