Saturday, November 27, 2010

Alexander Revisited

I'll try not to make this super-long.  Just some general thoughts.

Alexander Revisited is the "Final Cut" of Oliver Stone's 2004 (somewhat) controversial epic on The Great conquerer starring Colin Farrell in the titular role.  I saw it when it came out and bombed in the US market (overall it made money worldwide however), and these were my thoughts back then.  It was a very mixed reaction at the time, a film that had a lot going for it with its epic scope and (mostly) interesting cast of new and regulars to a Stone picture.  Its faults were in some part structural, and just in a reaction to what was at the time negative.  I didn't join the wagon of people who trashed the movie outright altogether, and certainly didn't go with those who claimed it was "gay".  Clearly, it isn't.  Indeed there is a distinct moment in the movie that sets it apart as not.  But I'll get to that in a moment.

So, six years go by, and in that time Stone puts out a slightly shorter director's cut, and a "Final Cut" that is about a half an hour longer than the theatrical one.  I didn't pay attention to either, given that it was to my opinion from years gone by that it was a mediocre attempt at epic filmmaking... but then a friend mentioned a few times that among the few big-sprawling sword-n-sandal epics from the period it came out in (Troy, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven) this was his favorite and that he had only seen the Final Cut(!)  How can this be?  Open my eyes, maybe I'd see.  So I finally buckled down and, thankfully, in the midst of a minor Oliver Stone resurgence of interest I've had in the past several weeks while reading James Riordan's biography from the 90's and seeing a couple of his movies again (chiefly JFK, which I did a paper on for a grad school class).

The Final Cut turns out to be... better than the original theatrical version, to the best that I could recall after six years.  It's surprising how much of Stone's film did stick with me, in some part for what I found irksome about it (what was, at the time, an overlong opening pontification by Anthony Hopkins' Old Ptolomy, who becomes the film's narrator, plus over-symbolism with that weird eagle, and with a couple of the performances), and what did work became enhanced this time.  The film's epic scope is enhanced with its Final Cut status, as it's got an intermission (official pee break!) and some of the scenes have been extended and a key battle sequence has been put closer to the start of the story (the one in the desert, blanking on the name, where the Macedonians fight the Persians and win even as they're outnumbered 5 to 1, baby one in five).

That especially, the change of the battle nearer to the beginning, gives the narrative a little more clear of a focus.  Stone's trajectory is telling one linear story and then a flashback story that in its own way is linear to how its juxtaposed with the other, so that when it comes time for the "back in the day" segments to come to its close, it wraps back around to the start of the main plotline.  We see Alexander's basic rise to power, after the untimely murder of his father, Philip, and how Alexander's ambition was built up over time by a life-long egging-on of his greatness by his calculating snake-goddess mother Olympia and by a sorta challenge from his mentor, Aristotle (Christopher Plummer, given all of one very good scene in).  He wants to conquer the world, pure and simple, or at least to the edge of the ocean that was taught in Aristotle's class that once one could reach then one could wrap back around the ocean and up the nile and back to Macedonia.  Fool-proof!

I think what struck me as clearer, and more interesting, this time around was Stone's handling of Alexander as a conflicted hero, and his status was already controversial in his own time.  His army is respectful and loves him- at least most do, some defect and as the years and battles go on he faces more in-house enemies- but finds a little more than odd that he takes a 'barbarian' wife (Rosario Dawson) without perhaps giving thought that it might have a little more to do with who his mother was (a not-quite Macedonian herself, similar accents they have btw).  He also doesn't want to make all slaves of the people he conquers, but has it in mind to want to bring peoples together, to unite Europe and Asia, and build bigger and bigger armies and state-holds because of it.  He has an Obama-like "Yes We Can!(TM)" attitude towards things, even in the face of the biggest odds like, say, fighting an Indian army made up mostly of large fucking elephants.

It's an interesting movie, as Stone has done over time, politically, and it's good to be able to see, perhaps now in retrospect of the past three theatrically released fiction films he's made (WTC, W, Wall Street 2) something he really is passionate about.  So the handling of the character and the status of mythology and what one places as heroism is really all about.  And so I actually gravitated more to Farrell this time with his acting; most startling was to see him do better than originally in heavy dramatic scenes or ones that have a lot of emotional heft.  He only really suffers when in really trying scenes with other actors who don't always make the cut that he's at.  But on that in a moment...

Also, the battles are very well staged and shot and edited.  Maybe this, too, is in a retrospect observation, or in thinking back to how Ridley Scott's battle scenes, while competent and with their own manic energy, are too choppy in comparison.  Stone loves himself some gore to be sure- in this "unrated" cut there are enough dismemberments and blood to make both battle scenes as gory as that in Kill Bill Vol. 1- but I could always tell what the action was going on (save for the still unnecessary red-tint that goes on in the big Indian battle), and, perhaps more-so on a widescreen TV than in a theater, it felt riveting and sharp and kind of exciting in that classical-blockbuster way.  Oh, and for those wondering about the 'Gay' thing, the most graphic sex scene in the running time involves a very hot and dangerously-passionate charged sex scene between Farrell and a very naked Rosario Dawson (scroll down, PARENTAL ADVISORY, for the video for proof you wankers).

So, what still doesn't work? Well, a few things.  For one, the aforementioned performances that don't work: Jared Leto and Angelina Jolie.  It's not that you don't see them trying, to be sure they're in an Oliver Stone movie and at the least every actor (even the bad turns by good actors, looking at YOU Darryl Hannah in Wall Street and Nicolas Cage in WTC) gives it their all.  But Jolie is just so over the top in her wicked-but-loving mother thing that it goes into camp mode - that she doesn't know she's doing camp is one of the big problems though.  And Leto... well, the eyeliner doesn't help, and yet it's really more of a general tone problem, being the character who has to exchange the forlorn looks of love (though it's *brotherly* love, not so much the homosexual kind - Alexander leaves that to his stable-boy or whoever, who is even WORSE of an actor), and without the intensity he can bring to parts like Requiem for a Dream or Panic Room.  He's relegated here to a thankless supporting role.

Val Kilmer does better in a role where he can play it BIG and does like he did in The Doors, and has fun with it.  Anthony Hopkins is fun too, though perhaps in such a droll way as to be like the grandfather who doesn't know he's rambling on.  But really, it's Farrell's show, and somehow in this Final Cut he's able to hold up the show better than I remembered he did.  Again, this is in large part to the story being better told and some clearer things.  But the other flaw that I should mention, one that has greater or lessor debilitation on the movie depending on the scene, is symbolism.  Oh Oli loves his symbols and BIG moments where things just get ridiculous.  One might recall Willem Dafoe holding up his arms in the "Jesus" pose as he's shot in Platoon.  Subtle.  Actually it *is* subtle when compared to the image (one may have seen in the trailer) where Alexander charges one of the Elephant fighters, and there is a massive two-shot of the Horse and the Elephant facing each other in upright poses.  That had me laughing for a good five minutes.  And then there's the Eagle.... yeah, just remember the Indian from The Doors, that too is relatively calm as a motif by comparison.

But, in closing (guess this is longer than "some general thoughts"), Alexander Revisited's virtues mostly outweigh its faults.  Its director is in love with this material and it shows, and has a passion for the spectacle and wide vistas of locations and bloody stretches of battles.  There's even some ironic symbolism to be had with the shots of many, many spears the soldiers have wagging in the wind above their heads (or as part of George Carlin's Bigger-Dick-Foreign-Policy-Theory at work).  And it entertains with some smart writing and some sometimes enjoyable rousing-type drama.  It's an old-school 50's historical epic given some extra 21st century varnishing, and the effort is appreciated.

and now...

(flash ahead to 5:15 in)

no good? Ok, here ya go:

Thursday, November 25, 2010

127 Hours and Danny Boyle's visceral cinema

"Is it true you didn't tell anyone where you were going? .... Oops." (Aron Ralston to video camera in 127 Hours)


Time to make a declarative statement here.  Perhaps there can be an argument here, if one would like to have one, but it's mostly a thesis statement at this point with 127 Hours as a nerve center: Danny Boyle is  for my metaphorical sometimes-spent money the single most consistent director working with a visceral style in cinema.  What do I mean by this?  A few things.  First that Boyle as a filmmaker and just how he gravitates in the stories he finds to people in circumstances that are usually extraordinary.  No, not just extraordinary, but that his take on it, how he'll choose the actors and the music and the locations and how his (now most often) collaborator on camera Anthony Dod Mantle will shoot it with the lighting and compositions, makes it into another realm.  I'm reminded of one of Oliver Stone's quasi-pretentious-but-true comments that he looks to make "consciousness expansion" with his work.  If nothing else I can point to Boyle's work as having that kind of quality.

Another facet to his visceral cinema, in looking at substance, are the characters and how their circumstances are never grounded in the usual - or if they are, that's a problem.  People looking to get into something better in their life (Shallow Grave), or stuck (Trainspotting), or between a rock and a hard place (literally with 127 Hours and metaphorically up to a point in Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise), or with hope for something that should be just out of reach but is almost (or just) destiny (the two "million" movies, Millions and Slumdog Millionaire).

People in Boyle movies are losers and degenerates, murders and cut-throats, idiots and slackers, confident or just plain ol' fucked (see some of the peoples in Sunshine for more of that).  There are some forms of genre characters, namely in scripts by Alex Garland that mix and match science fiction and horror, but they feel raw and scathed by the forced around them, or trying to fight against such forces.  It's interesting to note as an aside Cillian Murphy is in both films (28 Days, Sunshine) and is a heroic figure but isn't seen as one in a big way, only in small things as a protagonist.  We feel for them, even in flawed Boyle works like The Beach, as their wants and desires and conflicts are made real by Boyle's style of camera and editing - everything is on edge, even in quiet moments or those that feel serene like the great big God-presence of the Sun.

This brings me to a third point, which is the nature of Boyle's films to be about, in one way or another, living the best or any way as honestly as possible, even if it's dishonest like with some of the characters in Trainspotting (what makes Sick Boy such a captivating character as he's a total bullshit artist?  well, he knows a lot about Sean Connery, hardly a substitute but you do what you can).  In situations that are dark, uncompromising and seemingly hopeless like with Aron Ralston or the different-fated brothers of Slumdog, there's a genuine quality of the drama.  With few exceptions, Boyle's cinema is sometimes fast and frenetic, what my Editing class in grad school calls "MTV Style" and what leads to the "feeling state" (must use quotes for that last one, holy shit that's a crappy term) in movies.

Yes, Boyle's films are fast and frenetic and surreal and absurd and raunchy and on the edge.  Sometimes it goes too far into fantasy (again, The Beach), or sometimes to a point that will split audiences as to if it's cool or just too-cool-for-school (A Life Less Ordinary).  But the intention is always the same to varying degrees: put the audience there, or try the best to, and have them identify with the characters, as fucked up and fragile or other-worldly or down-and-out as they might be.  Like Scorsese, where you feel like you could be close to or know a person like Jake LaMotta or Henry Hill or Howard Hughes or Jesus or Travis Bickle, the "feeling state" is intense, personal, volatile, sweet.  There's life, and there's some affirmation about it.  Boyle's words.

But yeah... 127 Hours.  Boyle's latest is one of his few features (and no, 28 Days Later doesn't count) that's based on a true story.  More to the point Boyle and his collaborators had extensive access to Aron Ralston and his material (i.e. his video camera) for this project.  It's about how Ralston in 2003 went rock-climbing out in Colorado's Blue Mountains and, since Ralston didn't tell anyone where he was going and was in a remote area of the mountains, was stuck after a boulder fell on his arm.  The boulder too large to lift off his arm (if anything chipping away at the spot his arm was at made it fall further), and with no one in ear-shot of his cries for help, Ralston was literally stuck with little water, little food, and his own mental faculties, which were good but limited by the intensity of the situation.

There's a lot of history down that canyon...

I have no idea what Ralston was really like in that situation.  Maybe he was braver, or maybe he was more frantic and panicked, as well all might be.  From the looks of the film, scripted by Simon Beaufoy and (a first for him with one of his own films) Boyle, he did all he could until the final solution had to be sought: cutting off his own arm and escaping back to civilization.  He chips at the stone.  He drinks his water carefully.  He films himself as a way of keeping sane and having a voice to the situation (or, at the least, as a clever cinematic-gimmick to speak to the audience through his speaking to himself and those-who-may-find-this-tape).  And he imagines things, and thinks back to things, and sees himself as a child and him and his sister as children.  You know.  Things we all might do if we were in such a situation.  Yeah...

Boyle's sense of visceral cinema hasn't reached this kind of intensity and unexpected humanity and pathos since Trainspotting.  Actually, it goes past those thrills and cinematic tricks to something more profound (though films carry a similar thread) which is the will to live.  What do we live for anyway?  For ourselves, perhaps, depending on our self worth.  Some of us may not think of ourselves very highly when it comes down to being honest.  Some of us may think too highly of ourselves, which conversely leads to things like suicide bombers who love themselves so much they can't wait till the afterlife.  But mostly those of us with a sense of reason live for others, or for others who we know will live for us.  While Renton uttered and expounded in the words "Choose Life", it was to a somewhat (or total) nihilistic undercurrent involving heroin addiction.  The ending to the movie is significant to its point of choosing life, and being another rat-fucker in the game of it all.

But Ralston, he wasn't a low-life nor someone facing an apocalypse or out in space or at the mercy of Indian gangsters.  In Boyle's cinema, he's something of an ordinary guy, relatively.  How much we feel for Ralston may depend on how much we could see ourselves doing something similarly stupid, leading to life-and-death circumstances.  If nothing else Boyle emphasizes past the extraordinary nature of his man and his perseverance to do what few of us could stomach to do what makes Ralston's life worth living.  Boyle's camera- as with his other films another character in how it views the character, the environment, the Earth, the critters, the ground, objects and the insides of things- is fearless.  It goes up close and takes the subjective point of view that, first of all, never makes things too boring (where will that lens go next, and where might it creep back into or peer at), and the pacing of Ralston's struggle is brisk but not so fast as to lose the little moments.  One of the most thrilling moments comes when Ralston drops his crappy pocket-knife behind a rock and has to reach to get it- with his stick, his shoe, anything.  Time can slow down, but never so long as to lose a chance for a heightened montage.

In a way, Boyle is one of the most ideal directors for a generation like mine.  He doesn't want the audience to lose track of what's going on, and so there's not often (save for sections of Sunshine and 28 Days Later and maybe Millions) where the editing is "slow" in the sense of like a 1970's movie - that is deliberate in the long length of shots on characters.  And yet at the same time his films aren't the form of junk food that a Michael Bay movie is: practically every shot for Boyle has matter and weight and substance, is thought out for the story and the method of experimenting with technology is an important part of it.  One sees that he tinkers with creating claustrophobia and oddly wide-spaced places in equal measure with a sometimes digital camera, but conversely tries to create wonderment (again, Sunshine) by going back to straight-up 35mm film.

In that sense of pushing the camera as the other character, 127 Hours is a triumph if nothing else as that.  I admired how Boyle mixed up visual grandeur with those very tight, almost constricting and painful, (extreme) close-ups, and then would mix-in flashes to a shot demonstrating the inside of something- a digital camera tape reeling up, the inside of a nerve or a bone in the flesh, a Gatorade bottle- with such a shot as starting on Ralston calling for help, climbing up out of the canyon, and showing the entire landscape of the mountain range.  If it calls back to anything it might be akin to Leone's contrasting close-ups and wide-shots of landscapes.  Hey, who is to say that Franco's face isn't a landscape unto itself.  After a while it's the only landscape that we are left with.  And what a one to have down there.

In all my praise of Boyle, I've neglected one more last-but-not-least aspect to the success of his film, past the inventive camera and perfectly frenetic and nervy/nervous editing and the intuitive use of music and songs, which is the actor at the center of it.  Not since McGregor have we gotten such a magnetic presence as with Franco.  But more crucially it's really his show.  As much as it's Boyle's chance to shine with creating a darkly fantastic state of reality with his camera, the film could fall apart of Franco isn't on it.  But he is.  His Aron is frank, funny, amiable, and then tender, stupid, scared, and finally when he does the horrible task he must do, relieved.  Franco channels a Ralston that has all those qualities and a certain something else.  We feel for him because he never gives up, or wants to give up, and we're there with him.  For how unlikely and foolish it was what he did, the existential weight is what counts, and the stakes are so high for this person.  

Franco is, to a point arguably, just as good a reason to see the movie than it is for Boyle's direction, for some maybe more-so.  His charisma is natural and amiable; he has star quality but it's not all out there like a Clooney or Pitt.  He's the kind of star that can afford to spend his spare time in seemingly-random classes Columbia University as a student(!)  But that same charm has the side of tragedy and sadness (one saw this latter part in a more subtle way in some scenes of Pineapple Express when his comic persona would shed his skin a little).  127 Hours is him at such a peak of powers.  His Ralston is painfully human and the sense of conflict he carries as an actor is shocking and revelatory.  He has a quality that is just right for Boyle; there's a scene where Aron, upon first light of day, is speaking at his video camera and it's as if he's talking on a TV talk show (audience canned laughter/applause hilariously included), and we see a chipper "self" introducing and interviewing the "other" Aron who explains his current state... then as the applause and laughter dies down Aron speaks at the camera with a message for his Mom.  

It's a moment that should be over the top, sentimental, sappy.  Franco's ironic sense of humor fits just right in for Ralston, and by proxy for Boyle's cinema of the visceral.  He's another in a long stretch of brilliant and fearless actors as a character in the director's films that, if there is any connecting theme or purpose to the material, depict what is the best and worst in us, sometimes at once and competing for dominance, and a striving for something more, better, to get to the next day.  Methods may be unsavory, criminal, out of this world or as simple as that of what children dream about.  Or it's the Aron Ralston story.  

And like other Boyle films this latest is at times discomfiting, hard to watch, and at the least harrowing.  People have been reported to have fainted from the shock of the big climactic so-it-has-to-go moment that is longer than a simple moment (it's lead up to after a few half-hearted tries by the character).  People also fainted during Jaws and Pulp Fiction.  Maybe this guy is on to something... just maybe...

and to close....

GRAPHIC NUDITY!  And by the beautiful Kelly MacDonald no less.   ;)

Adios, folks, and remember, Choose Life(TM)....

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Philip Ridley's HEARTLESS @ Film-Forward

Come read it HERE

Recap: Saturday Movie Madness!

Hey all... woops.

I had a sort of "affair" yesterday with my former mistress of a website,'s Comments section - it's not something I'm proud of, but not ashamed of either- and I posted my reviews for films I saw that day there (not counting the flicks I saw as part of the MST3K box-set I rented from my library).  While I decided to post my entire review as sort of a 'Scroll' for the movie Skyline yesterday on Cinetarium, here is what I thought about the following movies, linked for your reading pleasure:




So there.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Brother Strause' SKYLINE

Skyline was released by Universal studios in the usual lot of 2000+ theaters, but it was produced independently by its directors, the "Brothers Strouse", with its production shooting at one of the brother's condos and all of the fx (and there are MANY fx shots in this movie) done in-house with their production company. In theory, the film is inspiring as a way of showing what can be done when two filmmakers pool in their own resources, keep things relatively inexpensive, don't hire big-name stars but keep the aesthetic one that might appeal to a mainstream audience like an alien-invasion picture set in the backdrop of Los Angeles. On paper it looks like it should be a sure thing as far as what its story is... and then you read a little more, and then see the movie, and it's not good. At all.

First off, as an aside, the brothers are actually rip-off artists (emphasis on the rip-off, less so on artistry). Put aside the fact that so much of the movie is taken from other movies- Independence Day, The Matrix, War of the Worlds (2005), even Return of the Jedi to an extent (the Rancor-beast things)- and that it's quite blatant even if one is only slightly familiar with those by comparison much original films, and notice that the brothers also worked on, Battle Los Angeles (trailer out now), has a similar plot (sub-out military for civilians) and fxscheme. Whether they ripped off a whole lot of the movie or just a little is debatable until the movie comes out next year (from my understanding there is still a lawsuit pending, or it's been decided or whatever).

But what about Skyline itself? Skyline posits the alien invasion as we have seen before, with a couple of little twists, barely enough to register as unique for anyone with a cursory knowledge of the sub-genre of sci-fi. In this kind of situation where the aliens come to earth and will (for realz) eat your brains to gain knowledge or, um, something, you need some good characters to stick with. Skyline's characters are upper-middle class white kids (and Donald Faison) who have a big party at a hotel in LA and get drunk and loud and freaky and stuff like that. Oh, and one of the couples (Balfour and Thompson) have just realized they're pregnant, so they're a whole ball of wax unto themselves, sort of. But on to the invasion! It's, um... lame, kind of.

If you're watching the alien invasion from inside an apartment, and have the Night of the Living Dead-style argument of being closed in but what to do from there like going outside or staying in or fighting back or where to run away, it can be done with captivating motivations. There isn't any here. It's just a bunch of people who are mostly brainless or just argue to the point of it being banal and lame. And what they see outside from their blinds (the alien light burns the skin for one thing, and puts one into a trance, or lets the aliens know there's fresh meat for their um alien-sucker-vagina things), or on the TV(?) is pandemonium from just the immediate area. One only gets a sense of the alien apocalypse from the view of an LA window, and with the requisite alien fighters going against the fighter pilots from the army.

I'm not sure what could've been done with the material to make it fresh. No, that's not true. What could be done is better work on characters, to make us care about their situation. What could be done is to make someone like the Maitre'D at the hotel played by David Zayas the protagonist (the best actor in the movie which is saying a lot mostly in comparison to everyone else), but instead the filmmakers go the route of Cloverfield- nay, would-be Cloverfield- with self-absorbed twits who are led by a guy (Balfour) who may be one of the aliens or might not be or what's up with that(?) And the action outside that the filmmakers put together is just... repetitive and not very exciting. It's a reel for their fx department that is passable- though the directors aren't that adept at framing their shots some of the images in their rip-off manner are decent- not a movie that tells a story that gives some kind of context for something, ANYTHING.

But most of the movie, as far as a somehow-slipped-into-theaters SyFy channel or (yes) Asylum DVD product that has hack actors with little genuine expression to their performances and dialog that is turgid and occasionally ludicrous (listen to one girl describe how the light appealed to her), is just forgettable junk. It's not "good", but it's not the worst that one has ever seen, or at least doesn't offend with its voracious attitude against logic like a Transformers movie. That is, dear readers, until the ending. This is where any logic that came before, even in the scope of an alien invasion flick done for dirt cheap, gets shredded into a thousand pieces and most of is flushed down the toilet. What happens when two of characters end up inside one of the spaceships? Well, if I revealed it I wouldn't be spoiling so much as doing too good of a favor to let you know why not to see the movie.

The ending of Skyline reaches up to the heavens as a "twist" that suddenly makes most of the rest of the movie seem totally ludicrous in retrospect. What the hell happened? Did the screenwriters not read what they had written or tried to pass as writing to the Strause brothers? More to the point did the directors know that by trying to do a "leave open a sequel?" possibility that it destroyed whatever tiny shred of credibility the already loose and stupid plot had before it? The movie left me bored and dissatisfied at the hack-like nature of the material from all fronts, but the last scene left me flabbergasted and just speechless. All one would need is the colonialists coming to shore at the end of Apocalypto and saying they're searching for a New Beginning and it would take the cake.