Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sidney Lumet - "The Machines Are Winning"

I guess this could be filed under another "DOUBLE LUMET POWER" blog-post, and it could also be filed under the RIP-TRAIN post as I'm dealing with a director and two of his films, and he's recently passed (damn, almost two weeks now, has it been that long?  Where did he go, he was just here a minute ago, maybe under the couch or kvetching about The Wiz... or something). 

At any rate, these are two films, two I've yet to see until this week, that fall under a certain heading in Lumet's work.  He's been a director who's worked in the courtoom, with police officers, in familial dramas and sometimes with larger-than-life people.  But with Fail-Safe and The Anderson Tapes they fall under the same theme, which is presented by the director on his great book Making Movies.

The theme: The Machines Are Winning.  What does this have to do with a movie about nuclear annihilation and a heist?  A lot, actually, and yet in different tones, with a couple of heavyweight actors a piece, and with some scenes that stick out tremendously in Lumet's ouvere as some of his best.

First, the serious one, and (arguably) a 'masterpiece' whatever that means:

First, to get it out the way, yes, Fail-Safe is the "serious" version of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying (and Love the Bomb).  And at the time it came out it was completely stone-faced about a subject that, to no fault of the director Sidney Lumet, was following on the heels of a fellow New York director Stanley Kubrick's bonafide masterpiece comedy.  And hey, how can you NOT laugh at the buffoonery capable of men at the top in positions of military power and in politics?  I had a vague idea that the two films might be similar before watching this one, though I had no idea until I saw the documentary included on the DVD that the writers of the Fail-Safe book were sued for plagiarizing the book Red Alert, which was used as the inspiration for 'Strangelove'.  Nothing came of it, though ultimately Fail-Safe did the first word at the box-office following so soon after the mockery.  Who could take nuclear annihilation seriously after that?

Well, apparently, deadly.  The power of Lumet's film is to make it something of a horror film, like the Ultimate one with a capital YOU.  Coming recently from seeing the fourth film in the Scream series, I understood something was off from the start, and that's because the characters didn't act like real people in a situation of dread and terror like being stalked by a (albeit self-conscious) serial killer.  We can buy horror if the people in the story are real enough to feel with, and seeing Fail-Safe reminded me that even in such a high-stakes thing such as American and Russian missles with the ability to destroy most of the known Earth by "accident" can be made real by the performances, yes, but also believing the people on screen, how they'd react and think and decide.

Billy, don't throw paper airplanes in class!
  In a strange way the film is kind of life-affirming, despite once or twice having a to-the-audience look from a character saying "No, this cannot be, cautionary tale people!" The characters, military men at the Pentagon, those also military at the war room, and the President in his bunker (even the Russians on the other end) don't want to get things to the point of total catastrophe... well, most of them anyway, there are those like the Poli-Sci professor played by Walter Matthau or the one Colonel in the war room who think that a) nuclear annihilation is an inevitability in such a circumstance how it's set-up, and b) there is no way the Russians can't NOT compromise the way they are.  One is more methodical and cool in his judgments, and the other just completely panics or clams up when given an order by the general.  Seeing them in action in their respective rooms is to see what is flawed essentially in humanity: the evil side of logic (the arguments between Matthau and General Black are some of the best scenes in the film) and the weak.

But hey, why is this film still relevant and powerful anyway?  For one thing Lumet eliminates all music from any scene, even incidental music or something that might set the mood at the start like in Dog Day Afternoon.  If you're going to present something as happening in a kind of 'reality' (in semi-quotes since there is that repetitive stock-footage shot of the jet flying and firing repeatedly), why have something that will heighten mood?  Kubrick's use of music in Strangelove was more playful and part of the mocking manner with a March to War tone put to it that was just perfect (and of course "We'll Meet Again" a sick joke that makes you chuckle AND sick to your stomach, ah Kubrick the rapscallion).  Lumet won't have any of that, and in a sense the dialog is all there is, and those faces of men who increasingly, scene after scene, get tenser, a little sweatier, faces paler and eyes tenser.

Henry Fonda's Ghost after seeing his son Peter in Ghost Rider

The cinematographer doesn't make things any less expressive, however.  It's not a super-showy picture, but it is in the same way that 12 Angry Men was, also a film with Henry Fonda as the sanest man in the room (or at least the one speaking with the most unabashed honesty possible and control) and in rooms principally.  Though not always just on faces, which are given quite a good number of wonderful pans and dollies around their heads, and with lighting that makes it dark and brooding almost like a Nuclear-Noir of sorts, but on the giant map on the wall.  I loved seeing how the camera would move in on a moment, or how it would cut from one to another and then pull back from that map to show the room.  How characters are placed in a frame matters so much for Lumet too, and how their faces fill up a frame, how Fonda and his translator (a wonderful actor at his side by the way) move relatively little, save perhaps for Fonda's propensity to be dramatic with his fingers.

Fail-Safe brings up a lot of captivating thought and discussion on its own terms about the inherent danger of a doomsday scenario.  But it's also a nail-biter, and that is what makes it so essential as a piece of cinema and entertainment.  Time can pass by and perhaps maybe one day there won't be any nuclear bombs (might be silly, though a documentary like Countdown to Zero takes it seriously).  But the essential problem of the film stays really firm even as Presidents may change or poli-sci professors like Groeteschele gain crazy momentum or drift away: how can we really be sure of what goes on if our machines can malfunction?  In that sense the film may even have a link to Kubrick's other seminal 1960's film 2001, where a computer malfunctions at the danger of a space mission.  Yet Lumet and his writers (or the writers of the book at any rate) make it more frightening and palpable by making it about how they break down in subtle ways, little cracks that can happen and can only get worse from there.  It's not necessarily about them being "smarter", but anything out of control can make suspense, and this film is nothing but a spectacular suspense film first, a haunting Cold-War parable second.

Oh, and it has a really bizarre dream scene at the start too involving a matador and a guy becoming paralyzed with fear.  I could analyze that to death, but I'll leave it to you to decide what that's all about.  What I'll leave off on before the next film is the ending, which takes 10 New York snapshots on the streets in quick succession as the countdown happens, and then cuts back to each for a quick zoom in.  Sometimes life just... freezes up I guess against something that inconceivable.

But anyway, back to more practical things, like... a Heist!

And now for a whole other machine: surveillance.  Lots of it.  It's basically the big Running Gag(TM) of The Anderson Tapes, where Sean Connery plays the man in the title, Duke Anderson, an ex-con who plans a robbery of, well, the building his girlfriend (Dyan Cannon) lives in.  He assembles one of those motley crews- Martin Balsam as a gay antiques dealer and Christopher Walken in his screen debut(!) among the few of them- and plots to do it on Labor Day when only the people who may live in the apartments will be there and most people will be out of town so there won't be many people on the streets.

But, of course, there's a catch.  A few of them, actually, as there is surveillance going on, but not really to Anderson's knowledge.  I say 'not really' as he knows but doesn't give a shit, and anyway the surveillance people are really wire-tapping each other.  The big joke and fun with the movie- though it doesn't really get that way till near the very end- is just how much the stakes are against Anderson and his crew just based on all of the wire taps and tapes going on.  In other words, everyone knows what everyone's doing, just not the exact date and time of some of the events (such as when Anderson will rob the building).  And it isn't like cops that are tapping things, otherwise there wouldn't be much of a heist.  It's other mobbed up people and the like.  Richard Nixon might be proud of their work.

And already, at the start of his career, Walken has his 'Walken-Face' nailed.

I enjoyed how the characters came together as they did, and especially the interactions between a super-cool Connery and cooler (or just out-of-it in his way) Walken on screen, like when he first approaches "The Kid" (as he's credited) to do the heist and a long-winded explanation comes from Anderson about insurance and how people who are robbed should be happy cause of the experience and getting the insurance.  There's a little side drama that happens midway through the movie with Connery and Dyan Cannon's character I didn't care for, or rather I just kinda tuned out of it.  Lumet is clever with his camera always, getting fine close-ups of the actors and places, and he deals with sound very well too, as he should since it's a movie set in the world of surveillance.

The theme that Lumet's working with again- "The Machines Are Winning"- becomes clearer during the heist at a crucial point.  It's a big set-piece really, taking up about the full second half of the running time, as Anderson and his crew go through as many apartments as they can, and the thing that does them in is a sickly asthmatic kid (with the air conditioner and everything, who does he think he is, Martin Scorsese?), who when finally left alone after the robbers crack his safe for coins rolls in his wheelchair to a hidden CB radio(!) and contacts anyone who can listen in.  No matter how tightly run an operation Anderson may have, and albeit with a few snags here and there during it (like a violent crew member who has to get the smack down from Anderson to stop hassling the residents), the machine and access to it is their undoing.  Somewhat, I should say (not to much a spoiler is it? the thing with the kid was on the back of the video box so if they can spoil it why not me, but I digress).

Now for those "missing" profits from The Avengers!

It's a perfectly good 1970's heist movie- emphasis on 'good' and 70's with that Quincy Jones soundtrack that might have influenced whoever scored Soderbergh's Ocean movies- with a solid cast and some good hard-boiled dialog.  Not all of it feels that 'new' really, and it really gets cooking best once the heist takes off, but it's a funny one, one of the funniest alongside the likes of Big Deal on Madonna Street.  Lumet keeps the pace hard and tight, and as the forces-that-be come down upon the crew the suspense is crackling but stull very funny in some of its twists and the reactions from the residents.  Lumet does one other interesting thing via Frak (Dog Day Afternoon) Pierson's script, which is to periodically cut from a heist moment with a building resident to the aftermath when the cops are interviewing such and such a person.  It gives the storytelling an interesting twist as we know what may be coming with them but with the robbers, who knows. 

Overall, a sharp, underrated (if not great) number that feels like a looser and more entertaining romp through a similar theme that Lumet worked with several years before.  Bottom line: Technology = Damn it!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


So.... thoughts?  Simple really:

Fuck. Ing. DULL.

I haven't walked out of a movie in so long, and to anyone who is offended in advance I apologize... sorta.  But this one was the one that I unintentionally have been waiting for. Granted, and I will admit it as one more Fuck YOU to Ayn Rand and her base, I didn't pay to see it, so there should have been no-pain-no-gain. But oh, there was pain, so much. I don't fall asleep during movies, just because I'm sensitive to the light and sound of a movie theater since there's so much of it. Considering that this is, as my wife described, like 'watching Nazi-paint dry', I tried, oh lawd I tried, to fall asleep during this. Because it really is, without a doubt one of the dullest of the piece-of-shittiest shits I've seen in a while.

But, Jack, you're asking, what is the movie "about"? Um... let's see ::glances up at plot synopsis:: it's basically about a couple of rich fucks who run a railroad company in, um, five years from now(!) who keep hearing about some guy named John Galt who is supposed to be the Hero of Capitalism or some such crap, and then there's a new metal for a railroad and the really boring day-time soap opera chick comes on as one of the Taggart siblings to be the Heroic Capitalist Avenger or whatever and throw some water at a guy's face and look not angry and oh no I've let this be a run on sentence.... 

An actor so clueless he has to read from his script while the film is shooting.
I so couldn't give a shit reallly to even explain it. It's basically watching the upper echelons of society- those with a lot of money who act like heroes because they are making tons of money for themselves while the 'villains' are those dirty, dirty liberals who are smoking fat cigars and making big fat deals behind or just out in the open of closed doors. Supposedly society has collapsed, sorta, gas prices have skyrocketed (past what it is now, like $37 per gallon or some such malarkey), and all the BIG drama takes place in office rooms and fancy restaurants and nice houses and once or twice in "actual" places like a subway terminal or a street. 

We become aware of some vast conspiracy that has businessmen being abducted by some shadowy figures in the street (and what blandly shadowy figures they are, a first in cinematic history I think)... this SHOULD be one of the creepy and memorable parts of the movie, even an unintentionally funny part, but the only chuckle is at a stupid freeze-frame in black and white with TYPED-OUT LETTERS done for the person on screen.

And in this scene we find out the molecular weight of the substance WhoGivesaShit
I don't want to under-sell it - it's biggest crime is being indifferent, to itself and to its audience. If I were an Ayn Rand fan (and if I ever become one I'm certain you'll be the first to know you bastards) I would be offended by this movie. I didn't get a sense of any kind of political or philosophical conviction past... I dunno, making lots of money and screwing poor people over once or twice? I guess that's the libertarian and/or "Tea-Party" ideal, but it's such poorly handled propaganda. Where's Leni Riefenstahl when you need her, or (arguably) Michael Moore? Hell, when it comes to a cult - and make no mistake, the "Randians" are often called as such - how about Battlefield Earth? At least that has Travolta hamming it up like it's Christmas time and the pig's just aching to be sliced. 

That's another thing I should note, what contributes to the dull sense of life slipping ever so quickly away from the film, is the acting, or non-acting really. While there are some professionals here, people like Michael Lerner and Jon Polito, which just made me pine to go back and watch Coen brothers movies, and other somewhat recognizable character actors ("Big Love" from House and that one Winkies dream dude from Mulholland Drive), none fare well here because the director, some uber-HACK who mostly moonlights on WB tripe like One Tree Hill, doesn't even give the character players a bone to chew on. 

"Star" Taylor Schilling though is the most eggregious offence here and one of the main things that had me walk out. Her eyes, dead eyes, like a doll's eyes, do nothing with a character who is supposed to have gumption and determination and... SOMETHING, I dunno! Even when she does emote it's that kind of empty style that would make Andy Warhol cringe and sends mothers weeping with their children in agony. Her paired with the equally woodboardwood Grant Bowler and Matthew Marsden (I don't think I got to see the director in action as the much touted Galt by the time I left) it just gets worse and worse.

"Anything wrong?" "Oh, no, I would be trying to sneak a peek up your skirt but I'm sure it's just as boring as your face."

And sure, maybe by now you might be thinking 'but, Jack, come on, how can you review it without having seen the whole movie? You might be missing on some of the most brilliant political commentary you've ever seen!' Well, first of all, in that case, why were you reading this you trolling piece of garbage. And secondly, I'm not Roger Ebert and I don't need to do a kind of deal like he did with that one movie where he watched 8 minutes and wrote his review (do forgive me for not remembering the title). 

I gave it a solid chance, and I tried to get into it, even as a "bad" movie. But there's *nothing* there. It's a soulless, empty excursion into a very bad American mindset in the writing that is surrounded by the kind of direction that is bad on a Last Airbender level. It's pseudo-science fiction, or rather for people who think that brilliant science fiction is surrounded by offensively tasteless philosophy that is at best dated and at worst without any empathy.   It also kills you realizing what better things you could be doing, how you can actually be having real substantive arguments or reading stuff online or at home or watching a solid political or philosophical thing somewhere. It's pandering tripe of the lowest order that commits the ultimate sin, as Frank Capra would say, of boring the audience.

But hey, it's a resounding success according to FOX News, so all is right with the world! :D   And hey, can't wait for part 2 AND 3, especially that SEVENTY PAGE MONOLOGUE FROM JOHN GALT TRANSFERRED TO FILM....


Monday, April 25, 2011

Wes Craven & Kevin Williamson's SCRE4M

(Small spoiler ahead)

The first Scream movie and to a somewhat lesser extent Scream 2 had a neat novelty at the time it was released: a horror movie where the characters were aware of what kind of stakes and "rules" happen in a
horror movie. This should go without saying that most psycho-killers don't really care about 'rules' and will kill at whatever may happen (and the stuff about 'virgins' being the first or whatever is just hooey based on writer's conventions, not so much "This is How It's Done"). It had a nice meta quality that was acceptable and fun in the immediate post-Pulp Fiction era of post modern films. But now times have changed, and fifteen years after that first film meta is something that needs a tightrope walker to really pull off - even Matthew Vaughn, who tried his damndest to make Mark Millar's Kick-Ass work on screen, couldn't do it - since there still needs to be something realistic about the characters, something that makes them feel real in some way as people living in the world, while making the satire or commentary. Scream 4 fails with that.

It's not like it starts that way completely; the film opens with a kind of cinematic Inception where what seems to be the start of the film is really inside another film that is inside the film that is Scream 4, being that there's now several 'Stab' sequels (the "fake" movie horror series that is based on the events of the first Scream that started in Scream 2, kinda make sense, like Tropic Thunder's Scorcher series).  That is a creative bit of "meta"-ness and had me chuckling. Matter of fact there are a few moments in this film that had me chuckling or laughing after this, especially one moment I won't elaborate on here except it involves the surprise reveal of a corpse. But it's after this, when it gets into the main story of the 'Return of Ghostface to Woodsboro', the town where it all began with three of the characters (Sidney, Dewey and Gale), that it starts to dip down.

It's not just one thing that made me feel angry (and sometimes even bored) during this movie. The first and more egregious facet was Kevin Williamson's screenplay, which supplants being cheeky and cleverer-than- you for actual scares. While he tries to keep his "gotcha" sense of humor, none of the legitimate horror and suspense of the first couple of films is present here (I don't remember 3 which is enough to say about that). With the exception maybe of Sidney and Dewey, it doesn't seem like characters take much of what's going on super-seriously. To be sure, anyone in this film could be the killer, from the quirky new cop in shady lighting (Marley Shelton) to, hell, Sidney herself, which would've been a nice twist. When the reveal eventually came I was just "eh, whatever", and then Williamson continued to bash this point over our collective heads. It's not funny or insightful as a point anyway, it's just stupid.

"What's my motivation?" "Um... it's a movie, that's your motivation!"  
And another thing is how he doesn't even follow certain logical beats.  In the first part of the climax of the film (I say first as I think there are kind of two climaxes, neither very effective if sort of unintentionally funny), the killer seems to go to very exacting, precise, totally pre-meditated and pre-planned steps (all that's missing are the blueprints back at the bedroom) for making sure all of the characters die and that the killer is given the super thrashing to show the scars and be the new "victim" of the series. Except there is a point that wouldn't make ANY sense if the killer is meaning to tie up all loose ends, so the scene, which feeds into the second part of the climax at the hospital, just made me shake my head. I don't know what the movie was thinking at this point, except that Williamson and Craven fall into one of their own clich├ęs that they act as if they're above and beyond.  That the characters, who lack anything close to depth or relatability (even in a slasher movie, to give you an idea) is another mark against it

Maybe that's more chiefly it, and why I'd focus more on Williamson as the flaw here than Craven (though he certainly isn't a very good director of actors, certainly not for the actor who is revealed as the killer, or one of the killers anyway - that's not a spoiler, by the way, the series always has had two per movie). Aside from this point about not following the logic and lacking suspense, the smugness of the writing is what stands out. Sure you can write a scene that has a killing that is brutal and graphic in its bloodshed, but if we don't care about the characters or the situation what's the point? I didn't feel like anyone here, with the exception of possibly Sidney (to an extent, and even she flies off the rails in the last reel) and Sheriff Dewey (and who knew David Arquette could steal the show?), were real people that I could latch on to. It also doesn't help a 'real' person here, played by Mary McDonnell, doesn't last as long as one would like. No time for that, where's the commentary through new digital media and, uh, stuff?

But on top of not getting us to really care about the stakes and obstacles (some of) these characters are facing, Williamson just reminds us too frakking much that we're watching a "movie". It tries to poke fun at itself, but still wants us to take itself seriously as an honest- to-goodness plot, when so much of the movie lacks cohesion when it falls into the same traps it tries to mock. At this point with the reputation of this town and its denizens, even with the ass-clown movie geek teenage characters that make one pine for Jamie Kennedy and Matthew Lillard, who would go outside for a nano-second? Why even have your phone plugged in or cell phone on? And ultimately when it comes to the big reveal of the killers and what goes from there, this too lacks anything resembling stuff that's in the real world. And if you're going to go this route, go one step further and make the movie end with Wes Craven at the editing system looking at the footage going "Ain't I a stinker?" At least THAT would've brought things back around!

Tarantino should sue! ;)

Seriously, I didn't go into the film wanting to hate it, I have admiration for the films from the 90's and wanted the team to do well.  And for someone like Wes craven I wanted to wish him the best after a lackluster return to directing last year with My Soul to Take.  And yet he's not mostly to blame here (aside from brothers Weinstein).  Williamson has cited rewrites of the script by Scream 3 scribe Erhen  Kruger as possibly liable, but I'm not sure. The whole construction of many of these characters just lacks dramatic tension and drive. It's like what is referred to as being a "hipster", coming off (and for some  it may just be) so cool, but really it's too cool and too aware of itself, like a fake mustache. I eventually got angry at this movie for the choices it made, both in its writing and somewhat in its directing. It's not all the actors fault.

Maybe Stab 8 will be an improvement....