I haven’t had any time for reviews for awhile now, but here’s one question I have about movies over the past few years, especially about the big scifi action type: Will CGI continue its godawful drift to laziness/incompetence so that we’ll have to resurrect Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion technique for that wonderfully blended illusion of fantasy/realism? Just look at the CGI-in-your-face “After Earth” with Will Smith and Son (did they do those effects on an Apple 2 with a 5-1/4 floppy disk?). Watch just about any Big Effects movie today and then go to the original “King Kong” and “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” for inspiration.
Nollywood–as far as bigness is concerned Nollywood ranks third in the world, behind Hollywood (#1) and Bollywood (#2). Nollywood Babylon (not to be confused with Hollywood Babylon) is the name of a documentary on Nigeria’s slummovies, movies not shown in theaters, of which there are very few in Nigeria anymore, but mostly sold on dvds at kiosks and booths in the capital of Nigeria’s massive slum districts in Lagos. The movies are made on the cheap, maybe a few thousand dollars, and usually completed within a couple of weeks or even days. In this documentary filmmakers Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal go behind the scenes with one of the biggest of the slum movie directors, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen — aka “Da Governor. What are the themes? Religion, witches, sex, magic and urban culture. I watched this last night on Netflix’s streaming video (well worth the eight or nine dollars a month). In fact, I’ve become almost addicted to the number of instant watch videos at this service (includes TV shows and movies too), which you can play on your regular television (if you prefer that to your smaller computer screen), for example, via Playstation or Wii, etc.
Here are some other fascinating docs I’ve seen: Seoul Train: Independent Lens (about the plight of North Koreans fleeing the horrors of N. Korea, only to live a distressed life on the lam in China), The End of America (by Naomi Wolfe, about the dangerous excesses of Homeland Security under Bush), The Beauty Academy of Kabul (judging by the title this wouldn’t normally be something I’d be interested in but this turned out to be quite fascinating and inspiring), Loose Change (conspiracy theory about 9/11), Helvetica (yes, a documentary about the helvetica font), Islam: What the World Needs to Know (excellent interviews, source material about this very dangerous political movement)…There’s a ton more.
This trailer is from the above mentioned documentary. Type in Nollywood to get many more video examples on Youtube.
The Cement Garden
It’s not often a movie based on a book manages to actually do the written novel justice. A few have succeeded admirably. The Right Stuff (1983) comes to mind as perhaps the best example; also The Cement Garden (1994), and much more recently No Country for Old Men (2007) which, in fact, was more efficiently told than the book narrative.
Short short reviews:
Machine Girl (2008): Japanese. Beautfiul teen girl loses beloved kid brother to bullies and goes into lethal mode. Replaces lost arm from sword swipe with gatling gun (nice tradeoff). Combination Planet Terror (you know, the girl with the machine gun leg) and a localized Apocalypse Now with a lot of Troma thrown in. The gore scenes are so overdone–for example, severed limbs that spew blood like a fire hose–as to be if not inoffenseve at least hilarious, that is, if a severed head in a pot of soup tickles your funnybone.
Blobermouth (1990) Take the 1958 movie The Blob, with Steve McQueen, replace the original dialog, then syncronize new “stupid” dialog with existing mouth movements and, wala, there you have it. Funny but gets tired after about twenty minutes. Funny references to Mayberry characters (probably because a Maybery character–Helen Crump–is co-star).
The Devil Came on Horseback (2007): Former Marine Capt. Brian Steidle, bored out of his mind in civilian life, takes an observer job in Darfur, and chronicles the slaughter of black Africans by radical Islamics. Steidle is joined later by his sister who is part of a relief operation. The descriptions and photos of the genocide are quite disturbing.
The Yes Men Fix the World (2009): A couple of pranksters and crew, known as the Yes Men highlight the “political and economic shenanigans surrounding ecological catastrophes” and just plain stupidity of corporations and government bungling (the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in India, for example).
Helvetica (2007): Yes a documentary about the Helvetica font. It is the most popular font in the world. It’s employed in writing letters, designing corporate letterheads, advertizing. It is ubiquitous. It is the super hero of fonts. You see it in movie titles and books, the Post Office, government mailings. The designers who use the font, with their own unique artistic variations, can get very excited about it–downright passionate. If you’ve never thought a documentary about a mere font could be fascinating you should give this a try.
Black Dynamite (2009): Satire of the plethora of blaxploitation movies of the seventies. Though made in 2009 the move has the look and feel of those older movies, though this one culminates in a kung fu battle between X-CIA guy Mr Black Dynamite and President Richard Nixon. Great lines made even funnier by their straight deadpan delivery.
Black Sun (Hong Kong 1995, subtitled) Docudrama about what’s commonly called the Rape of Nanking (also the name of a book by Iris Chang which has become the definitive account; see her movie here). The Hong Kong movie has poor production quality with so so acting, but stays in tune with actual events. Disturbing grainy b/w photos from the actual massacre are interspersed throughout the acted drama which tries to recreate the actual horror as it happened; unfortunately much of the time the gore resembles a Troma movie. Uneven though the story is it’s still harrowing.
The worst part of Watchmen wasn’t part of Watchmen; it was the movie trailer for the creepy love god of torture scenes—the buggy-eyed Quentin Tarantino. His Inglorious something or other looks like a typical T-gorge torture comedy fest, dirty psycho dozen meets Hogan’s Col Clinks. (There is no doubt in my mind that someday police will find mutilated bodies buried in Tarantino’s yard.)
But I digress, I was in the theater to watch Watchmen. I’ve seen other comic-book-to movie adaptations (Thirty Days of Night, Sin City) but had never read the comic book originals. I’ve thumbed through the rather thick Watchmen comic in Barnes & Noble a while back (and I understand it’s on Time’s 100 best novels list), but I find I can never concentrate on those confusing word balloons; you have to first quickly sort out the various balloon sequences on each frame, amidst all the crowding color images. Which is sort of like eye thumbing through this movie.
Watchmen has the feel of Batman’s dark beaten down streets of Gotham, where red neon lights flash oily off the pavement and the city looks ragged and woefully drab like 70’s South Bronx. And after all, the present in the movie is set in the early eighties, in the Big Rotten Apple.
In a scenario where a very tall impervious-to-all-things blue-tinted man, made truly superhuman by a quark neutron molecular morphing nuke type of accident (think David Banner becoming the Incredible Hulk times 12, 000), the head Watchmen, with the really cool name, Dr Manhattan, has defeated the Vietcong, for example (a favor to John Kennedy), among other historically convenient things, then you know anything is possible. So it’s quite believable in this fantasy context that Nixon is or at least seems to be the perpetual president (three terms, and one has to wonder if Dr. Manhattan had fixed Watergate for him). The president spends most of his time in a Dr. Strangelove war room discussing the terrible conflagration now revving up with the Soviets (the Doomsday clock has been set to five minutes to midnight). Remember, once you release yourself from real life historical sequences and adopt the renderings of comic book fantasy rewrite, then everything in the movie makes perfect sense. (About ten minutes in on screen, however, I regretted not having gotten a hold of the novel).
Flashbacks come fast and furious (i.e., times preceding the eighties present) and gradually coalesce into a more steady run of the present in the real plot time—saving the world from nuclear conflagration, which is where the Watchmen will truly earn their keep, a situation dramatized by Nixon periodically injecting his sparse orders of attenuating defcon sequence readiness launch preparedness (yeah, there are five stages). Billions will be dead, but as construed and planned by the brilliant and at this point unsuspected “renegade” Watchman, Ozymandias, billions of charred remains can (and will) be reduced to mere millions by a kind of—what?–devastating pulsar in the middle of NYC that will bring the two sides—America and Russia–to their senses.
As annoying as flashbacks are they are essential here as context/character builders, at least as cult fans of the original comic novel demand. We get to know the superhero game this way. The Comedian, who we first meet as an older member of the team and who is not long after violently deceased in the opening, figures prominently in the rest of the story, especially in relation to another member of the Watchmen . (By the way, in case you’re still wondering about who was on the grassy knoll during the Kennedy assassination, it was the the Comedian…hmmmmm.) There is Dr. Manhattan and how he accidentally got so powerful, so godlike (this guy can walk on the face of the sun, change his height, manipulate matter and get away from it all by hanging out on Mars, to name just a few things he can manage). The sociopathic Rorschach (this guy has clearly spent too long in the superhero game), with, as the name implies, his ink-shifting face mask (and yes, he looks much better with it on; he also looks like the kind of figure you’d expect to see in a Dick Tracy comic). The sexy Laurie Jupiter (Silk Specter, actually Silk Specter II after her mother)—think extraordinarily tight latex with high heel boots, not to mention large pouting lips–and former lover of Dr Manhattan. The Night Owl (and one of two Watchmen who appear naked, the other being the good godlike Dr Manhattan with his ubiquitously swaying semi erect blue frontal member) . Ozymandias, the only retired member who has publicly identified himself and, by the way, is the renegade member engaged in a fiendish plot to teach humanity a lesson. Other members come and go in flashbacks.
The way in which the Watchmen dispatch villains–and there’s a thin line here between villains and heroes–is done with a cleaver, boiling grease, and a lot of bone-crunching. Sometimes the violence is left to the imagination, as when we see steams of blood pouring out from underneath a closeted urinal in a prison men’s room. In fact, breaking bones, set to lush Dolby streaming, seems to be a favorite pastime of the Watchmen. It even brings a smile to beautiful Larie’s face. Even Dr Manhattan, as powerful as he is, able to change matter, make things disappear, seems unable to kill without the resultant scene looking like , oh, say a hunter’s double-barreled shotgun blast to a rabbit.
One of the disjointed aspects, well, let’s call them disconnects, in such blue screen movies is that no matter how incredibly well done the CGI work is a lot of it looks like just that—digitally animated. Yeah, OK, it’s a long way from Tron but in some scenes (also something that plagued I Am Legend), for example, like the one where Dr Manhattan is on Mars with Laurie, it’s especially noticeable: in the very technical precision that was meant to convey reality, just the opposite occurred. I call it the Xbox 360 game effect. Other times it works superbly, and reaches that perfectly blended digital/real equation, as with the Watchmen’s cool little pod like flying ship.
Underneath the action fascade Watchmen is as cynical a movie as I’ve ever seen, In a flashback as he’s dispatching violent protesters the Comedian tells one of his cohorts, Homo Sapiens are pretty much just walking forms of shit (my paraphrase). Even as he’s tumbling to his death off a building, he manages “Life is a joke” (and that’s a direct quote). My sentiments exactly.
Update: Here’s an article on Alan Moore, who wrote the original Watchmen comic (Dave Gibbons drew the pics). He’s not very happy that they even turned it into a movie (the rights were controlled by the publisher, D. C. Comics).
Update: Here’s a nice 12 pic slideshow of the Watchmen.
Tropic Thunder and Lightning
I finally got around to seeing Tropic Thunder. I expected it to do for Vietnam war movies what Walk Hard did for reminiscing pop singers. It certainly met my expectations in the laugh department, but it had more to do with skewering our conception of Hollywood itself than it was, say a cariacture of Apocalypse Now, although by default that’s included too.
If you’re a bit of the nihilist, if there’s enough of the misanthrope in you, you can’t help but laugh out loud at Tropic Thunder. It’s one more notch in your six-gun of ridicule of human life. I mean If you tend to be drawn to anything that makes fun of human ego and its underlying emotional frailty, here called emotinality by “the dude playing the dude who’s disguised as another dude” (Robert Downey, Jr as Kirk Lazarus) then don’t be afraid to invest in some popcorn and enjoy these couple of hours. Along with the audience I laughed out loud throughout. Even the ending credits sequence was hilarious (hint: it involved Tom Cruise sort of rap dancing (yeah, you have to be there), interspersed with a couple of seconds shot illustrating each actor’s character. It’s one of the few times I’ve remained seated after the movie itself has ended.
Tropic Thunder is a movie within a movie, based on a book by a “handless Vietnam vet,” a one Mr. Four Leaf Tayback played by Nick Nolte who clearaly resembles his DUI police photo posted across the internet a couple of years ago. The book is–Tropic Thunder. Trouble is, they just can’t get it moving in the right direction; yeah, it’s shaping up a lot like the infamously no-end-in-sight production of Apocalypse Now.
Rather than face cancellation of the production by the ruthless producer Les Grossman (a very paunchy balding five o’clock-shadowed Tom Cruise, who shares a striking resemblance to the evil cat in a Mighty Mouse cartoon) they decide to take the movie to the real jungle in Laos–the Golden Triangle. They place strings of cameras and detonation charges to go off on cue during what promises to now be “gritty” you-are-there scenes of combat. Unfortunately , minutes after landing by helicopter, and after a short pep talk, the director steps on a left over land mine and is blown to bits. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) isn’t buying it. Nope, he’s too keyed up for an action movie, and thinks the director’s head, whcih he finds in the tall grass is merely a prop (the director “playing with his mind” sort of thing), and procedes to go into extreme joke mode (yes, he really milks it for us here) by tasting the “head guts” in front of his actor buddies, who suddenly aren’t really sure they’re on a jungle movie set anymorel. If his death–incredibly , aside from a cuddly panda, the only death in the movie by my count–means anything it means that actors, especially these particular actors, need a director. Soon the cast looks as hopelessly lost as Mr. Spock at a hug-in.
OF course we’ve seen this coming: they’re captured by a rag-tag Laotian drug militia–call it the gang in the jungle–run by what looks like some judo intensive cigar smoking fourteen year old. The climax comes in the great escape mode. Fortunately they have their special effects/helicopter guy with them who, along with Tayback, rig up a bridge with explosives. There’s a hell of a lot of gunfire; It all looks pretty damn deadly alright until you realize no one ever seems to actually get hit, not even the bad guys. Of course at least part of the reason for that is because the actors’ guns–genuine Hollywood FX issue–contain blanks. Of course there is that moment when they’re taking off in the copter and an RPG is hurtling towards them–but don’t worry it’s stopped in the nick of time by Speedman’s jungle-battered agent who suddenly appears and hurls a TIVO at it…well, let’s just say this this is an example of a picture being worth a thousand words.
There are running gags throughout this movie. The most “controversial” is probably Robert Downey Jr, a blond blue-eyed Austrailian dude who’s playing a black actor portraying a black soldier (that’s the context of the line, the dude who’s playing a dude that disguised as another dude. This also nicely sets up the comedy dialog between a real black actor (Alpa Chino), playing a black soldier (in other words, simply a dude playing a dude) and Downey. There’s also the comedy dialog between Downey and Stiller about how best to play a retarded man, referring in this case to Stiller’s role as Simple Jack, a flop of a movie about, well, a retarded man. It’s one reason Speedman/Stiller wants this new movie to be a big success. Part of this running gag is that Speedman finds it difficult to disengage from a role; so he’s pretty hyped up playing a soldier, just as he was too much into his role as Simple Jack. Another running gag involves one of the actor’s drug addictions; in fact, one of the funniest scenes in the movie stems from this–a heroin addicted Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) pouncing on and eating a crow that had just swooped down and stolen his bag of powder. He’s eating the bird for the powder–get it?
Despite the R rating (for violent mayhem and language) it actually wasn’t violent. I mean not in, say the Rambo IV way, and the foul mouthing was played right in character. I was surprised to find that Stiller was not only one of the writers but also the director.
Cloverfield Meets Vomit City
This movie made me almost throw up. Not from the content but from a wussy middle ear (as a kid I once vomited for a good hour after a ride on a merry-go-round at a carnival) deluged by visual cacophony—a constant throughout this camcorder-held POV movie.
Looks like I’m not the only vertigo victim of this movie (read comments here)
A big battering fireball-shooting monster (one a lot creepier than Godzilla) is loose in Manhattan. The closest we come to understand how it got there is when one of the fleeing characters mentions most unauthoritatively that it could be from a deep ocean crevice. But I didn’t care where the hell it came from. I only hoped it would soon stomp on the person holding the camera (unfortunately you have to wait for the end of the movie for that to happen). Nausea surged as the camera perspective violently shifted every second from one element of strung-along mayhem to another. Running. Dodging. Up. Down, Sideways. Now I know how Jimmy Stewart felt as he climbed those stairs in Vertigo. People seated to the right of me, to the left of me. I couldn’t have made a gracious exit to the rest room; no, if I had to unleash it would be better to do it down the inside of my coat. I wasn’t looking forward to it but at least I wouldn’t go through the indignity of hurling partially digested buttery popcorn onto someone’s lap.
Jittery camera effect is a good way to instill immediacy, to instill a non-structured, deliberalty confusing running account of action. Used sparingly and with special lighting effect it worked superbly in 28 Weeks Later. In its rawer form, it’s a technique often used in disaster sequences to give a jagged you-are-there context to a frightful predicament in progress (9/11 type footage comes to mind). The only other movie I know of off-hand that used the “camcorder POV technique” throughout was The Blair Witch Project.
What is jittery exactly? Take your pick: edgy, tense, anxious, ill at ease, in a state of nerves, in a state of agitation, fretful, uneasy, restless, fidgety, worked up, keyed up, overwrought, wrought up, strung out, jumpy, on tenterhooks, on pins and needles, with one’s stomach in knots (yeap), worried, apprehensive, strained, stressed; shaky, shaking, trembling, quivering (yeap, that was my stomach).
The problem is when a novelty technique—and that’s all it is– becomes the whole movie that whole movie becomes a novelty. In other words, the whole of it becomes something that should’ve been five minutes–not eighty. It’s as if you’re waiting for the real movie to finally begin, for the novelty shots to cease, so you can get your feet back down on the ground and get on with the real story.
Is there a plot to this movie? Not really. Not in the classic sense anyway. The crux of it is that during a kind of Soho loft party a group of young people are sipping cocktails and dancing—and blathering. And blathering. Someone has been designated to shoot the proceedings with a camcorder. Suddenly, after about fifteen minutes of image sparring and inane dialog (like the kind that drained blood from my brain during Death Proof), which seems like at least half the movie at this point, there are fiery explosions. Finally. In between dry heaves (which had started right from the beginning) I’m praying for just such destruction. Maybe one of them would blow up the camcorder (along with the annoying person holding it) and the movie will end early. At first we have no idea what’s causing these fireballs: Then we realize, through fleeting glimpses, that there’s a VBM (Very Big Monster) loose in the city. There’s a lot of little monsters loose too but they seem to be easily clubbed to death. As our group of partygoers make a run for it, trying to get out of Manhattan they are intermittently assisted by groups of soldiers, who have so far been battling this monster to little effect. Buildings are going down at an alarming rate. (Trying to calm my bubbling stomach, I’m visualizing pleasant alternative non-jittery images–of how Manhattan could now be finally rebuilt to a great new standard of beauty–a new park here, a new one there, wider streets with pedestrian bridges). The head of the Lady Liberty lands in the middle of the street. Military helicopters are whirling by. Jets careen trough the night air at building top level, dropping bombs. We see this in quick bursts. I’m not even looking at the screen anymore except maybe for five or six seconds at a time. I look up to see our partygoers descend into the subway. I look up again and see them leave the subway. they’re running. They are in a helicopter; it’s crashing, spinning violently. The camcorder is spinning violently. Top, bottom, sideways. The surround sound gets deafening. Even staring at my shoes doesn’t help my stomach. My inner ear is flashing a red Danger light. I’m trapped in a video game being manipulated by sadistic twelve-year olds.
Thank God after about an hour and a half the monster finally won and put a stop to my suffering.
Walk Very Hard
When I first read a one-line synopsis of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (starring John C. Reilly) I figured it was probably in the parody vein of This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, both sort of subtly funny movies. Turns out Walk Hard is more in the vein of, well, something akin to Airplane (without the airplane) produced by the writing staff of Mad Magazine.
Dewey Cox is a singer who’s had some ups and downs in his life and career, starting when as a young boy growing up on his parents’ ramshackle farm in Alabama he accidentally cut his brother clean in half with a machete (don’t worry, it’s done in funny mode). Turns out this incident comes in mighty handy for young Dewey. They say you need to have suffered before you can sing the blues so this at least gives Dewey some great blues background for that singing gig he gets in an all black club of erotic dancing. His rendition of “Mama, you got to love your Negro man” goes over well with the at first shocked black audience and, fortunately for Dewey’s career, also with some visiting Orthodox rabbis who also happen to be music producers looking for fresh talent.
Then there was his marriage at age fourteen to a twelve year old girl that caught his eye at the school talent show. Then there were all those kids he began having from that point on (I think he ends up with forty or fifty by various women by movies end).
On his way up the musical ladder in the late fifties Dewey meets at least two Elvises. Elvis Costello, looking like a twelve-year old with immense glasses, and a karate-obsessed hilariously overplayed word-drawling Elvis Presley (“Dewey, only two kinds of people in the world know real karate– me and the Chinese”).
Dewey changes musical personas through the passing decades, trying to keep up with the times, taking on the styles and looks of Bob Dylan (“…mailboxes drip like lampposts in the twisted birth canal of the coliseum…), Johnny Cash, the psychedelic Beatles and the Partiridge Family. There’s the sixties social awareness songs and causes too, like supporting midget liberation. Throughout, Dewey Cox has an innocent though flustered pudgy Teddy Bear look, even when he’s high and destructive on PCP and overturning cars and climbing up the side of a building to escape police.
Not only is pop music itself heavy-handedly parodied (satire would be too sophisticated a description) along with the various on-the-road drug crazes—marijuana, cocaine, LSD (which involves a funny minute or two of a Yellow Submarine type cartoon where the trip is going bad), ecstasy and various uppers and downers, but also repressed sexuality, race, dress, marital cheating, even an implied parodying of Michael Jackson’s lifestyle with a giraffe and a chimp he lodges in his house. Even nudity itself is parodied in the guise of full male and female frontal nudity (brought down to the level of un-redeeming social value scenes). There’s even a dose of uptight religion parody. As Dewey’s just starting out in his singing career (we’ll call it the early innocent American Bandstand era) an uptight pastor scolds Dewey’s “devil music” because one of the lines involves holding hands (it’s sinful—“the Devil has hands–and he holds things”).
Of course as pop parody/cheap laughs Walk Hard has a lot of competition. Not with other movies in its genre but in the lives of real life pop figures. American Idol performers in police mug shots, Britney Spears publicly shaving her head (and running over paps), tattooed blues singer Amy Winehouse walking the London streets late at night in just a bra and cruxifix, Rap stars in shootouts…but maybe all that’s being saved for Walk Hard 2.
I Am CGI
I always look forward to movies in the huge digital screen theater in my area, the kind where even a not so great movie at least comes out looking its best. That’s why I especially looked forward to I Am Legend starring Will Smith. I had been treated to the trailer tease for months. Plus, I love survivalist, end-of-the-world movies (Land of the Dead, 28 Weeks Later, Planet Terror, etc).
Scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith), along with his ubiquitous dog companion—a German Shepard named Sam–have bonded well. And that’s a good thing because there aren’t many people left; in fact, Will is the only human in Manhattan (sort of). There are traffic jams but they’re frozen in place, the occupants long since gone. At first, during say the first half hour or so of the movie, it looks like a lot of Omega Man (like in the Charlton Heston version by that name) fun, hunting deer that run in huge herds in between the abandoned cars and buildings, golfing off the horizontal tail wing of the SR-71 Blackbird parked on the deck of the USS Enterprise, looting stores for supplies and even hot-rodding through downtown in a cool red muscle car (gas is free for the pumping).
Of course omega type fun doesn’t exist in a vacuum. That’s why Will carries some formidable weaponry (no, as you’ve probably guessed it’s not just for hunting deer). You can see why he carries it when he enters a dark foreboding building looking for his dog which has barked up a deer inside, which brings you to the creepiest part of the movie (and unfortunately creepiness slowly descends down hill after this). It’s almost as creepy as the scene involving a manikin that Will has named Fred (remember he’s lonely) that suddenly turns up in a different spot from where it had always been before. “How did you get there, Fred?” a very agitated Will suddenly shouts before machine gunning it in half. This doesn’t appease Will’s anxiety all that much and he starts blasting the windows out of a lot of tall buildings. It’s completely understandable, being an omega man can play havoc on one’s nervous system. It would mine. It’s in the dark places of buildings, after all, where the CGI characters live. And they’re not stupid. They are quite capable of playing with Will’s mind by moving a store manikin.
I doubt you could do most movies today without at least some CGI (computer generated imagery). Whether it’s relegated to background as buildings, ships, huge crowds, etc or even in many cases the characters themselves (as in Beowulf). Without it you certainly couldn’t film Manhattan full of grass sticking up from the city’s asphalt, or herds of deer (and a lion or two) scouring for food.Yeah, there’s a lot of CGI background in I Am Legend but it’s most telling in the “zombies” that Will is forced to battle. It’s done well. In fact it’s done too well. The “zombies” aren’t really zombies but infected humans that have become quickly genetically altered, looking a lot like the aliens in Signs, and to think this all started from the side effects of an anti cancer drug. Why make just an eerie genetically altered figure whose suffering from a virus when you can make him not only look slimy and veiny and nearly translucent but also make him jump and bound like Spiderman and have his mouth open triple its normal size and give him some near X-men capabilities. Suddenly as the CGIers come in close proximity to Will and his dog their CGIness takes on a GQS (Gaming Quality Syndrome): Now Will and his dog are suddenly locked in a violent Xbox 360 game.
The story line is fairly simple: Will Smith is a scientist who is working on a vaccine, at least when he’s not hotrodding after herds of deer. He tests his concoctions on rats and cleverly captured CGI characters. At night he draws the extremely heavy duty shutters and sometimes sleeps with his dog and machine gun in the bathtub. Night is when the CGIs, Dracula like, walk about. After Will’s dog becomes infected by a CGI dog he seeks revenge which unfortunately places him in a very precarious position in the dead of night: CGIers now have him trapped in his overturned vehicle. Fortunately for Will he is saved by a beautiful woman named Anna (Alice Braga) who has been driving with her son through Manhattan towards a human survivor colony in Vermont. She must be especially beautiful to Will who after all hasn’t seen a real woman in a long time. The only people he’s seen are on TIVO shows now run on generators. There’s nothing romantic here; no mush, just some survival bonding. Fortunately, in a fast ascencding climax scientist Neville discovers that one of his experimental vaccines is working on a sedated CGI female. Unfortunately this discovery comes at a time when the zombies are breaking into his lab. Neville gives up his life along with the infected ones so that Anna can escape and deliver the vaccine to those survivors up north. Neville’s sacrifice and discovery, however, do not quite emotionally succeed in giving him the legend movie title. There’s probably no one left that knows of him in the first place.
It used to be that pre-CGI directors, in order to give their scenes a little twist would slosh and roll the camera. The result was that you became very aware of the camera—and hence all the things behind it, including the cameramen and director. You became too conscious that this was just a movie after all by the techniques used to shoot it. To an extent these tricks are still done today. There is the very effective and deliberate jittery camera work so apparent in 28 Weeks later—and there it worked superbly. Too much elaborate CGI work can produce the same effect. There’s a scene where Will is wounded in the leg from an accident as he makes his way back to his vehicle. As he does so he and Sam are attacked by CGI dogs, also suffering from the virus, so they look less like dogs than giant hairless rats with the teeth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. They have that cartoonish, though ferocious, superimposition look about them, sort as if they had stumbled out of a Jeckel and Hyde version of Scooby Doo. I realize computer rendered scenes are integral in movies today, and many digital images are very effective by blending in seamlessly (the new King Kong was a masterpiece digital imagery for the most part) but I look forward to when prominent displays of digitalization will rival those images of Ray Harryhausen’s famous stop-motion effects. My favorite? The skeleton battle in the Seventh Voyage of Sindbad.
That Seventies Gangster
“Either you’re somebody or you ain’t nobody” says Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas through Denzel Washington in American Gangster. In Frank Lucas’s particular rise to sombodyness it took a high body count, not only of fellow gangsters, snitches and foul ups but also hundreds upon hundreds, probably thousands over the years, of heroin ODers in Harlem alone.
American Gangster takes place in the seventies. You can’t miss that it’s the seventies. Every time a TV is present and on so is the Vietnam war or Nixon. There’s also the bad haircuts and polyester suits and wide collar shirts. And there’s the huge black mustaches straight off the faces of the Village People. The cars are big and clunky gas guzzlers. The undercover cops all look like Serpico. NY street scenes look decayed and raunchy. Everything has a depressing grittiness to it; you just know that if you were to see a scene in the subway (which you don’t) the cars would be covered by graffiti. But the direction and layout and photography and props are so good that it’s as if you’re looking at the movie from the seventies. This is Abe Beame’s murky deteriorated NYC. It certainly doesn’t have any of the clarity or discipline of Giuliani’s or even Bloomberg’s city.
Starting off, Frank Lucas is a killer and collector for gangster Bumpy Johnson—the King of gangster Harlem. Bumpy taught Lucas everything he knows but when Johnson dies from a heart attack Lucas takes control and collects on old debts and takes Bumpy’s kingdom to a new level. He carries out his business tasks with a gifted executive’s efficiency, though one enforced by gun play. Lucas never forgets Johnson. Later in the movie, when Lucas is showing his Puerto Rican beauty queen some of his photos of Martin Luther, Jr. and Johnson it’s the latter that he praises the most highly.
Lucas is normally cool-headed (except for when he gets mad, like in the scene where he bashes a man’s head with the heavy lid of a grand piano), and likable, very likable. Denzel Washington smoothly dichotomizes that personality’s twin elements: capital C Chrisma with that of the killer businessman. Washington’s facial change is eerie when the dichotomy turns in a second, like dark matter instantly absorbing a bright star. Of course he only morphs to darkness with his own people when they do sloppy work, like not being vigilant enough. But it’s his engaging personality and demeanor that stand out in the movie. Lucas is no jive-talking superfly. He’s engaging, no matter how many bodies you know lie behind him and no matter how you won’t feel satisfied until he and his organization are finally brought down. Call it the Jesse James syndrome if you will.
Lucas not only takes over Harlem from rival gangsters, or at least takes over an extremely profitable part of it, shooting a particularly nasty one in the head right on the street in broad daylight in front of a street full of people (a carefully planned business move, mind you), but makes the well-entrenched Italian mob look like small fries. Frank Lucas can put 500 guns in the street if he has too, and all he has to do is say the word.
Lucas’s business savvy, and foundation of his wealth, becomes apparent when he starts buying his keys of heroin direct from Thailand, from the Golden Triangle, going there himself several times (something he didn’t like doing; the place was too unAmerican) to arrange deals. Lucas, in cahoots with a cousin in the military (a well placed NCO), makes his payoffs directly with the heroin suppliers. Select military personnel are paid off and the keys of heroin are loaded in specially constructed caskets that fly home to the states along with the bodies in military transport aircraft. (There was once, according to Lucas, though not shown in the movie, a bunch of keys sent home on Henry Kissinger’s transport plane because no other large planes were available at the time.) Throughout the operation there are plenty of greased palms.
American Gangster uses scenes of violence sparingly, as if they’re brutal symbols implanted throughout the two and a half hours. In fact the movie opens with just such a symbol.
Lucas’s drug business is a family affair: he brings his brothers and nephews and mother from North Carolina up to Harlem. He has also set his mother (Ruby Dee) up in a mansion. Frank Lucas’s business takes off–Big Time, eventually a million dollars a day. He has so much cash he hides his petty stuff, maybe a few hundred thousand, maybe a few million, in boxes and bags (one such huge amount is found under a dog house). The real money he treats with more respect. It goes into off shore accounts and into properties and front businesses. Chase Manhattan managers even launder money for him. Of course his business success is boosted by a corrupt police force who, for the right price, turn their collective gaze the other way. The more successful Frank Lucas is the more successful of course the cops are too in lining their own pockets. In fact, the only way you can tell some of these guys are cops is that they flash their badges when they want somebody’s attention.
Before the system can catch a Frank Lucas it needs an honest cop. Enter detective Richie Roberts portrayed by a stocky boyish faced (made extra boyish by a seventies haircut–think Chekhov from Star Trek or Davy Jones from the Monkees) Russell Crowe. Richie has a reputation of honesty which doesn’t sit well with fellow cops. He once turned in a million dollars he found in a drug runners car trunk. Yes, that’s honest (most people, myself included, would’ve taken at least a couple of big handfuls). Roberts is a stressed man who sweats a lot; his wife is divorcing him and wants custody of their boy, and on Thanksgiving he’s reduced to eating a sandwich with crunched up potato chips on it (comically juxtaposed against Lucas having a huge turkey feast with his family).
One reason Roberts is stressed, that is, aside from his bad marriage, is because an honest cop out of Newark doesn’t get backup when he needs it, which can really make you sweat. Another stress factor is when he finds out his trusted partner has gone bad and later turns up in the morgue. It’s only when Richie gets to work with the Feds in an early version of the Drug Enforcement Administration (the DEA) that things turn around. Through surveillance and snitches, and fellow cops he can trust, they eventually track down the marketer of Blue Magic, Lucas’s brand name for his high-quality heroin bags that are sold on the street; keys are sold to other dealers like Nicky Barnes (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), another huge operator in Harlem, known as Mr Untouchable. Along with his special squad of honest cops (that’s what makes them special) he eventually brings the downfall of not only Lucas but dozens of corrupt cops.
Not every scene takes place in Harlem or the NJ-NY axis. There are several exotic scenes that take place in and were shot in, Thailand, including skimpily attired go-going bar girls and very naked back room massage girls. Then there’s the jungle outpost in the golden triangle where poppies grow like cotton, supervised by a former Chinese general from old Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang.
The movie is an intense point-counter point between Lucas and Roberts, and the movie’s length–some two and a half hours– is fairly evenly divided between both characters who don’t come directly into play with each other until three quarters of the way though.
Towards the climax there is an intense shoothout in a projects building where heroin cutting and processing is done by a group of naked, except for surgical masks, women.
If Lucas was a businessman, which he was, then could the movie then have been called American Businessman instead of American Gangster? Theoretically yes, but then people heading to the movies might just unsuspectingly think this is the story of Ken Lay. Imagine their surprise. Of course unlike Lay, Lucas is still alive and kicking (though sentenced to 70 years his sentence was reduced to fifteen for his collaboration in pointing out other drug dealers, including bad cops–he served seven and lived those in deluxe style) . Frank Lucas worked as a creative, efficient CEO in a very dark, murderous, destructive context and you have to wonder, if he hadn’t operated in a segregationist society, if his context had been vastly expanded, would he have become, say, a Ken Lay? Would he have started Enron and become a financial gangster instead of a drug gangster? Maybe. On the other hand, maybe he would’ve been a regular intrepid CEO, like Jack Welsh of GE perhaps. Who knows.
I suppose you can say the real attraction of this movie is the simple horrible fascination we experience at witnessing a corrupt, violent, destructive world that we don’t have to live in. And even though this is some parallel universe in another time, in our voyeurism we get the satisfaction of seeing the bad guys finally going down and its charismatic kingpin humbled before the law (though without losing any of that appealing charisma).
The script idea for American Gangster came from a New York Magazine article by Mark Jacobson from a 2000 issue; it was called The Return of Superfly and can still be read online. You can also read a 2007 dialog between Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes, moderated by MarkJacobson, The Lords of Dopetown. The excellent script was written by Steven Zallian (“Schindler’s List”). The movie’s directed by Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator).
The real detective Richie Roberts has his say. Incredibly, Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas are friends and “talk almost every day, and they usually meet once a week at Mr. Roberts’s expansive law office here. Mr. Roberts also is the godfather to Mr. Lucas’s son, Ray, 11, and helps to pay for the child’s education.”
Update: here’s an opposing view from a NY Times blog.
Update: The History Channel has a documentary called, appropriately enough, “American Gangster,” about the very subject of the movie–but more graphic, less concerned with the art of script. It’s a $1.99 on iTunes (it runs about forty-five minutes).
Rambo IV: Love it or leave it.
I’ve never been a big fan of Sylvester Stallone’s movies. I liked First Blood, the first of the Rambo movies, but after that is was strictly down hill, especially with the third Rambo, the one which had him in Afghanistan lending a killing hand to the so-called mujahideen against the Soviets (big mistake). So against my better judgment I went to see Rambo IV last night. Actually I had been planning to see Meet the Spartans, which I thought would be on the zaniness level of Airplane or Walk Hard (I understand it isn’t very funny at all) but instead I opted for the new Rambo.
Rambo must save a group of well-meaning Christian missionaries (very politically incorrect in this day and age) who were bringing in medicine and medical help and who are now in the hands of brutal Burmese troops. Seems the missionaries are in the wrong village at the wrong time. They’re placed in bamboo cages; one of them is strung up in a pig’s pen where the beasts quite graphically gnaw the flesh off his body. The troops make great sport of torturing and killing, especially villagers they feel are not loyal to the government. It’s not pretty. Flies hover and buzz around bloated and decaying corpses. Headless bodies are placed in graves. Body parts are strewn about. Some of the death footage is real, taken from the recent crackdown on thousands of Buddhist monks and their sympathizers.
As usual Rambo, now in league with a handful of mercenaries hired by the church group trying to get its missionaries back, doesn’t talk much (he mostly says what he has to say with his eyes and muscle flexing). Maybe that’s because he’s been living in relative seclusion in Thailand for “a long time”, eking out a living catching deadly snakes for snake charmers in tourist shows, at least that’s what he’s doing as the movie starts. Rambo is initially hired to bring the missionaries to a clandestine drop off destination up river in evil Burma. His obligation to the group is supposed to end there. It doesn’t. He’s especially touched by one of the missionaries, a very gentle and beautiful woman who braves brutality and risks her life to help stricken villagers. Evidently, down deep, her kindnesses renew Rambo’s own faith.
There’s been some controversy about Stallone’s appearance, that perhaps he had been using steroids for his role in this movie. The man’s bigger than the Incredible Hulk’s bigger hulkier brother (if he ever leaves movies he’d make a great baseball player). I mean this guy rips through the bad guys like an eighteen wheeler on PCP.
I you’re looking for a non-pretentious, politically incorrect movie with climaxing layers of action, all with pulsating surround sound (e.g., Rambo unleashing a massive explosion that takes out half the jungle or pumping an anti-aircraft gun with the ease of use of a cap pistol) than get a ticket.
After his son’s throat is fatally slashed by a gang member who must pass his initiation by killing someone at random, the father, Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) foregoes the deal-making of the prosecutor/defense lawyers (mandatory two years hard time is better than nothing, he’s told) for his own heartfelt justice. He follows the killer home to a dumpy section of town and administers well, a death sentence.
The dead gang member just happens to be the gang leader’s brother. Now Nick is being marked for a death sentence. Unfortunately the gang finds Nick a tough opponent and it isn’t long before another gang member (mostly all white by the way which turns out to be a kind of satire by itself) bites the dust, actually he bites the asphalt when he is rolled off the roof of a parking garage, the climax of an extremely well done and intense foot-chase scene. Keep in mind Nick, the hunted, is just trying to stay alive. At this point he resembles a deer barely escaping the headlights of an SUV.
The beautiful but languid monotone-voiced female detective (Aisha Tyler) assigned to the case is getting suspicious now after the second death. “If you started this war,” she tells him, “God help you.” Of course, like Iraq, this war hasn’t seen its last battle. Despite police protection they manage to kill his wife and seriously wound his other son. Up to this point the movie has followed what we might call standard operating procedure. But then there’s Part B and it’s as if the Part A director (James Wan) was suddenly replaced by Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror) and Quentin Tarrintino (Death Proof, Kill Bill). Yeah, we’re headed very fast into 70s Grindhouse mode. Nick has now procured an armful of guns, unwittingly it turns out, from the gang leader’s very sleazy fat sweaty dad, Bones (John Goodman). “Go with God and a bag full of guns,” he tells his cash customer who just laid down 5 grand.
Of course, before the coming surge, there is one thing left for Nick to do: haphazardly shave his head. There’s something symbolic here but I can’t quite place it. Maybe it’s symbolic of his completing his degradation—becoming the other (as in the object of his revenge). Whatever it is it sure adds to the climatic juice. Make no mistake, this second part of the movie plays out in the fantasy section of the mind’s R-complex layer of the brain. This is Rambo First Blood contained in the confines of a single old dilapidated building. We’re talking shotgun damage producing great bodily death. Guys are blown out windows, through walls. Smoking holes appear everywhere. Glass explodes. A leg flies off. Fingers are blasted away. Nick has definitely lost his deer-caught-in-the-headlights stare.
This climax is pure emotional gratification–remember we’re operating in R complex mode—and so we are allowed to temporarily ignore our badge of civilization with impunity. We can ignore the frustrating subtleties of the slow winding course of law and lawyers, which is why I so enjoyed this movie.
Sweeney Todd–A Cut-throat Production
To say director Tim Burton’s blood opera Sweeney Todd is a cut-throat production does in no way refer to its production values. It’s meant literally. Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), London’s demon barber of Fleet Street is a vengeance movie involving very sharp shaving blades. Sweeney Todd had been unjustly sent to spend fifteen years in a penal colony so that a high ranking judge (who’s in desperate need of some time on Sigmund Freud’s couch), Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), would have access to Todd’s beautiful wife and daughter—to take as his own. Of course that was way back when Sweeny Todd was an innocent boyish looking Benjamin Barker. The short fleeting flashbacks to this past life are airy and sunlit, a stark contrast to the rest of the movie which is gorgeously rendered in dirty layered grays and darkness. This is London configured by Hieronymus Bosch, a true purgatory (though perhaps it s more like Hell). Even Dickens would look aghast at this London. It is dark and foreboding, and you certainly get the impression this is a place where any of the teeming human populace would enjoy nothing more than viewing a gruesome hanging before breakfast. Everyone seems in need of a hot bath.
Though dark, there are moments of humor, some in the songs themselves and in the tart remarks of Todd’s lover and accomplice Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, wife of the director), and also in a very funny scene where a rescued young scallywag (sort of an indentured servant boy) is served rum with his meal and tells Mrs Lovett to leave the bottle after she pours him a glass. Speaking of songs, which break out at the slightest opportunity (this is opera after all), if it weren’t for the grisly lyrics in some of them, they would form a refreshing counterpoint to the dark background and grisly goings-on in the barber chair and down below where the bodies pile up. Todd’s first victim is a very ornate (and true opera mannequin) barber Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen–aka Borat, aka Ali G). Many more follow.
Once you have the bloodlust of vengeance, so the movie graphically suggests, it is but a short trip to insanity and bloodlust for itself, especially when there is profit in it. Why, after all, waste all those cadavers when Mrs Lovett can fill her meat pies with them, that is, after they’ve been properly ground in a huge grinder (turns out Todd also has a certain mechanical ingenuity). The pies sell like hotcakes, and proves Mrs. Lovett to be a fine businesswoman.
The graphic display of blood-squirting throat cutting is disturbing, a ballet of Todd’s razors. After watching this movie I woke up several times during the night clutching my throat and taking in deep gulps of air. I should also say that this dread was somewhat countered by my strange attraction to Mrs Lovett’s Gothic Emo appearance (not usually my cup of English tea)—immensely dark eyes made even more pronounced by aureoles of more darkness, and then there were those fingerless lace gloves and the low cut wench bodice …but of course I must be careful. I wouldn’t want to make Sweeney Todd jealous.
And of course let’s not forget the real Sweeney Todd. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of.