Monday, November 26, 2007

The Writers' Strike

The word on the street is that a deal will soon be struck between the robber barons and those Hollywood factory workers, the writers. This has been an interesting development and the first time E! has ever aired real news. Not that I'm singling them out, it has also been the first time in a long time CNN has aired real news as well.

The movie studios were supposed to have been safe. After all, don't they have an endless number of scripts of remakes and sequels locked away in that warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Unfortunately Hollywood forgot just one thing, that each script is tinkered with endlessly by an orgy of writers to make absolutely certain every film is exactly the same. Johnny Depp's next flick, Wolverine, and some others have been the victim of their scripts not being ready. Which begs the question, why is a film being OKed with a subpar script. Shouldn't that be the first thing in place to make a good movie, or have I just answered my own question?

Before the strike began the thought was that since the 1988 strike reality television had caused a shift in the balance of power. After all, no one writes those witty lines for Simon Cowell, that's pure Simon, and American Idol happens to be the most popular show on television. Apparently people don't want fake TV, they want fake TV pretending to be real. Too bad the networks already tried this several years ago with a reality television craze. Too bad most of those shows bombed. Does anybody remember Tommy Lee Goes to College because I certainly don't. I don't suspect there has been much short term damage, even with the immediate death of most "variety shows." Although, I will admit I've been watching less television, not that I watched that much to begin with. Here's a little clip to tide over all you Daily Show fans.

Not surprisingly, the writers have apparently been winning the war of words. I mean who are you going to side with, some rich guy that forced American Idol on the world or the person that makes Stephen Colbert say all those funny things. Writing for a living probably helps get your message across as well. A new poll says that 63 percent of Americans side with the writers.

This is another interesting situation where the internet has given more power to artists and less power to the robber barons. Earlier in the year Radiohead forged their own small revolt by leaking their own album online and then asking people to pay what they want. The writers are using the internet as a means of communication, and now that communication is slowly being democratized, the people are seeing fewer producers being interviewed on CNN and more youtube videos of picket lines. On a level playing field the pen beats the purse every time.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Margot At the Wedding

Margot at the Wedding (4/5)

Margot at the Wedding, previously known by its original title, A Weekend of Dysfunction, is the latest film by auteur Noah Baumbauch. I first heard of Baumbauch when he replaced Owen Wilson as screenplay collaborator with Wes Anderson on the divisive The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Both directors share an interest in family dysfunction, which has largely defined Anderson’s later films and Baumbauch’s last film, The Squid and the Whale, was an ugly portrayal of divorce. The difference between Baumbauch and Anderson is that Anderson actually likes people. If there is one thing Margot at the Wedding is not, it’s uplifting.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) takes her son Claude to Long Island for her sister Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) marriage to Malcolm (Jack Black). Mentioned, but not present, are Margot’s other son, a third sister, and Margot and Pauline’s mother. In the fine tradition of great short storytellers, Baumbauch uses the great Hemingway analogy of the iceberg for story structure, and while we are privy to plenty of sordid secrets that are unveiled over a series of days, you can’t shake the feeling that there is even more hiding under the water. In other words, it’s the kind of film Freud would gleefully add to his DVD collection.

I’ve never been a big fan of Nicole Kidman but she does a great job as a character who is entirely unredeemable. This isn’t some lovable goof who’s just a little selfish, this is someone who mentally abuses her son, someone who becomes angry at others when they do something altruistic because it makes her feel bad that she wouldn’t do the same thing. There is absolutely nothing likable about Margot. Pauline and Malcolm aren’t too far behind. Malcolm is an unemployed “letter writer” who, when frustrated, is prone to yell profanities at Pauline. Pauline is the most likable of the three but at times can seem weak and it’s suggested that she’s marrying Malcolm out of desperation. John Turturro shows up part way through the film as Jim, Margot’s husband, to remind us that truly good adults do exist, and also to remind us that John Turturro is still a kick ass actor, and to make us wonder why the Coen Brothers didn’t cast him in No Country For Old men since he’s been in most of their movies anyway – I mean, he was Barton Fink in Barton Fink for chrissakes – you would think they could have squeezed him in someplace, maybe a cameo like he has here or something.

With the exception of Jim, the only decent human beings are Claude and his cousin Ingrid. Much like The Squid and the Whale the children are used as proxies by the adults so that they can air out their frustrations and to covertly disseminate damaging secrets without being held accountable. At the end of the film Margot has to make a decision to stay at her son’s side or to leave him behind. I won’t tell you what she decides but at the time I thought it would be better to have them separated.

Unlike The Squid and the Whale the film is more concerned with the adults than the kids so we spend most of the time with characters we cannot relate to and any sort of emotional growth is nonexistent. This is a brave decision when you ask the audience to loath people they’re going to spend two hours with. But why not? There are terrible people in the world and why shouldn’t there be terrible people in movies? Reasons why Margot is so dysfunctional are hinted at but any kind of revealing moment where Margot describes a childhood trauma in detail with “Adagio for Strings” is playing is strictly avoided. Perhaps we could forgive her if the film wasn’t so blatant in its portrayal of Margot’s mental abuse of Claude. I can’t promise everyone will like the film but I can promise it won’t leave your mind quickly.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Southland Tales

Southland Tales (2/5)

Ever since the doomed premier at Cannes, I’ve always been intrigued by Southland Tales. Call it perverse, but I had the same reaction when I heard about Marie Antoinette being booed by the French. In some weird way I thought that the French, who have produced some of the most pretentious films in the world, just didn’t “get it” and here were two films that defied even the culture that gave us Althusser, Lacan, and Derrida. After seeing Marie Antoinette I realized how wrong I was. In fact a few more pretensions would have helped that film. Instead it was an ahistorical mess that obscured the tragedy of a starving nation with pretty shots of cakes and a few good songs. Imagine if in The Last King of Scotland Idi Amin Dada was just a foolish leader who liked to play with army men and was completely unaware of any political executions. For some reason I think Ugandans would have booed that film as well.

This brings me back to Southland Tales, a film for which the word “mess” seems like an understatement. We begin with an overabundance of voiceover, perhaps the laziest cinematic technique in a director’s bag of tricks. The narrator is Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) an Iraq War veteran who carried some facial scars back from the desert. We are informed that after several nuclear attacks Republicans have control of congress and have implemented The Patriot Act on steroids. The Republican presidential contender is Bobby Frost along with the VP candidate Eliot (Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot are quoted throughout the film). Frost’s son in law, Boxer Santaros (played wonderfully by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), an action movie star, was lost in the desert but wound up in the arms of porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Geller), star of a talk show, a hit single (“Teen Horniness is Not a Crime”), and an energy drink which, apparently, is “very, very good.” Boxer has amnesia and is unaware that his wife Madeline (Mandy Moore), Bobby Frost’s daughter, is waiting for him at home, and is also unaware that Krysta Now is in cahoots with a band of Neo-Marxists who plan on framing Boxer for a double homocide in an attempt to sabotage the impending presidential race. In turn, to accomplish their mission the Neo-Marxists have employed the twin brother of a supposed police officer, Roland/Ronald Tavener (Stiffler…er, Sean William Scott), who takes Boxer along with him on his police rounds. Oh, and there is a also Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn, more commonly known as the guy who says “inconceivable” in A Princess Bride) who has some sort of building off the coast of Venice Beach that promises clean, renewable energy. Don’t worry, I’m not giving much away since you learn this within the first fifteen minutes thanks to the overbearing voiceover. The question I have is how the back jacket to the DVD will read. Inevitably the first line will be “It’s the end of the world…and we all feel fine!”

At even two and a half hours, you would think that the film would have to move along at breakneck speed to fit in so many plots and subplots. Unfortunately this is not the case. Each subplot has only about ten minutes of story arc a piece, maybe Boxer’s is a little longer, but the result is that we forget about Roland/Ronald Tavener’s story for long stretches of time and when he shows up again I couldn’t help but think to myself, “how long as the twin brother been knocked on conscious and left in a garbage bin?” The film would have been better served if it was a series of nominally related shorts that take place in the same universe (note to Richard Kelly: feel free to borrow my idea but I expect revenues!)

One of the problems is that, like Star Wars, these are chapters four, five, and six of a larger story that begins with some comic books I haven’t read. When final revelations are uncovered they’re about incidents that take place off screen and are only briefly mentioned. Similarly, the alliances and double crosses are unclear as well and any shock or suspense is deflated. Despite the immensity of the project, and the fact that twenty minutes have already been trimmed from the final product, you get the feeling that even more could have been cut; the film tries to make confusion a strength anyway and how many scenes do we need of the president’s wife sitting in front of a bunch of surveillance cameras?

The overabundance of characters (the above synopsis covers about half the cast) seem like the result of Richard Kelly thinking about some old sitcom and asking himself “I wonder what John Laroquette from Night Court is doing these days? Or how about the guy from Highlander and while I’m at it I might as well make an allusion to his now forgotten role as Raiden in that Mortal Kombat movie?” In their defense, the actors do a fine job with what they’re given. Dwayne Johnson in particular, playing a schizophrenic paranoid with a series of strange tics, shows he can flourish outside of all those scripts originally written in the eighties for Arnold Schwarzenegger, even if his character is modeled off of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Too bad he wasn’t given material on the same level as his performance. The entire affair feels like a series of non-sequiturs played for two and a half hours, which is fine if someone had told Richard Kelly that a non-sequitur isn’t funny merely because it’s a non-sequitur (although I’ll admit to being a particular fan of the “pimps don’t commit suicide” line, which I’m attempting to use in everyday conversation). The film follows the twenty minutes rule: every twenty minutes something interesting or funny happens. In other words, the DVD cut will probably be about ten minutes long with the dream sequence of Pilot Abilene singing The Killer’s “All These Things That I’ve Done” as an Easter egg extra.

Much of the political commentary seems obvious or outdated, perhaps because the film was written two year ago, but the one idea that has some heft is the use of the CNN split screen. When people watch television several things are gong in different segments of the screen, similar to a twenty-four hour newscast. Images of the Iraq War are played side by side with commercials for Budweiser. The result is that a beer commercial is prized as much as information about Iraq. This post-modern leveling of information is eerie and caused me to question once again why CNN is spending more time talking about celebrity gossip than they are about the military crack downs in Pakistan and Burma. Perhaps this is why allusions to Robert Frost stand alongside an allusion to Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat? The way information is presented in post-modernity we no longer have the ability to judge what information we need and what is filler.

The obvious reference for this kind of film is the tremendous Repo Man, and the finale makes the association obvious, but while Repo Man’s dialogue was consistently memorable, Southland Tales gives us a mere handful of quotables. I have the sinking suspicion that if Southland Tales was just funnier I would be able to accept the fact that it’s a complete and total mess. Richard Kelly has engendered plenty of good will from Donnie Darko, a film that more deftly combines genres, and while Southland Tales is a failure at least it’s an ambitious failure. So while it won’t immediately turn me off from Kelly’s next opus but I can’t promise you I’ll be buying Southland Tales: The Double Disc Special Edition.