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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

But there's no danger/it's a profession, a career/ though we could be erased/ with just a word in Cardinal Wolsey's ear

So I'm watching Henry VIII, enjoying it but feeling somewhat underwhelmed (feels a little bit like it was assembled from bits and pieces of other history plays) by both the actual play and the performances.

But then, towards the end of Act III, the actor playing Cardinal Wolsey (Timothy West) just blew me away. For most of the film, he's underplayed the part, coming off as scheming and manipulative. Then his former servant Cromwell comes to visit him after his arrest. At first, Wolsey plays at the penitent great man, rehabilitated and ready to return to society (Nixon comes to mind as a good example). All very weighty and eloquent.

And then Cromwell says that he'll serve the king, but he'll keep his prayers for Cardinal Wolsey. And for the first moment in the play, we see Wolsey as vulnerable. The text bears out this interpretation: the language gets simpler and there are a lot more pauses and breaks. West keeps it understated, but you suddenly see his sadness. He's spent his whole life raising and destroying people based on his needs, and he only now realizes the power and beauty of friendship.

It lends an amazing power to his closing lines: "Had I but serv'd God with half the zeal/I serv'd my king, he would not in mine age/ Have left me naked to mine enemies." Rather reminiscent of the Kissinger quote about how much Nixon could have accomplished if someone had loved him. Just an amazing moment of empathy that staggers me as a would-be actor and writer.

Monday, December 29, 2008

This wooden Oooooh this is awful!

For discussion: Is King Henry VIII Shakespeare's worst play? If so, produce one memorable quote or moment. Cite specific productions as needed.

(I just started watching the BBC version produced by Cedric Messina and thought, "it's a bad sign when your prologue all but says, go elsewhere if you're looking for fun.")

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Quick movie reviews/recaps...

Long time, no update, in which I watched a lot of films. Here are what I thought of them:

Hogfather: A made-for-TV adaptation of the Terry Prachett novel. Hogswatch is Discworld's version of Christmas, and this year Death has to take over when a member of the Assassin's Guild takes on a contract to kill their version of Santa. The problem is that Prachett's style is wordy, precocious and digressive. Unfortunately, in a film (even one that goes over three hours), the intricate plotting comes off as diffuse, the wordplay is cut down and cleverness gets replaced with boring CGI. Also, the filmmakers can't decide if Ankh-Morpork is medieval or vaguely Victorian or steampunk. True, Prachett doesn't always make this clear either, but the disparities aren't so apparent on paper and his style links everything. That said, Ian Richardson as Death (and whoever did Death's effects work) are consistently hilarious, and the tone manages to balance cynicism with sentimentality quite well.

Hard-Boiled: John Woo's last Hong Kong film. Supercop and undercover cop go after Triad gun runners who hide their stash in a hospital. Utterly ridiculous and over-the-top. The plotting is rather episodic, the characterization simplistic. But the set-pieces are fantastic and moving even sixteen years later. And all the actors are still better than Jean Claude Van Damme in Hard Target.

Postal: Uwe Boll's comedy, very loosely based on the notorious video game. After a tasteless but hilarious opening, the rest of the film is downhill. Zach Ward initially captures the hopelessly put-upon nature of his character but falls apart when called on to be the bad-ass action hero. Dave Foley puts in an effortless, sleepwalking performance that has just the right comic timing. Everyone else is flailing in a cast otherwise made up of minor character actors and has-beens . Boll's trying to make fun of America, but he has no actual idea of what America is like. Imagine Strangelove with a budget cast, untalented screenwriters, bad cinematography and helmed by a bizzaro auteur. Still, it hits one or two comic moments, and is otherwise perversely bad when it fails. Worth renting to watch with friends, perhaps?

Pitch Black: A tight sci-fi thriller that mixes Aliens with Stagecoach. Wonderful cinematography, a clever script full of subtle and sparing characterization, and the pacing is top-notch. Vin Diesel is suitably threatening as an almost sociopathic outlaw, Keith David gets to stretch his range as a faithful, suffering Imam, and Radha Mitchell finds new ground for tough female heroines not covered by Sarah Michelle Gellar or Linda Hamilton.

Brothers Grimm: I love Terry Gilliam, but the film's tone can't strike the right balance for tragicomedy. Gilliam does a great job in showing both the beauty and the terror of fairy tales. But the story drags on while still containing odd transitions, and all the characters are too passive. Heath Ledger's performance as Jakob Grimm, a man lost in dreams and fantasy, understands the pity and wonder in such a person. The fairy tale flashbacks and some of the production design are quite beautiful. The CGI monsters, less so.

Twentieth Century: Hilarious portrayal of scheming theatre types (take it from me, since I'm one of them), with Barrymore exceptionally convincing as a vain director who is at heart a ham actor. On the other hand, for all the hilarity, the main characters are such awful, despicable people that their reunion (and the promise of it) fill me with nothing but dread. As a result, this screwball comedy leaves me disappointed.

P.S. I read some James Agee reviews last week. I hope it doesn't show too much in my prose.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I accepted a ruthless logic, and I can never get away from it!

Just watched The Damned, Luchino Visconti's movie about a German industrialist family destroyed when it attempts to harness National Socialism for its own benefit. Still digesting it, though I think that the best thing about it is the way the family's most fervent Nazi is also the most charming and self-assured person in the family. He rarely threatens or raises his voice. He just gets people to sign away their souls by convincing them it is in their best interest. That's real evil for you.

But the reason for this post is not the film itself. The DVD also contains the original trailer which is hilarious. It takes most of the material from the final hour of the film, spoiling a large part of the plot (making the earlier part of the film seem extraneous), and cuts from melodramatic moment to melodramatic moment. And of course, there is that Movie Announcer Guy voice, shouting, "These Are the Damned!" and all the other "in a world gone mad" stuff. Heaven knows what the audience that saw the movie based on this ad thought.

I envision them walking in, expecting exploitation and melodrama, and then they get hit with glacially-paced, long tracking shots. And most of the exciting sequences are separated by long stretches of time where people talk or stare or do nothing.

It's a good and worthwhile movie, and those artistic choices I list above make sense.  But it is certainly not a mix of Mommy Dearest and The Night Porter.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"We're gonna win an Oscar for this": Cannibal Holocaust, the film that devours itself

Cannibal Holocaust, directed by Ruggero Deodato, (1979, not released until 1984)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you one of the most disgusting movies ever made. I hesitate to call it the most vile, both because other films might show more atrocious activities (I have yet to see Salo, for instance) and because the moral agenda of the film is a little too complex to dismiss as mere nihilism or some awful form of grindhouse pandering.

Still, this is a film notorious for showing scenes of live animal cruelty. Cannibal Holocaust's director, Ruggero Deodato, was actually accused of murdering his cast for this film, something that, as far as I know, has happened with no other film. This is a film bookended, on DVD at least, by a real warning and a fake meta-warning and both seem legitimate. Of all the "video nasties" banned in Britain in the 1980s, this has to be the ultimate example.

The short version of Cannibal Holocaust's plot is that, a few months prior to the events in the film, an American documentary filmmaker named Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) went to South America to shoot footage of some never-before-seen tribes. He and his crew never returned and so an NYU anthropology professor sets out to find out their fate and possibly retrieve their remains and their films. A pseudo-travelogue ensues as Professor Monroe (Robert Kerman) and his guides travel through the Amazon and discover the crew's gruesome fate and retrieve the film. The whole thing seems rather par for the course for an Italian cannibal film, if more tastefully done than, let's say, Hell of the Living Dead or Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals.

Then Professor Monroe retrieves the footage and takes it back to NYC in preparation for some prime-time sweeps airing (the "Pantheon Network", his sponsors, crow about the ratings they're going to get).  After watching said footage, however, he balks. When the network heads complain, he makes them (and us) watch it too. And what is in that part of the film is going to disgust pretty much everyone short of a war criminal.

A couple of days ago, political pundit and cultural commentator James Poulos posted something regarding the need to shut down Hollywood's nightmare factories, which are destabilizing our culture. And if he thinks Hardboiled represents some rough beast crawling towards Bethlehem to be born, he ain't seen nothin' yet.

Because this is a (fictional) film about a documentary film crew going off the reservation and staging the savagery they supposedly came to observe (and film). That's what's so vile to the character of Professor Monroe and he implicates us by making us watch this. And sure, the expected and annoying arguments about, like, what if the savages were civilized and we were really savages, dude, rear their head. So too does the idea that the media makes us violent (while showing us teh sex and violence!). And of course, there's blatant anti-Americanism (with the Professor's parting words about us being the real cannibals, the camera pans over to the street sign for the Avenue of the Americas). But you can't dismiss this film as easily as, for example, hyperstylized action films which apologize for their violence while defending the hero's violence as necessary (or un-hypocritical).

That's because this is a film which makes violence too hyper-real to be cool. The acts of violence committed on screen are comprehensible, but they are crudely shot, as if by someone trying to frame the picture in the moment. The camera lingers too long at the wrong angles, the action is blocked by the perpetrators, and other similar problems emerge. Realism is a style as much as any other, it's true, but here the style is used to deflate the violence and make it register in a new way. In a rare instance, even as the characters are fascinated by their own cruelty, the viewer is disgusted. Think of how many movies work the other way around.

The movie begins with us seeing the wreckage of the crew's adventures: the fearful villagers, the ruined buildings, and the mutilated corpses. Only after seeing all these artifacts of their journey are we permitted to see what they did, so that their cruelty holds no novelty or surprise. Instead, the viewer awaits each new torment with dread, knowing what's coming but powerless to stop it.

Now, needless to say, I don't think we need any more movies like this. I think one viewing is all I can stand. But it is a movie that takes violence as horrific, that is honest about its own nihilistic tendencies. By merely existing, it renders further exploration of hyper-violence unnecessary. 

After all, this is a film about American film-makers, armed with curiosity and technology (both an exposition-y newscaster and the Yates himself say something similar), who set out to make a name for themselves. They think they know how to manipulate real life in such a way to become famous (they provide the post title quote during a massacre they carry out) and instead they get hypnotized and then destroyed by their own manipulations. In the film within the film, we get glimpses of the film crew filming themselves filming themselves. By the last shot of the "found" footage, we get a dropped camera filming the bloody head of the lead film-maker rolling on the jungle floor. As both the "found" footage and the ending supertitles make clear, the movie outlives its own directors.

For two other thoughful and somewhat differing takes, see Jog the Blog and 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting. Neither of them enjoyed it, per se, but they also see something more complex than a Saw film. Jog also points out the context of the "mondo" films, which were accused of doing what this film pretends to do. I don't think that exculpates what this film does, but it does show that they're exaggerating (and satirizing) already existing tendencies, instead of making them up their own object of criticism. None of those reviews really tease out the obvious political dimensions of this film (partially also a commentary on American imperialism), but that's because those dimensions are the least developed and least complex.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The War on Christmas, the Continuing Crisis

Muppet Christmas Carol, despite being in print and for sale, is unavailable on Netflix.

However, it is available on Blockbuster.

Guess which one I have a subscription too?

Sorry...

but posting has been light, I know. It seems like I go to sleep thinking of things, but by the time I get back from work, I have no energy or remaining thoughts.