Friday, December 25, 2009

On top of the world, looking down on creation...


Up In the Air does such a good job wrapping a hetero-normative, pro-nuclear family message in a charming package for 3/4 of the film, before throwing it away with a stupid twist and a botched ending.

Still, kudos for at least letting Clooney give a convincing argument for his beliefs. And for being a film that acknowledges the economy and the definition of the American dream as having changed.
Actually, just reading that last part is a sad statement on film-making these days. Merry Christmas, people!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Stories that will last into history, long after you and me are gone": REDACTED

Redacted, d. Brian DePalma, 2007
Starring: A bunch of people you've never heard of or seen before and probably won't see again

"You don't want to hear a war story," says one of the main characters to a group of civilian friends at the end of the movie. And unfortunately, Brian DePalma spends most of the movie trying to prove that character right.

Now, conventional wisdom on Redacted, when it came out, was that Brian DePalma had turned in a shrill and ridiculously one-sided anti-war film with very little of his usual skill. And this is what even relatively sympathetic film critics said. In this case, conventional wisdom is right.

The plot, so far as there is one, is that it follows a few Marines serving in Samarra in 2006. Eventually, a couple of particularly awful Marines rape a 15 year old Iraqi girl and kill most of her family, claiming at various points that they were fighting insurgents, that it was a Sunni revenge killing, and that is was a Shiite revenge killing. This is all shown through various sources, including one Marine's video-recordings of his unit (in hopes of using it for a reality tv show or film school), a French documentary team, various blogs & youtube videos, security cameras and news footage.

The idea of the film, I think, is an interesting one. Trying to replicate the chopped-up news cycle & the multiplicity of viewpoints emerging around the Iraq War is a noble and interesting idea. In how many previous wars could civilians, with a minimum of effort, see the reaction of the occupied people without any intermediating authority. And when DePalma is merely presenting the contrast between Al-Jazeera, the French documentary team and a CNN stand-in's approaches deadpan, he gets across the problematic nature of the occupation and the way America's own POV prevents it from seeing those problems.

Unfortunately, most of the film is populated with one-note shrill stereotypes of Americans spouting on-the-nose dialogue when they're not doing horrible things. This is the kind of film where, six minutes in, one person says, "the camera never lies" and another person immediately responds, "the camera always lies". To a tiny extent, there might be moments when DePalma could have been arguing about the self-performative nature people develop when they know they're being recorded. But the fact so much of the Marine's documentary footage happens when the others don't know they're being recorded takes away that argument.

You'll notice I haven't really named any of the characters. That's because, with maybe one exception, all the characters make the space marines in Aliens seem complex and multi-faceted. It doesn't help that one character is unironically named Vasquez. One redneck soldier even calls himself a "wildcard", sparking images of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Charlie's hilariously pointless idiocy.

Every moment is so heavy-handed that even the documented incident that inspired this film starts to feel false. DePalma even compromises the (relative) integrity of his approach at the end by giving home video footage of the hero Lawyer McCoy (Robb DeVaney) giving an impassioned (if creaky) speech about the horrors of war and underlining it WITH A PROFESSIONAL HOLLYWOOD SOUNDTRACK! It's like DePalma is taking his stylistic cues from The Notebook!

Now, you can make a movie about horrible people doing awful things and make it interesting, but you have to display some empathy. But DePalma has our war criminals be the most brain-dead, racist sons-of-bitches you'll ever see. Robb DeVaney's character, the nominative good guy, is given some good moments and he rises to the occasion. But everyone else is given clunky dialogue, nonsensical motivations and the mostly non-professional actors respond by turning in awful performances.

Weirdly enough, the people playing Iraqis are really good, when they are given any screen-time. It might help that DePalma plays those moments unaffected and keeps the language simple.

And sadly, DePalma does have some good visual moments. Whether it's the echo of blood-spatter from an early checkpoint shoot-out in a Jihadi execution, or a flowing, surreal long-take of the checkpoint screening that highlights the incomprehensibility of the process, DePalma hasn't lost his touch with mise-en-scene. One of the early heavy-handed moments (a reading from Appointment in Samarra) is nicely undercut by the presence, right behind the reader, of cut-outs from pin-up magazines. In fact, the movie might play better left on mute.

In some ways, this movie is the opposite of another War on Terror flop, Richard Kelley's Southland Tales. Where Kelly's movie was sprawling and needlessly complex, DePalma's is shrill and to-the-point. Where Kelly stranded brilliant performances by actors in a go-nowhere plot, DePalma weds beautiful imagery to headache-inducing performances.

The most effective moment of the film is the closing "Collateral Damage" sequence, where DePalma presents a series of bloody photographs showing the civilians injured or killed by Iraq War violence. A movie about the innocents trying to survive both insurgents and the U.S. military could be effective, moving and reach across partisan talking points. Too bad no one's interested in making that film.

Grade: C-

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Blogger

So my project of liveblogging In Praise of Commercial Culture has gone on hiatus because I'm running out of things to say about it. As Cowen has moved to visual art and classical music, he's moved out of my comfort zone, though I keep getting suspicious that he's not grappling with the complex nature of "capitalism", which is frequently a mix of corporatism, nationalism and other weird beliefs that sort of simulate a free market. Instead, frequently, he seems content to say, "hey, everyone, as time passes, great composers/artists/writers get have earned comparatively more money and more freedom. I'd say that's pretty good."

He makes some good points about changing cultural practices and ideas that partially shape our vision of artistic golden ages as golden and how those practices and ideas blind us to the richness of our own age. But he's all too willing to wash his hands of modern composers who are increasingly exiled from both the classical and mainstream community, for example. He regrets it, and then just says, that's capitalism too. It's pretty easy to praise capitalism when capitalism is some weird omnipotent and perfect god. If you don't like capitalism (or a certain expression of capitalism), you just don't understand the Invisible Hand's ultimate design.

And then too, Cowen's approach to people and psychology seems hilarious. I seem to recall him admitting he possesses a somewhat autistic view of how people tick and that seems borne out in the book. Take this howler:
"Kurt Cobain of Nirvana committed suicide after only four albums, secure in his expectations of artistic immortality" (147).
That seems like a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of Cobain's emotional state and his feelings about his popularity. Or a misunderstanding of depression in general.
Or this, from a section entitled, "The Musical Revolution in Africa":
"Slavery was a disaster for its victims, but it revolutionized world music." (155)
And I know it is easy to take quotes out of context and make them seem ridiculous, but the paragraph weirdly equates slavery with some kind of "cultural interchange" and that the "barbaric form" of slave-based "cultural contact" paved the way for "later, more beneficial voluntary contacts". Cowen's not trying to be offensive, but he's refusing to grapple with the serious moral issue at stake here. He's even ignoring the fact that pro-capitalist economists were one of the first groups to see the problems with slavery.

It's like something Monty Python or Mr. Show would put in the mouth of a well-meaning buffoon.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

In the next re-release, I will shoot first...

I didn't think I was the first one to think of Lucas as a skilled craftsman with a very limited toolbox, but it's great to find something like this in Robin Wood's Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan:

"If we are to continue using the term 'imagination' to apply to a William Blake, we have no business using it of a George Lucas. Imagination and what is popularly referred to as pure fantasy (actually there is no such thing) are fundamentally incompatible. Imaginatin is a force that strives to graps and transform the world, not restore "the good old values". What we can justly credit Lucas with (I use the name, be it understood, to stand for his whole production team) is facility of invention, especially on the level of special effects and makeup and the creation of a range of cute or sinister or grotesque fauna (human and non-human)." (166-167) [emphasis mine]
So far, in skimming Wood, I'm quite impressed by his evaluation of Larry Cohen as well. I'm not so impressed by his hedging on Marxism (though I do agree that there's something weird about how reluctant people are to consider discussing something different from capitalism on a basic level in a free country such as ours).

E.T.A. Although Wood seems to think James Earl Jones is British and white. And he claims Lando Calrissian offers no prospect of revolution or subversion. Even though his first appearance in the cycle shows him betraying the white American hero? I won't argue totally with Wood's general claims about the handling of race in the Star Wars trilogy, but Lando seems to be one of Lucas & Co.'s few attempts at moral complexity (more so than Han, at least, after the first movie).