Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Run Pee: Don't Want To Miss Anything

This may be the most ingenious movie-related invention since cupholders in cinema seats. Dan Florio (hear him on All Things Considered) has created a website that identifies the precise moments in a movie when getting up to go to the bathroom won't cost you much in terms of significant cinematic moments. The name of the website? Run Pee. It's simple, it's straightforward, it's brilliant.

Who among us hasn't experienced that terrible ambivalence as we weigh a full bladder against the risk of missing the Big Revelation or the Big Kiss? Run Pee makes it so we will never have to endure this crisis again. As long as the movie we're interested in has already been screened for "pee times" by the Run Pee community, we need never agonize in a movie seat again.

Here's how it works: you go to the site and click on the movie you want from the list of screened films. This opens a page that indicates where exactly, in the time-line of the movie, the peeing moment occurs. You needn't worry about spoilers. Run Pee gives you the cue to get out of your seat, and then provides scrambled text that will tell you what's happening while you're in the bathroom. If you don't want to know ahead of time, don't click to de-scramble.

It won't be long before pee times become a form of the most basic movie criticism: the more awful the movie, the longer the pee time.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Angels and Demons: Stay Away

Mindful of the Obama enormity/enormousness kerfuffle (thankfully clarified by William Safire in March), I feel I should be careful before I use the word heinous for a movie. But if there was ever a movie that deserved the word, it is Ron Howard’s Angels and Demons, which sets a new standard for cinematic hateful evil.

It seems to me that the mini-furor (in comparison to the Da Vinci Code outcry) about the second Dan Brown film is entirely misplaced. Anyone who decries the film’s portrayal of the Catholic church hasn’t noticed that Howard’s depictions of violence are straight out of medieval representations of Christian Hell. There is more than enough fire and brimstone—not to mention unmentionable things done with rodents, brands, and weighted movers’ dollys—to go around. And for what? To spin out the story of a corrupt church embroiled in high-level conspiracy? When you put it this way, it’s not even a new story. Vatican conspiracies have been around as long as there have been Swiss Guards in Disneyland-style outfits. And so, at the film’s two-hour mark, faced with the imminent appearance of a scene of yet another symbolic branding, I had enough. Angels and Demons can claim the title of First Movie I Have Ever Walked Out Of.

Just before this breaking point in the movie, Howard and his screenwriters (if not Dan Brown himself) seemed to be saying something potentially interesting. In order to rescue the Vatican, Rome, the Church, and maybe even the world, the Camerlengo, a seemingly humble priest played with polished civility by Ewan MacGregor, takes a capsule of anti-matter up into the heavens in a helicopter (conveniently, in his youth, he trained as a helicopter pilot). Earlier in the film, someone mentions terrorists—of the suicide-bombing sort. When we see the heli-bound Camerlengo praying as the anti-matter’s timer counts down, we know we are about to witness a suicide bombing of a completely different sort. The explosion takes place, filling the night sky with lurid mauves, blues, and oranges—and quite neatly resembling the Sistine ceiling Howard has made sure to show us earlier. We are watching the self-immolation of one man so that he can save, not kill, thousands.

Or so we think. Because actually, the Camerlengo emerges from the still-throbbing explosion, dangling from a parachute. He is alive! If it is possible for a movie to jump the shark, Angels and Demons does it right here. Brown’s perverse instinct for the grotesque and the macabre—and his thoroughly deaf ear to the rhythms of narrative—compel him to keep the story going. Onwards, to another twist, to another branding, and to Tom Hanks’ rueful assertion that science and religion must coexist (I’m guessing on that last part. Did I get it right?).

As for Tom Hanks—at least we can say it’s nice to see him looking fit. Has he been working out? His character, Robert Langdon, is a fascinating creation in today’s world. A “symbologist”—I defy you to find a scholar anywhere who identifies him or herself this way—Langdon inhabits a world whose certainty hasn’t been seen since Sherlock Holmes could parse the life habits of an individual by looking at the polish of his shoes. Even a passing acquaintance of Photoshop tells you nothing is necessarily as it seems in the 21st century. And yet, for Langdon, everything is exactly as it seems. Statues’ arrows point in only one direction; maps can be read only one way; when carvings are considered sculpture, the assessment proves to be spot on. Even when, as in the case of the Bad Men of the church, no one is who he seems to be, everyone cooperates by being exactly his opposite. It’s amazing! Robert Langdon has escaped from Marvel Comics. The Symbologist! Surely the Riddler’s arch-enemy.

Angels and Demons is a movie full of wannabe symbols and real-life (or CGI) images of some of the world’s most famous art. But all that beauty, the movie is engulfed by images of detestable violence. You leave the cinema, alas, not thinking of the beauty of the Sistine Chapel (or even of Howard’s lovely nighttime explosion), but of scenes of cruelty that, like the movie itself, you’d prefer to forget.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past: Humbug

There is a moment near the end of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (GOGP) when a single tear rolls from Jennifer Garner’s right eye as she listens to Matthew McConaughey’s Big Speech of Wisdom and Repentance. The instant the tear falls, Garner makes a little twitch and it looks for all the world as if she has genuinely surprised herself. I would be surprised, too. For there is not much that is surprising in this remake of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by way of Hugh Hefner.

In fact, the makers of GOGP seem to have gone to unusual lengths to produce some of the unoriginality that appears in this film. Some degree of unoriginality goes with the territory here. This is a chick flick, and as with any established genre, it is practically required to offer up a standard list of narrative elements. In this case: the adolescent and unrequited romance, the pining young woman, the secretly unhappy object of her affection, the epiphany, the reconciliation. There is even the montage of relationship scenes, displayed to the soundtrack of Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time—though writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore try to have their cliché cake and eat it too by making Emma Stone’s Ghost of Girfriends Past alert us to it.

But especially in the little things, Lucas and Moore have been downright lazy. Need someone to play a young Jennifer Garner? Easy: get the kid from 13 Going on 30. Need a setting for a romantic revelation? No problem: a swing set worked wonders for 13 Going on 30. Looking for a potential romantic partner for Garner’s character? How about Daniel Sunjata (The Devil Wears Prada)? He’s nice to look at, and he’s already played Garner’s would-be lover—on a Broadway stage in last year’s Cyrano.

There’s a laziness to the filming, as well. Much of the movie is shot indoors, in a mansion that is supposed to be on Long Island but that exists in real life in suburban Boston. I understand that it’s a winter wedding, but don’t these people get stir crazy? The interior scenes give the movie a murkiness that we associate more with a thriller. And no matter how widely Matthew McConaughey opens his eyes as he reads his lines, there is not much thrilling here.

The winter setting does provide the film with one of its handful of pleasing moments—and there are a few. Towards the conclusion of the film, McConaughey’s Connor Meade opens a window and does a perfect, word-for-word recitation of certain famous lines from Dickens’ Christmas novella (no, not those lines, thank god). It’s a nice touch—unnecessary, and a little clunky, but a sweetly humble hommage to the 19th-century writer who managed to be always original. Other appealing scenes involve a precariously balanced wedding cake and the flexibility of McConaughey’s left foot; Stone’s raucously sincere ghost; and Garner’s quietly funny and warm performance. She isn’t given much to do as Jenny Perotti, Connor’s childhood almost-sweetheart. It’s the Wry But Hurting character that she’s played, in variations, in Catch and Release and Alias (with kickboxing in place of wryness). But what she does, she does well. Garner needs to be given (or to choose) better roles fast. With a face that can go, Janus-like, from severe gorgeous to dimply sweet in nothing flat, she has the wherewithal to register a wide range of emotions and the restraint to make them appear sincere.

The same cannot be said for McConaughey, who doesn’t act so much as move. He speaks his lines—almost no matter what the situation—by fingering the air before him, as if searching for the teleprompter, all the while balancing himself with an arm outstretched behind him. He has spent too much time surfing. While GOGP demonstrates a moment of humility by citing Dickens’ text near its conclusion, McConaughey is always arrogant on screen. With one key exception: Tropic Thunder, in which, as Ben Stiller’s agent, he abased himself to hilarious effect, just to make his client happy. That trademark arrogance is in full force here. And even in the Big Speech that makes Garner cry—as well as certain audience members who were annoyed by their susceptibility—he just can’t play it straight; there’s the twinkle, the drawl, that draw attention to the actor and away from the role. Maybe someday someone will cast McConaughey against type and we will see what he can really do.

A review of GOGP would not be complete without comment on its status as a chick flick. Maybe a better term is romantic comedy—that’s certainly how Netflix is going to categorize it in a few months. But it’s difficult to know who Mark Waters and writers Lucas and Moore are trying to appeal to here. The release date in early spring confirms that it’s a light film, an entertainment. But the winter setting belies that notion, giving the movie not only those darkened, wood-paneled rooms, but also its theme of repentance. Not exactly breezy rom-com fare.

Then there’s McConaughey’s character. I won’t go so far as to describe the film as misogynistic (like its cousin Made of Honor), but Connor Meade is certainly an unappealing man who treats women badly. Ah, people will say, but the women like him that way; they seek him out; he is a legend. And what’s wrong with women having enormous sex drives, anyway? Can’t women enjoy a movie that shows other women trolling for wedding sex? Sure. But then why the infinite past girlfriends, arrayed in a reproachful line-up? Why the criticizing assistant who gathers three exes together like Furies pre-gaming revenge on Bacchus? Has Connor Meade behaved badly, or not? The director can’t make up his mind. Garner’s character tells McConnaghey he looks like a gay pirate (and this is not a compliment), and she works to reform him, but all along the way, GOGP expects its audience to have a grand time with Connor The Unreformed.

GOGP is that rare hybrid: the May/December movie. It tries to combine the darkness and self-questioning of a December movie with the tipsy, gauzy hedonism of a May flick. Unfortunately, this marriage doesn’t work.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

Like most writers and serious readers I know, I have a collection of favorite opening and closing lines of novels. Like most people with a scattered memory, I tend to remember the Big Ones—the last line of The Great Gatsby, the first line of Anna Karenina, or Pride and Prejudice, or, heaven help me, Hard Times, that most known and least characteristic of Dickens’ novels. Or a new favorite opener, from Tom Drury’s excellent, moving, and funny The End of Vandalism: “One fall they held the blood drive in the fire barn at Grafton.” Every word but the last is a monosyllabic tread in a laconic march of fs, bs, and ds.

(Have your own favorites? Add them here.)

Of course, as a lover of film, I have favorite scenes from that medium, as well. And the first that come to mind are always the same: the opening and closing scenes of Werner Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I returned to that film recently, eager to be excited and slightly terrified by the eeriness of the synthesized music and the opening long shot in which we see a march of people, ant-like, winding down the steep jungle face of an Andean pass. The scene didn’t disappoint, though the first shot didn’t linger as long as I remembered over the mist-hidden mountain. Herzog’s second shot sustains the mood of the first, presenting us with a disorienting angle, as a ridiculously steep cliff cuts down from the left-hand side of the frame. We notice, again, the line of tiny people on a zig-zag path, surrounded by a vast expanse of jungle. Then the camera moves in just a little, and holds there to take in the marchers as they come towards us up another ridge. We see the tips of spears and pikes, and maybe the very top of someone’s Peruvian-hatted head, as the line of poncho-clad Indians passes just beneath where the camera is stationed. Eventually, Herzog switches to a sequence of shots taken from the path itself, and we see the artifacts that give us a grounding for the unease and dread that have been building: soldiers in Spanish armor, helmets among the Peruvian hats, chains binding Indian slaves together, a basket of chickens plummeting down the mountain, a sedan chair in which a velvet-gowned woman is ferried by more Indians. This is an attempt at mastery—Pizarro’s attempt to find El Dorado, as we later learn—and an exercise in folly: outsiders heedless to the power of a world that will inevitably destroy them.

As if that weren’t enough, by the time we reach the end of the film, we have only Aguirre and his dying daughter, felled by an Indian arrow that has pierced her brocade. Played by Herzog’s muse Klaus Kinski, Aguirre stalks about his decrepit raft like a drugged-up rock star (as if Johnny Depp had chosen Jagger not Richards as the basis for Jack Sparrow), driven mad by the failure of his conqueror’s ambitions. The camera follows Kinski as he roots around the raft’s cannon, dispersing a pack of small monkeys, while a voiceover offers us his plans to repopulate his own new world by marrying his daughter (Kinski’s daughter, Nastassia). Kinski snatches up one of the monkeys and holds it up to his face, baring his teeth at the animal. For a moment, we fear Kinski will imitate another rock star, but he tosses the creature aside. Herzog knows that the desolation of the raft, the dead bodies scattered upon it, the torn remnants of the sedan chair, and Aguirre’s own obvious delusion are sufficiently unsettling without such a gothic flourish.

The film’s final shot is a masterful counterpoint to the opening scene. Where the first images are static, the final shot is full of motion. Linear progress has given way to the circling of madness, as the camera makes a slow revolution around Aguirre’s raft. In the film’s opening sequence, Herzog offers the striking image of a cannon wheel strapped across the back of an Indian porter. Now the cannon is on the raft, and the raft is headed slowly but inexorably to the more turbulent water that we can glimpse at the very edges of the frame.

As I watched this marvelous scene, I pondered the mechanics of it. I imagined a giant boom protruding from a speedboat of some kind, with the camera thus hanging over the still water ahead of the boat. I rejected the idea of a helicopter, since the water bore no signs of propeller wind. In fact, Herzog did use a boat or motorized raft, and the surprising thing is that, as the camera circles Aguirre, the raft begins to be rocked by the boat’s wake. The rocking fits in with what we have already concluded from the plot of the story: that Aguirre is headed to some unseen waterfall (we have had an earlier long shot of rapids in the beginning of the film, and we have seen a raft trapped in a whirlpool). But it is quite clearly produced by the act of filming.

While Herzog likely had few other options, what is interesting is that Herzog held to this idea for the final scene, even though we would see the traces of its making. But then, in the opening shots of the Peruvian porters, we notice that a handful of the porters wear, beneath their ponchos, something that looks suspiciously like rolled up tracksuit bottoms. Herzog is a careful filmmaker. If he allowed for these slight intrusions of the outside, contemporary world, he did so mindfully. These tiny piercings of the film’s illusion remind us, after all, of the folly of yet another expedition to a mythical place: Herzog’s own filming expedition mounted with hundreds of Indians from the Cooperative Lauramarca, at 21,000 feet in Amazonian Peru. As in 1982’s Fitzcarraldo (again with Kinski), and the recent Grizzly Man, Herzog is fascinated with men who refuse to listen to the messages of the natural world around them, and who cling—in combined hopefulness and delusion—to the idea that they matter. As Roger Ebert eloquently puts it: these are “Men haunted by a vision of great achievement, who commit the sin of pride by daring to reach for it, and are crushed by an implacable universe.” Herzog does, of course, matter. And the arrogance of his characters is matched by a strange humility on the part of the filmmaker who has the sense to include himself among them.