Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man 2

I've been trying to think about what to say regarding Favreau's sequel to 2008's most surprising film. Mostly, that it's more of the same, and I mean that in a good and bad way. The film works pretty much the same, full of witty banter, quirky performances, and oddball action sequences that are both thrilling and amusing. And yet, the plot flails in several different directions without a lot of purpose. Great supporting performances don't necessarily even out the sloppy supporting writing, and the has a pulpable lack of vitality -- as if the filmmakers were envisioning more how to please the crowd than pursue the hero. The machinations are on full display, both of the suit and the film.

What I do like about the film is how it thinks about the hero's public person and how one deals with the fame. Tony Stark is, as the film explicitly says, a narcissist. In Iron Man 2, he's also self-destructive (mentally as well as physically), calling the suit a nuclear deterrent. What made the first Iron Man resonate for me (and I like to think a lot of viewers, even if they're not aware), is that it openly thought about the Weapons Age. Iron Man is a hero, but he is a weapon, and in the sequel that weapon seems to have forged a momentary lapse of world peace. Of course, leave it to the Russians (in the form of a tattoo and beautifully Method Mickey Rourke) to mess that up for everyone.

The sequel gives us a genius who's built his own suit and an arms manufacturer who wants to give Stark Industries a run for his money. If Iron Man was about Tony Stark coming to grips with the role of Stark Industries and WMDs, IM2 has him asserting his philosophy against several foils. Thankfully, the sequel also continues to probe his daddy traumas, which I read as an allegory of how we are still trying to reconcile with both the atomic bomb and the Cold War dream of American ideology. Tony Stark is a political beast, as evidenced by his Senate hearings early in the film and his continued involvement with the military, but he's also a celebrity, a show-stopper, one who prances and parades his identity and his technology with little thought of consequence.

Stark is both deterrent and show-off, and Robert Downey Jr. continues to perfectly imagine the tightrope between genius and insanity. Of course, he's the perfect choice to delve into Stark's party animal side. Sam Rockwell, as the arms manufacturer who wants to steal the suit's technology for his own financial gain, is deliciously hammy - a white-collar villain who sees weaponry as a game of dollars-and-cents. And the weaponry in Iron Man 2 is certainly magnificent. The effects are fluid, the suits well-designed, and the action sequences flow without being over-long or too redundant.

Iron Man 2 works, but it doesn't push. It's a pretty, wham-bam movie that fills its obligations and thinks about the superhero in a particular way in regard to new-age weaponry. Of course, that's everything the first movie was, and one gets the sense Jon Favreau and company are more serviceable than daring.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Best. Trailer. Ever.

The Joaquin Phoenix Movie I Must See

From LA Times:

1 It’s far from the Joaquin Phoenix you’re used to seeing onscreen: snorting cocaine, ordering call girls, having oral sex with a publicist, treating his assistants abusively and rapping badly. And not, apparently, playing a role — or was he?

Even after seeing the documentary “I’m Still Here: The Lost Year of Joaquin Phoenix” in a private screening earlier this week, film buyers still aren’t sure of its genuineness. Was the “Walk the Line” and “Gladiator” star, who said more than a year ago that he was quitting acting to become a musician, playing a sophisticated prank, or did he really ditch his Oscar-nominated career to become a disheveled rapper?

Agents at William Morris Endeavor, the sellers of the Casey Affleck-directed film, have started showing the movie to potential distributors, and while some were apparently interested in bidding for “I’m Still Here’s” distribution rights, the shoppers left the screening perhaps even more mystified by Phoenix’s behavior than when they walked in.

Several buyers said the film overflowed with Hollywood debauchery, including more male frontal nudity than you’d find in some gay porn films and a stomach-turning sequence in which someone feuding with Phoenix defecates on the actor while he’s asleep.

The documentary — or is it a mockumentary? — also includes Phoenix’s infamous appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” in which the bearded and bloated actor barely spoke, leaving Letterman bewildered if not infuriated and people wondering about Phoenix’s mental health.

The buyers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Phoenix comes off unsympathetically and shows very little talent for music in the movie, directed by his brother-in-law (Affleck is married to Summer Phoenix). Sales agent WME declined to comment.

In some scenes in the film, the 35-year-old Phoenix is trying to get Sean “Diddy” Combs to produce Phoenix’s rap album, but the hip-hop impresario is not terribly interested. Another sequence shows Ben Stiller approaching Phoenix about starring in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” but Phoenix is barely interested.

Two buyers who saw the movie were unsure if Phoenix had turned out an elaborate piece of performance art, where the joke was really on the audience. While they were debating the film’s commercial prospects, the buyers did agree on one thing: They’d never seen anything like it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A New "Nightmare"

Scanning over the critics' one-lines on the reboot of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," Richard Corliss calls it, "a fine copy." His review, the most favorable on Metacritic, is only one of about a dozen that seem to largely miss the point. Samuel Bayer's resurrection of the surreal slasher is a completely different reimagining of what the Elm St. lore is all about, and takes the core underlays of the genre in a direction that's actually more interesting than you might think. It has some obligatory intertextual nods - the hand in the bathtub, the steamy boiler room - but this film isn't just about a set of familiar signs and codes. It has something else in mind.

No, I'm not saying Nightmare on Elm St. is a good film. Not by a long shot. The filmmaking is scattershot and scatterbrained. The scares rely far too much on amped-up audio and dirty close-ups. There's often a fascination with framing Haley's silhouette in the same pose over and over again. The actors are crap; fodder, movable chess pieces who regurgitate empty exchanges or lay out exposition as the plot rolls over a pretty familiar arc.

The slasher films in the early 1980s have been read over and over as films about sexual awakening and liberation. Too often we read "teen sex = death" in slashers, but is it a coincidence that nearly all of them end with a female empowered to take down the masculine figure with a phallic device? No, I don't think so. Slashers aren't just about disposing with bodies. They're about how the spectator gets implemented in that disposal, about a very specific set of structural shifts and gender codification. Don't believe me? Read Carol Clover's "The Final Girl" and let's talk - an essay that's still so influential the 2010 PCA/ACA conference had a whole panel about reevaluating it on its 20th anniversary.

Why do I bring this up? Because Bayer's "Nightmare" isn't about sexual awakening or sexual empowerment. There isn't a drop of teenage fornication in the film (save for some snuggling in bed. You can do the math if you want). The script was co-written and developed by Wesley Strick, the same guy who wrote Scorsese's "Cape Fear" in 91. Strick actually has a keen eye on how to shift this story into a different set of thematic anxieties. So often we dismiss these remakes as "Hollywood without idea" - Hollywood has ideas; screenwriters will sell them for far less than they're worth. The question is why Hollywood has been so insistent on selling these ideas again. What does rebooting a set of franchises mean for us in the 00s? When it came to "Halloween," Rob Zombie turned Michael Myers into a psychological profile, a tortured serial killer with a complex about his sister.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" is now not only a revenge story, it's a psychosexual trauma film. Wait, what? Yes, it is. It's actually kind of a stroke of genius. The 1984 film kind of boldly questioned children should stand for the crimes of their parents, and the 2010 film implements both sides. Turns out in this lore, Krueger was a gardener-cum-pedophile at a pre-school. When one of the kids (Nancy) came forward, the parents turned into a lynch mob and set Krueger ablaze. All the kids Krueger stalks were in the same pre-school class, and they've all repressed his memory. The structure of the film is then the exact structure of a trauma patient -- Nancy must decode a set of signs both within her world and her dreams, investigate the memory she has repressed, and then travel to its source - the preschool basement - to confront the pedophilia/Freddy in a violent expulsion of her sexual repression.

Of course, this also allows her to open up to the guy who has a crush on her (and who is similarly stalked). And Jackie Earle Haley is the perfect choice to do this version of Freddy. Strick/Bayer rely on his intertextual link to 2006's "Little Children," where he played a pedophile trying to readjust to a society that refuses to accept him. In flashback, Haley plays a version of this character, an impish manchild. In the Freddy make-up, he has a gargled howl that runs closer to his roles in "Watchmen" or "Shutter Island." Very rarely has an actor, in a period of four years, explored the troubled terrain of this psychological misfits with such brave energy. Though Bayer doesn't handle Haley as well as perhaps another director would -- the man's physical stature is not his strong point -- the Haley makeup looks markedly different from the Robert Englund makeup. Krueger is not a ghoul, a melted jack-o-lantern; he is a flat-out burn victim carcass.

Unfortunately, "Nightmare" is a far more interesting film on a theoretical/structural level than it is on an actual visceral level. Bayer, in his directorial debut, misses his chance to make a terrifyingly surreal film. The film's jabs in and out of reality are too often punctuated by overly familiar signifiers, and only one scene in a pharmacy - with marvelously jagged intercutting editing - seems to have any kind of punch. The film's largest failure is in its inability to make the spectator feel as confused as the characters. "Nightmare," as Craven envisioned it, works because film itself is a surreal scape that reflects the natural world while toying with its principles through various degrees of representation -- and isn't that what a dream is?

Films have been called a "dream" since at least Siegfried Kracauer's theories in the 1930s. That's why Freddy turned into a franchise killer; his murders were an attack on spectatorship consciousness. I actually kind of love the screenplay for this new "Nightmare on Elm Street" -- as a piece of adaptation, it's a serious reconsideration of what Krueger is about, and it rather boldly literalizes the rape implication of the original. By putting pedophilia and sexual trauma squarely in the spotlight, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" repositions how the slasher thinks about sex.

Of course, that's not to say no slasher film has thought about sexual revenge or pedophilia before. There's nothing original about this film, and most of the time it's barely passable. The creative jolts are few and far between, but to dismiss it is to refuse to give it the single chance it wants. It preys on our understanding of the Krueger lore so that it can give us an alternative reading. And isn't that what the resurrection of the slasher beast is all about? Challenging the critical reception and theoretical evaluation the first round of baddies received? This "Nightmare" succeeds because of its imaginative trauma structure, but its aesthetic and direction are misshapen, blunt, and a little too obvious.