Mar 23, 2009

Duplicity: I was had

It's official: I'm not as smart as I thought I was. I didn't love Duplicity, you see. I really tried to pay attention, too. Sat there with my head in my hand, eyes narrowed, brow furrowing, determined to get the most out of it. "This is as good as it gets," said Variety. "However you describe it, Duplicity is superior entertainment, the most elegantly pleasurable movie of its kind to come around in a very long time," said A O Scott. " If what thrills you is the swift-moving, unrelenting contest between equal and opposing forces, then the movies you seek out are surely the great romantic comedies of the studio era, verbal boxing matches that draw blood and end in kisses."

Count me in. Except that for a large chunk of time — almost (but not quite) the whole movie — I had no idea what was going on with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts. Were they gaming the company? Each other? Both? Neither? Are we supposed not to know? Maybe some people like the confusion — a sure sign that something superior is going on. I'll put up with this sort of thing for a bit, but eventually the suspicion begins to dawn that the movie is being complicated, rather than complex, that it is patterned, rather than plotted, and then I check out.

I had the same deal with LA Confidential — another complicated movie that everyone loved and left me cold. Duplicity didn't leave me cold. The script is lean and economical, and its satire is beautifully done. Tonally, it finds the same sweet spot as The Right Stuff — sending up this world while never failing to make it matter. I never tired of seeing Paul Giametti ranting about his opponent's new creams and lotions. But over the long haul I found myself adopting the same defensive crouch David Mamet induces in me — a twist overload. The assumption that nothing is at it seems has its own predictability, after a while. You sit there going "that's not going to turn out to be true" or "I bet she tricks him". And you're always right.

I read somewhere that butterfly wingspan only reach a span of two feet (or something like that) before they collapse. In other words, there's a inbuilt evolutionary limit to the size butterflies can be. I feel the same way about movie plots: there's a certain level of complexity you shouldn't go beyond. What's going to happen now, of course, is that Duplicity is not going to do as well as some people expect and then the critics are going to start blaming the multiplex or the average Joe or the dumbing-down of America or Jaws. It's nothing to do with any of those things.

Mar 20, 2009

The troublesome twos

Obama's bowling gaffe just goes to prove a theory of mine: mistakes comes in twos. Trying to correct gaffe number one (the public's perception of his bowling skills) he commits another (he compares it to the special olympics). It's always the way. Its just when you've successfully avoided stepping in a puddle that you walk into a lamp-post. I don't think it has to do with karma, or an ironic God or anything like that. I think there is a direct causal relationship behind Sod's law. It is precisely because you have negotiated threat A that you relax your guard sufficiently to succumb to threat B. Joking about his bowling score, Obama probably felt exhilaration (finally, that alabatross put to bed) and the exhilaration opened him up.

Mar 13, 2009

Pet peeve #34: ladders in the street

Confronted with a ladder across the sidewalk, you have two choices. Either you walk under it, or you walk around it. But it's not as simple as that is it? If you walk around it, you are announcing to the world "I am a superstitious sort and prefer not to talk under ladders in the street." If you walk under it, you are defiantly thumbing your nose at such nonsense. But what if you have no position on the matter and simply want to walk along the street, uninterrupted by demands to declare your position on the matter?

I'm not superstitious but have found that if I walk under the ladder, I spend the remainder of my walk wondering if there is something to it after all, and worrying that my defiance will not go unnoticed. On the other hand, walking around it, I feel stupid and superstitious. It's lose-lose. All I want to do is get from one end of the street to the other.

Who killed the horror movie?

From my column for The Daily Beast.

EXT. Night. A campfire burns in the middle of the forest. Around it are Michael Myers, darning his mask in preparation for the forthcoming Halloween 2. Next to him, lying down, is Jason Voorhees—wearing a neck brace, his arm in a splint, injuries he sustained from the last Friday the 13th. Tending to the fire, Freddy Krueger, now an old man, his blades rusty and broken. He is using them to open a can of beans.

The camera draws near.

MICHAEL (comforting): Don’t take it too personally.

JASON: It's hard not to. I mean I can’t believe I fell for that. A wood chipper. Jesus. That is worse than anything I ever did.

MICHAEL: Way worse.

JASON: It’s these new kids. They’re not playing the game the way it should be played. It’s all cellphones and pagers one minute and then they’re coming at you with baseball bats and knives and God knows what else. Whatever happened to taking a shower? Running in high heels? Losing the car keys?

MICHAEL (wistfully): Taking a walk in the forest.

JASON: Yeah right. ”Is anybody there?”

MICHAEL (girlishly): “I won’t be long.....”

Jason mimes bringing a machete down through the air, but cricks his neck and winces. Carefully, he massages his shoulder.

MICHAEL: It’s Scream. That film screwed everything up for us. Now everyone knows our shit.”

JASON: Bunch of artsy-fartsys Scooby-Doo crap is what it was. Putting ideas in their heads. They would never have thought of a wood chipper before. No way.

MICHAEL: If anyone’s feeding someone into a wood chipper it's you, Jay.

JASON: It’s fucked up.

MICHAEL: It's disrespectful is what it is.

They both shake their heads....

My favorite news story of 2009 so far

EASTON, Pa. - A man accused of driving drunk said Pennsylvania courts have no jurisdiction over him because he's his own country. Scott Alan Witmer, who represented himself, said he believes police lack jurisdiction to pull him over. "I live inside myself, not in Pennsylvania," he claimed Tuesday, prompting Northampton County Judge Leonard Zito to reset Witmer's bail. Witmer said he was challenging the traffic stop that led to his arrest and said he believes in certain laws, not all of them. "Don't all our souls live within ourselves?" he asked, pointing to his body. "Isn't this where you really live?"

Mar 10, 2009

Indiana Jones And The Missing Camel Chase

In the summer of 1978, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan met to hash out their ideas for Raiders of the Last Ark. They met on 5 consecutive 9-hour days at the L.A. home of Lucas's assistant Jane Bay. "We had a tape recorder going and George essentially guided the story process," said Spielberg. "And that's where the fantasy of all our pent-up, wet-movie dreams coalesced. Most of the time we were on our feet, trying to out-shout each other with ideas." For the first time, those conversations have been published. They make for fascinating reading.

SPIELBERG: I like the idea that she's a heavy drinker and our hero doesn't drink at all. She gets drunk a lot. She's beautiful and she gets really sexy when she's drunk, and silly. And he doesn't touch the stuff.

LUCAS: I don't want to soften her. I like the fact that it's greed. I like all the hard stuff, but you're going to love here... I was thinking that this old guy could have been his mentor. He could have known this little girl when she was just a kid. Had an affair with her when she was eleven.

KASDAN: And he was forty-two.

L: He hasn't seen her in twelve years. Now she's twenty-two. It's a real strange relationship.

S: She had better be older than twenty-two.

L: He's thirty-five, and he knew her ten years ago when he was twenty-five and she was only twelve. It would be amusing to make her slightly young at the time.

S: And promiscuous. She came onto him.

L: Fifteen is right on the edge. I know it's an outrageous idea, but it is interesting. Once she's sixteen or seventeen it's not interesting anymore. But if she was fifteen and he was twenty-five and they actually had an affair the last time they met. And she was madly in love with him and he...

S: She has pictures of him.

L: It would be nice if they left in a huff, they fought or something. He left rather pissed. I don't think he would leave without the pendant. That's the only thing that bothers me about that.

S: So he goes upstairs and stays up, plotting how he's going to take it off her.

L: That makes him into a real rat.

K: That's all right. He never does it. What he does is just the opposite, save her life.

L: No matter how you do it, the fact that he thought about it is the rat part.

S: Rhett Butler was a rat.

L: He wasn't a real rat --

S: He proved himself by raising her family. Before that he was a gambler, dealt with cheap ladies.

L: There's a difference between being a rat and somebody who's having fun. He never hurt anybody.

K: I'm a little confused about Indiana at this point. I thought he'd do anything for this pendant.

L: But he still has to have some moral scruples. He has to be a person we can look up to. We're doing a role model for little kids, so we have to be careful. We need someone who's honest, trusting and true. But at the same time he's confronted with this difficult problem. We have a great thing when she won't give it to him. She doesn't like him...


L: What can he chase them with? What if he jumps on a camel?

S: I love it. It's a great idea. There's never been a camel chase before.

L: Is this camel going to chase a car?

S: You know how fast a camel can run? Not only that, he can jump over vegetable carts and things. It could be a funny chase that ends in tragedy. You're laughing your head off and suddenly. "My God, she's dead."

L: We've added another million dollars.

S: Not really. How much trouble can a camel be?

Mar 6, 2009

The thought that counts

The London press are outraged over Obama's recent gift to Gordon Brown — 25 DVDs including Star Wars, The Godfather and Citizen Kane. “Barack Obama, the leader of the world's richest country,” huffed the Daily Mail, “gave the Prime Minister a box set of 25 classic American films - a gift about as exciting as a pair of socks.” Brown on the other hand gave Brown a pen holder carved from the timbers of the sister ship of the one the White House desk is made from and a first edition of a seven-volume biography of Winston Churchill. I have to say that of those two gifts, I know which one I'd prefer. Surely there's one movie in those 25 that he hasn't watched?

I think this has probably less to do with Obama and more to do with the Fleet Street's desire to cast Brown as an unloved grovelling wretch. We dislike our premiers, on the whole. Any perceived slight to them only confirms their wretchedness. The British press are not complaining, they are going: look, see?

Quote of the day

"The main objections to the truth commission Sen. Leahy has been trying to organize are that it will be... nothing more than a witch hunt. Of course, the use of the phrase “witch hunt” today implies a hunt in pursuit of something that does not exist, while we are fairly certain that there were criminals in the outgoing administration who have thus far escaped the appropriate sanctions of the law." — Daniel Larison, The American Conservative

Mar 5, 2009

Mad as hell and not going to take it anymore

Every now and again Jon Stewart, whose shows are never less than smart, entertaining, morally grounded, etc, hits an ace. Last night's segment on CNBC had something extra — anger.

I wish they'd told me

John Cole has some good graphs about the "socialism" ruckus, from which he deduces the following:—
The 2010 proposed rate of 39.60% = socialism.
The 2002-2008 rates of 35.00% = capitalist nirvana.
The 39.6% rate of the 1990’s = socialism.
Everything else = down the memory hole.
I don't remember America being a particularly communist country back in the nineties. Of course I only moved here in 1999, so what do I know. but I visited many times and I didn't really get that vibe off the place. You'd think news would have leaked out somehow. They have newspapers here, and TV. Wouldn't some brave American have got the news out that his country, so implacably opposed to socialism a few years earlier — they had a cold war for crissakes! for several decades! — had, in fact, succumbed to the cold clutches of Marxist-Leninism? Evidently not. The government crackdown on such dissidents must indeed have been savage and intense.

Mar 3, 2009

Manna from heaven

The latest hour-long Rush Limbaugh extravaganza is pure bliss. Not since Sarah Palin popped her head into our airspace has political theatre acquired such bouyancy — as light as farce. As with all the best farces, the engine of this one is powered along by a neat conundrum: someone who believes himself to be the solution to the problem is in fact its source.

For non-American readers, a quick update: four days before the inuageration, radio host Rush Limbaugh said, of Obama, “I hope he fails." The DNC used the statement to raise cash. Then, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, clad in a slinky black satin shirt, Rush re-stated his view. "What is wrong with saying I hope he fails?"

This time, things kicked up a gear. On Face the Nation Rahm Emanuel bigged up the conservative talk show host, calling him the “the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party,” in turn angering Republican National Chairman Michael Steele who dismissed Limbaugh as a mere “entertainer,” whose rhetoric was “ugly” and “incendiary.” Steele was then forced into calling Limbaugh to apologize Monday. Rep. Phil Gingrey took a shot at Limbaugh only to appear on his program the next day and plead “foot-in-mouth disease.”

The whole thing is genius: Democrats have barely had to lift a finger and suddenly the new face of the GOP is a corpulent, hateful white male in slinky black satin whom the Republicans cannot be seen to either endorse or reject. "The administration is enabling me,” Limbaugh wrote in an e-mail to Politico. “They are expanding my profile, expanding my audience and expanding my influence. An ever larger number of people are now being exposed to the antidote to Obamaism: conservatism, as articulated by me.”

The language of addiction is revealing. Limbaugh's opinions are cocaine to the GOP. He has no idea how toxic he is to them, or rather he does but he just doesn't care. He is indifferent to their fate. He is not an elected official. He does not have their interests at heart. Everyone gains from this — Rush Limbaugh, Talk Radio, Obama, the Democrats — everyone but the poor Republicans.

Mar 2, 2009

A stopped clock

From my review of Watchmen, which loosed a tidal wave of fanboy snark in Slate a few years back:
Whether you take this self-reflexivity as evidence of a newfound sophistication on behalf of the comic book, or as self-consciousness tricked out as superiority—that old adolescent standby—is up to you. Watchmen was unquestionably a landmark work, a masterpiece, even. Before Moore came along, comic books were not generally in the habit of quoting Nietzsche, or scrambling their time schemes, or berating their heroes for their crypto-fascist politics, or their readers for reading them. It was Moore's slightly self-negating triumph to have allowed it to do so... The last time I looked, the only ones reading Ulysses and quoting Nietzsche were teenagers. No adult has time for aesthetic "difficulty" or "self-consciousness." Life is too short. Frankly, we'd much rather be watching The Incredibles.
Thinking about it further, I'd hone my objections a little further: too much backstory and not enough story. Moore is a dead-end for movie-makers. The same thing happened with V For Vendetta, which spent its entire time taking us on a guided tour of the fascistic future it inhabited, and left approximately five minutes for an actual plot to get underway. Moore is way too fond of the world he envisions — or to be accurate, the political points scored by that vision — to ever let his plots run away with him. The clock ticks backward.

Crazy chimp attack

I had the following conversation with a homeless person the other afternoon, as I forked over a dollar. 
"Hey slim," he goes, "What do you think about the lady and the chimp?"  
"I think she crossed the line." 
"It's crossing the line, sleeping with a chimp. It's like sleeping with a dog." 
"I think she might have had problems." 
"Well, she's paying for it now...." 
This was a new one: instead of chit-chat about the weather, or the price of a big mac, he engaged me on the topics of the day, like a radio talk show host elliciting opinions from his listeners. It was very welcome: I've run out of people I can talk to about the crazy-chimp-attack story without seeming ghoulish. 

Mar 1, 2009

2010 movie preview

In no order, here are the films that I'm most looking forward to this year.

Public Enemies
— Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger in Michael Mann's epic about 1930s gangsters. Script by Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann from Bryan Burroughs book. Described by one script review as "Heat meets The Untouchables." Mann on home turf, in period.

An Education — A Nick Hornby script, from Lynn Barber's memoir about her teenage romance with a feckless older man in 1950s Paris, with a reportedly stand-out performance from 22-year-old Carey Mulligan. Variety called it "bursting with life." Audiences at Berlin and Sundance were smitten.

The Lovely Bones — Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel starring Mark Wahlberg. This seems so unlikely, and the book was so bad, that something interesting may be brewing. (Look at what happened to The Bridges of Madison county). Fingers crossed.

Avatar — James Cameron's first film since Titanic, a sci-fi epic set on another planet which scientists are trying to colonise after Earth gets too polluted. Early script reviews suggest some Abyss-style preachiness — "Aliens meets Lord of the Rings if it were written by Al Gore." A stunning dud? 

Cheri — Michelle Pfieffer reteams with Stephen Frears in this Collette adaptation about a belle epoque brothel madam who falls in love; with a score by Alexandre Desplat.

Also looking forward to Funny People, the latest from Judd Apatow; Eddie Murphy playing Richard Pryor in James Whale's biopic, Up & Toy Story 3 (Pixar). I'm a little more circumspect about Martin Scorsese's Ashecliffe (too much through-the-looking-glass psychosis), Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. I will be giving a wide body serve to Hillary Swank as Amelia Earhert in Amelia and Meryl Streep as Julia Childs in Julia & Julia.

Escape from the flea circus

"In 1919, Charlie Chaplin had an idea for some fleas. Wouldn't it be good, he thought, if a man accidentally opened his matchbox of performing fleas in a dosshouse? But he could find no place for the scene in the film he was shooting. He tinkered with the idea for almost a decade - wouldn't it be good if he inspected one of the fleas from a hobo's beard, only to throw it away because it wasn't one of his? - and almost got it into The Circus in 1928, and then The Great Dictator in 1940, but still it wouldn't fit. Finally, in 1952, with the communist witch-hunt closing in on him, the press baying for his blood, Chaplin made his last film on American soil, Limelight, about a washed-up clown called Calvero plying himself with greasepaint for one final hurrah. In a flashback sequence, we see Calvero finally lose those performing fleas, but not the whole box: just two of them now, hopping invisibly from fist to fist."

— From my review of Chaplin: The Tramp's Odyssey in tomorrow's Sunday Times