Saturday, September 30, 2006

You Say Dah-lia, I Say Day-Lia

Brian DePalma has returned to the mainstream (ish) with The Black Dahlia. Welcome back, Bri.

Now, I'm a bit of a DePalma fan, but I'm massively aware that, like Cronenberg, you have to acquire the taste. If you don't, it's only the mainstream fair that gets your attention. For Cronenberg, those films were The Fly and Scanners. For DePalma, they were Carrie, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible.

If these are the films you know their makers for, it goes without saying that I think you're missing out of some fascinating cinema. But that's a rant for another day.

The Black Dahlia is DePalma doing one of those accessible movies he does from time to time to fund a career of interesting misses (the saucy Femme Fatale, the joyfully bonkers Raising Cain). I love that he does them, not just for the fare they lead to, but also for what they are. And yes, cards on table, I loved Black Dahlia.

Still, there are some preconceptions to tidy up first.

Yes, it may be easy to compare this film to LA Confidential - same source novelist, same noir-ish Hollywood setting - but it's closest recent relatives are more unusual.

Far From Heaven and Down With Love.

Both films were slavish recreations of a particular style. Great, entertaining films that totally - and without irony (or, at least, any that wasn't there already) - embraced a long gone style.

Modern film noir is best known, I guess, through films like Chinatown and Body Heat. (I'm ignoring the sex-thriller mutation that followed with things like Basic Instinct.) But modern noir always seemed to want to be credible. It wanted to take place in the real world, more or less. And for me, that made the genre less interesting.

Away from Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, those 40s flicks with their voiceover heroes, flashbacks and pervading, unspoken sexuality, we eventually lost some of the richness of style. LA Confidential is a great, great movie - but it's almost a period drama, a procedural, rather than a noir.

The Black Dahlia has no such trouble.

DePalma grabs hold of the noir style with both hands - to embrace it, rather than to shake it up. The voiceover is utterly hardboiled, the flashbacks razor-sharp. Every character is in 'a film about a murder', they're not living it for real, they're in the movie. But again I say this is not intended ironically. It's just that, maybe, the style gets across the senses the way 'reality' and 'facts' never could.

(It's worth noting now that I have no opinion about the 'true story' the book and film is loosely based on. It's a work of fiction for me, and was watched as such.)

Aside from the more modern flavours of bloody violence, F and C words and nudity (more on these in a moment), this is a period movie as if it were made at the time. Dahlia's cast have been perfectly selected for a vibe that just screams 40s Hollywood. Hartnett is splendid -

Hang on. Let me type that again.

Yes, Josh Hartnett is GOOD in a film. With much of the smugness knocked out of him, he's a terrific leading man for the genre. It's unbelievable. But when his character puts his hat on for some post-coital, in-bed conversation, you realise how right he is. I may never think it again, but on this one day...he's ideal.

(The hat, by the way, is a symbolic gesture, too. After sex, he's back to work, questioning a suspect he just happens to be sleeping with.)

Scarlett Johansson, of course, always looked like she'd been cut out of 40s celluloid anyway. Nobody else so immediately carries with them the white-blonde hair, the pout, the curves, and that ice-cold-but-scalding-beneath attitude.

The same is true of Aaron Eckhart, who again feels like he's been beamed here from a Big Sleep casting session. His biggest flaw is limited screen time - as the character whose mind is torn apart by the Dahlia killing, we needed to see a little more of him, and it definitely feels like a scene or two got snipped. That aside - powerful.

Only Hilary Swank separates herself from this crowd. Unlike the others, she has to pull on her character like an outfit. She wears it well, but there's always a tickle that she's 'acting in the style of' rather than finding herself intrinsically part of the genre by nature. It's still a fine performance, but - not unlike Ewan McGregor in the aforementioned Down With Love - it comes from a gifted actor, rather than 'a star', and you can feel her trying.

Still, DePalma's the real star. The film is filled with his style, and yet not overwhelmed by it, as is so often his greatest flaw. As with the Untouchables or Carlito's Way, the director figures out when to tone down the flourishes and let the screenplay talk.

Than again, he also knows when to turn his own volume back up. Who better to employ film-within-film voyerism? (And how wonderfully creepy that the director himself plays the voice of the director heard in our dead girl's screentests!)

Anyone who's seen Hostel will know all about the limits of cinematic gore, or lack thereof. But showing a thing isn't, on its own, enough. Hostel's violence caused little reaction from me, save the odd shrug. "Prosthetic," I yelled. "Editing trick!" Because it may all be well-executed, but the technique itself...dull.

DePalma's camera, meanwhile, is never dull. His photography, editing and movement can have a visceral effect on the viewer, and here you WILL find yourself flinching, even turning away from the screen. Not because it's more gratuitous than Hostel, but because it's better made.

So there's tension and pain and voyerism and style. What of the director's usual bugbear - the coldness of his characterisation? Critics often, and usually with good reason, call him a technical filmmaker. Someone interested in technique and never emotion. And in the films where he's written the scripts himself, that certainly feels true.

(Ironic really, as his self-penned films really ARE the most personal. Taking autobiographical elements - photographing his mother having an affair - and scripting them to then be filmed.)

But with Josh Friedman's screenplay, we hover instead between style and substance. But, I say again, this is a movie about a case, it's not the case itself being filmed. Noir isn't first and foremost a character study. But it IS a study of characters.

Contradictory? I don't think so.

This isn't a genre that tries to get into the mind of someone you've never met, some new and layered character. Instead, it shows you a collection of people who represent aspects of our natures. It gives you men repressing their sexual desire. Women teasing it out - effortlessly, because in the end we're all just barking dogs on a leash, and ridiculously open to manipulation.

There are the rich and crazy people, and lives of secrets, rebellious daughters and tempting wives. There's masculine aggression - oh boy is there masculine aggression - and feminine sensuality. (This is, for the record, not a sexually explicit film. But it is the sexiest thing I've seen in the cinema for a while. The smallest gestures - hands and eyes - speak huge, horn-inducing volumes. Ladies, gents, take a partner. You will be steamed up by the time the credits roll...though you won't necessarily feel good about it.)

In the end, then, it's like the horror genre. It's about pulling bigger, grander truths, rather than filming the 'real'. And in this film we get a deliberate, willful, almost child-like insistence that the film WILL be made this way. To hell with 60 years of genre development.

So, while it will remain unappreciated by some audiences, and certainly by Oscar, this is, no question, cinema of WORTH.

Whether it's too your taste is something else...

Certainly you'll want to concentrate. Minor characters, quickly-mentioned names, all will come into play for the final revelations. Pay attention. I left wanting to see the film again right away. Just make sure that it's for the right reasons. Word is the screenplay was compressed significantly from the version David Fincher had, at one time, intended to shoot. Between that and the sense of scenes being removed or shortened, the pace is brisk (though not hurried), and a few more minutes would not have hurt.

Still, I had to see LA confidential twice, too - to make all the connections. So maybe I'm just too dim for noir. Hell, even Chandler himself never worked out who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep.

Me, I like the gangster movie. James Cagney, The Public Enemy. A genre that, actually, has undergone far less reinvention since it's arrival in the 30s. The Godfather maybe tried to legitimise the character side, but with Scorsese's Goodfellas and DePalma's own Scarface 'remake', it was still the same kind of movie - attractive and frightening, violent, blackly funny, and forever based around a big central performance.

In the gangster film, being alone is dangerous. And everyone lusts for MORE - more money, more power, more stuff. Thing is, the more you have the more alone you become. It's an inevitable, fatal cycle. I love it.

Gangster films - they still make 'em like that. Old-style noir doesn't really happen so much. So take the chance and see The Black Dahlia. You might not get along with it - it's certainly polarising audiences - but it's still easy to be impressed by the achievement.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Ricky Is Funnier Than You - FACT

Are you black? Are you British? Then Ricky Gervais is funnier than you.

Sorry about that.

The second series of Extras kicked off with mostly repeats of - okay, quite funny - jokes from the first series. "Oh, the famous - they can be quite conceited! And insecure! They're just how we think they are when we read Heat! How hilarious!" Followed by the old, standard, "He didn't really just say that, did he?" thing.

Most of which is apparently not offensive so long as Gervais - who wrote the lines in the first place - looks shocked.

Now, hey, lazy writing and weak satire are fine. I'm not offended (much) by either. But when, towards the end of the first episode, Gervais' "character" Andy was asked to think of funny, black, British comedians...well, something else loomed large.

So, he couldn't think of a single one. Apparently Gervais - who (FACT) is funny - is, by extension, better than an entire segment of the UK population. Lovely.

Then his character looks at the Lenny Henry picture on the wall. And refuses to take the example. Hilarity ensues.

Because Gervais - being (FACT) funny - is able to stomp all over that career straight away. Forget how bloody hilarious he used to be, how charismatic he still is. I'm no big Henry fan, but come the hell on.

Oh, and if you like 'regular' sitcoms, you're a moron. A TV drone. Ever found a catchphrase funny? Ditto. Formular comedy? Well, I'll get on to that...

Episode two was marred not by some serious imbalance of tone, but rather by simply by not being very funny.

Gervais is now playing a version of himself so closely that entire scenes go past without a line of dialogue that feels like 'Andy'. The scripts are marginalising his female co-star (who's still actually funny, playing a full-fledged 'character'...even if she is, by default, also playing 'dim woman') in favour of a storyline about how Andy's sitcom has been ruined by the BBC.

An odd one this, because not only did it not happen to The Office, despite the implications that it could have (how?), it's generally hard to take no blame for a comedy series that's not funny when you're the writer and star.

Worst of all, everything being lampooned - on-the-nose punchlines and formular - are every bit a present in Extras as they are in his com-within-a-com. Every week we visit the agent, the agent's crap, Barry from Eastenders turns's actually decent stuff, this, but don't pretend it's any different from Basil hitting Manuel every week.

Take this line, about Andy's recent TV success: "Oh, and Sky called." "Yeah?" "Yeah, they said they can put up your dish next Thursday."

It's a fine enough joke. But it IS a joke. It's a sit-com gag. It plays exactly the same way in My Family. Deal with it.

Ignoring, then, that we have a ego in place of a character at this point. That we've just had an entire episode that ground along painfully (oh, the agony of the 'giving money to the homeless guy' scene. On and on it went, not funny, just exhausting) using the same old schtick. The most aggravating thing is how...this 'better than you' attitude is really making the show unpleasant to watch.

'Andy' looks at the sitcom-loving studio audience with contempt. Why? Because they love TV comedy? Bastards. Who does he think his audience is? Just because they're not in the room when he films, doesn't change anything.

It's an ego in overdrive. A deluded opinion that 'realism' is a finite, definitive thing. The thing that sets his shows apart from those of mere mortals. It's not.

Anything 'realistic' is just dressed up in a style, same as any other. And that style dates like the others. Brando in Streetcar? Stylised as hell to watch now, but back then it was seen as the pinnacle of naturalism. Not that it matters, if the thing's GOOD.

Extras in 20 years' time? One good series, followed by sluggish, indulgent content and ego that pronounced itself better than anyone else...WITHIN the dialogue of the show.

I'm constantly short of time at the moment, so with that off my chest I have to fly. But if you want something funny, wait until Extras has finished and watch Mitchell and Webb - which actually IS.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

I'm Not a Zombie, Honest!

Hey, I'm back! Did ya miss me?

Oh you're just saying that...

So, I've just been to see Right At Your Door. I was really looking forward to this - from the promotion it came across as a tough little indie picture with something to say about the current state of panic.

(You know how we look back at the nuclear panics of the 80s and 60s now? Retrospectively aware that the paranoias were overwrought, and the safety measures pointless? How come nobody has this in mind during the current alleged 'terror wave'? When did we stop being able to tell the difference between 'more terrorists' and 'more headlines about terrorists'?)

As you may know, I'm sucker for the little independent film that could. Hard Candy was my last such joy, and Right At Your Door has a similar set of criteria - two leads, one male, one female, a low budget, L.A. setting, tense atmosphere...

...only, as it turns out, Door is actually pretty wooden. Solid, unremarkable, and ultimately not very interesting.

Laboured metaphor aside, it's with some disappointment that I say this, because it was film I fully expected to like.

As dirty bombs explode in downtown Los Angeles, a husband can't contact his wife. The authorities insist that houses be locked down and sealed up to protect inhabitants from infection, but when his wife comes home, our man has to make the tough decision to leave her locked outside rather than risk the lives of himself and next-door's caretaker.

Now, two things to ignore. The 'What would you do?' premise is the first. What you would do is panic, not be very good at sealing the house up, and ultimately let the person you love back in so at least you can be together in your final hours. Or, if there's a cure, you'll both get it. Who wants to be the only survivor?

Secondly, ignore the blurb about a twist ending. It isn't. It's not even close. It's seeded early and often. Worse than that, it's EXACTLY the kind of twist you've come to expect from downbeat, 'what if?' cinema.

See, when the wife comes home and screams to be let in, you've already seen it in another genre - the zombie movie. 'Let me in, it's just a scratch!'

Now, in those circumstances, everyone in the audience yells 'Shoot her through the head!' Because to get sentimental in a horror film is to invite death.

Oh, but Door is SERIOUS film. Not some silly genre picture. It wants to know what you;d do FOR REAL, if it weren't some silly film.

Only, to be a SERIOUS film, you can't pull a cheap, predictable movie twist. You either embrace genre or avoid it, but you can't do both. If we're asked to see his decision as the right one early on, you can't tell us later that he deserves to be punished by the movie gods in an way that sucks all credibility from the film.

All this is a shame, because TV familiar faces Mary McCormack (The West Wing's Kate, oddly getting top billing) and Rory Cochrane (CSI: Miami's Speedle) put heart and soul into their performances. Through the film's brisk runtime they run through the worst emotions with credibility and accessibility.

Meanwhile writer-director Chris Gorak undoes his noble intentions with a far-too-weak narrative and under-developed characters and relationships. There's about enough story (and, yes, lame predictable twist) to fuel a 45-minute episode of The Outer Limits, but no way a feature.

That's okay, you think, with only two acts to the story at least there's time for two good actors to let us tear into the hearts of their characters.

Eh - not so much.

While studiously avoiding lame exposition - it's an hour before we learn that Cochrane's character is an out-of-work musician, and I don't think we ever find out what McCormack does - he forgets that, to care deeply about people, we have to know them. They have to be more than a cipher for 'If I was him'.

And maybe that's it. Maybe keeping their lives unspecific was meant to make it easier for viewers to lay their own natures over the top. If so, it doesn't work. What it does instead is keep motivations vague - ironic, really, because we might have been better with a film that asks 'What would HE do?'

So as we watch two miserable souls fall apart, uncertain about what, exactly, is being lost (there's a little talk that the husband no longer speaks to his family, while McCormack does take a call or two from her mother - but again it's lip-service to emotions that could have run much deeper).

It's a post 9/11 movie. Of course it is. And I don't think that's anything to be ashamed of - how can you identify with art if it doesn't reflect your reality?

What SHOULD be shaming is the script. For all the gritty, ugly, yet oddly-compelling visuals (Gorak was formerly an art director, and Fight Club sits high on his CV), it's the writer half of the writer-director who needed a bit of a talking to.

Deliberately underplaying character to avoid melodrama is noble, but you need something in its place. More of the same tone - unrelenting bleakness and panic - isn't enough, no matter how well-executed your low-budget visuals. The script is the cheapest way to improve your film, and a dirty cop-out of a finale like this shouldn't have made it beyond the first draft.

So, well-intentioned, and certainly a sign of a talent to come. But, like so many directors, he'll need a solid screenwriter on hand to make 'interesting' into 'excellent'.