Friday, June 29

Where have you gone, Bill Forsyth?

My good friend, and now prospective best man, Bruce Campbell introduced me to Forsyth back in the eighties, insisting that we see Local Hero in the theater. Gregory's Girl had been a big indie hit, and Hero looks like a movie that was made with wary cooperation between Glasgow and Hollywood. Burt Lancaster is there as Felix Happer, the corporate titan longing for meaning. Young Peter Riegert is our hero, following his debut in M*A*S*H and a follow up in Animal House, but long before The Sopranos brought him to the attention of a whole new generation.

I watched Local Hero because it's the story of business vs. environment and town vs. corporation. Call it research. But the conflict between opposing forces is as anti-operatic as you'll find in any film. In fact, by any standard today - any of mine - the plot bored me. Though the action is droll, the characters reveal few new facets as we come to know them, and the only apparent complication develops out of limp negotiations between Mac and Gordon.

Ben, who actually owns the ancient beach, provides the final second act obstacle. There are enough major characters interested in this spot for reasons other than money that when Happer changes his mind about building the sprawling refinery, the audience had been waiting for it for at least a half hour. Unaccountably, the townspeople who would have been enriched, for no apparent reason, don't feel had. Everything's fine.

Twenty four years after seeing Local Hero for the first time, I've lost a lot of my vaguely remembered respect for it. But I've lost little of my youthful affection. It's not a well-made story. In many places, the acting is so contained that I can't tell whether to blame Scottish reserve, unexportable drollness of the British Isles, or a very tired cast. But it is sweet, patient, and dry, like Forsyth's more successful story Comfort and Joy.

Finally, Local Hero is a story of an American fish out of water in a Scottish fishing village who comes to feel that his life is empty by comparison with what he finds in Furness. (Though at least one pilgrim looking for what Mac found had some of her visions of Local Hero badly shaken.). But it's also Forsyth's homage to a place where the sky is full of wonder and mythical creatures still swim off shore. Mac falls in love with something there - we don't see it dramatized - and it seems that that indefinable thing is Scotland. The story may not show it, but the writer director implies it.

The single new delight come from the only truly dramatic moment of the second act. The town has learned that Ben is stalling the deal that will make them all millionaires and it looks less and less likely he'll budge. He teeters out of the ceilidh ("KAY-lee"), a drunken town dance, and finds a knot of locals eager to pursuade him to sell. Mac and Gordon follow Ben to his beach shack to insure his safety. But once they're on the sand, the late-sun setting hanging over the ocean, it appears the whole town has streamed out of the hall to confront the old beachcomber. They trot in from all directions, stop in silouhette, and wait as if to see who will start this dirty work. From the sea's horizon though, what looks like the last sliver of sun wavers and, by god, gets bigger, closer, whiter. It's Felix Happer's helicopter. The superstitious old exec. has come to see the sky and negotiate with Ben directly. The surprise of that reversal and it's visual execution is so delightful, the moreso because the scale of action and dramatic tricks is set so low throughout the movie.

Tuesday, June 26

Hot Fuzz: Hot, not Fuzzy

Hot Fuzz a jigsaw puzzle of cliches from some of the best cop/action/thriller/Clint Eastwood/procedural Hollywood movies stitched together. But rather than quickening an incontinent Frankenstein, this is a delightful, wry Bionic Man of an homage to the genres. Wright and Pegg have the technology.

The procedural style and direction of close up, insert shots is so conspicuously fast-paced, the sound effects so like Michael-Bay-meets-Bruce-Lee-classics that the simplest transactions - making change, for example - are a delight. By calling attention to these typically portentous or red-herring shots, the filmmakers give us a pause from worrying about their significance. We can be confident they'll return, purposefully and hilariously.

Buddy movies, we all know now, are romances without sexual consummation. At least, on screen. Take Two Weeks Notice, change Sandra Bullock into Josh Duhamel, and you've got a detective plot in the making. Take Simon Pegg and turn him into Julia Roberts (no relation), do a dialogue pass, and you've got Notting Hill. Okay, more than a dialogue pass. Hot Fuzz doesn't hesitate to play the superficially sublimated romance in the foreground, showing how these two crazy cops complete each other.

But the best quality of the movie is it's unwillingness to wink at the audience. I learned this notion from Jason Bateman, if memory serves, who explained it was Jeffrey Tambor's advice during rehearsals of Arrested Development. As an actor, he explained, the audience knows you're playing a deep, desperate idiocy. But three dimensions of entertainment flatten to two when the audience sees the character acting "as if" he were an idiot. Hot Fuzz is as committed to its comic purpose as Nick Angel, the hyper-cop protagonist, is to uncovering the true source of crime in Sanford. And it's a delight to ride shotgun.

There's a lot to be said for sincerity. Not sentiment, lazy earnestness, kids and dogs. But belief in the story and commitment to the principles of its telling. Hot Fuzz has it. Privately, I'm worried that Live Free or Die Hard doesn't. The ironic, knowing, wise cracking John McClane was so seldom sincere about anything except his family, and then he was sincerely, desperately misguided. Severance used sincerity of purpose and execution to exploit the genre. Movies I haven't liked lately have been trying to hard to be liked, including Shrek the Third. It seems we have finally reached the much discussed post-ironic period, that is, if the independents are our leading indicator. I hope so.

Thursday, June 14

Die Hard. Already Dead?

Who needs a hero like John McClane? A man who is motivated by...
  • Absolute standards of good and evil
  • An irrational sense of loyalty
  • A loose grasp on the purpose and value of the justice system
  • Emotions that are both intense and inexpressible
  • An unquestioned sense of personal power
He may be a high-functioning psychopath with a blind if admirable love for his wife. A man like that begins to sound familiar to another everyman who, after failing at other endeavors, succeeded by taking on "evil men." That man looks like an international buffoon.

If the zeitgeist is always rendering the hero in a new form - the cowboy, captain of industry, cop, astronaut, the judge, the rapper - then I think it's time the Die Hard franchise died, hard or otherwise. I don't wish them ill. I just think we need a hero. McClane is no longer my man, or our man, or everyman.

I love this character. For years, even when talking with film snobs, I said Die Hard was my favorite movie: fantastic, entertaining, with a hero I could admire. In fact, McClane is a hero who gives dramatic vent to the frustrations of everyman in the face of bureaucracy and big institutions. But that was back in 1988. And Inside Man seemed to be the last word on him. Or some people say he karmically became Jack Bauer. But now he's back and he's got gray hair on his back like the Geico Neanderthals.

Jack Bauer may be a response to 9/11. John McClane was a response to America under Ronald Regan. Bauer: unfailingly earnest. McClane: dripping irony. Bauer: willing to do almost anything for country. McClane: Willing to do almost anything to get his estranged wife back.

Our next heros:
  • First, assume that they fought in Iraq and then,
  • Went to Harvard Business School
  • Started a socially-conscious business
  • Went into a business that's based on selling responsibility to low- to moderate-income families
  • Refuse to battle institutions, "What's that?"
  • Use pot recreationally
  • Get angry at people who litter
If you draw a line from John McClane in Die Hard (1988) through all the knockoffs and the real progeny of that fresh take on the everyman hero - NYPD Blue, The Shield, The Long Kiss Goodbye, House, 24's Jack Bauer to name a few - and draw it back to McClane in Live Free or Die Hard (DH4), you have to ask yourself, who needs a hero like McClane today?

Wednesday, June 13

Severance, or Never Trust Management

Combine The Office with any good vengeful-killer slasher movie and you've got Severance. You'll want to like both parents to sit comfortably with their offspring. But if you do, you've got a treat in store.

Folks who'd seen Severance at the Toronto(?) film festival called it the most interesting, buzz-inducing movie of the festival. I'd read, I responded, that it was a rollicking parody of a corporate retreat gone wrong. No, it's a bloody slasher. Well, we're both right.

Severance is winking at the genre while making a clever, but by the numbers, slasher. The scrim of corporate venality and teamwork claptrap is delightful, but in fact, a distraction from the main story. I know, that's the po-mo, 21st century way and I'm on board with it. I laughed, I was horrified, I was scared. And some of the most hackneyed character moments were neatly subverted by playing on the bumbling shortcomings of this team of weapons marketers.

The best one of these came at the moment when, driven back to the lodge with a mortally wounded go-getter, the pretty blond and the good-looking stoner, Steve (yeah, the unlikely romance at the center of the story) pause and reflect on the current danger. Steve confesses that he's not a very good guy. Then - head slap - he remembers that he's left Go-Getter's severed in the frig. inside the van that crashed a half mile down the road. That's high quality comedy. It lifted the cliche to a new level by winning a laugh while simultaneously proving his confession.

The slasher movie within is real, including all the beats and set-ups you expect: unlikely group in unfamiliar territory; unwelcome conditions; rage-driven furies to pursue them; characters - movie meat - cut down for their predominating flaws; pursuits; flight; entrapment; characters split off as targets; lovers prevail; guilty are punished; evil vanquished by unlikely agents, or in this case, angels (think Victoria Secret, not Renaissance painting).

But the biggest challenge while watching lay in not knowing whether to trust the director and screenwriter. Good storytelling throws us off guard to delight and surprise us. By distracting us from danger by mocking easy corporate stereotypes the filmmakers also showed that they lacked interest in the people who live withing those types and the themes this story might embody. Animating the otherwise clever plot, like many offerings in the genre, nearly every character was two-dimensional.

Perhaps the director and screenwriter pointing out the bankruptcy of the genre. "You're here for the adrenaline," they seem to be saying in effect, "Not for our take on characters who embody the murderous emotions and anxious fear that we sense all around us so, what the hell, let's have a go at self-important managers." But we all know that managers are more dangerous than that. Corporations are more dangerous than that. Think of the rage to which they've driven you.

Saturday, June 9

The Science of Sleep

Just this week I remembered a dream. That's rare for me. It seemed to tell me the importance of a decision - very - and my role in the world in which it takes place. It has already proved the seed of an idea for another screenplay. The power of dreams is so potent but so personal only someone as inventive as Michel Gondry should take us inside. But the story of real dreams - the what happens, who cares? - is the most elusive quality of dreams. Also, this movie.

In the middle of Gondry's rĂªve, I woke up more tired then when I settled down. At the one hour point, Stephane's dream - and his love-life ceased being interesting. This antic story should have taken flight by practical magic and in-camera effects such as Gondry is famous for. But by the middle no questions remained to be answered. Stephanie was already leaning toward Stephane, dramatically. With the slightest provocation she would fall into his arms. And the strength of Stephane's dream world presented too few problems and too little pressure on his growing love.

The calendar artist's boyishness prevented the story from developing stakes that we invested in, though there were at least two directions to chase them down. On one hand, his dream-life could crowd a real life that he finds he wants more and more desperately as he falls in love. On the other hand, his dream-life could become so attractive that he wins Stephanie's love by inviting her in and succeeds, against all obstacles, in making her at home there. Those of you who saw the end will tell me that this is how it ends, right? One performance note: If Gael Garcia-Bernal can't convince me that this world is charming and irresistible, who could?

Lemme see. What was I going to say? I think I need a nap.