Wednesday, March 17, 2004

The Owen & Ben Show

In a bold move, director Todd Phillips follows the lead of Adaptation and pastiches the making of his own film, casting real people in fictional roles. Policemen Ken Hutchinson and David Starsky are excellent as Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller, two hapless human actors trapped in a maze of moderate plotting and obvious if enjoyable humour. Starsky’s tightly controlled representation of Stiller is a joy to behold as the first-time thespian creates a powerful character-actor constrained by the pantomime world in which he has chosen to express his talent. It is Hutchinson, however, who should turn in his baton and handcuffs and spend more time exploring his metier; he skillfully contrasts Wilson’s caring attitude with a sense of predatory larceny which lifts the material from slapstick to subtle farce, while at the same time showing Wilson’s pain at the shambolic, pathos-lite production in which he is starring. The film-within-the-film is a cop drama featuring a hyped rendition of the real-world lives of Hutchinson and Starsky, which never really attracts the audience’s attention: our eyes are firmly centred on Owen and Ben as they struggle to out-do one another on the silver screen. Hutchinson, of course, possesses a massive charm advantage, and Starsky never really recovers his poise, occasionally showing us his pain as his partner smoothly manipulates the script to attain the maximum affection from the watcher. Phillips choses to deny us even a glimpse behind the scenes, so Hutchinson and Starsky must convey the actual plot though tone and sense: the perfect culmination of postmodern cinema.

Broog must confess, however, that he is concerned the pastiche is too complete, and many audience members may imagine that the subject matter - “Starsky and Hutch” - is the actual film.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Shadow of the Vampire

Broog is not generally a fan of movies about moviemaking, any more than he particularly wants to sit for two hours and ten minutes in a darkened room in the company of a preachy orthodontist. With the notable exception of Steve Buschemi’s nightmarish “Living In Oblivion”, these films are so tedious that Broog is unable to remember the names of the people he was intending to torture for making them. They are by and large of a piece with “Adaptation”, an involuted private joke of a story whose only saving grace, aside from a bravura performance by the human Streep, was the fact that for the first time in living memory the word ‘adaptation’ was given the correct number of syllables by a US producer.

“Shadow of the Vampire” is a rare treat, however: a movie about moviemaking which is also about the pain and suffering of an ancient monster who feeds on blood and can no longer remember how he came to be. Whatever might be said about the curious direction - the male Merhige may worship F.W. Murnau, but that is no reason to duplicate the technological infelicities of his cinema and omit the mastery which redeems it - Dafoe is mesmeric and ravenous in the role of Orlock, and he is surrounded by an excellent cast whose intensity is not diminished by John Malkovich appearing as Malkovich-as-Murnau. Not a horror movie, this, but an homage to the vampire oeuvre, which, unlike most features occasioning the use of that word, does not require Broog to bring a collection pillows on which to rest his drowsing visual organs, nor even a set of sharp spikes in case anyone tries to host a Q&A.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Das Boot and U-571

It appears to Broog that the only reason for the existence of U-571 is that Wolfgang Petersen’s movie was shot in German, and until the advent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , it was assumed that US audiences lacked the mental acuity and stamina to read nasty subtitles. In keeping with this perception that American cinemagoers are either lazy or illiterate, human Jonathan Mostow’s 2000 movie about a submarine crew’s struggle for survival, which occasionally appears to appropriate entire sequences from Petersen’s film, scrupulously avoids the squid-ink deeps of moral complication and seeks the shallow water of shrimpish simplicity. Where Petersen’s film calmly makes the distinction between Nazis and Germans, and is content to follow an experienced captain and crew on the losing side of WWII through a painful and claustrophobic odyssey of internal and external conflict which is never even to the end allowed to be predictable, Mostow’s popcorn-guzzler touches the familiar bases of the post-War generation’s war movie - young commander’s pride and inexperience, battle for hearts and minds, impossible odds, good causes requiring sacrifice - in the name of an adjusted history. Not content with selecting the winning side, the producers felt the need to rewrite events to make the finding of the enigma machine - Mostow’s mcguffin - an American achievement rather than a British one, so that the audience will be able to ‘relate’ without the added effort of looking for virtue beyond the Big Water. Broog would suggest that it is not necessary or even useful to make it this easy to care; the magic of Petersen’s film - and it is engrossing, shocking, and timeless, despite a lengthy 216 minute runtime - is that it ceases to be important which side the sailors are on, or whether their captain doubts the integrity of his government; the business in hand is survival against an enemy which appears to know their every move - because, though it’s almost never explicitly stated, Jürgen Prochnow’s crew must deal with the consequences of the cracking of Enigma and Shark.

Broog understands that the human organism is frail, that the eyes water and the back aches, and that ‘integrity’ is a word not often associated with an evening’s enjoyment at the movie theatre. Broog is tempted to remind you that the Pit of Irritable Mink awaits any dissenting voices, but instead choses to offer the Carrot of Satisfaction: assume the position of observation, put your upper limb around your companion, and watch. Das Boot can speak for itself.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

The Fast and The Furious

As Broog prepares himself to view the mighty throbbing engine of Torque, he has taken the opportunity to rewatch this forerunner, though he accepts it is unlikely he will also inflict upon his narrative receptors the barbaric murder of cinema which was xXx. The Fast and The Furious is a direct-line descendant of movies such as State of Grace and American Yakuza. A decent young man joins a criminal scene, befriends the chief villain, and finds in him a shocking amount of virtue; the detective looking for a monster finds instead a tragic hero. The Fast and The Furious is a watchable example of the breed, replete with gripping stunts; most importantly, the inevitable conclusion doesn't feel inevitable. If there is a downside, it is that the movie is insufficiently preposterous, the characters disappointingly human. The Fast and The Furious is devoid of gurning monsters and boohiss villains. While this is perhaps heartening in that it possesses a cinematic integrity, Broog cannot shake a sense of disappointment at the absence of true evil; perhaps its presence would lend an urgency to the high-octane turmoil of the story. Paul Walker's nascent Luke Skywalker has an host of Obiwans and a suitable Leia, but no Darth Vader against whom to measure himself, and no Dark Side from which to save his friend.

To the Devil a Daughter

Broog revisited this Hammer horror from 1976 with a sense of profound foreboding; if there's one thing he would hope to avoid in life, it is the image if Christopher Lee in flares. Fortunately, this indignity is absent from the drama, which follows the battle to save the soul and body of a young nun. Broog was reminded that horror can be more disturbing for being clunky, and that David Cronenberg was already making 'body horror' by the time this movie was filmed. Consequently, the camera does not flinch from the gravid belly of a pregnant satanist as she gives bloody birth to a monster which kills her, and the primary colours and moodless lighting make for a weirdly unsettling feel, like an explosion in a daycare centre. Broog was also reminded that studios and producers have known one secret of audience-finding for many years: if all else fails, strip the lead actress. Natassja Kinski's pneumatic performance no doubt pulled them in at the time, and the cast is peppered with familiar names. However, while the movie is interesting and sometimes viscerally disturbing, it is essentially a honker of the first water.