Friday, June 17, 2011

Look into the light

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Poltergeist (1982)

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Schindler's List (1993)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

War of the Worlds (2005)

Super 8 (2011)

Sunday, June 12, 2011


When he's not making snide remarks about the hit TV musical Glee (I believe he said it made him feel like he'd "just stepped into a puddle of HIV"), cult author Bret Easton Ellis usually tweets in a totally civilized manner about his current pop-culture preferences. Last January, he tweeted: "Long talk with angry, successful screenwriter yesterday about our admiration for 'Somewhere' and how its images have haunted us for weeks..."

I share Ellis' enthusiasm for the haunting imagery in Somewhere, the latest film written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Like Ellis, Coppola is often accused of making shallow art about spoiled rich people, and Somewhere won't change anybody's mind. The picture is best appreciated as a purely aesthetic experience; if you approach it any other way, it's bound to try your patience.

Stephen Dorff, an actor I've always admired because he was in two early-'90s movies I grew up loving (Judgment Night and Backbeat), plays Johnny Marco, a movie star whose personal life suffers as his professional life flourishes. His tween daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), is left in his custody for the weekend, and the two of them spend the movie hanging out in five-star hotels. At one point, they fly halfway around the world to attend a glitzy awards show, and their suite actually has a swimming pool in it, like Francis' bathtub in Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

I can certainly see where critics are coming from when they say Coppola seems a little, uh, out of touch. In a particularly nasty review of her 2006 film, Marie Antoinette (a delicious piece of eye candy that I find slightly alienating), the reviewer refers to her as "arguably the most successful living member of the Lucky Sperm Club." (Her dad is legendary movie director Francis Ford Coppola). And, because I love snarky reviews, let me quote some more: "Without daddy’s money backing up her efforts, Coppola’s emaciated screenplay would still be moldering on her hard drive as the author worked the 10-4 shift at the Starbucks on Figueroa." Fun to read, but not exactly true. It's easy to question Coppola's abilities as a screenwriter, but harder to dismiss her talent as an image maker. And so what if her films are about the rich and the famous? If you want stories about the working class, check out Mike Leigh or Ken Loach.

The relatively brief plot description I've included here doesn't skimp on the details. Nothing much *happens* in Somewhere; the opening shot of a Ferrari circling endlessly around a barren stretch of road should be taken as a warning to some viewers to stay away. The movie fits nicely into an ongoing debate in certain cinephile circles – sparked by a recent NY Times Magazine piece by Dan Kois, who's been criticized by Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott and Glenn Kenny – about "slow cinema". Somewhere is like Coppola's homage to the anti-narrative indies of Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant. I don't find her film as maddening as Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, nor do I find it as compelling as Van Sant's Death Trilogy. (Nothing as dramatic as dying happens in Somewhere.) Overall, I was grateful that the film offered me, in the words of Dargis, the opportunity to "meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think."

As for the image that haunted me the most, it would have to be an extended shot of Johnny in a makeup chair. He's being prepped to play an elderly version of himself for his next project, and we see him as a totally blank slate, his face an eerie reflection of the emptiness he feels inside. That moment is not merely the product of "lucky sperm"; it shows an artist honing her craft. Coppola's talent is evident in everything from her casting choices (Dorff and Fanning are wonderful together) to her soundtrack selections, which never fail to amaze me. I've included a few samples below: a dreamy track by the Strokes and the opening-titles song by Phoenix (Coppola is engaged to frontman Tom Mars, whose band provides most of the music in Somewhere).

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Undead and Not Loving It

In the recent DOA comic-book movie, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, Sam Huntington plays Marcus, a motor-mouthed paranormal investigator who gets killed off early on in the film and comes back as a zombie. Marcus' postmortem plight – his diet consists of worms and maggots – got me thinking about some of the unhappier undead movie characters. Here are some of my all-time favorites:

Louis de Pointe du Lac, Interview with the Vampire

On my ancient DVD copy, director Neil Jordan introduces Interview with the Vampire as "a movie about the saddest vampires you've ever seen." The saddest of the sadsacks is Louis (Brad Pitt), a bloodsucker with a conscience who feeds on rats, chickens and poodles because he refuses to kill another human being. A close second is Claudia, a prepubescent immortal played by Kirsten Dunst, who laments that she will "never ever grow up." These milquetoast vampires are almost TOO melancholy; when Louis and Claudia's gleeful maker, Lestat (Tom Cruise, in a flamboyant, expansively entertaining performance) exits the picture, the movie pretty much falls apart.

Jerry, The Prophecy

I remember being really excited to see this when it came out my sophomore year of high school. I'd seen Pulp Fiction about 20 times by then, and The Prophecy features three Tarantino alums (Eric Stoltz, Christopher Walken and Amanda Plummer). In addition to Walken's homicidal archangel Gabriel, the character I was most struck by was Jerry (Adam Goldberg), a sardonically depressed young man who's kept in limbo by Gabriel after committing suicide. Ol' Gabe has nothing but disdain for the human race, but he keeps Jerry not-quite-alive because "it's a big universe and some things in it are talking monkey work." Walken and Goldberg have a very funny onscreen rapport; they provide the only comic relief in this otherwise grim horror picture, one of the ickiest cinematic Bible stories to come along before The Passion of the Christ.

Ray Lynskey, The Frighteners

The main thing you need to know about Ray Lynskey (Peter Dobson) is that he's the only person who cries at his own funeral. "It's a goddamn tragedy!" he sobs, even while he's remembered as "less than generous" by those he left behind. A skeptic who has to become a ghost to believe in ghosts, Ray refuses to take the Corridor of Life to heaven because, as he explains, he's "only 29!" As an earthbound emanation, he ultimately gets to redeem himself; he clearly loves his wife, Lucy (Trini Alvarado) and tries to save her. Unfortunately for him, no good deed goes unpunished in this wicked Peter Jackson-directed horror-comedy, the second-best genre mashup of 1996 (after From Dusk Till Dawn, of course).

Moaning Myrtle, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Poor, poor Moaning Myrtle. She's destined to haunt the girls' bathroom at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. (As haunting places go, bathrooms must be among the most unpleasant.) A bullied teen who was murdered by Tom Riddle himself, Myrtle is a genuinely tragic figure, but as played by the pixieish actress Shirley Henderson in the movies, she's mostly a source of annoyance and bemusement for Harry and his friends. Technically speaking, Myrtle plays a bigger part in Chamber of Secrets, but the Chris Columbus-directed Harry Potter movies are dead to me. Besides, she's a much more well rounded character in Goblet, as she helps Harry decipher a riddle that will lead him to winning the Triwizard Tournament.

Zia, Wristcutters: A Love Story

"Soon after I killed myself I got a job here at Kamikaze Pizza." Thus begins one of my favorite black-comic visions of the afterlife, right up there with Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life. Zia (Patrick Fugit) slits his wrists after his girlfriend dumps him and ends up in a dreary place populated by people who have committed suicide, where there are no stars in the sky and nobody ever smiles. (Sounds like South Florida - zing!) Like Moaning Myrtle, Zia was unhappy in real life and he's unhappy in the afterlife, suggesting that people are not only the same backwards and forwards but also alive and undead. But, as the title suggests, Wristcutters is a love story, and with Cupid's Arrow comes an opportunity for rebirth.