Carlos (The Cornfield #5)

One of the scintillating issues about movies is the problem of villains: movies can officially disapprove of a character who does bad things, but if that character is played by an actor with great glamour or charisma and gets the best nasty lines in the script, we have a tendency to gravitate toward that person regardless of the film’s official stance. The issue is even thornier when the villain is the central figure, as in Bonnie and Clyde or the two versions of Scarface, although there are many films, Bonnie and Clyde among them, that consciously explore the problem.

Olivier Assayas is part of a generation of filmmakers who frequently try to drain their movies of traditional seductive melodrama, although he also knows how to turn that stuff on when he wants to. In the case of Carlos, Assayas has built a five and a half hour TV miniseries around the misadventures of the notorious and highly visible terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and the plain recounting of various facts (and some speculation) about Carlos’s life makes for a less than romantic take on the criminal career. Assayas emphasizes the more absurd interludes in the arc of this career, as well as Carlos’s egocentric taste for the glory of infamy, so that most viewers will be unlikely to come out of this movie impressed by the coolness of the villain.

It also helps that the actor who plays the central role (a heroic performance by any standard), Édgar Ramírez, has the broad, handsome, self-satisfied face of a born self-satisfier. You take one look at him and think, Man, what a dick, and Ramírez never lets that first impression fade – even if Carlos evinces a few apparently authentic true-believer-in-the-revolutionary-cause moments early in the film, he conveys no sense of reflection or gravity. More shark than jackal: just the kneejerk evolutionary promotion of the self, in whatever situation.

By portraying the levels within the terrorist antfarm, Assayas creates both gripping suspense and black comedy – the latter approaching the gold standard of the rivalries and internecine power struggles taking place between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea in Life of Brian. Along with Carlos’s father/son mindgames with Palestinian terror honcho Wadie Haddad (spellbinding performance by Ahmad Kaabour), the game of lethal Risk is best played out in the movie’s longest sustained sequence, the 1975 hostage-taking at an OPEC conference in Vienna, which becomes both terrifying and ludicrous.

Assayas automatically tilts toward the absurd and the Kubrickian (not in Kubrick’s style, but in attitude – Assayas still favors the handheld, seemingly casual approach to scene-covering, with his usual technique of cutting frames in mid-shot to jump things along); a large part of this world’s population would find all of this deadly serious, another large segment would find this all laughable. Assayas seems to have gone through a process similar to the one Kubrick went through on Dr. Strangelove: the more research he did, the more hilarious it all got. (See Four Lions for another application of terrorism’s realities to create pitch-black comedy.) Whether or not you find Carlos funny probably depends on which part of the population you belong to.

Even though Carlos (and Ramírez) has his rock-star moments, the accumulation of mundane detail works against any possible glamorization of the character. During Carlos’s endgame, as he packs on the pounds and spins his wheels in Yemen and the Sudan, he endures ongoing testicular pain while pondering liposuction. These things tend to detract a bit from the grandeur.

The five-hour running time wears away the appeal, too. You can’t come away from the film too jazzed about the sociopathic doofus whose life we have been viewing, especially as the engrossing strategic plays of the film’s first two sections give way to the disorganized action of the final section, a third act that tends to grind on. I like the movie, find it an admirable thing, but it is really long.

At one point Carlos, getting on in age now, is seen clowning around with a little kid, a scene that stirs memories of Brando goofing with his grandson in The Godfather. Now that’s a movie that creates warmth and nostalgia and plenty of movie-star glamour around its Mafia characters, contra its intended lessons about the bad decisions made by Michael Corleone and all that. Who can go against the idea of family and the fat, lovable Clemenza’s recipe for pasta sauce? Assayas and Carlos deserve some credit just for undercutting that kind of movie romance, and wearing you down with the banal and the dead.

Howl Inside the Hornet’s Nest (Weekly Links)

James Franco as Ginsberg, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

In the space of the last six months or so we’ve seen the release of all three Swedish-language adaptations of the best-selling “Millennium” trilogy by Stieg Larsson.

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.

I like the way they’ve been released close together, but these brutal, full-bore pictures have left bruises aplenty. The first U.S. remake (helmed by “Social Network” director David Fincher and due in December 2011) has room to improve, particularly when it comes to subtlety. The final installment is “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” which is a direct continuation from the ending of the previous film, “The Girl Who Played with Fire.” You won’t be able to make sense of “Hornet’s Nest” if you haven’t seen that—it’s complicated enough even for fans.

One of this film’s big challenges is that its heroine is reduced to a less assertive state than before. Lisbeth, the tattooed, spike-haired sprite played by Noomi Rapace, begins the movie in a hospital, and spends much of the running time in deliberate muteness. That’s a major frustration for a series built on her ferocious personality. While Lisbeth is constricted, her sometime partner in truth-telling, journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nykvist), is hunting around for answers that could exonerate her from the crimes she’s accused of—and shed light on a larger conspiracy that envelops the series.

The biggest new pleasure from “Hornet’s Nest” comes from watching the sneaky scheming of an old group of former Soviet operatives, who I guess are still dreaming of a Communist comeback. We also get to watch the creepy presence of a doctor who not only testifies against Lisbeth today but was instrumental in declaring her crazy during her horrible childhood. There’s also the return of a hefty character named Ronald Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz), a blond giant impervious to physical pain. He’s wacky, he’s indestructible, and he tips the movie into the realm of pulp fiction.

If you’ve stuck with this trilogy throughout, the events of the third installment should be enough to tie a few strings together and deliver a satisfying enough resolution. On its own, “Hornet’s Nest” never gets better than its broad style, like a middling-quality TV cop show (director Daniel Alfredson also did the second film in the series).

With all the social criticism and convoluted storytelling, the main draw still comes down to that most reliable of movie attractions, the people on screen. On that score, both Nykvist and Rapace bring the goods. His rumpled integrity and her bony pluck are as charismatic as ever. Good characters matched up with good actors—this will keep a lot of people watching even over the clumsy storytelling. And now, Hollywood, it’s your turn.

Inside Job. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

There will be no shortage of jokes about “Inside Job” opening at Halloween time, nor should there be. Here’s a real-life horror story with far more damaging consequences than anything Dracula ever did.

Director Charles Ferguson (whose “No End in Sight” examined the management of the Iraq War) has created a summary of the financial meltdown of 2008, and the astonishing mischief that caused the system to collapse.

If you’re a dedicated news consumer, some of this might be familiar. But even if you are, the array of information presented in methodical fashion will make you want to open a window and start screaming in the (apparently futile) hope of creating outrage about the people and policies that allowed this to happen. Ferguson takes time to explain how certain crooked policies worked, so that those of us who took one Economics class in high school can follow the diseased chain of events.

Therefore, you can see how Goldman Sachs figured out a scheme that would let them profit when stocks went up, and profit when stocks went down. Sort of a perfect system, really, if you’re untroubled by things like ethics. Throughout Ferguson’s argument, there’s an overwhelming sense of foxes being hired to guard chicken coops, a weirdly incestuous world that allowed these criminals to run rampant. And he carefully lays out how much money the people at the top received, staggering sums that were safely tucked away when companies began falling apart.

These charts and graphs are helpful, and the calm, steady voice of narrator Matt Damon builds the case. Ferguson gets some drama into the mix with his interviews, which become increasingly frustrated as the film goes on.

Some of the people who sat in front of his camera clearly had no idea what they were in for. Glenn Hubbard, chief economic advisor in the Bush administration and later Dean of the Columbia business school, finally gets wise and orders Ferguson to wrap things up after admitting he’d made a mistake in agreeing to the interview; more than one interviewee begins spouting non sequiturs while scrambling to explain bad behavior and conflicts of interest.

And Ferguson has two strong punches saved for the late going. One is to explore how university professors, who are preaching certain economics philosophies, are passing back and forth between the boardroom, the government, and the classroom (including payments from financial institutions), without apparent regulations.

We also get a detailed account of how some of the main henhouse monitors have now foxed their way into key positions in the Obama administration, including Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geitner. This final blow is extremely effective.

“The rich get rich and the poor get laid off,” as the lyrics to “Ain’t We Got Fun” go. Some people certainly did go on a spree, which everybody else will be paying for for a long time. “Inside Job” isn’t the whole story of this sorry spectacle, but it’s a good start.

Douchebag. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

If a movie is going to be called “Douchebag,” it better have a notably unpleasant character to live up to the title. And this film delivers that, albeit in a modest, offhand sort of way.

A low-budget offering not much more than 70 minutes long, “Douchebag” (I promise that’s the last time I’ll use the title) is both hampered and strengthened by its slimness. There’s barely a story, more of a situation: prospective bride Steph (Marguerite Moreau) would like to meet the brother of her fiancé Sam (Andrew Dickler). For reasons unclear, the brothers haven’t talked in a while. So Steph gets the brother, Tom (Ben York Jones), to come stay for a few days before the wedding—but in a bizarre turn, Sam decides the two guys will drive off to Palm Springs, supposedly in search of Tom’s childhood flame.

It doesn’t take long to realize that the brotherly road trip has more to do with Sam’s cold feet about the wedding, and about sticking it to his brother, and about getting into trouble. Man, what a…well, you know.

What’s initially interesting about director Drake Doremus’s film is the casting. The experienced Moreau is spot-on as the ultra-organized Steph, and while Jones seems like too much the drippy dweeb at first (Tom is sponging off his parents to nurture a painting career), he hangs in long enough to gain credibility. Andrew Dickler, heretofore a film editor without an acting career, is a truly unusual presence as Sam. Tall and skinny, with a balding head and a gigantic beard that suggests religious fanaticism (or vanity), he looks as though he just stepped out of a hippie commune.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Dickler creates a new kind of rogue, and you even begin to believe that women might find this guy irresistible, after a fashion.

Because there’s so little going on, and because it contains so few surprises, this film would be a mistake with a longer running time. But it lasts just long enough to establish a mood, create a handful of distinctive characters, and then move along. Doremus has a decent sense of timing with the dialogue scenes (a tricky prospect with a movie that appears to have been partly improvised), and a nice eye for telling Southern California locations. It never matches the immediacy of its title, but then it really doesn’t want to.

Howl. “Ginsberg didn’t ask anybody’s permission to be liberated; he simply declared it.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talked with Marcie Sillman about scary movies for Halloween. That’s archived here; the movie bit kicks in at the 14-minute mark.

Weekend things: Sunday afternoon I introduce a free screening of Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr at the Frye Art Museum; details here.

And the authors of Rotten will be hanging around the ZomBcon this weekend at the Seattle Center. George Romero and Bruce Campbell also on the scene.

Movie Diary 10/28/2010

Hue and Cry (Charles Crichton, 1947). Neat movie from the beginning of the Ealing comedy run, about post-war ragamuffins banding together to unplug a crime syndicate. Scenes shot in the rubble-filled streets are remarkable. Wes Anderson must love this movie.

Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears, 2010). The rough outline of Far From the Madding Crowd makes a peculiar match with a 21st-century setting, though the movie is full of interesting actors. (full review 11/5)

My Dog Tulip (Paul & Sandra Fierlinger, 2009). Full of excrement scenes and canine fornication, this movie will be beloved by dog enthusiasts. Others stand a good chance of finding it one of the weirdest things they have ever seen. The animation’s clever and well-judged. (full review 11/5)

Movie Diary 10/26/2010

Love and Other Drugs (Edward Zwick, 2010). Pharmaceutical sales rep Jake Gyllenhaal meets Anne Hathaway, an average Pittsburgh gal with an ailment. The introduction of Viagra plays a role, too. (full review 11/24)

Howl (Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Freidman, 2010). What the hell, why not take a stab at a slightly different approach to civic history and literary homage. It doesn’t work very well (the literal-minded animations especially), but the language of the Howl obscenity trial is frequently stirring and it’s good to be able to hear the poem itself read out. James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg, with some clever vocal approximations of Ginsberg’s delivery. (full review 10/29)

Movie Diary 10/25/2010

Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010). This is a black comedy from Britain about Muslim blokes who aspire to be suicide bombers, and one of the most amazing movies of the year. It has some of the blackest jokes since How I Won the War. Ricky Gervais, meet Stanley Kubrick. See it. (full review 11/5)

Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010). Sure enough, five and a half hours long. Really scoots along for the first two-thirds, and Edgar Ramirez is perfect casting as the famed terrorist: he radiates such assholiness that we’re never in danger of finding Carlos glamorous or dashing. Assayas throws off entire long sequences with great moviemaking instincts – it  is frickin’ long, though.

Unstoppable (Tony Scott, 2010). More trains for Denzel Washington and Scott, this time a runaway in Pennsylvania. This one can be said to be marginally better than the Taking of Pelham 123 remake. (full review 11/5)

Made in Dagenham (Nigel Cole, 2010). From the director of Calendar Girls and Saving Grace, and yes, at that point, you should be running for the exits. (full review 12/17)

The Crazies (The Cornfield #4)

It’s almost Halloween, so: George Romero’s 1973 non-zombie offering, recently remade with some respectable actors and a budget. Both films follow the same general outline: a military plane carrying a sample of a biological weapon crashes near a small town (western Pennsylvania in the original, Iowa in the remake), seeping into the water supply and infecting the locals with a virus that turns them insane; the twist is, the government’s attempt to contain the outbreak is at least as damaging as the bloody and disturbing as the rampant lunacy. I liked the 2010 version well enough, but re-visiting Romero’s original is a reminder of how low-end horror can do its thing in a more effective way than glossier examples of the genre.

Take the people in The Crazies, for instance. There’s not an actor in sight you could reasonably call a movie star, and very few you could reasonably call actors. (Lynn Lowry had a Sissy Spacek-ian something that put her in a few memorable genre roles – Jonathan Demme’s Fighting Mad and Paul Schrader’s Cat People among them – and thus a level of cult renown.) Even the extras are distinctly different from extras you’d find in a reputable movie: there’s a quality of ordinariness about everybody on screen, with a surfeit of lousy haircuts and self-conscious mannerisms. Which means there’s no sheen that gets between you and the creepy feeling that this might be happening. (The downside, of course, is that bad line readings come along at a more frequent rate than you might wish.)

No sheen, but quite a bit of skill. Romero is credited as his own editor, and the movie bops along to a peculiar rhythm, especially the dialogue exchanges within scenes – there’s a strange fractured quality to it, as though the infection had spread to the editing room and rendered everything extra-jittery. (Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker get at something like this in Shutter Island, where dialogue scenes feel as though they’ve had their normal beats shaved down by crucial half-seconds, a method that seems designed to drive the viewer insane.)

And Romero’s talent for offhand horror, already there in Night of the Living Dead, is effectively deployed here. Nothing’s off limits, including incest. Romero lets us know this in the opening sequence, which drags a couple of unsuspecting, play-acting children in to a child’s worst-nightmare-come-true vignette of domestic fear.

The movie’s most prominent element is its timeliness. Just in case you doubted Romero’s goal, he includes a sequence of a priest setting himself on fire, staged to resemble the shots of the monk who committed the same act in Vietnam. Echoes of My Lai and Kent State, and a generally caustic view of the police action that descends on Evans City, PA, leave no doubt about Romero’s intentions. In a bigger, more respectable movie, this would be heavy-handed, but there’s something about this kind of allegory deployed in a Z-budget horror film that really creates a buzz. Watching the movie feels like picking up a newspaper from the early 1970s and scanning the downbeat headlines. (Truffaut said that The Night of the Hunter was like “A horrifying news item retold by small children”; The Crazies is a newscast delivered by the insane.)

The Crazies is so scathing it sometimes undercuts its own effects. It’s a good touch that the military guys in their indistinguishable hazmats suits and gasmasks come to appear less human than the infected people, but you also can’t understand a damn thing they’re saying. The military types are so completely inept that the movie becomes a spiral of incompetence whenever they’re on screen, but Romero doesn’t quite go all the way with it. We’re watching the opposite of a Howard Hawks film: here, the professionals working together on a common goal do their jobs poorly throughout. And the rare distinctive performer – Richard France, as the egghead scientist, trailing around the air of Beatnik braininess – just reminds you of how fumbling the other actors are.

But it’s all still effective, and a key candidate for American films that might give the mood of the early 1970s. Now if only the DVD could have subtitles for the hazmat actors.

Hereafter, I am Secretly Conviction (Weekly Links)

Afterlife calling: Matt Damon in Hereafter

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Hereafter. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The hereafter in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” is restricted to a handful of hazy shots of white light and people milling around a large foggy space.

As a director, Eastwood tends toward discretion, so it isn’t too surprising that this is the extent of the film’s depiction of what happens when people die. As a speculative vision, it’s far more modest than Peter Morgan’s script, which fairly insists that the hereafter can be experienced by the living.

Especially in touch is a San Francisco psychic (Matt Damon) who once made a living communing with the dead. Now he’d just like to forget all that, despite the obnoxious urgings of a brother (Jay Mohr) who wants to cash in.

Damon’s story is one of three we watch develop. There’s also a London kid who just lost his twin brother and is haunted by the idea of contacting his other half, and a French TV journalist (Cecile De France, from “High Tension”) who blacked out while swept away in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The film begins with the tsunami itself, a truly startling sequence that conveys the terrifying power of water in a way rarely captured on film. The sense of spectacle doesn’t quite fit the quiet, deliberate film that follows, but that very contrast—between a violent, life-altering event and the ordinary day-to-day stuff that inevitably follows—is dramatic.

That’s the best the movie has to offer, along with Damon’s skillful, down-to-earth approach to a potentially icky role. He’s especially good when trying to flirt with a woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) in an adult-education class; Damon brings a subdued humor to the process, and seems much in tune with Eastwood’s understated directing style (they worked together on “Invictus” last year).

Morgan did the scripts for “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon,” and is a literate man. Here he seems influenced by multi-story sagas such as “Babel,” with a dash of M. Night Shyamalan thrown in. His script was apparently inspired by the spiritual questioning that followed the tsunami and terrorist bombings of the last decade, but oddly, the focus is not on the human urge to make sense of death, but on proving that something—even just a vague haze-filled warehouse—exists on the other side.

That tilts the movie away from the rich subject of human psychology and into the realm of the supernatural. Morgan seems to be making the “everything happens for a reason” argument, where his previous work has been more skeptical.

Whether staging a tsunami or quietly tracing a motif of connections made through hands, Eastwood gives the material class. The lingering question is whether the material deserves such care.

Conviction. “Doesn’t quite close the case.”

The Anchorage. “Like a visit to a monastery.”

Last Train Home. “Yearnings and instincts reduced to an economic equation.”

I Am Secretly an Important Man. “You can see how people might have responded to Bernstein’s sheer defiance.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday” I talk with Steve Scher about this year’s crop of political candidates who appear to be gunning for slots on reality-TV shows rather than high office. And so we cast Christine O’Donnell, Carl Paladino, et al., in the course of a slightly-longer-than-usual segment of “The Cultural Moment.” Listen here; the segment begins at the 18-minute mark.

Movie Diary 10/20/2010

127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010). James Franco, in holy goof mode, as the hiker who had to amputate his own arm while trapped in Canyonlands National Park. It’s very much a Boyle film, which somehow seems to fit the hallucinations our hero endures. (full review 11/12)

Merrill’s Marauders (Samuel Fuller, 1962). WWII Burma, with a thoroughly deglamorized view of war a la Sam Fuller, full of strong locations and distinctive exchanges. “Did Lemchek make it?” becomes one of the great Fuller moments, but there are more of them.

The Anchorage (C.W. Winter, Anders Edstrom, 2009). Contemplative non-narrative that feels like time spent in a monastery, the emphasis on ritual and the sounds of nature. The location is a Swedish island, where time is shaped by cleaning fish and listening to the radio news. Pretty cool movie. (full review 10/22)

Movie Diary 10/19/2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Daniel Alfredson, 2009). Pretty much in line with the first couple of blunt-edge movies in the series, with the exception that Noomi Rapace is left without much to do in this case. The books must be better than this. (full review 10/29)

Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010). How the financial meltdown melted down, complete with a roster of crooks who make pirates look civilized. Second movie this week improved by the eerily calm presence of Matt Damon (here, as offscreen narrator). (full review 10/29)

I Am Secretly an Important Man (Peter Sillen, 2010). Probably the best screen bio you’ll ever get of Steven Jesse Bernstein, a Seattle post-Beat pre-grunge semi-legend poet. (full review 10/22)

Movie Diary 10/18/2010

The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932). “Have a potato?” First viewing in many years. Buncha great people – Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Karloff, Eva Moore, and Ernest Thesiger. Truly odd, with a peculiar tone that shouldn’t hang together but somehow does, and Whale seems to be having a fine time.

Hereafter (Clint Eastwood, 2010). Inquiries into the moments after death, rendered with the director’s usual calm. The tsunami that opens the show has a rare sense of the power of water – seemingly a hard thing to get right, using special effects, but holy crap, is it ever right. (full review 10/22)

Client-9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Alex Gibney, 2010). The hyphen is in the opening credits; I just report these things. Spitzer’s big scandal, given context and some eyebrow-raising connections to very powerful people who had reasons to bring him down. (full review 11/12)

The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963). Hitchcock’s Antonioni-Bergman movie, with our feathered friends mere externalizations of interior terrors. Or so it increasingly seems.

Douchebag (Drake Doremus, 2010). Great title, and some interesting people onscreen in this mumble-worthy low-budget tale of a man’s panic on the eve of his wedding. (full review 10/29)