Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Uncommon Beauty

WARNING: Spoilers...as with most of my reviews. Not as many links though.

Faerie Tales have been softened over the centuries. Our modern day Little Mermaid lives happily ever after never learning her lesson of
true love through self sacrifice. Our story heroes and villains have become toys and animals to remove the human elements from the violence and suffering. We have forgotten that these stories were meant to teach, to moralize and preach to our children. Now they sell. Fantasies of princesses and stories of race cars sell dresses and toys, bed sheets and pajamas. What are we supposed to learn from the fish? What does the robot teach us? Ask the kids, do they know? Faerie tales are now synonymous with fantasy. Sleeping Beauty is hack-edited to warn against forest fires. Snow White has too much sex and violence....not enough singing birds.

Some stories can still offer us a lesson. Morality is not just for plain-clothed Anabaptists or Muslims. The power to change, to learn, to grow exists in all of us....even the monsters can still turn out to be cursed princes. What about stories told from the villain's point of view? Stories are usually told by the victims who become heroes. What can we learn from a story told by a villain? Perhaps the story of a villain already defeated, broken and weak. The stories always end there, with defeat. What happens next? What does the villain become once defeated? Do they change, learn their lesson, or move on to commit their wickedness again elsewhere? A villain's story begins with defeat.

When the wolf had appeased his appetite, he lay down again in the bed, fell asleep and began to snore very loud. The huntsman was just passing the house, and thought to himself, "How the old woman is snoring! I must just see if she wants anything." So he went into the room, and when he came to the bed, he saw that the wolf was lying in it. "Do I find thee here, thou old sinner!" said he. "I have long sought thee!"
~The Brothers Grimm, Little Red Cap

The Woodsman begins with defeat. The Villain is the Hero. And Steven Fechter wants you to feel empathy for him. You won't find many of Steven Fechter's stories on IMDb or Netflix. He mostly writes plays. Director Nicole Kassell's resume isn't very long or impressive either. She had only recently graduated from film school in 2005. Yet a collection of actors of esteem and reputation gathered for them and worked for no pay. Either Steven and Nicole are the coolest cats in Hollywood...or that's one hell of a story. As I can't speak to the first theory, we'll examine the second.

Most any film with Kevin Bacon is one that I'll gladly watch. I don't necessarily rave about them or even wholly enjoy all of them, but almost without fail I am given something to think about by the end. He doesn't always do the big budget movies, like the newly released biopic Frost/Nixon (2008), or 2003's Mystic River. He doesn't shy from having fun in films like Novocaine (2000) and Footloose (1984). I feel, however, Kevin Bacon is at his best when playing pained characters, villains, people on the fringes of society that we don't necessarily even want to like, such as Hickey in Trapped (2002) or Sean Nokes in Sleepers (1996).

This Independently recognized but largely unnoticed film, The Woodsman, is by far one of Kevin Bacon's finest performances. A powerful cast backs him up as he is partnered with Kyra Sedgewick, his real life wife, and the likes of Benjamin Bratt, Mos Def, Eve, David Alan Grier, and Bug's Michael Shannon. Filmed in my hometown of Philadelphia, The Woodsman follows Walter as he readjusts to life while on parole after a twelve year jail term. It isn't made clear right away that Walter went to prison for molesting young girls, as any dark, dirty secret takes time to draw out. And this is our story's hero....or anti-hero. Walter is our villain, whose story begins after his defeat.
You can’t talk to me like --

Like a piece of shit? In my eyes,you are a piece of shit. Think anyone would miss you if I threw you out the window right now? I could say you jumped when I came
in. Who are they going to believe? Not you, because you’d be a dead piece of shit.
It is no joke that this film actively seeks to erase the cartoon archetypes in which many view the world, and it drags us along kicking and screaming. The story sets Walter (Kevin Bacon) up as a sad, broken man and immediately seeks sympathy for him before you know what he's done. The viewer begins to feel for him, wants to know his story and then the truth of his past is revealed. The hero of our story is a convicted child molester. By most people's definition, a monster. A wolf. Using the story of Little Red Riding Hood (the Grimm version) to illustrate the world, Sgt. Lucas, played with depth and weight by Mos Def, explains to Walter that there are no Woodsman anymore, only wolves. Even he, as a lawman feels helpless against them, and because of his helplessness he refuses to like Walter, refuses to see him as anything but a monster. But Walter isn't a monster, just a man. He is just a man who feels just as helpless and repulsed by what he is and what he has done, though part of him still tries to reason it out.
"They seduced me. At least, that's what I used to tell myself." -Walter
On parole, Walter is trying to start a new life, to be a better person and not make the same mistakes. He finds a job at the wood mill he will work under the supervision of Bob, played by David Alan Grier. It's plain on Bob's face that he disapproves of Walter's past, but he is willing to give him a chance, for reasons never explained beyond "you did good work for my father." Even when Bob defends Walter from a near riotous mob of co-workers by threatening their jobs, little more is revealed. The symbolism of the sawmill is quite obvious and in someways foretelling. It is here that he meets Vicki. Portrayed with a grim strength by Bacon's off-screen wife, Kyra Sedgwick, Vicki is a woman that can hold her own, doesn't need protecting and isn't afraid of Walter's past, though he keeps it from her for some time. Once he confesses it, upon her urging, she is more curious than repulsed and it is her lack of repulsion that frightens Walter. He sends her away. Walter still views the world in stark lines of good and evil. He is a monster undeserving of acceptance, pity or love. Repeatedly he pleads of his therapist:
When will I be normal?

What is normal to you?
Over the course of Walter's journey of self discovery, as he attempts to assimilate into society and learn to "be normal," there are several figures that reflect aspects of his past life. A brother-in-law, Carlos who behaves as if the crimes never occurred, and treats Walter as if there had never been a twelve year gap in their friendship. Benjamin Bratt does well in creating this layered character, that takes on a seemingly willing role of friendship with the hint of mild obligation because Walter was not biased toward him, though all his family was bigoted against his ethnicity. Though he displays acceptance and empathy, it is when Walter finally does open up, that the man's true feelings are revealed. During a powerful scene Carlos (Bratt) describes his own troubles with temptation, claiming to 'understand' how Walter feels. He remarks that even his twelve year old daughter and her friends where clothes now that make it difficult to avoid such temptation. HE bridges the gap of empathy, yet when Walter asks if Carlos ever feels anything for his daughter, asks if Carlos TRULY ever feels what Walter feels, that barrier between "Us and Them" is crossed and Carlos becomes outraged.
(in the ratatat tone of a sportscaster)
Good morning, fellow sports fans. The match is about to begin. Candy enters the arena looking sweet and trim. He checks out the scene but plays it cool. He’s definitely holding back.
Uh-oh, Candy’s eyes have locked onto something. Oh yeah. A cherub of a lad has separated from his friends. Candy quickly makes his move. He pats the cherub on his head, ruffles his hair. With his other hand, he offers the boy a bag of gummy bears.
Another reflection is "Candy," a man that Walter spies lingering at the school yard across from his apartment. Walter has given him this name and watches, writing in his journal as he sees the "game" play out. It is disturbing to follow Walter's thought process as he rationalizes at one point that if the child gets in Candy's car it is because the boy WANTS to get in Candy's car. Although at times Walter seems disgusted by Candy's actions and feels a need to stop him, he identifies with him too much and fears the police would not believe him, or would scape goat him. By viewing these events through a window, from the outside, he begins to see and understand the nature of "The Wolf's Hunt." Director Kassell uses a unique and clever technique at one point using voice-over narration and fast-paced editing to liken Candy's successful luring of the boy to a boxing match, to a game, which is how the old Walter and Candy view it. It does not lighten the tension of the scene but does shift the perspective entirely without the audience consciously realizing that they are viewing the events through the mindset of a predator.

Candy's abduction of the boy is a serious turning point for Walter and pushes him faster toward understanding the predator that he was. Walter faces numerous challenges throughout the story all forcing him to face his past and provide temptation to repeat or deny the same urges. The biggest catalyst in his journey toward recovery and moral salvation is Robin, an eleven year old girl that rides Walter's evening bus. For those who quickly draw the connection between the character and Sgt Lucas' anecdotal tale, it is noted that Robin carries a red coat throughout the film--but only wears it at one poignant point. Hannah Pilkes does an admirable job as Robin, allowing us to easily believe her role as she metaphorically guides Walter through the woods, innocently serving herself before Walter as a meal of moral dilemma. With Bacon's pained, at times childlike, portrayal of Walter and Fechter's masterful development of the character, the audience cannot help but reach a point where they are routing for Walter to make the right choice. He is presented with this red-cloaked beacon of morality amidst the woods and Walter can chose to be the Wolf that he once was or he can be The Woodsman.

To be The Woodsman would imply that he rescues the little girl in some manner-as is the case in the original Grimm tale- and in Fechter's stage play this is true. Unfortunately to see Walter's whole transformation as he shifts from predator--and he does enter this scene a predator--through the agony of self realization into the figure that saves the child, you must view the deleted scenes on the DVD. I can only imagine that the exclusion of these scenes was done for pacing's sake--a frequent killer of powerful cinematic moments--I feel that there are significant character development lost in these hacked scenes. The film over all is a character piece, therefore, these pieces are missed when removed although the audience may not realize and I feel that our perception of Walter is weaker for it.
"Uncommon beauty is commonly overlooked." -Walter
Many people are turned off by a slow paced film, which I do not feel The Woodsman truly is if you take the time to look beneath the surface--an important lesson being taught by this story. Far too rarely recognized upon the screen, Michael Shannon takes on the role of the moral guide, Walter's therapist Rosen. The interludes in Rosen's office serve as a vocal introspection for Walter to the audience. Rosen guides us as much as he guides Walter, managing to steer the audience away from making those stern categorical opinions of the preceding events. Rosen allows for the moral center of the film to grow from a seed, up and outward, repeatedly reminding that it takes time.
A long time ago, I was sent far away. When they let me come back, all my friends were gone.

It sounds like you were banished.

Banished... yeah.

Just as the story's moral teaches--there are shades and levels to all things--much of this film and its characters are not exploded on the screen. They are revealed subtlety, only hinted at, or a mild enigma to be worked out- just as is true with life. Walter's past crimes are often alluded to, but never dwelled on. The Woodsman is not an easy film to watch; not one to pop in when guests are over or to lighten an already tense day. It is a film that shatters the archetypes and barriers we set to isolate "Them" from "Us"; lines and divisions made to give us the illusion of safety and purity. It is easier for us to deny the darker shades of grey and see only black or white. To believe there are only Woodsman or Wolves.
"Do you believe in Fairy Tales?
...What's that one with the Woodsman?
...Little Red Riding Hood! That's it! That's it. The Woodsman, he cuts open the wolf's stomach, the girl comes out without a scratch... You ever see a seven-year-old sodomized in half? She was so small, just broken. I saw 20-year vets on that job. Hard guys, they just broke down and cried. I was there, I cried... There ain't no fucking woodsman in this world." -Sgt. Lucas
The world is not flat. It is not black and white. It is not good and evil. The world is a forest. Thick and dense, deeper than most of us will ever know. There are wolves, yes, but who better knows the villains' tricks? Where does a villain go after defeat? What does he become? A villain's story begins with defeat.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Cost of Faith

Author's sidenote: It's been a while since last I posted, but I am still here, still watching movies, and still have an opinion. I'm doing my best.

It is not often that I am moved or delighted enough by an old movie to even bother attempting to thrust it upon my friends, most of whom couldn't be bothered to watch anything but their newest Netflix or 'The Game.' So I am thrusting it on you lucky folks. Don't you love me?

Dating a film as "old" is like calling a 1980 Dodge Aspen a "classic car". It is all very subjective and there are no REAL guidelines, just every different group/person's arbitrary ones. So please, those of you alive in 1969, take no offense to me calling "The Royal Hunt for the Sun" an Old Movie. While I enjoyed the film, I cannot in good conscience call it a 'Classic.' As a stage play, perhaps, but the film fell marginally short for me.

The film by Irving Lerner is based on Peter Schaffer's Classic play, and has historical basis in the fall of the Inca Empire. There is a good measure of accuracy in it, as far as the core facts go, but the story is not really meant to be about the socio-political destruction of a civilization. While the events of Spain's conquering of Peru is an interesting tale, Schaffer's script focuses on the dynamic struggle between the opposing leaders of the war, Francisco Pizarro and the Inca God King Atahualpa, and each man's respective faith in God and in himself.

To summarize history and the plot, in 1532 Francisco seeks to find a city of gold with which to honor his king and prove his place in court. The king refuses to fund the expedition, nor offer any men to aide it, but will gladly take his cut, of course. Francisco finds in Peru the Inca Empire of Atahualpa and with his 167 mercenaries wipes out 7000 Inca (of a population of some 80-100 thousand). Taking the God King captive he swears to free the man if Atahualpa can fill a room with Gold in two months time. Although Atahualpa succeeds and provides his own ransom, Francisco's men determine that he cannot be freed and must be executed. During the time of imprisonment Francisco and Atahualpa have formed strong bonds of friendship and mutual respect and this decision tears the General apart. There will be war if Atahualpa is set free, the death of a civilization if he is not, and either way Francisco's Faith, Loyalties and Convictions shall be casualties.

War stories are always exciting. Blood. Agony. Destruction. The proofs of man's conniving nature carefully plotted across land and sea. Brother killing brother.

The very best war stories, without doubt, are those of the men. Heroes and Demi-Gods overcoming all trials to win, be they Hercules or Lincoln. Foot soldiers battling in the mud and the trenches for the greater good, or merely for their lives, willingly or by draft. It is the men that make the difference. Without the men there are no stories. Even more compelling still are the battles we do not see, the battles twisting men's hearts and souls in the stillness between the skirmishes. Battles of Loyalty, of Conviction, of Faith.

What do you do when you capture a god? That is a question that not many people have faced in their lifetime.
- Francisco Pizarro

Our battling heroes are Francisco Pizarro, an illiterate General of the Spanish army who has lost favor with the king, though he has devoted his life to the crown. Played by Robert Shaw, with energy and passion, Francisco is portrayed as a man that came from nothing and though he feels he deserves significant honor, his peers still look at him as if he were nothing. Shaw is not an actor that many younger generations recognize easily (hence I've supplied the visual reminder below), and I admit, I find this disappointing. As with Francisco, Shaw often played roles of tormented men, men that struggled with self worth, loneliness and disillusionment. Francisco is a man abandoned at birth by his mother, raised by a pig farmer, and disrespected by his peers for his lack of education and birthright regardless of skills as a soldier and his devotion to the king. A soldier who seeks only to find further glory for Spain, his determination is neither praised, nor rewarded, forever known only as 'The Bastard.' As a result, he struggles with his faith in his God, his King, and the fundamental values upon which his entire life has been founded.

Christopher Plummer and Robert Shaw

Second, only in appearance on screen, is the captured Inca God King Atahualpa. An alternately regal and demented figure, he is the bastard son of the previous king, and murdered his brother and taken the crown. Although born of human parents, he believes without question that his True Father is the Sun and his mother the Moon. Portraying this undisguised Christ-like character is a young and sexy Christopher Plummer, who lends what at first seems to be madness to the role, but for those who follow him through the tale find a brilliance missed by many. Plummer's antics are at first amusing and bizarre, but like Francisco by Atahualpa, you are drawn in. The Inca God King is not an idiot, although the ignorant and boastful Spaniards would assume him to be, and through his foolishness he causes dissent amongst the leaders. Although history writes Atahualpa as the loser of the war, his people captured and killed, his lands seized, Atahualpa himself was always and died a God.

Another figure plays into this tale. His is a smaller role, a character used almost as a trophy to be won between the General and the God King. A youth of the court named Martin is hungry for adventure and glory and in Francisco he sees a hero to follow, from whom to learn. Although he is a student, he is enamored with the life and glory of 'The Soldier', just as young men today are eager to be an "Army of One." Martin is played by Leonard Whiting, a passionate young actor of the time, whom anyone attending high school before 1996 will likely recognize from Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Classic film rendition of Romeo and Juliet. Martin's character grows significantly throughout the story, and learns to see past the flash and glamor of BOTH men's lies...those they tell themselves and those they subscribe to. He comes to make his own decisions, like a man, and ceases to be a child.

I was told once by a professor that in every story there is the Confident Man, the Uncertain Man, and the Innocent (or Impressionable) Man. The titles are rather loosely defined, but in this story the characters are clear. Each of these different archetypes exists to show a different outcome to the same basic concept, which in this film is truly: Man vs Self.

One thing many of my non-cineaste friends have difficulty with when watching older films is the more theatrical aspects. The extremes of the visually saturated colors or that its black and white, the bigger soundtracks, the less realistic "much too pretty" costumes, and the somewhat melodramatic acting. So many are turned off by what seems very much like over-acting to us now-- I say this wryly as I imagine Al Pacino ranting about a woman's ass. The medium/art has changed over the decades. Our tastes in dramas and certainly historical dramas now leans far more toward the gritty, dirty, perceptions of realism. Sometimes, I think, however, that we believe now that it is only realistic if it is unpleasant to look at. This isn't always true. Sometimes unpleasant is just unpleasant.

Atahualpa hears the word of God

Francisco: (to Atahualpa) So you believe if you die, when the morning sun touches you, you will live again?
A man dying then coming back from the dead is impossible, sir! It's impossible!
Francisco: What does your scripture say, boy?
Martin: But it's impossible!
Francisco: What does it say?! Christ was crucified and--
Martin: --and he did die and was buried. And upon the third day he arose from the dead. But it's impossible!
Francisco: So you say you do not believe your Christ story?
Martin: Yes! Of course I do! But....
Francisco: But it's impossible...
(note: transcribed from memory...may not be exact.)

Royal Hunt for the Sun details an engaging story of three men as Peter Schaffer imagined them to be when history converged upon the Inca. At this moment a man unwavering in his belief in the Sun was faced by those who would break him, their own faith in the Son coming into question instead. It isn't a man's beliefs that define who he is, but rather his strength of conviction when those beliefs are challenged. There is power in many things. Kings neither have nor make power, Atahualpa teaches them. Power is what makes and embodies a King. Only a God can possess power. To have faith in such things makes a man great, but no one can know the solidity of that faith but the man and God. What then is the cost to prove it?

Atahualpe faces the Garrote, Death by Strangling

Sunday, July 6, 2008

God is the Director

Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch? ~Gene Siskel

Not everyone enjoys documentaries. I know this. I do think, however, that is a fallacy. In a society that thrives on 'reality' television shows, the truth is we crave documentaries. We merely suffer a shortage of truly excellent ones. The word Documentary tends to induce in most auditory hallucinations of some dry Brit trolling on about the migratory habits of the Eastern European Barn Swallow, then whispering as we voyeuristically observe their mating habits. That sort of documentary has inspired many parodies and jokes, and a series of incredibly obnoxious car insurance commercials with a little lizard I would love to feed to my bird. Yes, these dry, strictly informative and educationally driven documentaries still exist. The History Channel can pan and loop across a photograph so well, you almost forget it isn't a film. There are, I assure you, far more gripping and engaging documentaries out there.

Filmmaking as a whole is a collaborative art, like a well designed machine intent upon a specific outcome. Documentary films are wholly organic, growing and forming as they are meant to and dictating to the filmmakers how things will be.

Let me introduce you to a few of my favorites. The following are documentaries you may have heard of, and if so, it is with good cause. A Documentary is not a film which often garners great praise save among the cinematic (read: artsy-fartsy) folk and perhaps a gathering of primary school teachers and college professors. This has been changing lately. With Al Gore looming over us with his doomsday scenarios of the day after tomorrow, and Morgan Freeman's parade of penguins, the Documentary is slowly, but surely creating it's own place in the pantheon of enjoyable film. Those I've listed here are ones that I felt moved me. They have earned recognition mostly through awards and in name alone, and are often ones that others have remarked "oh yeah, I heard of that...haven't seen it though." Well, here's why you need to watch.

Brother's Keeper (1992)
The Ward brothers were relatively outcast from their small New York farming community. Not very social, lacking in civil graces, and wearing their labors heavily on their faces, these four brothers were inseparable and paid little mind to the community's avoidance. When William was found dead in his bed and Delbert, the youngest, was accused by the police of murdering him, however, the entire community of Munnsville, NY gathered together and stood behind Delbert as he and his brothers Lyman and Roscoe fought to prove his innocence. The townspeople collected money to afford him a defense lawyer and routinely showed their support with banquets and dinners; events the Wards were never invited to previously. Even when the DA made accusations of incestuous relations gone wrong, and mercy killings, the townspeople remained steadfastly in support of the Ward boys. Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, this film is well edited and draws you into this true life drama quickly. Nominated for five awards, including two at Sundance, there is little question why Brother's Keeper won the Sundance Audience Choice Award. It is an engaging tale that could have easily been told in a literary fashion, but is so much better served as a documentary. To see the real Delbert Ward, and take a tour of the true conditions and manner in which he and his brothers lived, draws you into the reality of William's death and leaves you to answer the question for yourself: Is Delbert Ward a murderer?

Buena Vista Social Club (1998)
Music is a language that everyone can comprehend. We feel it. We are moved by it. Some live for it. Wim Wenders, famed German director, made this Documentary about a group of aging Cuban Musicians who embody the truth of music, the soul of it. Due to Castro's rise, these street performers lost their fame and faded away quietly in Havana. Thanks to the Legendary Blues Guitarist Ry Cooder (check out the film Paris, Texas), they have been rediscovered and brought together to create one of the most captivating documentaries, which in turn spawned an inspiring (and dance-inducing) soundtrack. I would challenge anyone who claims not to care for blues, Latin or Caribbean music to watch this film and not, at the very least, be drawn in by the charm and sagacity of these incredible people. The film is as much an insight into Cuban history as it is a passionate homage to the lost music of Havana.

Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Yup. I put a Michael Moore film on this list. You knew it was going to happen, so suck it up and let's talk. Moore is certainly not a Documentary filmmaker in the sense that he makes unbiased, journalistic presentations of events. Oh, no. Moore always has an agenda, a plan, a firm concept with which he intends for you to walk away believing or at least thinking about. Most people would tell you that Roger & Me, his first film, is still to date his best. For Moore followers, his newest film is always his best. And for those who don't take him seriously....they favor Canadian Bacon.
I have not yet seen Sicko--I will state that now. (In my queue, though.) Of those films I have seen, however...I feel that this one is incredibly poignant and remarkably ballsy. Fahrenheit 911 said all the things that everyone has now been saying for about 5 years, however, you'll find that when watching this documentary, people still cringe. Gun Control is still that issue that no one wants to talk about. Any film in which Marilyn Manson is the sound voice of reason is a serious fucking winner in my book.

Grizzly Man (2005)
Werner Herzog is a cinematic genius. Many might disagree with me and label him as simply weird. Sure, okay...he's that too. But I love him. The documentary Grizzly Man is a tribute to all that is weird about Werner Herzog. It is also brilliant. Filmed almost entirely by the focal figure of the film, Grizzly Man is about grizzly bear activist Timothy Treadwell. Killed in October of 2003 by the very bears he lived amongst and fought to protect, Treadwell was a character more troubled and inspired than Herzog could have written him to be, and as a sad result he and his girlfriend Amie Huguenar were mauled and killed on tape. Herzog masterfully introduces Treadwell through the man's own recordings and compels you to journey with him toward this inevitable moment. It is the death of a self-proclaimed hero and one is left to wonder if, perhaps, it is the only way that Timothy Treadwell could have died; while horrible, also poetic. Such an ending is in keeping with the hero and anti-hero tales of Herzog's other films and while slow-paced, one cannot help but hold on to see things through to completion; a moment I will assure the faint of heart, you will neither see nor hear.

An Evening with Kevin Smith (2002) and
An Evening with Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder (2006)
There is no great conspiracy revealed within these collective 8 hours of film. There is no environmental disaster warned, no endangered species to be saved, and no deep look into the heart and mind of some poignant figure. This is 8 hours of film director Kevin Smith answering questions at various universities and college venues. 8 hours of some of the funniest interview responses and personal stories I've ever heard, and simply a fantastic way to sit back, laugh your ass off and forget for a little while-- or for once-- not to take yourself or life so damn seriously. Listen to Smith as he answers extremely candidly questions about his career, his work, and his personal experiences. Hear why he, a devout Catholic, was actually stunned at the church's and audiences reactions to his film Dogma. Find yourself laughing hysterically at his ordeals in trying to write and get a green light for a Superman script with a producer who had some pretty outrageous demands. It's a little nasty. It's a little vulgar. It is HUGE fun, and a great way to unwind after an 8-14hour crap shift at a crap job...like in Clerks.

Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show(2006)
The cast list runs like a tally of some of America's best comedians: Ahmed Ahmed, Peter Billingsley, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst, Justin Long, Sebastian Maniscalco, Keir O'Donnell, and of course, Vince Vaughn. Vaughn envisioned a show with the same spirit as Wild Bill's Wild West Show, only instead of sharp shooting cowboy's and Indians it was sharp shooting Comedians. Thirty Days, Thirty Cities. This show spanned from the west coast through the heartland and on its course gives a surprisingly endearing (and of course, hilarious) portrait of these comics' lives and reasons for doing comedy. The Americans they encounter along the way only strengthen these men and their tale, particularly a moving visit to a 200 person camp for Hurricane Katrina refugees (when the storm first hit landfall). I watched this film on Netflix (play online) with the intention of having a high spirited reprieve from a stressful day and I was delighted to not only be led to tears in laughter but moved to tears as well. This is a documentary of a different sort and although it starts a little slow, deserves far more praise than most have offered it. For those of you who read reviews and see the remarkably hefty number of bad ones that this film tallied, ask yourself this: Who are you gonna believe? Me or those appletini drinking dumbasses? I'm telling you...this is worth the watch. Just the small insight into the real Vince Vaughn, not the movie-clown, is intriguing. He is an insightful man with deep and varied interests, who has earned my respect in many ways. And if you can't take a flip-flop joke....well fuck, ya. I'm still laughing!

There is one last documentary that was a fun film to watch. I am not a huge sports watching fan. I love to play some field games with friends, but I don't really get into watching them on television...and certainly not watching documentaries about them. I found the indie release Big Blue - The NYC Handball Documentary to be far more engaging than I'd expected, a testament to its director Justin Sullivan. Check out my full review at Pieces Magazine!

Any you think should not be missed? Leave a note and share your favorites.

In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director. ~Alfred Hitchcock

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I Am The Super Mother Bug!

Prologue - which means....this one's long.

Frequently I have bemoaned the absolute disaster of the advertising and marketing industry. Perhaps not here, although I can't imagine that isn't true, but I have most certainly annoyed my husband and friends with my diatribe on the evils and corrosive effects of a poorly constructed ad campaign for a film. The average viewer bases their decision to see a film upon one of three factors, in order:
  1. Who's in it.
  2. How engaging/intriguing the trailer is.
  3. What friends thought after seeing it.
Personal taste governs factor one, albeit this is the reason you'll see the same faces over and over. The collective hive of the Marketing THEY know who made Them money last time. Example: Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were both offered the role of Charlie Feinman in Reign Over Me before Adam Sandler. Factor three is also mostly out of their hands, with the exception of...I don't know- THEY COULD MAKE A GOOD MOVIE.

So this leaves us with their responsibilities with factor number two. Not only does the trailer indicate the necessary information for factor one, it is meant to relay and intrigue the viewer with the basic plot. It must convey what genre of film it is, or at least get it in the ball park. And it must do all this without telling you the entire damn movie (Christ I hate when they do that) AND without completely misleading you by not remaining true to the film's nature in an attempt to "be more interesting."

This extended Prologue is merely to present a public scolding to the marketers responsible for the advertisements for "BUG." I scold them for having presented a well-made but deceiving trailer. The trailer was very intriguing and did not give away too much of the plot. It did not, however, truthfully represent the film either. Nor did it show faith in the film to stand on its own. The 'Money Men' gripped their hooks in and tried every trick they could to make bank, as a result the film barely touched theatre screens. The actors aren't big draws, but their names are known. Although, I understand a need to let people know who William Friedkin is. Unfortunately, talented as the man is, most film goers don't readily know his name. Why not mention his more recently made films, The Hunted and The Rules of Engagement? By mentioning a film that was made thirty-five years ago, certain assumptions are made, because The Exorcist brings with it an entire culture of thought. It is easy to say that the horror classic is far closer to Bug in nature than the other films-but it lays the misleading foundation that Bug is an horror film. Tsk.Tsk.

It seems, they too, did not know how/what to market Bug as:

First they send in their drone... then they find their queen.

The Rest - Warning: There are spoilers past this point

Based upon the stage play by Tracy Letts, properly adapted by him as well, Bug does not roam far from the confines of a small apartment in a run-down Oklahoma road-side Motel. Not having had the opportunity to see the play, I cannot make any comparisons, although everything I've read praises both highly and state that Letts did not stray from the original script, only filled in some gaps caused only by the restriction of a stage. From the very start of the film, Agnes White is introduced as an anaemic woman prone to abuses, enslaved by fear and severe loneliness. Agnes is a pathetic figure trapped in a beautiful woman played with depth and energetic angst by Ashley Judd. Judd is an actress often overlooked, which I feel is often due to unfitting roles. Her strength is in her embodiment of these broken women. A perfect example, and one of my favorite off-kilter films, is Eye of the Beholder(...now there's one to analyze).

Agnes has an abusive ex-husband newly released from prison. With no self esteem, her alcoholism and drug use are not surprising. Her best friend is a lesbian, whom she works with at a lesbian bar- also not far of a reach that she feels safest in the company of less threatening people (ie. women). So when her friend, a plot tool named RC, played forgettably by Lynn Collins, brings the sheepish and child-like Peter Evans over to party, Agnes isn't the least bit threatened by him. RC leaves them and the elevator to Hell begins its descent.

Peter is played by the hard to read Michael Shannon. This is a man I wish we'd see far more of on film...and no, I'm not referring to Friedkin's unfulfilling teases at full-frontal...although, it couldn't hurt. Shannon creates a character that, while solidly written, needed a force of nature to bring to life. Michael Shannon is that force. As I said, Peter begins timid and childlike, uncertain of Agnes but not afraid of her either. Tracy Letts' script provides some incredible dialog that, as I watched, led me to guess early on that Peter was a predator.

Peter: People can say things and make you believe anything they want.

This awkward, quiet man had a way of indicating things that not long after, Agnes would very strongly believe. He worked in the manner of a confidence man. First he told her what she needed to hear to trust him, believe in him, feel dominant. In particular, he put her in a position of sexual dominance. Agnes' diminished self-view made it easy for him to build a foundation for belief. He seems quite capable of reading Agnes, without being obvious about it, such as confiding to a stranger, who coincidentally takes advice from a Magic 8-ball, that he "picks up on things."

The first night Peter stays, but he sleeps on the floor, this visit merely a kindness extended by a lonely woman. Agnes wakes to find that Peter is gone but her ex-husband is occupying her shower. Jerry Goss is a narcissistic, psychopath; a small man with little dog syndrome played with an all too natural swagger and grin by Harry Connick Jr. Agnes' weakness and fear is very quickly reminded when he threatens and beats her, waving a vague red herring at us. Jerry rants about Agnes having ratted him out over another man. This provides a motive for Jerry or this other man to have hired Peter to mess with Agnes, but the hint is far too weak and has no leg to stand upon and is therefore quickly tossed by film and audience alike. Although it is obvious that Jerry has beaten Agnes, Peter arrives but avoids any confrontations, letting Jerry leave without a fight. This moment only adds to Peter's trust-ability; a man so passive in such a situation is never likely to be harmful. The moment leaves an impression and Agnes takes him to bed. Director William Friedkin gives us our first dose of serious weirdness at this point, with unexpected images of blood cells flowing through veins and mating insects.

When the Bugs first appear Peter displays an higher level of education, but sheepishly almost as if embarrassed by his home schooling. The lack of condescension allows Agnes to keep her guard down and instead of feeling stupid, she looks to him for guidance. At this point, I still believed that Peter was a con-man, working her for a gain, but what he stood to gain was still a mystery. What did a sad, lonely woman in the middle of Oklahoma have that he could take away?

Peter: You have a centre right? A place inside of you that's just you, that hasn't been spoiled... And I think it's really important to try and keep that space sacred. In some sense, on some level, but... sex or relationships cloud that space... or, they cloud me I guess, they make it difficult to be just me and not have to worry about... being somebody else.

Peter very nearly loses her after confessing that he'd lied to her, and spills forth a story that would make any conspiracy theorist cream themselves. Trust has been broken, but by weeping these painful truths to her through the bathroom door, his hook is complete and begs him not to leave her. As she exits the door, all the world shakes with the sudden eruption of a nearby helicopter, bright lights and terrifying noises. It would seem his lies were true and Agnes is now caught up in the running game of a government bio-test escapee.

It would seem.

The next morning- government helicopters and spotlights gone- the descent picks up speed. From the start of the film, observe every small behavior and listen to every word Peter says. One can all but list what is coming. In many ways, Bug is like Fight Club and The Sixth Sense and The Crying Game. These movies did not explode with some completely unexpected ending. If you really watch and listen, they tell you everything you need to know to make those conclusions, which is why the endings are wholly believable. Bug is the same. Watch the way Peter works the pen in his mouth throughout the beginning. He's doing more than chewing on it-next thing you know...he has to remove his tooth. The man inexplicably suffers a seizure at a moment conveniently timed with Agnes and RC's argument reaches an unsettling point. Agnes emphatically choses Peter over RC as a result. In Psychology his behavior would classify him as the Folie imposée, meaning that as a dominant figure, psychologically, he is imposing his thoughts, beliefs and behaviors on Agnes, who willfully follows. The question at this point in the film is: does Peter do this deliberately, as a con-man isolating his prey; or is this a subconscious behavior of a severely disturbed man. Everything Peter presents he "finds" or provides proof of until Agnes becomes so immersed in his world, she sees her own bugs. So deeply immersed, inevitably, she begins to find her own explanations for "what is happening to them."

Peter's story? Government engineered plant aphids feeding on their blood implanted in Peter while in the military, and he infected Agnes.That isn't the entire story, however, because that doesn't explain how Agnes' child disappeared a decade before or why the police never found him. It doesn't explain the phone calls she keeps getting with no more than a breath on the other end. It doesn't explain why Agnes' best friend has it out for Peter. No, this alone does not explain why that same friend introduced them, or why they are so perfect for each other. Oh no...only one thing explains all that.

Agnes: I am the super mother bug!

...yes Ashley....yes you are.

Tracy Letts' script is so masterfully written that the audience easily follows into the funnel that leads to the only conclusion possible. It is a downward spiral sucking you deeper and faster with each turn. Each invasion of their private space, their self-imposed prison (or hive, if you will), is an escalation. RC's attempts at salvation are unwanted because they try to impose separation when Agnes has already concluded that she cannot live without Peter; that he is the best thing that ever happened to her. Jerry's possessiveness and threats take an odd shift toward incompetent expressions of caring when he too, determines that Peter is not good for Agnes. This, unfortunately, only furthers her conclusion that Peter is perfect. When Dr. Sweet, a meticulous Brian F. O'Byrne, is introduced the entire hovel is encased in plastic and aluminum foil, and with Friedkin's always well executed use of light and sound, it becomes a surreal cocoon. The exaggerated environment, already wholly unreal, only aids in furthering the couples psychological descent until people are no longer real. Agnes and Peter, themselves, are no longer people.

Peter: I am the drone.
Agnes: I am the mother queen.

The brilliance of Bug was lost under the disappointed mantle of a mis-categorized film. Letts' script is a fucking masterpiece unto itself that even lesser skilled actors wouldn't have been able to destroy too terribly, so when coupled with the powerhouses of Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon and Harry Connick Jr it simply emanates in all its psychotic glory. Friedkin, while often criticized for self-indulgence, I feel brings to this exactly the type of indulgences necessary. He doesn't weigh the film down with unneeded music or jump-effects. That music used is well inserted, and aptly written by musicians on the fringes of society. He treats the actors and story like poetry, allowing the subtleties of madness to creep in until you, like Agnes, are lost in it and can't remember when things went wrong. That is truly what this is; an expository on the psychology of madness, of abuse, or dependence and dominance. In all of Bug's brilliance, it not only makes a social statement on the constructs of our society as a whole, but leaves us with the most telling statement at the end of the film. Like a punch line in a black, twisted comedy, this Helter Skelter drops us into a metaphorical hell- or perhaps gives us insight into Mr. Letts' true idea of Hell. No where else in the story are the final words spoken, and here, they preempt a dual-suicide by fire punctuating the nature of their psychosis. For truly, do they not suffer Folie à deux; quite literally, "a madness shared by two"? Note well, the order of the speakers is not accidental.

Peter: I love you.
Agnes: I love you.

I should leave you with the last words of the script, however, I know many people do not watch film credits. Oh, you missed those...? ....tsk. tsk. I think Friedkin knows this as well, which is why I made a special effort to sit and watch them and without fail, he offered up imagery I believe was intended only to further fuck with our perceptions of reality. At the very least, they leave one wondering what he meant by them. Hmmm....