Sunday, August 2, 2009

Recent Movie Roundup

Burn After Reading
HBO via On Demand
Eagle Eye
HBO via On Demand
Saw V
DVD via Blockbuster's 4 for $20 bin

I've seen every Coen Brothers movie except Blood Simple, and I've had a wide range of reactions. Fargo and Barton Fink and of course The Big Lebowski rank among my favorite films. Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother Where Art Thou are all worthy works, with wonderful elements and annoying pretentious downsides in equal measure. And there are a few they've done like Man Who Wasn't There and Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty that didn't work for me at all. Didn't even mention their biggest award-winner, No Country for Old Men, which is a wonderful film but is more of an identifiable type of movie with clear antecedents than the very best work the brothers otherwise known as Roderick Jaynes are capable of.

But whether their movies have been memorable or labored, I can't recall seeing one that didn't have some sort of point to it. Until Burn After Reading. The Coens are dearly fond of ridiculous, deliberately anachronistic big themes for their pieces, but their very best stuff is low-key (the snail-like pace of Barton Fink, so essential to its tension), rooted in character (remember Bill Macy's kid from Fargo who took accordion lessons and had Lawrence Welk memorabilia all over his walls?) and assured in tone (the sublime Lebowksi, which needs no further praise from me -- but I just learn that the "private dick" in the Beetle was played by Jon Polito from "Homicide: Life on the Street" and this seems like a good place to mention it). Their second tier of movies, Hudsucker and so on, are weakened by an attempt to adhere to the conventions of a chosen type of genre -- be it noir, screwball, romantic comedy, or what have you. No matter how well they execute these homages, there's always a certain amount of visible effort on screen that their more mongrel, oddball movies avoid.

Burn After Reading feels odd because it's not shot particularly like the Coens usually like to work, and other than a few character names it's very light on whimsical dialogue. Among modern filmmakers this pair skews more toward the personal than the political, but it is odd that they've made here a movie that's all about either Washington insiders or people who feel very acutely their exclusion -- and yet the movie has no political agenda to speak of. It's hermetic to the degree that one suspects that that's the intended point, that our particular government has become dysfunctional to the extent that it's no longer even governing in a meaningful sense.

There could be something to that, if every performance in the movie didn't ooze cynicism in one way or another. Frances McDormand gives a wonderful effort in what I think is an ultimately impossible role as a woman who is obsessed with plastic surgery. That's sort of an interesting idea, but the character doesn't fit into the story, and other than reminding us of it in dialogue regularly, the actions she takes don't reflect the lack of sexual aggressiveness and confidence such a genuinely pathological person would probably display. The script fails McDormand, but Brad Pitt and George Clooney do themselves in with smug, lazy performances. Pitt is supposed to be an idiot but plays his part like Tyler Durden, too handsome and charming to have to make an effort to be socialized. Clooney is at his unmotivated worst as a bearded cad who has nothing much interesting to say but a knack for setting up sight gags. John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton are wasted as the film moves quickly past their characters after the first 15 minutes or so in the hopes of maybe finding some more laughs elsewhere. Few are forthcoming.

Add in two tacked-in scenes by J.K. Simmons trying to staple some further lack of context on the overall haze (as a character who does not interact with any of the others in the entire cast), and you've got something that seems rushed, disorganized, and utterly average -- an supposed uproarious farce with A-list stars that isn't funny and reflects badly on every name on the poster. That happens sometimes.

Eagle Eye, if you accept from the top that its modest ambitions are no more or less ludicrous than the average Nicolas Cage vehicle, doesn't miss its considerably lower mark so badly. Shia LeBeouf has had a bit of an interesting career path, beginning as a teen on a family sitcom, spending his early transition into adulthood largely on costume indies, then running off a string of blockbusters with hardly a break in between. He didn't embarrass himself in the Indiana Jones revival (any more than anyone else did), he brought as much of a human pulse as was possible to Michael Bay's Transformers, and he elevated the slight Hitchcock riff Disturbia into a minor gem. Eagle Eye is probably the worst thriller-by-committee script LeBeouf has signed on to do thus far, and that's saying something. This story of an defense-department artificial intelligence gone haywire has more plot holes than a first-season "X-Files" episode, and way fewer pithy lines. Not a line of dialogue is believable, and all the characters (even the one played by Billy Bob Thornton, seen in a few scenes counting his money) are stock. But the chase sequences are bang-on, LeBeouf is absolutely stellar at looking stressed out and desperate, Michelle Monaghan is the new Bridget Moynahan, and it's just as entertaining a CGI-filled action movie for your buck as, say, Minority Report, except without the extra 45 minutes of pretentious screenplay filler. Not bad at all.

They're making a sixth Saw movie, which makes me feel less bad about giving away the ending of the fifth one, which I watched the other night finally after buying used a few months ago. I have watched and enjoyed every movie in this slightly demented series, and I've often reflected on how odd it is that its villain will go down as one of the all-time greats in the horror/splatter field -- despite the fact that he has almost no dialogue in the original. What we know of Jigsaw we know largely from a series of sequels that (but for the third one) are way less ingenious, cruder imitations of the very good original.

The massive self-contradictions of the second movie, some of which Saw V tries (weakly) to retroactively correct through flashbacks, can be blamed on the fact that in the rush to get it made less than a year after the original a totally unrelated horror movie script was repurposed to cram in Jigsaw. Fans of a forgiving sort can convince themselves that the serial killer had a bad reaction to his cancer medication sometime between the first movie and the third explaining why he suddenly became way less rational and organized for one evil plot then really got his A game back right before his big death (in Saw III). Now that the series has somehow outlasted its original nemesis for three whole films, there's a more basic, internal reason for why the "traps" now seem less inspired and repetitive -- a way less good new killer is carrying on Jigsaw's work after his death.

If you really care, I imagine you probably know by now. But stop reading if you're more than two films behind! Detective Hoffman, played by Costas Mandylor, is the "new" Jigsaw. For a very small snatch of Saw V, directed with gory efficiency by series production designer David Hackl, it seems like maybe somebody else (possibly earlier Jigsaw apprentice Amanda, less probably but more hopefully the man himself) might really be pulling the strings. But after four movies with trick-bottom endings, rewriting series continuity within a few seconds of quick flashbacks, Saw V nobly tries a different route. There's no twist here. At the beginning, Mandylor squares off against the other token survivor from the previous sequel (who is amusingly played by Scott Patterson, Luke from "Gilmore Girls") and it's clear one of them is going to kill the other. We already know from Saw IV that Mandylor is the new bad guy, so there's no drama in watching the blood drain out of various stock victims until he can finally viciously knock off Luke at the end. The actual murder is a pretty good one, like the crushing room from Temple of Doom only with no escape and Jigsaw Jr. has an amazing seat, lying in a glass box immediately under the people-smushing device.

Hackl seems less inclined than some of the music video guys who have helmed earlier Saw installments to employ whip-pans and Avid frame-dropping tricks to the degree that the camerawork itself (and not the visuals) make you want to hurl. That's good, and so is the use of some repeated geometric motifs in the traps that gives the movie a tiny bit more style than a nonstop abbatoir training film. But the trouble with spinning out movie horror sequels forever is that slasher movies demand blood, and this franchise has consumed both its heroes and its antiheroes at a hysterical rate -- Jigsaw had cancer when he was first unveiled, Amanda didn't make it past one movie as his chosen apprentice, and the list of good genre actors unavailable for future sequels because they're already dead in the Saw universe is massive. No Danny Glover or Michael Emerson or Ken Leung or Dina Meyer or Donnie Wahlberg, even. All dead!

So we're reduced to a decent TV actor (Patterson) being chased around by the heroically impassive Australian Mandylor, who has survived long enough to become the villain (thanks, Dark Knight) because he was the one detective uninteresting enough to escape the writers' bloodlust in Saw III. Tobin Bell's Jigsaw was hardly the most demonstrative movie psychopath out there -- the true believer's robotic, assured calm was what made him creepy, in the Hannibal Lecter tradition. The Saw braintrust got lucky after the first movie, where Bell barely had anything to do besides some voiceover narration. Turns out the veteran character actor was more than capable of carrying the series through two more movies as a living presence (and less effectively, two more movies since in ubiquitous flashbacks). But lightning doesn't always strike predictably, and the producers haven't struck the jackpot again in Mandylor. The most terrifying scene in Saw V isn't scary because of the impressively visualized sight of the proprietor of Luke's Diner losing one of his dimensions, it's scary because of the expression on the murdering genius face as it goes down. Mandylor, bless him, has the exact same empty look on his face as in every other scene he's appeared in for three whole movies now.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you on your Coen roundup for the most part; I'd put Man Who Wasn't There in the second tier. No Country sticks out in part because it's so close to the source material.