Saturday, February 27, 2010

Cop Out, Kevin Smith and directorial niches

As most people probably could have predicted, Cop Out is terrible. Kevin Smith's first foray into directing for hire, a buddy-cop comedy scripted by brothers Mark and Robb Cullen, is strained, unfunny, horrendously plotted, meandering, and choppily edited by Smith himself (some scenes end so abruptly it's like they've been cut off mid-sentence). But what's interesting is how adamant Smith seems to be about making a different kind of movie, about recapturing a certain style of film that he clearly remembers from when he was younger, the '80s action-comedy in the vein of Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon. It's completely out of his comfort zone, and all he succeeds in doing is making a lame, unsuccessful retread of those movies that quickly wore out their welcome over the course of numerous sequels anyway.

Smith has said numerous times that he took on this project in part because he felt that after the relative commercial failure of Zack and Miri Make a Porno (which I thought was relatively entertaining) he had taken his signature style and subject matter as far as it would go, and that people clearly weren't responding to it enough. I think in general we get down on filmmakers who return to the same themes and subject matter over and over again, and filmmakers, far more than practitioners of other narrative arts (novelists, comics writers, TV producers) are expected to diversify their work, to take on different genres and to place themselves out of their comfort zones. But is this necessarily a path to great art, or even the most entertaining movies?

I guess this goes back to the early days of Hollywood, when directors were looked at, for the most part, more like hired hands, and thus weren't really given a choice as to what sort of movie they worked on. Howard Hawks is sort of the prototypical example of the filmmaker who excelled at screwball comedies, Westerns, musicals and crime dramas, whatever the studios threw at him. But directors these days who just drift from genre to genre are usually the ones who are the most anonymous, who show up and do a journeyman's job and then move on, and rarely establish any sort of personal stamp. Will, say, Mike Newell or James Mangold be the next Howard Hawks? It's possible, but I doubt it.

As a critic and as a fan, I'm drawn to people like Smith who seem to have something personal to say in their films, or at least a thematic consistency that builds over time. I wrote an essay a few years ago in Las Vegas Weekly about the director as his own brand, using Smith as an example, and here the guy goes pretty much contradicting what I said about him. I don't really have an answer to the question I'm posing here, but I guess it just bugs me that we find it rich and rewarding when people like Saul Bellow or John Irving return to the same themes over and over again, but after Kevin Smith's made a few movies about pop culture-obsessed dudes from New Jersey, we've had enough. Not that Smith is in the same league as Bellow or Irving, but the analogy still holds: Woody Allen is someone who's stuck to his own original creations and his same interests and preoccupations for decades, and a common complaint about his movies is that he's repeating himself.

So as much as I hope for something good from the period hockey movie that Smith is working on right now, or as much as I was curious to see his horror movie Red State that will apparently never get made now, what I really want to see from Kevin Smith is more low-key comedies about dudes sitting around bullshitting. He's good at it, he likes it, and it's entertaining. Why is that not enough?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Captain Swing #1

Or, to be completely accurate, Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island #1. This is the latest Avatar miniseries from Warren Ellis, four issues of vaguely steampunk-y adventure, illustrated by Raulo Caceres, who did excellent work on Ellis' graphic novella Crecy a few years ago. The opening issue is very Ellis-y, with vulgar, abusive lawmen; a city (an alternate London in 1830) perpetually on the verge of chaos and run by corrupt magistrates; a little bit of evisceration; and an enigmatic savior/destroyer looming over things. That said, it's a fun twist on the standard Ellis themes so far, and like his recent Ignition City, it nicely mashes up various genre tropes with Ellis' typical obsessions. It's a little bit From Hell, a little bit Doktor Sleepless, and a little bit Sherlock Holmes.

Caceres' hyper-detailed art was seriously impressive on Crecy in black and white, and it's a little rougher here in color, but still works remarkably well. Ellis sort of awkwardly inserts various text pages into the sequential-art narrative, giving little background details about his world, and I'm less enthused about that device. I sort of appreciate the exposition given directly to the reader rather than shoehorned awkwardly into dialogue, but there's something to be said for just dumping us right into this unfamiliar world. Do we really need all these details spelled out so plainly for us? I guess this is something that Ellis likes to do, but I prefer it things like the Doktor Sleepless wiki, which I have never read but which exists for people who want to learn loads of background info on the series' world, and follow Ellis' voracious research into weird news and cutting-edge technology.

Overall, though, this is an intriguing first issue, and a better start than Ellis' recent Supergod, which is like that expository narration broken up and spread over an entire comics series.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shutter Island and the Martin Scorsese problem

What do we want from Martin Scorsese? The veteran director came back from a period of commercial obscurity with Gangs of New York in 2002, and his last three narrative features were all nominated for multiple Oscars, including Best Picture (and The Departed won it in 2007). Scorsese's gone from an old master noodling in diverse genres to a prestige machine whose every film is expected to be an awards juggernaut. Is that the expectation we should be putting on the man who made Kundun and After Hours and New York, New York? The Oscar movie is a genre unto itself, and designing films for maximum awards potential can be its own kind of artistic straitjacket.

So in a way the release-date shift of Scorsese's latest, Shutter Island, away from the end-of-year awards crunch and into the typically dead month of February could be taken as a good sign: The pressure is off for this to be anything other than an entertaining genre movie, a chance for Scorsese to fool around in a new mode (the pulp thriller) without the pressure of delivering an Important Film. Except he doesn't seem to be approaching it that way: In its casting of a parade of heavy-hitters, its bloated running time and its epic style, Shutter Island very much plays like a self-consciously Important Film, which is at odds with its firmly B-level story, a ridiculously overheated tale of a U.S. marshal (Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio) investigating the disappearance of an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

Scorsese takes this material very, very seriously, and in one way that's a good thing - this script could easily have been handed over to some anonymous hack to get it made on the cheap, and it would have ended up a clumsy waste of time. Scorsese invests every bit of his visual inventiveness and rapport with actors in making the convoluted plot into something meaningful, and for a while he even succeeds. But even Scorsese can't be spared the dreaded infodump after the twist that's obvious even from the trailer, spelling out in excruciating detail what's really going on behind all the impressionistic hallucinations and dream sequences.

What I wonder, then, is what does Scorsese want from Scorsese? Does he want to be the guy who's always making Important Films, so that he can continue casting big stars and getting huge budgets from major studios and always being invited to the Oscars? Or does he want to just follow his artistic muse in strange new directions, take on new genres and push the boundaries of his talent? Shutter Island seemingly finds him trying to do both, and while that tension makes the movie more interesting than it could have been, it also points to a potentially troubling future for the director's career.

Monday, February 15, 2010

News and notes

A few bits of housekeeping info:

  • After a couple of successful one-off appearances (talking about Oscar nominees and romantic movies), I'll be reviewing movies weekly on the KTNV Channel 13 news, during the 9 a.m. show on Thursdays, starting this week.
  • The Josh Bell Hates Everything podcast page in iTunes seems to be kind of screwed up at the moment, but now you can download episodes as well as stream them from the Las Vegas Weekly site, on this page.
  • I'm curating a film series at the Clark County Library in April, called "The Life of the Mind." Info on the movies is here, and I may or may not be introducing the films in person, depending on my schedule.
  • I'm on the DAM Morning Show on X-107.5 a little earlier these days, at 8:30 a.m. on Fridays.


British conceptual artist Steve McQueen’s first feature film, Hunger, often plays more like an art project than a drama, which works both to its benefit and to its detriment, depending on what you’re looking to take away from it. Although Hunger is a fact-based story about IRA member Bobby Sands’ 66-day hunger strike while being held in a British prison, for much of the movie McQueen holds back from explaining anything about his characters, and Sands (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t even show up until about half an hour in.

Before then, McQueen depicts, with virtually no dialogue, the lives of two of Sands’ fellow prisoners and a guard whose efforts to just do his job are constantly disrupted by being a potential target for IRA violence. A few title cards set up the situation, but otherwise we’re merely dropped into the middle of a complex situation with only our emotions to guide us. The prisoners refuse to dress or bathe, cover the walls of their cells with feces and pour urine into the hallways every night. They’re protesting in order to gain status as political prisoners, but without understanding why, all we can see is petulant criminals behaving like spoiled children, and average workers living in fear for their lives.

This first of three distinct sections is the ugliest and most rigidly formal, with McQueen’s shot compositions so fastidious that even the shit-smeared walls look like gallery installations. Still, by presenting such nasty material in an almost pretty way, the director succeeds in shaking up our preconceptions of what a film about this subject matter should look like. In the second section, Sands sits down for a long conversation with a priest, laying out in detail why he’s about to embark on a protest that he knows will likely kill him. After 45 minutes of ambiguity, this talky sequence (shot mostly in one long, uninterrupted two-shot) is a little jarring, but it provides the right amount of context for the final stretch, which depicts (again, with almost no dialogue) Sands’ descent into starvation and death.

Hunger is less a political statement than an exploration of human debasement and cruelty, and McQueen does a good job of showing the situation as horrible for all involved. Like most effective art, his film provokes a visceral reaction, but audiences recoiling in disgust may miss the social commentary behind it.

Available on DVD February 16.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: 13 Rue Madeleine

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I think I was misled by the Netflix description of this 1947 movie, which promises an espionage thriller about World War II American spies searching for a hidden rocket depot while rooting out a traitor amongst their ranks. And that is what it's about, sort of, only in this really stilted, stentorian way, and only in about the final third. Mostly the movie is a sort of ultra-patriotic, extremely hokey tribute to the efforts of U.S. military intelligence during WWII, complete with relentless narration that sounds like something out of an old educational film. The early parts of the movie are basically a lecture about the greatness of American spies, complete with illustrative examples that the movie tries to pass off as characters.

Eventually the narration dials back a bit, and we get to the plot, although the characters remain broadly drawn tools for instruction rather than people. Top-billed James Cagney is a supporting player until the last third of the movie, when he suddenly takes center stage as the badass spy who's going to nearly single-handedly take down the Gestapo in France and secure some French scientist who is involved in building missiles. It's not exactly exciting, especially because the only real villain, the German undercover agent who was working within American intelligence, is completely flat and boring, and barely gets any screen time after he reveals his true colors.

I suppose this movie existed to serve as propaganda as much as entertainment back in the post-war period, and it certainly doesn't skimp on the hagiography. But it rarely generates any suspense or thrills, and consistently values dull procedural details over character development or plot twists (we learn the identity of the German double agent when ... Cagney tells his superior). The title address is the location of the Gestapo headquarters in Le Havre, but it again makes the movie sound more mysterious and daring than it really is. This one is definitely best left as a historical curiosity.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

2010 Super Bowl commercials

I'm not a sports fan, but for a long time I was in the habit of putting the Super Bowl on in the background while doing something else so that I could catch the commercials, which pretty much always ended up being more of a distraction than it was worth. Now thanks to the Internet, I don't have to bother getting distracted by the game; Spike's Commercial Bowl site had each ad up right after it aired, so I was able to see all of them by the end of the game. The excitement of Super Bowl ads has kind of died down for me, and it's a little weird to focus on commercials in an age when we zip past them on DVRs the rest of the time. But these ads are sort of a snapshot of how marketers view America, and some of them do end up becoming iconic.

This year there was a higher-than-average streak of misogyny and masculine insecurity running through the ads, even as we hear more and more about how many women watch football. It wasn't just the beer commercials, either. There is this Bud Light ad, which condescendingly dismisses both the idea of women having their own opinions and the value of reading. But there's also this Bridgestone ad that turns women into commodities on par with (and less valuable than) tires. Both the Dodge Charger ad and the Flo TV ad basically say that women are life-sucking shrews who force men to lose all their independence, and that relationships are horrible traps that can only be momentarily escaped by driving fast cars or watching football on tiny TVs. Even the ad for Dove beauty products has to go out of its way to prove its manliness before asserting that, hey, maybe guys want to be clean and fresh also.

There were the requisite GoDaddy ads, which aren't even titillating anymore. At least this Megan Fox-ploitation ad for Motorola has a sense of humor, complete with the implication that even gay dudes are hot for Megan Fox.

Politically, all eyes were on the Focus on the Family ad, but honestly if I hadn't read about it beforehand I would have had no idea the commercial had anything to do with abortion. I wonder more about this Audi ad featuring the "Green Police," which seems primed to be cited as a nightmare future by some conspiracy-theory nuts (and, honestly, is full of such fascistic overtones that it kind of makes me hate Audi and environmentalists, and I drive a Prius). Also, animal activists are probably going to go crazy over these Denny's ads showing chickens horrified over the volume of eggs needed to be produced for Denny's breakfasts; it's just one more step to "Yes, chickens deal with horrors every day in factory farms supported by companies like Denny's."

But which ones did I actually like? There's the much-cited Betty White/Abe Vigoda Snickers ad, which is funny and makes good use of two comedy institutions. There's this amusing Boost Mobile pastiche of the classic "Super Bowl Shuffle," complete with meticulous re-creation. There's the violin-playing beaver ad for, which does have a gratuitous hot chick at the end but also is sweet and relevant to what it's advertising. There's the exuberant puppets-gone wild ad for Kia, with a nice little Vegas moment in it. There's the simple, sweet Google ad that manages a love story without misogyny. There's the baffling but somehow compelling Census ad with a bunch of familiar faces making no sense whatsoever. I like the animation in this Honda ad featuring a squirrel, even if I don't really know what it has to do with cars.

Perhaps the most eye-catching piece of all, though, was the brief ad for The Late Show with David Letterman, featuring Letterman, Oprah Winfrey and Jay Leno together on a couch. After the bitterness of the recent late-night wars, it provided a perfect release and a chance to just laugh with these guys again. And it put Leno in the service of advertising his competition, which I certainly appreciate.