Film


As a proper luddite and card-carrying hipster goofball, I don’t have access to HBO at my house, or any other television station for that matter. But as a proper robot — or, at the very least, someone who wants to be plugged in, even if I pretend that’s not the case — I ravenously gobble up whatever is on in situations where I happen to find a television that does have such access. Having spent the past week in a hotel room, I found myself watching a bunch of things. Here they are.

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Draft Day: Enjoyable enough as schlock, though the ticking timeline and heightened tension never really explains why anyone would be excited to join the Cleveland Browns. Costner is in his element, though I was distracted the entire time by how weird his ears are, something I’d never noticed.

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Enemy of the State: I haven’t seen this in years, and it held up pretty well. The 1998 NSA fears are kind of prescient, even in an over-the-top format, and it’s a reminder of when Will Smith was a superstar (and why). Casting grizzled Gene Hackman as a former spy gone rogue is a nice touch, evokingThe Conversation in reverse even if that was unintentional. Tony Scott’s action sequences are fun for the most part. And fun fact: one scene was filmed in an apartment adjacent to where I once lived; Smith jumps out my old window and lands miles away, which I will always enjoy.

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The Good Lie: Woo boy. Reese Witherspoon is a jaded case worker finding jobs for immigrants, in this case Sudanese refugees. She learns a thing or two about Sudan … and herself. At one point, the three Sudanese men tell a why did the chicken cross the road joke and laugh hysterically, because apparently there were no jokes in Sudan. This is not a good film.

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The Heat: I laughed twice. Apparently, Paul Feig thought it was funny when Melissa McCarthy yells obscenities and that people inscrutably think Sandra Bullock is a trans woman. This is also not a good film.

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Endless Love: The funniest comedy of last year. From my understanding, it completely inverts much of the storyline of the original text, but that’s a small price to pay for the nonstop laffs. On the other hand, the movie looks respectable at every turn visually, which is what you’d expect from Andrew Dunn, the cinematographer who brought you The Butler, Precious, and, um, Hot Rod, for some reason.

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Girl, Interrupted: There are moments when this movie seems authentic, but they are few and far between. Angelina Jolie is so contemptible for so much of it that there’s little to enjoy, and Winona Ryder’s final voiceover narration kills any good will it might’ve built up. I’d never actually seen this before. I did not like it.

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That Awkward Moment: What a confused movie this is. There’s actually a pretty fun cameraderie between Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, and the impressively vacant Zac Ephron, but the things they say are remarkably stupid. I won’t lie, though — it has its moments. Also, Imogen Poots — my nominee for best name in show business — is extremely pretty. This is neither here nor there and not actually relevant to the film, but there you go. Also, boner jokes are funny but they’re not really that funny; on the other hand, Miles Teller getting hit by a car is a lot funnier here than in Whiplash. The latter movie convinced me he’s actually a pretty good actor, but he still has one of the most punchable faces I’ve ever seen, so I enjoyed that thoroughly.

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Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift: I confess that this is the first FaF movie I’ve seen. I enjoyed it a lot actually, at least in part because I was extremely drunk.

 

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Jim Jarmusch’s films are all about textures and surfaces. It sometimes feels like he’s hinting at wellsprings of deeper meaning or emotion, but everything is held at a remove – cold, observing, often ironic. This probably contributes to the love-it-or-hate-it reactions his films seem to inspire, especially the early ones: are they studies in the carefully calibrated hipsterism of people who cloak their authentic selves in the trappings of cool, or particularly egregious examples of it? Both? Neither?

In either (or any) case, they certainly look good: shot in stark black and white, and obsessed with contours and physical details, the camera glides over the surroundings, or stays completely still as people come and go. It’s hard to find a better word for it than “cool.”

In his feature debut, 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise, the arrival of a foreign, female cousin broke the routines of two caddish, cynical American guys, and the three set out on a bickering, amusing road trip to Florida. It even obliquely addressed issues of constructed identity: the cool guy’s cousin irritates him, with her old-country ways that highlight how much he’s tried to leave them behind and her unironic embrace of American pop culture. (It also is easily a contender for another Song for a Sunday, as she dances around the kitchen to Jarmusch regular Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You.” “Fuck is that?” he asks. “I really hate that kind of music.”)

Down By Law, from 1986, features another triad: a pimp, an unemployed DJ, and an Italian tourist who wind up, for various reasons, in a jail cell together in New Orleans. It’s typical of the film that their escape from jail is left off camera: one minute they’re locked up, the next they’re on the run through the Louisiana bayou. Jarmusch doesn’t have the time or inclination to sketch out their big plan. The movie traffics in Hollywood tropes, but from odd angles.

According to Roger Ebert, Jarmusch said he’d never seen the bayou before arriving to shoot Down By Law. This also makes a lot of sense. The New Orleans and surrounding areas here are more related to cinema than geography – these are noir landscapes, Southern Gothic cemeteries, sweaty unventilated upstairs rooms in fleabag motels, waterways that seem more out of Night of the Hunter than anywhere specific in the world.

The film’s opening conveys a lot of this. Beginning with a sleek shot of a hearse, it’s a constantly shifting montage set to Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” the first single off Rain Dogs. It’s a travelogue of some sort of imaginary South, gleaned from film. Waits also stars – again, appropriately enough, for a very self-aware kind of movie – as the unemployed DJ who’s set up for a murder he didn’t commit.

The song combines a lot of things at once: spaghetti western flourishes, driving blues, jazz riffing, Waits’ whiskey growl. The lyrics are pastiche nonsense, but the repeated phrase lingers at the start of this movie, giving everything a feeling of rootless dread: “The house is on fire, the children are alone.”

I especially like how Jarmusch fades the song out for brief exchanges, before coming back full blast. John Lurie rises from his bed, asks (presumably) one of the sex workers what she’s doing outside on the porch – she replies, “Just watching the light change.” He lies back down, and the girl in his bed opens her eyes and stares at the ceiling. Waits enters some other room in town, clearly drunk at dawn; graffiti on the wall has a gallows’ humor thing going – the most visible reads, “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop.” He too lies down next to a girl, who might’ve just been pretending to sleep; her eyes open and she too stares at the ceiling.

Jarmusch manages to convey a lot of information quickly about these characters, where they are, and how they relate to each other, while leaving much of it mysterious. And all the while, the song keeps pulsing, with Waits warning, “The house is on fire, and the children are alone.” The shots are beautiful and alluring, but there’s clearly some bad shit afoot.

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Katheryn Bigelow’s clever, mostly successful postmodern take on the vampire mythology opens with a nice bit of misdirection. Caleb, our pretty-boy protagonist, is goofing around with his crew of country fellas outside a Southern bar when they notice Mae, a lovely young lady awkwardly hanging out by herself. Caleb calls dibs and approaches her, standing in shadows and making small-talk come-ons. This being a vampire movie, there’s every reason to suspect she’s his next victim: he even mentions how he won’t bite. She’s aloof and shy, playing the soon-to-be-victim to the hilt.

This, it probably goes without saying, is not how things shake out.

Mae is in fact part of a crew of modern-day vampires, who travel the countryside feeding at night and sleeping during the day in various holdouts. Unlike many incarnations, these vampires are neither sexy nor anguished – they’re a lot more like a tight-knit outsider group committed to self-preservation, a gang. They have protocols to follow and internal hierarchies and long-standing grudges. And they really, really like having a good time, in their fashion – tormenting bar patrons (in the film’s best and bloodiest scene), drinking heavily, committing strategic arson, and playing good-natured games of Russian roulette in hotel rooms (since this can’t kill them, it’s just for a laugh).

Mae turns Caleb, much to the chagrin of her comrades, who (rightly) don’t think he’s made out for this life. The rest of the film follows his change, the group’s adventures, and Caleb’s bewildered family’s desperate attempts to track him down. One particularly effective sequence, finding humor in the notion of modern-day vampires, finds Caleb in a bus station, unable to function as his humanity is drained away and replaced by something darker; he’s all sweat and callow flesh and bloodshot eyes. A cop interrogates him, naturally, about what drugs he’s on.

The film is shot in half-light (or is it near dark?) almost from start to finish, maybe suggesting the creatures’ dual natures or, alternately, Bigelow’s conviction that it would look cool (if the latter, she was right). Both Lance Hendrickson and Bill Paxton give nice, occasionally frightening turns as murderous borderline-psychotics who also happen to drink blood, and the kid from Teen Witch continues to be unsettling, though in a less hornball fashion this time. There are also some really well done set-pieces, like a house in which they’re hiding getting shot up and allowing light to come through, noir and/or Blood Simple-style, in criss-crossing rays, any one of which can painfully light the vampires on fire. They huddle together, deathless villains cornered by the day.

Refreshingly, there is no complicated back-story to explain these creatures; they just are, and apparently have been for many, many years. This allows Bigelow to treat the film as a crime movie with bloodsucking monsters, rather than an entry into increasingly convoluted mythologies. It’s way more fun than brooding versions like Herzog’s Nosferatu or Dreyer’s Vampyr, for instance, even if it falls, let’s say, a bit short on their artistry. The film’s conclusion is a cop-out, I think, and way too sentimental for everything that preceded it. Unfortunate, since there are a number of other directions they could’ve chose for the climax. On the other hand, everything that preceded it was pretty enjoyable.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans will also have fun picking out the substantial number of things Whedon borrowed: the blacked-out car windows, for instance, or the gag of running through the sun with a blanket over your head. I’m not sure if these little touches have earlier instances; if not, Whedon owes Bigelow some major credit.

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Fassbinder’s second feature film is based on his stage play from a year prior, and it shows. Nearly every scene frames two to five characters against a plain backdrop – the front of an apartment building, the bare wall of one of the rooms inside, a table at the local tavern – where they alternately snipe at each other, spread rumors and ugly gossip, and talk haltingly, with blank expressions, about not very much.

There’s a biting, satiric edge, and a visceral anti-racist undertone (shared with Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, the only other Fassbinder I’m familiar with), but it’s kind of a slog. A repeated visual theme – a couple (by the end of the film, nearly every permutation has been included) walking through the courtyard to the sounds of a stately piano, like they’re walking down the aisle or in some sort of ritual procession, helps break up the minimalist tedium – but it’s a suffocating vision of insularity, xenophobia, sexism, casual violence, and economic malaise. I admired the film but I didn’t enjoy it.

The plot, such as it is, can be summarized very quickly. A group of young Germans, with little to do, no jobs, and not much hope, hang out and talk shit about each other. They are frustrated economically and sexually – the film definitely implies these two things are related on a fundamental level.

Their aspirations are minor: a quick buck, the promise of an acting career based on a photo shoot, a marriage or, failing that, some affection. In their restless ennui, they pass the time by passing judgment on each other, and each one is a hypocrite: the girl who trades sex for “gifts” of money is scorned, for instance, while it’s implied one of the tough guys is doing the same for out-of-town men. Each of them looks for any opportunity to distinguish and elevate their own compromises under oppressive conditions from those of the others.

Satire or not, these are unpleasant folks to be around.

Eventually, one of the residents takes in a lodger, a Greek laborer (played by Fassbinder), and the gossip shifts into high gear. The logic of the film’s structure indicates that all the simmering resentment that had previously circulated through the group now has an external outlet in this simple, uncomprehending Other. He sleeps naked! He is “better built,” as his unwitting roommate puts it! (How so, someone asks? “His dick,” he answers, as though what he meant wasn’t clear already.) He’s a cunning communist! He assaults German women, maybe! These allegations also sit right alongside their opposites – that Greeks don’t bathe and are undesirable, that he doesn’t have a thought in his head, and so forth. Since all these characters do is talk, his lack of German fluency renders him a cipher, and they can make of him whatever their free-floating resentment requires.

It culminates, as you’d expect, in an act of violence. But nothing much changes. In fact, Fassbinder’s final fuck-you gesture in Katzelmacher (“Cat fucker,” incidentally, which Wikipedia informs me is pejorative Bavarian slang for foreign workers) is to close on a note rendering even that violence perfunctory and meaningless.

Aside from the one character making money from renting rooms, these people are not economic agents in their own lives – they just sort of inhabit a world where things happen which they can’t control, and even scapegoating and violence do nothing but underline their powerlessness. All that’s left is to stew about it, try to find someone, close at hand, to blame, and talk shit on an apartment stoop, and dream of an escape that no one really thinks is coming.