Wednesday, March 26, 2008


As you may know, I have two film critics that I feel particularly strongly about. I consider them two sides of the same coin, as they are both remarkably informed about film and literature, and both of them have developed a distinctive style, one that balances academic veracity and insight with a clarity and readability almost never found in academic writing. One of them takes all these skills and combines them with that most important of all critical features: taste. The other has no taste, but attempts to bring his criticism all together with an almost Michiko Kakutani-level of something else: pretension. A.O. Scott's taste is impeccable, and thus he can write both beautifully and wisely about Talledega Nights, Away from her, The Simpsons Movie, and The Lives of Others. Godfrey Cheshire has nothing but pretentiousness, and thus his taste in movies is always incomprehensible. These are my critical poles. This development has made me so very, very sad:

A.O. Scott writes about the new documentary Moving Midway:

"Some aspects of Godfrey Cheshire’s “Moving Midway” may also seem unlikely. Who, apart from Werner Herzog, would think of loading an old North Carolina plantation house onto a truck and moving it away from encroaching strip malls and sprawling developments? Mr. Cheshire’s cousin, as it happens. But the relocation of the house is only one piece of this extraordinarily rich documentary, which takes up the agonies and ironies of Southern history with remarkable wit, empathy and learning.

Mr. Cheshire, a New York film critic for many years, brings his intelligence and knowledge of the medium to bear on a primordial subject: What does it mean to think of a place as home?"

You bastard. I trusted you.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Mini-Review: Be Kind Rewind

Robocop gets Sweded - Don't Tell Verhoeven!

Michel Gondry's latest film can't match up to the extra-depressing bout of romantic whimsy that was Science of Sleep, anymore than that film could match up to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Eternal Sunshine was the combination of Charlie Kaufman's best script to date and Gondry's breathtaking direction with a cast that was so deep that Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo were somewhere around 6th or 7th billed. Rewind, by contrast, was written by Gondry, apparently in a less unhappy mood than Science of Sleep, and thus features awkward pacing, awkward dialogue, and a terribly awkward performance by my current favorite leading lady of all-time (Mia Farrow). But Jack Black, Mos Def, and the ever-reliable Danny Glover manage to overcome all of Gondry's self-inflicted awkwardness and, with the help of Gondry-the-director's endless supplies of energy and innovation, make this a charming and nostalgic paean to filmmaking.

The plot is pretty ridiculous: Jack Black erases all of the videos at the rental store owned by Danny Glover and managed by his adoptive son Mos Def, after a freak electrical station sabotage accident. Longtime customer Mia Farrow shows up looking for Ghostbusters, threatens to call the out-of-town Glover if there's anything wrong with the store, and voila, a collection of threads tenuously related to a plot is born: Jack Black and Mos Def have to start making their own versions of the films the customers want, since there's no way to replace the outdated VHS tapes (they call this process, for no clear reason, "Sweding").

Most of this film's fun resides in the hilarious versions of Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2, Driving Miss Daisy, Robocop, and others that Black and Def make for their avid fans. The frame story is considerably less interesting and only fitfully coherent, but it too ends up being worth watching, with a surprising combination of heart-warming elements that depend a bit too heavily on nostalgia but manage to gain a surprising amount of emotional heft.

One final note: As you might expect, a representative of the movie studios does eventually show up in an attempt to halt the Sweding process. In an all-too brief cameo, that representative is played by the actress who used to hold the title currently held by Mia Farrow. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Review: The Signal

Foil Hat: A Homemade Defense against The Signal
The Signal

It's hard to imagine a movie which is more firmly a product of the horror movie Zeitgeist than The Signal. Its central premise is straight from a J-Horror movie: a signal of unknown origin is being broadcast on every radio, TV, and cell phone, and bad shit happens. Specifically, people who listen to the signal too long get "the crazy," and start killing everyone around them for no apparent reason and, yes, often torturing them in a manner worthy of Saw, Hostel, et al. It doesn't take long for the city of Terminus, with just a few sane survivors fleeing from their murderous friends, neighbors, and family members, to resemble Dawn of the Dead's Milwaukee or 28 Days Later's London. And yes, The Signal has the same low-budget feel as Cloverfield (in this case, it actually is low-budget) and was written and directed, in three separate pieces, by three separate writer-directors, ala Grindhouse.

The main difference between The Signal and all those other films is that no one has ever heard of it, a somewhat astounding situation given its incredible nowness. Presumably the low-budget didn't include any marketing money, which is a shame because The Signal is actually quite good, especially in its first half. The first third of the film (or "Transmission" in the film's terminology) is the most effective; it introduces us to our three main players: Maya, her lover Ben, and her soon to be murderous husband Lewis. Maya leaves Ben in the first scene to return to Lewis, who's trying to watch the ballgame with some buddies. Needless to say, instead of the ballgame they get the signal, and from there Maya's apartment building deteriorates into an truly gruesome and terrifying orgy of murder. In the film's most brilliant move, even the sane people have to arm themselves and commit murder to survive, so its impossible to tell if anyone has the crazy.

The riveting first transmission gives way to the horror-comedy of the second transmission, in which Lewis ends up in the home of a couple still trying to host their New Year's Eve Party. In the first half of this section, "the crazy" is mostly played for laughs, but it degenerates into torture porn - with one sequence involving Lewis, an exterminator by trade, memorably utilizing his pesticides. The final transmission is perhaps the least satisfying filmically, but provides an effective emotional resolution to the first and second transmissions. It doesn't feature the horror of the first transmission or the humor of the second, but trumps them both for sheer visceral gore - not necessarily the best award to win.

I can only hope that The Signal, as a handcrafted grab bag of many of the best elements from contemporary horror movies, finds the life on DVD it so deserves. The acting is often slightly wooden, with only Lewis (AJ Bowen) standing out, but both David Bruckner of the first transmission and Jacob Gentry of the second offer up segments that mark them as talents to watch. The Signal is undoubtedly superior to Awake or any other terrible recent horror movie starring Jessica Alba, so check it out on DVD - unless you want to see it in theaters in the next week.