25 April 2008

Cape Fear (1962 and 1991)

Remakes are generally kind of interesting to me, and I suppose remakes of horror movies are all the more so because what a society fears tells you so much about it. Overall, I think, the 1962 version of Cape Fear is much more frightening than the 1991 version. But the newer movie has several interesting spins on the original that are quite intriguing.

The 1962 version stars Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and it's masterfully subtle. Mitchum is terrifying. Absolutely chilling. All the more so because the sexual side of his villainy is mostly non-explicit - you see the battered victim of one of his crimes, but other than that, it's conveyed entirely through dialogue, and man, it makes your skin crawl. Mitchum, incidentally, appears in the 1991 version as well as a police lieutenant - a nice touch, though it's a bit strange to see him looking so harmless. But despite his creepier than hell character, his rage is poignant - although no one would say he didn't deserve it, you do kind of sympathize with him. Jail is no fun at all. So he's a really fascinating character, very well done. The film is interesting, too, in that it moves at the pace of molasses. Not in a slowly-building-suspense kind of way, it's just slow. I was scared, but not so scared that I didn't doze off for a minute towards the end. In my defense, it was hot and stuffy in the theatre. Anyhow, in the original, Peck is, for the most part, a paragon of virtue. The drama in the film centers around the fact that he has no legal recourse to protect himself from a man who's clearly out to get him (because he testified against him), and, after trying a few shadier routes, is forced to use his family as bait to lure him into attacking them, so he can kill him. The anxiety, in other words, is that there are bad bad people out there, and the law can't always save you from them. In other words, it's attacking people's sense of security, their faith in a system that it meant to protect them.

The 1991 version is a bit more complicated, morally. Here, Nick Nolte plays a Robert DeNiro's former defense attourney. Nolte, knowing that DeNiro was guilty of the brutal rape of a 16 year old, withheld evidence - of the victim's promiscuity - that could have helped his client in court and possibly reduced his sentence. In other words, Nolte was clearly in the wrong - the film repeatedly reminds us that a person is entitled to the best defense their lawyer can give them. Furthermore, Nolte is a total jerk, who almost immediately turns to shadier tactics to rid himself of DeNiro's lurking presence. He files a restraining order at first, it's true - but really, does anyone feel safe with a restraining order these days? Anyhow, so the strange thing about the movie is that in a strange way, you're somewhat compelled to sympathize with DeNiro's character. To compensate for this however, the movie makes him more explicitly brutal. I bet legions of viewers had nightmares for months after portions of that movie. I don't know if it's intentional or part of my bleeding-heart liberal perspective, but the fact that a lot of the reasons that DeNiro seems so repellent is because he's covered in tattoos and speaks with a thick redneck bible-quoting twang actually makes me sympathize with him MORE, but in an intellectual, not emotional way. Which is interesting. The problem with the movie is the end, which has an everything-but-the-kitchen sink feel to it, and goes on WAY too long. I'm gonna go ahead and say that you're only allowed two oh snap he's not actually deads! per character per movie. There were at least 4 in this one. At one point, you actually think that the final battle will be two men bludgeoning each other to death with rocks. It's preposterous. 

But what's really fascinating about the remake is that the real terror of the movie, I think, isn't DeNiro at all - it's Juliette Lewis, who plays the daughter. A disclaimer, I'm currently reading Judith Levine's riveting book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, so probably I'm particularly attuned to this aspect, but seriously, the major sub-plot of this movie is the terror of out-of-control adolescents, and especially adolescent sexuality. While most parents could write off DeNiro's character as a rarity unlikely to strike in their neighborhood, I'll bet the image of Juliette Lewis sucking DeNiro's thumb would haunt them for months. In fact, the film is book-ended by a voice-over from Lewis, which essentially casts the whole story as a parable of childhood innocence lost. And as Levine will tell you, in the early 90s, wasn't much scarier than that. But what's fascinating about it is that Lewis' sexual development, and experimentation with drugs, is in no way caused by the events of the film - DeNiro just happens to be in the right place at the right time, if you will. In fact, what the movie clearly shows is how futile it is to attempt to lock your children up in hopes of protecting them - their "corruption" is inevitable. And that, it seems to me, is the real terror lurking at the heart of the movie. 

20 April 2008

The Trial

I love Kafka, but it would never cross my mind to try to adapt anything of his to film. In fact, if you suggested it, I'd probably smile politely, nod, and think that you were an idiot. Kafka is a genius, but he's not exactly cinematic material. Or so I thought, until I watched Orson Welles' adaptation of The Trial. Holy crap y'all. It's amazing. It's one of the better page-to-screen adaptations I've ever seen. And this is coming from me, who a. is generally dubious of page-to-screen adaptations, and b. is an appalling elitist about Kafka. I'm working on it. I really am. But I tend to cringe whenever people tell me they LOVE Kafka. c. Is of the belief that if you're not reading Kafka in the original German, you're getting a pale imitation of his actual genius. Which isn't to say you shouldn't read him in English, or that the translations aren't admirable, but seriously. Part of what makes his works so incredible is that every word matters. Every single one. Even the seemingly throw-away irrelevant ones. They're all there for a reason. And you just can't get that in the translation. Anyways, so you'd think that I would hate any movie version of a Kafka text. But oddly enough, this proved not to be the case.

To be fair, I haven't read The Trial in a few years. But I think the film actually follows the text quite closely. I noticed a few omissions and changes, but not many. One interesting difference is that the parable, Before the Law, serves as a preamble to the film. And is followed by a short introduction where Welles talks about the text itself and the ways in which it's been interpreted. Sounds cheesy, but it works well. The plot of the novel really isn't that gripping, but somehow, Welles manages to retain your interest. Actually, K. as a character is somehow more emotionally affecting than he is in the text. I think this is probably because the third person narrator of the novel has been replaced by the camera, a cross-over that I generally find fascinating and difficult and am still thinking through.

Anyhow, what's most brilliant about the movie is the general aesthetic. Visually, it's genius. It's the kind of thing where I was like, "my god, that's exactly what it would look like! it's what I was envisioning all along, and I didn't even realize!" This is all the more impressive because Kafka isn't really a scene-painter in his works - it's fairly conceptual stuff, with very sparse descriptions. And yet, Welles' portrayal strikes one as being exactly right. 

Furthermore, as an adaptation, it's of course also an interpretation, and what I found fascinating was the way that it visually represented the sort of "rise of bureaucracy, terrors of capitalism" interpretation in a truly compelling way. Granted, I may be more prone to this at the moment, given that I'm TAing a class on Marxist theory, but I've always found that reading of Kafka somewhat overdone, and here, for once, I was truly convinced. 

The final scene sort of threw me. There's a change to the text that's executed in a somewhat pointed way, and I'm still not sure what to make of it. I don't mind taking liberties with the work, but if it's meant to be signpost to the text's resonance with current (well, in the 1960s) conditions, I'm somewhat unimpressed. 

Still, ultimately, an excellent film. Worth investigating, especially if you're familiar with the book. It's really a phenomenal tribute to Kafka's work.

12 April 2008

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel Delany

A phenomenal work of social theory, and a really fantastic example of writing that manages to be theoretically rigorous but still largely accessible - and interesting - to a broader audience. It's a fascinating examination of urban space, sexuality and class with a really compelling theorization of "contact" (as opposed to "networking"), and some lovely reminiscences of a bygone cultural era in NYC. Also a nice example of work that blends academia and advocacy. An incredible book.

While the above might make it sound dry or hyper-analytical, let me approach it from the other side and say that this is an awesome memoir that features a guy getting a lot of head in seedy movie theatres.

The book is composed of two parts; in the first half, which is a fairly colloquial, memoir-style piece, Delaney just writes about his experiences at porn theatres around Times Square. It's a world I know nothing about, and it's beautifully captured. Delany doesn't shy away from graphic descriptions of sex, nor does he conceal the less savory aspects of the scene. There are some lovely moments that capture a kind of lovely warmth and intimacy between strangers, such as in this bit:

"I'm gettin' off on her up there-" he pointed at the screen-"and you guys are all gettin' off on me...? That's funny, huh? That guy there-" His hand swung to point to the Asian- "he always comes the same time I do. Don't you? Come on, didn't you?" He looked back at me. "He always does that. Every time. I shoot - he shoots. Ain't that a trip?" Looking over, he laughed.

There's something so sweet and touching about it, it's great. 

The second part is a more academic, theoretical essay on urban development and class, but the tone remains lively and despite its theoretical language, it's eminently readable. It's an example of the best kind of social theory - not just terms mapped onto everyday content, but a genuine theorization of everyday life, of the sort that both expands one's knowledge of the world and broadens the theory it's working with. It's one of the few examples I've seen, for instance, of someone talking about Lacan and making him actually seem worthwhile (Zizek kind of does that, but it's more of the mapping A onto B type work). 

A wonderful book. Highly recommended.

Poetic Justice

No, guys, it's not a good movie. I know, you're shocked, right? Really? This Janet Jackson vehicle failed to shine? But all the same, I gotta say, it wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. 

So, hands down, the worst thing about the movie is the poetry. Maya Angelou, what were you thinking? No really guys. Maya Angelou actually wrote the poetry. Maybe it wouldn't seem as bad if it weren't plopped into the middle of this painfully cliche story and recited as a voice-over as short-hand for psychological development, but god, it's painful. 

Janet Jackson is not a good actress. But she does have a remarkable facility for making lots of different facial expressions. And, you know, she's hot. Clearly, the makers of the film realized this and decided to capitalize on it. So they were like, well, how can we present her psychological growth in a compelling fashion? Let's have her stare somewhat contemplatively at the ceiling while lounging around in her bra. That'll work. Sure, why not?

Tupac is, of course, phenomenal. As always. Even with crappy dialogue and a mostly caricatured role. He actually makes you care about the character. You might even get a little misty-eyed at the conclusion.

But probably the most fascinating aspect of the movie is its thoughtful reflection on the problems that premature ejaculation and binge drinking cause in a relationship. It's a stirring subplot centering around the relationship of Regina King and Joe Torrey, and you know, I found it genuinely engaging! Joe, if you can't hang for more than 2 minutes, you need to find another way to keep your woman happy! Regina, you gotta lay off the sauce! 

Bonus feature: a random "stock" film playing at the drive-in at the opening of the movie, starring none other than Lori Petty and Billy Zane, who must have had a BLAST shooting it. Awesome.

So yeah, it's not a good movie. But it smuggles in some highly entertaining tangents, as if they had though, well shit, why not, right? It's almost like they realized that people are willing to sit through awful dreck just to watch Janet or Tupac, and decided, well, ok, we won't go so far as to actually make it a GOOD movie, but we'll throw you a bone here and there. Thanks guys.

Fun trivia facts:

*Janet Jackson, or her people, or whatever, demanded that Tupac get an STD test prior to filming any sex scenes. Tupac refused, saying that he would take 3 tests, even, if they were actually gonna get it on, but otherwise, they could fuck off. Good for him - that's some bullshit right there. Anyhow, apparently this is why there is no hottt sex scene in the film. I wonder if Janet Jackson is kicking herself over that one. She damn well oughta be.

That's all you get.

*Tupac is wearing a Chicago White Sox hat throughout the movie. Represent!

09 April 2008

Margot at the Wedding

I was not a fan of The Squid and the Whale. Though looking back at my review, I think I explained quite well why I thought it was not a particularly good movie, what has actually stayed with me is a feeling that, ok, maybe it was well done, but it was so unpleasant and unsympathetic that it just didn't work for me. I went in to Margot at the Wedding expecting it to be similar, but in fact, was pleasantly surprised - it's a damn good movie. It's as though Noah Baumbach had listened to all of my problems with the first one and said, "ok, let's compromise. I still want it to be about horrifically self-absorbed people and the harm they do to one another, but I can humanize them a bit, maybe add some humor to it. Would that work?" Yessir. We've got a deal.

Margot at the Wedding continues the trend of watching parents messing up their kids (and siblings, and really anyone else who crosses their path), but features a broader palette of characters, which makes a big difference. Although Nicole Kidman is a monster, you actually find yourself sympathizing with her, partly because she's portrayed in a variety of situations that let you, occasionally, glimpse her better side. Because the movie includes other perspectives, it's less insistently focused on her narcissism, which has the strange feature of making you feel less compelled to imagine her perspective, and thus actually inspires you to do it. Funny, that.

Meanwhile, there's also a lot of humor in the movie, and not only of the bitter, dark variety. While it's ultimately a pretty depressing movie, it feels less like an onslaught of misery and more like a balanced, realistic account, albeit of some more-messed-up-than-usual people. 

The most fascinating aspect of the film, to me, was the relationship between Jack Black and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who were both phenomenal. Jack Black in particular really shined as a tragi-comic figure. Although my friend Ruchama said that she just couldn't take him seriously, I thought his character was quite ingenious - though I also have a soft spot for characters that one simultaneously finds tragic and amusing. There's something really interesting to me about characters that you feel sorry for, but also can't help but laugh at, though you almost feel guilty about doing so. There's an amazing scene where he's sobbing pitifully on the phone, and while his pain is quite heartrending, you're also chuckling at his incoherent, tear-soaked rambling. 

Secondly, the portrayal of their relationship is really well done.  The sub-plot of their trials and tribulations is a really interesting exploration of relationships, forgiveness, love, etc. Quite moving. There's this great scene where they're going to bed, Jack Black is in his underwear and Jennifer Jason Leigh is in pyjamas, the unbuttoned top giving you an occasional flash of her breasts, and the casual intimacy of the moment is beautifully rendered. Much more compelling, incidentally, than a later scene of Nicole Kidman masturbating, which seems kind of gratuitous (not that I'm _really_ complaining...). Actually, this is another nice aspect of the film - the way it manages to show supposedly risque things like breasts and marijuana, but integrate them casually into the daily life of the characters in a way that feels quite genuine rather than sensational.

A good movie, worth checking out.