Lita On Film

Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

The Ruins (2008)

In Film Reviews on April 5, 2009 at 3:45 pm

H. L. Mencken once said that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people, and nothing seems to bear this statement out quite as perfectly as the current trend in truly schlocky Americans-abroad horror films.  Recent examples include Hostel, Turistas, and now The Ruins, a dopey, ridiculous amalgamation of Cabin Fever, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, and Little Shop of Horrors.  Needless to say, I don’t anticipate The Ruins making it onto my year-end top ten list, and neither do I recommend seeing this film unless you’re looking for an extreme—perhaps the ultimate—experience of mindless viewing.  However, it represents what seems to be a rapidly expanding corner of the horror film market, and is thus at least worthy of examination, if not patronage.

            The film begins with two couples—the female half of one being Jena Malone, who seems aware she’s being exploited by the role—vacationing in sunny Mexico together, where the sand is warm but the water, we’re told, “will give you hepatitis.”  The two couples are straight out of the low-budget screenwriter’s playbook; one is happy, the other is on the rocks, and the two pairs are even color-coded, blonde and brunette, for our viewing convenience.  Malone’s character is the protagonist of sorts, but it’s rather hard to tell at times; the film’s narrative is so flimsy and the characters so one-dimensional that it’s hard to work up any feeling at all about any of it.  There’s no one to care about within the story, but there’s not really anyone to loathe either—there isn’t even a scary monster to grab our attention.  After a few deaths, some gratuitous gore, the revelation that the evil of the film is horticultural in origin (yes, you read that correctly: evil plants!) we’re left with no more than the suggestion that, deep in the Central American jungle, there are some things that are best left alone by nice White Americans. 

            And it’s here that the film crosses the line between being innocuously stupid and tacitly implying that the people inhabiting the jungle (who, naturally, are portrayed as stereotyped “evil natives”) are the real threat; that the Ruins are scary not because they represent the savagery of civilizations past, but because they symbolize the intrinsic inner savagery of the modern jungle-dwellers.  Indeed, the parade of victims who venture into the Ruins never to return are, we’re repeatedly told, members of the “civilized” Western cultures: Americans, Germans, Greeks.  Juxtaposed with the evil natives, who wield arrows and pistols simultaneously, and babble incoherently without the courtesy of subtitles, the specificity of the White characters’ origins begins to make sense.  Succinctly, if the film had been made by the team behind South Park, it would be called Colonize This! 

            The reason that Mencken’s statement deserves particular attention in relation to films like The Ruins and Hostel (where the locus of evil is the former Soviet Bloc) is that the totality of the (negligible) horror they evoke is directly related to their protagonists’ American citizenship.  The conceit powering these films is a deeply narcissistic, hypocritical national dogma which insists that the sorts of things which occur in these films—torture, captivity, general degradation—are things that just shouldn’t happen to Americans, no matter where they go.  Thus, Hostel and Turistas and The Ruins are “horror movies” simply because they show such things happening to Americans, over and over, for an hour and a half; the tragic part is that they’re not even aware of the ideological project they’re engaged in.  And while it’s certainly true that America is far from alone in its prodigious production of terrible films, it’s hard to imagine another country where sheer national paranoia can be writ so large and still taken so seriously.


Run, Fatboy, Run (2007)

In Film Reviews on April 5, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Simon Pegg’s latest turn as an improbable leading man finds him having abandoned his pregnant fiancée (the improbably fabulous Thandie Newton) at the altar and living a sad little existence after the fact.  In the film’s opening scene, he appears to be a policeman (a nod to his 2007 parody Hot Fuzz) chasing down a thieving drag queen.  When he (finally, laboriously) recovers the stolen goods, however, it becomes clear that he is not living the glamorous life of a real crime-fighter; he’s a security guard for a swanky women’s clothing store.  The sad part is, he’s not even good at his job.  He plunks down the lacy pair of pilfered panties on his boss’ desk only to be confronted with her angry retort, “What about the bra?”  Here Pegg’s character’s distinguishing feature is revealed, as he tries to get out of chasing the drag queen a second time: “I’m not fat,” he whines indignantly to the ladies in the shop, “I’m unfit!” 

            The film proceeds from this setup in a quite predictable fashion; anyone who has seen the myriad exported “Britcoms” of the past decade (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, etc.) can guess everything that happens long before it actually does.  The film (directed by Friends star David Schwimmer, oddly enough) is still engaging, however, though it suffers from the crucial flaw that also plagued Pegg’s breakout 2004 film Shaun of the Dead.  Both films teeter uncomfortably between humor and pathos, and while it’s true that any great comedy will judiciously mix the two together, Fatboy and Shaun haven’t got the recipe quite right.  The old adage that comedy is tragedy happening to someone else is taken a bit too far in both films when, after a point, the tragedy ceases to be comic and starts to be just plain tragic after all. 

            The crux of Fatboy comes when Pegg’s unfit Dennis decides that the only way to win back his long-lost fiancée’s heart (and their little son) is to beat her strapping new boyfriend (a strangely convincing Hank Azaria) in a London charity marathon.  Azaria’s character gets nastier and nastier, eventually sabotaging Dennis’ chances to finish the race.  In the end Dennis prevails, and his dream of reconciliation is hinted at in the film’s final scene.  All’s well that ends well, apparently, even running twenty-six miles for an erectile dysfunction charity.

            This film is a great date movie, an easy-to-follow mix of puerile hijinks and rather sappy poignancy.  However, especially when compared with Shaun (and even Hot Fuzz) the film seems to lack a certain soulfulness and honesty that I’ve come to expect from Pegg’s exploits.  Whereas the former two films had narratives built on an obsessive love of and homage to their particular genres (zombies and action films) Fatboy seems more like a drawn-out vignette than an actual feature-length conceit.  It follows, then, that the film’s best and somehow most convincing moments come during Dennis’ “training” phase of the film.  The absurdity and elitism of self-proclaimed athletes like Azaria’s character are used to hilarious effect, making it clear that “average guys” like Dennis (and everyone in the audience) aren’t equipped with the sheer egotism required for something like a charity marathon.  Dennis develops the world’s biggest blister on his foot, falls off his bike in a spinning class, endures the horrors of skimpy running shorts, and tries to drink an entire glass of raw eggs.  But we feel for him, acutely, because his aims are so noble—he’s just caught in a painfully ironic situation, where the one thing he feels least capable of is the one thing he must accomplish above all others.  And at this particular moment, faults aside, isn’t that exactly the sort of film we’d all like to see?  

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

In Film Reviews on April 5, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Unlike most recent films about the British monarchy, “The Other Boleyn Girl” carefully maintains an almost complete separation between the private and governmental lives of its Royal characters.  It accomplishes this somewhat amazing feat through a very simple method: we get all of the former and none of the latter.  For example, three or four times the attention is paid to one of the Boleyn sisters undressing for her wedding night than is Henry’s decision to denounce the Pope and break from the Catholic Church—which, one could argue, is a matter of some importance, historically.  But this is precisely the point; it is history itself which has been evacuated from this film, the suggestion being that historical epics would be much more exciting to watch, in this day and age, if they didn’t insist on so much…history. 

            To this end, first-time feature director Justin Chadwick (best known for his well-received Masterpiece Theater adaptation of “Bleak House”) has assembled an absolutely cracking cast—or, at least, what would be a cracking cast if they were in a different film.  Eric Bana plays Henry Tudor with what can best be described as game resignation; he knows this is not a performance anyone will remember, and he doesn’t burst any blood vessels trying to make it otherwise.  Natalie Portman is Ann Boleyn, a shallow character who is both hotheaded and emotionally volatile–just what one wants in a soap opera, which is, of course, what this is.  Portman pours herself into the role with aplomb, but the script simply doesn’t allow her to display the subtlety and range of ability she has exhibited in the past (most memorably, I think, in “Closer”) no matter how hard she tries.  Kristin Scott Thomas, looking tired, plays the Boleyn mother—had she been allowed to speak more often, she would have given a memorable performance (she’s certainly the only one with a convincing accent).

            Strangely, though she disappears periodically throughout the story, the heart of the film lies in Scarlett Johansson’s character Mary, Ann’s younger and much more demure sister.  Against the odds, the absurdly beautiful Johansson manages to eke out a convincing performance in this silly little film, showing a tragic bafflement and incredulity when the cruelty of the Tudor court begins to dawn on her.  It all ends badly, of course, except for Johansson’s character, who manages to escape the fickle glamour of Court life in the nick of time.  We are reminded (via text on the screen) that Henry’s successor to the throne was none other than Elizabeth I—lest we forget our history, the unwanted daughter Ann gave him shortly before she lost her head for good.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience who immediately recalled Cate Blanchett in “Elizabeth” (1998) and sighed the sigh of a spectator who wishes she were seeing an altogether different film.

            “Boleyn” is not a bad film, really—if you’re looking for something to eat popcorn to, in our current cinematic climate you could certainly do a lot worse.  My only serious gripe with the film as a whole is its strange take on continuity editing; more times than I could count (I tried, at first) a scene would end so abruptly that I wasn’t even aware another had started.  It felt like watching a Kenneth Branagh film edited by Quentin Tarantino—everything that would have lent the film a genuine atmosphere had been stripped away, without even enough time for a surreptitious gaze over the banquet table every now and then. 

            And it is precisely that ponderous quality, absent in this film, which has lent recent hits like “The Queen” such a favorable reception.  There’s a palpable sense of reality in “Queen” which we simply don’t get in “Boleyn,” and it comes from allowing the story to breathe (rather than cutting and pasting it together at lightning speed) and to absorb the weight of the history it’s portraying.  “Boleyn” is all good fun, but it’s fun without any meaning—more like “Bridget Jones” with a beheading at the end than a true Royal drama.

“You can’t stop what’s comin’”: No Country for Old Men (2007)

In Film Reviews on April 5, 2009 at 3:42 pm

As with all their best work, Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest effort delicately treads the line between suspense and absurdity.  Recalling Fargo (’96), Miller’s Crossing (’90), and Blood Simple (’84), No Country for Old Men delivers the claustrophobic adrenaline rush of a thriller, yet still manages to integrate elements of the ridiculous.  A crime gone wrong (specifically, a Mexican drug deal-cum-massive shootout) opens the film, a conceit which will be familiar to any Coen enthusiast.  However, unlike any of the Coens’ earlier films, No Country devotes the majority of its energy to investigating the sheer brutality of the evil that men do, rather than tempering its violence with humor or irony.  There’s no inexplicably jolly Frances McDormand character in this film—indeed, there are hardly any women in the film at all, and those that do appear are either incidental or predestined for gruesome ends.  This is a masculine film with sparse dialogue and violence aplenty, and those with weak stomachs need not attend. 

The film hangs on a typically skeletal plot (Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name is the source of the screenplay).  Josh Brolin plays Llewellyn Moss, a part-time vigilante and Vietnam veteran who lives in a dilapidated trailer with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), who works at Wal-Mart.  They live near the Mexican border in South Texas, in the ruins of the Old West; still surrounded by the magnificent emptiness of the plains, the characters aren’t triumphant settlers but scavengers, hangers-on in a world that has nothing left to offer.  Holding this scattered community together is Tommy Lee Jones’ Police chief, Ed Tom Bell, who has seen enough in his day to be unshaken (at first) by the shocking violence of the opening scene.  After stumbling on the aftermath of the shootout (which one character refers to as “the OK Corral”) Brolin’s character follows his Western instincts and a trail of blood to a satchel stuffed with thousand-dollar bills.  With only a second of hesitation he takes the money and runs, setting the rest of the film on its inevitable course.

Inevitability personified appears a few scenes later in the form of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a monumental crazy who quickly strangles a policeman to death, steals his car, pulls over an innocent man, and blasts a hole in his skull with some sort of pressurized contraption used in the slaughtering of cattle.  The metaphor is not lost on us; Bardem’s character shows no compunction whatsoever during any of the film’s copious—and graphic—murder scenes.  Indeed, he goes even further than the (by now) somewhat clichéd Hannibal Lecter paradigm—he doesn’t just enjoy killing, it is his absolute sole purpose on the planet, and in the film.  (Geoffrey O’Brien of Film Comment rather generously describes this character as “Mephistophelean”).

As the narrative noose tightens around Brolin’s character, the film becomes more and more concerned with defining exactly what he’s up against.  He demands of the not-long-for-this-world big wig Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), “Who’s this guy supposed to be, the ultimate badass?”  But, as we and he both know, Bardem’s character is far worse than that. By the end of the film he wreaks his revenge on everyone, and then vanishes into the cinematic ether.  The film closes, abruptly, with Jones’s character recalling a dream about his dead father (also the town sheriff, once upon a time); he realizes, as does the audience, that there are some things in man’s nature—and the nature of film—that will simply never change.

Though the majority of praise heaped on this film concentrates on Bardem’s performance (and the Coens’ collective virtuosity) I found his apocalyptic assassin to be slightly less than believable.  Portrayed as he is, with a Monkees haircut and a penchant for Bergman-esque coin tosses (a more metaphysical version of “heads you live, tails you die”) I found him an unstable amalgamation of too many elements present in the Coens’ earlier films.  His absolute evil was too difficult for me to reconcile with his goofy turns of phrase and amusing run-ins with other characters.  Brolin’s performance was gritty and desperate, but unremarkable overall.  The soul of the film lies in Tommy Lee Jones’s performance, the only piece of No Country with an air of real authenticity.  Jones’s character anchors Bardem’s evil and Brolin’s desperation, providing a much-needed context for both.  Without his presence, the film would be irretrievably cartoonish and unbelievable; with it, No Country manages to communicate a sense of profound concern about the state of mankind in general and America in particular.