Cinema Psycho

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Archive for September, 2006

Loverboy (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on September 26, 2006

Directed by Kevin Bacon/screenplay by Hannah Shakespeare, based on a novel by Victoria Redel/starring Kyra Sedgwick, Matt Dillon, Campbell Scott, Oliver Platt, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon/Screen Media Films

An extremely overprotective mother’s obsession with raising the perfect child eventually leads to tragedy.

Here’s a note to all movie critics: please stop calling films “Fatal Attraction for our time” or “for a new generation”. Just stop it, please. Especially when the film in question is nothing like Fatal Attraction in any way, shape or form. Enough already. Practically every damn screener they send me anymore has that quote slapped on it, even if it’s a three-hour Iranian goat-herder film. OK, I never get those, but if I did, that quote would probably be there.

Anyway, at first glance, Loverboy would seem like something tailor-made for the Lifetime network. Even the photo of Sedgwick on the cover practically screams, “this is a movie about a repressed Southern housewife who finally discovers her inner sensuality with the help of a handsome drifter” or some such nonsense. Thankfully, this is not the case. Nor is it a remake of that late-‘80’s movie where Patrick Dempsey screwed a bunch of housewives. It seemed unlikely at the time.

No, this Loverboy is a disquieting little indie drama about the dangers of bad parenting. Finally, a movie about something real! Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of indies that have been overhyped to the gills but ultimately disappointed me (Brick, Hard Candy) due to their lack of verisimilitude. They’re hip, they’re ironic, they’re chock-full of style, and I didn’t believe either of them for a second. If there really is such a thing as being “too smart for your own good”, these films personify that concept. They’re not so much clever movies as they are movies about how clever the filmmakers think they are. They come off more like “calling cards” to advance the writers’ and directors’ careers in Hollywood than honest, genuine films that explore the subject matter they’re supposedly about.

Kevin Bacon hardly needs a “calling card” at this point in his career. Even though this is his first feature film as director (his only previous directing credit being a 1996 TV-movie called Losing Grace, which I have not seen), he’s one of the hardest-working actors in Hollywood (hence the “Six Degrees” game). Therefore, he has no reason to spend his time directing a little low-budget movie unless it’s something he really believes in. Loverboy has all the earmarks of a passion project, a film starring his wife and a bunch of their famous actor friends all working for virtually nothing (one imagines). If one were to be unkind, one could call it a vanity project, but strangely enough it’s the most “real” movie I’ve seen in a while. Unlike those films mentioned above, it actually seems to be taking place in the world we live in, not some screenwriter’s fantasy.

Our protagonist Emily (Sedgwick) is a curious and intriguing one. When we first meet her, she’s on a mission to conceive the “perfect child” by having sex with a ton of different men who all have different attributes she finds admirable. This is a rather comical and lighthearted set-up that provides ample opportunity for Sedgwick to appear in various states of undress (thank you, thank you very much). I’m no biology expert, but I don’t think the “more the merrier” approach to procreation actually works that way – otherwise some women would be having some pretty funky children. But Sedgwick is one of those rare actresses who only seem to get hotter as they get older, so I won’t quibble with any excuse to show off her body.

She finally gets knocked up this way, but loses the baby. But a chance encounter with a stranger (Scott) in a hotel room leads Emily to conceive again, and this time her wish is finally granted. She gives birth to a son named Paul, who she insists on calling “Loverboy”, which is already oddly inappropriate. As an infant, Paul makes her deliriously happy, and she purposely sets out to shelter him from the outside world, which Emily views as full of mediocrity and pain. She believes that keeping him all to herself will cultivate his intelligence and self-esteem. But as Paul gets older and other people begin to intrude on them, she finds it more and more difficult to protect him from outside influences. What’s more, Paul seems to actually want more interaction with others – he naturally wants to be a normal kid, go to school, make friends, etc. When Emily finally relents to this, her obsession with keeping him unspoiled reaches bizarre and potentially dangerous heights.

Where many movies show the consequences of being a reckless and/or uncaring parent on a child, Loverboy takes the opposite tack and reveals the dangers of caring too much. Emily is far too controlling, needy and self-absorbed to possibly raise a child in a healthy manner. Not only does Paul consume her entire life, she expects him to reciprocate, to the exclusion of all others. To put it bluntly, the woman just can’t let go. You get the feeling she actually wants to smother the kid, figuratively if not literally.

Flashbacks to Emily’s own childhood give us some insight on her condition. It seems she was raised by parents (played by Bacon and Tomei) who were so deeply in love with each other, they had no room for her in the equation. Neither of them are intellectual giants, so they don’t know how to respond to her curiosity and precociousness. Sending her to a public school system that celebrates mediocrity and suppresses individuality only causes her more pain, and she is determined that her child won’t suffer the same indignities. She models herself after the mother she wishes she had, Mrs. Harker (an uncredited cameo by Sandra Bullock), who takes an interest in young Emily despite apparently being a bit of a lush, and a rather smug one at that. Odd choice for a role model, but Emily will apparently take what she can get.

It’s not that Emily is a complete whackjob though – if anything, I’d say she has some completely valid points about the mediocrity of the school system and society’s celebration of the lowest common denominator. No argument here. But she swings too far in the other direction, stifling any sense of life Paul might have outside of her gaze. Her basic concerns may be legitimate – it’s the way she handles them that are completely off the wall.

Bacon is smart and careful enough not to demonize her, though. At first, Emily merely seems like she’s looking out for her child’s best interests. It’s only gradually that her behavior seems more inappropriate and even sinister, until we eventually come to the realization that she’s completely unhinged. This isn’t one of those movies that tips its hand too soon and becomes overwrought, like the camp classic Mommie Dearest. Nor does Emily start knocking people off left and right to keep them out of her son’s life. It’s not that kind of movie. It’s more a subtle shift in tone – we’re just waiting for her to snap by a certain point, and wondering what horrible thing she will do when she finally does.

Sedgwick plays all of this just right, always keeping Emily just this side of monstrous. She seems like a person who could actually exist, which of course makes her actions all the more discomfiting and ultimately frightening. We may not agree with her, and we may not like her. But we believe her. That’s what makes her scarier than any masked horror-movie maniac – she’s merely a flawed human being with a smaller person’s life in her hands. Child actor Dominic Scott Kay is her equal, as a kid fallen under his mother’s spell but also yearning to break away and have a life of his own. Bacon and Tomei seem a bit cartoonish by comparison, but it’s by design; we see them only through young Emily’s eyes, after all, and aren’t all parents cartoon monstrosities to their children? Dillon does a good turn as a nice guy who develops an interest in both mother and child, and Platt is nicely toned down as a school official bewildered by Emily’s complaints. But this is Sedgwick’s show all the way, and she makes the most of it, giving the kind of complex and nuanced performance that might earn her an Oscar nomination in a higher-profile film.

The ending may seem like a cop-out to some, like the filmmakers were afraid to deliver the final blow to the audience. I don’t know if I agree with that. I prefer to think that it ends on a note of well-earned hope rather than despair. The implications of Emily’s actions are still disturbing and thought-provoking, and the power of Sedgwick’s powerhouse performance still comes through. Bacon definitely has an eye, and he’s got a worthy subject to train it on. If Loverboy is a love letter to his wife’s beauty and talent, it’s definitely one worth reading.

The only extra on the disc is a Director’s Commentary from Bacon, which is adequately interesting as far as it goes. I would’ve liked to see more though, at the very least a short behind-the-scenes piece or a short interview with Bacon and/or Sedgwick about what inspired them to make the movie. This movie deserved at least that much, and it’s worth at least a rental to discover an unheralded gem.

***1/2 9/26/06

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The Black Dahlia

Posted by CinemaPsycho on September 19, 2006

Directed by Brian De Palma/screenplay by Josh Friedman, based on the novel by James Ellroy/starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Fiona Shaw/Universal Pictures – Millenium Films – Equity Pictures – Nu Image Films – Signature Pictures

Two fictional cops investigate the gruesome murder of would-be starlet Elizabeth Short in 1947 Hollywood.

Here’s my advice: ignore any movie critic who tells you a film is bad because “there’s too much going on”. This generally means he or she wasn’t smart enough to follow the plot, or they couldn’t be bothered to actually pay attention. Have people forgotten how to watch films? When did thinking about what we’re watching become a Herculean task? It’s kind of sad that, at a time when audiences have become accustomed to remembering the details of the various continuing plotlines of their favorite TV shows, a film is criticized for actually expecting us to watch and listen and use our brains for two hours. Intelligence, complexity and sophistication used to be applauded by our supposed cultural elite; now those qualities are derided as being “hopelessly old-fashioned” and “out of touch” with a populace that would apparently prefer to watch a wrestler and a rapper coach a football team full of juvenile delinquents than a real movie. Or worse, they’d rather watch a bunch of idiots staple their nuts together and crash into things for 90 minutes. I guess we get the movies we deserve.

OK, end of speech. The Black Dahlia is a film I’ve been waiting to see for several years now, since I picked up a used paperback for three bucks about eight years ago after seeing L.A. Confidential, another film based on an Ellroy novel and one of my favorite films of 1997. I’d been interested in the Dahlia story for quite some time, but didn’t know that much about it. Not long after I finished it, the film version was announced with David Fincher attached. After Seven, Fincher seemed like the perfect director to bring Ellroy’s lurid, sleazy, sordid vision of 1940s L.A. to vivid life.

Several years pass by, and while Fincher’s involvement was still rumored, it seemed to be stuck in limbo. Finally, the project re-emerges, with veteran filmmaker Brian De Palma slated to direct. Well, I just about lost my damn mind. De Palma tackling the ultimate true-life noir mystery? Now that would be a perfect marriage of director and material.

Cut to 2006. I’m going to say this right up front: Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia is not going to be for everybody. If you generally don’t like his films, you might as well avoid this one like the plague. This is not for you. If, however, you appreciate the man’s filmmaking skills, wicked sense of humor and gleefully demented subversion of genre, you’re going to eat this up like an ice cream sundae. Listening to people bitch about it is the ice cream headache, but of course it’s totally worth it. I’m not going to bother defending De Palma and his extensive filmography; at this point, the guy’s made enough interesting films (including some genuine classics) that he shouldn’t have to prove himself to anybody. I’m not saying the guy’s infallible (Mission to Mars, Bonfire of the Vanities), but a true artist should at least be given the benefit of the doubt, and too many people just aren’t willing to give him a fair shake. Screw them, I say.

The first thing you have to understand is that this is an adaptation of Ellroy’s novel, and a pretty faithful one (as I recall, at least). The book is not the story of Elizabeth Short and this is not a documentary. Ellroy uses the real case as a backdrop for a fictional story (you know, like that huge flop that nobody understood, Titanic) about two cops who investigate the case and the way it affects their lives. Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Hartnett) is our protagonist, a decent, easygoing sort who just wants to catch bad guys and do the right thing. His partner is Lee Blanchard (Eckhart), a charming-rogue type with a reputation for being hotheaded. Lee’s girl is Kay Lake (Johansson), a nice girl-next-door with a sharp tongue and a penchant for sweaters. They make a jovial trio, until the body of Elizabeth Short (Kirshner) shows up one morning, cut in half, drained of all body fluids and missing most of her insides. But it’s not until Madeleine Linscott (Swank), a high-society dame with a bizarre family and an inclination to swing both ways, shows up that Bucky’s world starts to really unravel.

It wouldn’t be entirely fair to reveal much more than that to anyone who hasn’t read the book. Needless to say, a lot of heavy shit goes down during the investigation. Some of it involves the Dahlia and some comes from the cops’ previous cases, but by the end it all gets kind of mixed up, to the point where Lee has become a basket case and Bucky doesn’t know which way is up. Which is part of the point of the whole story – the past inevitably catches up with each character, including the Dahlia, no matter how hard they try to avoid it. The more Bucky and Lee investigate what led to the victim’s downfall, the more doomed they seem by their own histories and character flaws. One of De Palma’s recurring themes throughout his work is that of psychology, and how an individual’s obsessions and defects can eventually lead them to ruin. In this case, pretty much every character is damned because of who they are and what they become. Even the ones who survive are left irrevocably damaged from their experiences, and what’s worse is that they’re smart enough to know it.

There’s been lots of criticism about the film’s supposedly “campy” elements and over-the-top theatrics. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to these critics that “over the top” is what De Palma does, for cryin’ out loud. His films are operatic, theatrical, excessively cinematic, and he fully intends for them to be that way. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s doing it on purpose. This approach perfectly fits the material he’s working with – Ellroy’s book isn’t exactly subtle. It’s blunt, fiercely purple prose with a dark soul and a sledgehammer use of language. If anything, the film is actually toned down a little bit – to actually put Ellroy’s words on screen would be too much for genteel audiences to take. This ain’t Pride and Prejudice here, folks. It’s sheer, unflinching pulp, and the film does justice to its maverick spirit.

Besides, what one critic may dismiss as “camp” (so anything that makes us laugh unexpectedly is considered “camp” now?), a discriminating viewer can see as a brave stylistic choice. Specifically, the scene in which Bucky is introduced to Madeleine’s outlandishly insane family has been cited as De Palma throwing caution to the wind (never mind that it’s taken straight from the book). Fiona Shaw’s performance as her outrageously loopy mother, still grasping to maintain a slight sense of upper-crust dignity through the chaos of her fucked-up family life, has been derided as possibly the film’s worst transgression. Let me ask you this – how many legitimately crazy people do you know? The point is that these people are fucking nuts, beyond the pale. Do you think their behavior would therefore be predictable, easy to understand? Would you expect them to be subtle? If they were merely suffering from minor mental problems, maybe. But the Linscotts are fucking gone, man. They’re completely cracked, beyond repair, and we’re meant to see that every second they’re on screen. The performances are more than appropriate to portray their condition – they’re raging lunatics, completely unchecked by society or decorum. How would you expect them to act, for christ’s sake? The only question I had was why Madeleine didn’t do everything in her power to keep poor Bucky away from them.

Then there’s the issue of the plot, which apparently people are finding too complex to follow. It’s actually not difficult at all, provided that you pay attention (keep in mind it’s been several years since I read the book, so it’s not as if I had the entire plot fresh in my noggin). If you actually watch the film and concentrate on what the characters say to each other, and try to remember what’s taken place as the film goes on, there’s nothing particularly unfathomable about it. It used to be that intelligent people could manage that modicum of effort. If you’re the kind of person who has trouble keeping track of character names and faces, you might want to sit this one out. Besides, aren’t film noir plots supposed to be complex? In most of these movies, details like the identity of the killer are almost beside the point. It’s what the characters go through during the course of the investigation that really matters. It’s the journey, not the end result. And I find it incredible that supposedly intelligent critics are complaining that the ending is too much of a surprise – isn’t that how a good mystery is supposed to work? The clues are all there; we just don’t know it when we see them. Would they prefer an obvious, easily predicted resolution that was telegraphed so far in advance that we all saw it coming? I honestly don’t know what people want anymore.

De Palma’s sense of style hasn’t failed him either. The Black Dahlia is full of his signature sweeping camera moves and lush cinematography, seemingly broad gestures that belie a technical virtuosity few filmmakers can boast of. The film’s look is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the noir classics that inspired it, yet there’s a modern sense of accomplished technique as well, as if De Palma is having fun with the conventions while gleefully running rings around the genre’s forefathers. Yes, there are plenty of in-jokes and visual references to other films here, and noir buffs will have a ball spotting them. But what’s most important is that De Palma captures the spirit of the genre while applying his own wicked touches – he’s probably the only director who would (or could) turn a lesbian bar scene into a Busby Berkeley musical number, for no reason other than that he can.

I realize I’m in the minority on this one, and frankly I don’t really care. A work of art should be judged on its merits – what’s on the screen – and not on the number of people who have misguided reactions to it. Just because a director isn’t willing to suck off the audience (or his critics, who have their own agendas and won’t be swayed no matter what the guy does) doesn’t mean his work has no merit. As far as I’m concerned, The Black Dahlia is another De Palma classic, one that, like most of his films, will no doubt achieve cult status later on. It’s exactly the kind of movie that I pictured him making from this book, and I honestly think he pulled it off. It’s not necessarily an easy film, but it’s one that’s worth the effort.

**** 9/19/06

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Dead Man’s Shoes (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on September 8, 2006

Directed by Shane Meadows/screenplay by Paddy Considine and Shane Meadows/starring Paddy Considine, Gary Stretch, Toby Kebbell/Magnolia Home Entertainment

A man returns home from the Army and takes revenge on the local gangsters who mistreated his mentally challenged brother.

Some films sneak up on you, winning you over gradually after a slow start with some genuine surprises. Others grab you by the throat right away and refuse to let go until the end credits roll. Dead Man’s Shoes is one of those rare movies that somehow does both. It seems contradictory, I know. But this Irish import from 2004 (just released here this past May, and out on DVD less than four months later) from acclaimed director Meadows (twentyfourseven, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) manages to be a complete rollercoaster ride of fear and brutality for most of its running time, then completely turns itself upside down in its final reel to become something much different than expected. By the end, you realize that what you’ve been watching is not exactly what you thought you were watching, and the results of this are devastating.

Some folks like to call this a “twist ending”, but that’s far too simplistic to describe the effect here. At a time when that phrase is as overused as the device it describes is overdone, Meadows demonstrates how to selectively dole out information throughout the narrative to great effect. What we initially perceive as a simple badass revenge tale (like an Irish Death Wish) becomes something far more emotional and provocative.

The story centers on Richard (Considine), a man who’s just returned from serving seven years in the Irish Army. His first order of business, naturally, is revenge. His targets are local drug pusher Sonny (Stretch) and his gang of miscreants. It seems that when Richard went away, his mentally challenged brother Anthony (Kebbell) was taken in by Sonny and company, who proceeded to physically and verbally abuse him.

Richard’s reaction is to hunt down each member of Sonny’s crew and brutally murder them one by one. At first, this seems like a bit of an overreaction, until we get all of the sordid details of poor Anthony’s torment. Richard obviously learned some helpful murder skills while he was away, but simple ritual killing isn’t his entire game plan. Instead, his main purpose is to instill such fear and intimidation in the gang that they completely freak out, panic and eventually turn on each other. His tactics include putting on a gas mask (shades of My Bloody Valentine) and a green jumpsuit, an outfit so inherently creepy that it will easily become the film’s most iconic image.

It’s not as if the boys don’t deserve it; bullying someone who can’t fight back is always low, and picking on those who suffer from mental retardation is the lowest. The flashbacks which reveal the extent of what Anthony went through are harrowing, and Sonny in particular comes off like a truly vile scumbag. Yet Richard’s revenge is so chilling, so harsh, that you can’t help but feel sorry for them in a bizarre way. The more scared shitless they become, the more their basic humanity is revealed to us in unexpected ways. We don’t exactly root for them to survive – it’s not like anyone will miss a group of unrepentant lowlife criminals – but we still feel a little sympathy for their situation nonetheless.

For his part, it’s Richard who often comes off like a monster – cold, cruel and calculating in his relentless bloodthirsty quest, even if we understand and sympathize with his motivations. Considine (In America, Cinderella Man) is absolutely fierce here in a stunning portrayal of a man so completely consumed by rage that he’s closer to a mad, barking dog than a human being. But we see his humanity in his scenes with Anthony, who’s the only person left that he can let down his guard with. It’s in the film’s gut-wrenching ending that Richard seems to come full circle, as he realizes that his inhumane acts have corroded what was left of his soul, and he does the only thing he possibly can to regain it. It’s an incredible performance, one that should cement Considine’s reputation as one of the best actors working today.

It’s to his credit (as lead actor and co-writer of the piece) and Meadows’ that the film is such a powerhouse, a startling meditation on the nature of revenge and what violence does to us psychologically. It’s a variation on an age-old theme, of course, but it’s rivaled only in recent years by Park Chan-Wook’s “Revenge Trilogy”. This is brutal, gritty stuff, and perhaps we need it now more than ever.

Magnolia’s DVD includes a commentary with Meadows, Considine and producer Mark Herbert, as well as one single deleted scene and an alternate ending (not very different from the one in the film, but not as good). The most informative extra is a featurette called “In Shane’s Shoes”, in which Meadows discusses how his own childhood experiences with older criminals inspired him to make the film. It’s fascinatingly honest, and one hopes that the talented Meadows (who has already made two films after Shoes and is in pre-production on a third) won’t have such a difficult time getting his films released over here from now on.

**** 9/8/06

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