Archive for the Cinema Category

Film Review: Cosmopolis by David Cronenberg

Posted in Cinema with tags , , , , , , on February 9, 2013 by davehurwitz

Sarah Gadon, prettier than Pattionson?  I say yes.

I approached Cosmopolis with trepidation.  Festival reviews were either ecstatic or scathing, with nothing in the middle.  Though I’ve been a regular Cronenberg viewer since his eerie adaptation of Stephen King’s Dead Zone, the man does have the occasional misfire.  Though 2011’s A Dangerous Method contained some marvelous performances, the film never seemed to gel thematically.  And I’d happily erase Dead Ringers (1988) permanently from my memory.  Given the polarized critical reception and my lack of familiarity with the source novel by Don DeLillo, I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

The Twilight Saga’s Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, an aging wunderkind commodities trader, who, at twenty-eight, has already outlived his own legend.  Most of the film’s scenes take place inside a white stretch limousine as Packer travels across Manhattan against heavy traffic, bent on getting a haircut in his old neighborhood.  While NYC street life scrolls past the windows with the remoteness of images beamed from the Mars rover, Packer’s multi-billion dollar empire implodes due to his inability to predict the behavior of the Chinese Yuan.

As the day progresses, Packer engages in a series of increasingly bizarre existentialist dialogs with various people whose roles in his life or business are not always readily apparent.  Is the Juliette Binoche character his mistress, his art dealer, or both?  Is the mop-haired college grad his business partner?  Computer guru?  Understudy?  It’s unclear.  Continuously pushed off course by vague threats relayed via his head of security (Kevin Durand), Packer slowly makes his way through a New York–and an existence–he does not really inhabit.

Too terrible for words!

Would you be this man’s personal assistant?

Though there are two sex scenes in the film, both of which feature a passive Pattinson beneath a female partner, neither carries the erotic charge of what is–for me at least–the film’s weirdest moment.  Summoned from a jog in Central Park on her day off, personal assistant Jane Melman (Emily Hampshire) enters the limo to find Packer in the middle of his daily medical exam.  Dripping sweat and oozing frustration, Melman looks on as Packer doffs his shirt for an EKG, and the rest of his clothes for a prostate exam, complete with rubber glove and lube.  As the scene approaches its climax, Pattinson looms naked over the seated Hampshire, his face displaying an intensity of expression that has been absent up to now, while finch-inducing Foley effects squelch off camera.  As Melman hunches her shoulders and wrings the neck of a water bottle wedged between her thighs, Packer calls her “sloppy, smelly, and wet,” mocks her “puritanical jogging” and suggests that she was “made to be tied to a bed.”  When Melman finally looks up, it’s to ask “why haven’t we talked like this before?”  Horribly, this is as close to real passion as anyone in the film gets.

In another scene, Packer discovers that the funeral procession he has been dodging all day is for the rap star Brutha Fez (voiced and played by the surprisingly mellow K’Naan), a friend and inspiration whose music Packer has piped into his personal elevator.  This unwelcome news arrives, not over Packer’s numerous screens, but in the person of Kosmo Thomas (Grouchy Boy), an enormous, tubby black dude in an oversize team jersey who could not look less like the skinny, suited Pattinson.  Sparks fly when Packer assumes that Brutha Fez was shot, when in fact he died of heart failure.  But the two are soon getting weepy over news footage of the street-side mourners.  The scene ends with world’s most mismatched man-hug.

All this weirdness is compounded by the provocations of the Ratmen–a cadre of anti-capitalists whose protests feel more like performance art–and punctuated by restaurant meals with Elsie Shifrin (the luminous Sarah Gadon), Packer’s aloof, old money wife.  What emerges, finally, is a portrait of a man who has willed himself out of existence. (Pattinson, incidentally, is perfect for this roll, in that he has reached a level of fame such that he is now more of a signifier than a human being.)  In a world where money is made, not by producing goods or providing services, but via a tenuous grasp of obscure branches of psychology and mathematics, not only has wealth become an abstraction, but the wealthy themselves have become something insubstantial, something less than present, specters–as Marx would have it–haunting the world.

While viewing Cosmopolis, and immediately afterword, my primary response was a sort of amused bafflement.  But over the next few days, the film stuck with me, and I began to make connections and unpick themes as certain scenes replayed in my head.  I sympathize with the film’s detractors, especially DeLillo fans, who are in a better position to judge it’s success as an adaptation.  (I remember my own disappointment with 1996’s Crash.)  But I have to judge Cosmopolis a success.  Like a difficult book, Cronenberg’s latest made me work toward understanding, rather than simply entertaining me.  If modern existence is as difficult to navigate as the film suggests, that’s all to the good.

Dave Hurwitz

Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Posted in Book Review, Cinema with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by davehurwitz

OsamaI watched Zero Dark Thirty on the big screen about three weeks back, and I haven’t been inside a movie theater since.  While it is undoubtedly director Kathryn Bigelow’s finest work to date–superior even to the Oscar winning Hurt Locker–I found it an extremely uncomfortable and depressing experience.  Watching Maya (Jessica Chastain) slowly change from a reluctant observer of torture into a hardened interrogator is bad enough.  Learning that she–and the real world intelligence community–obtained so little useful information with these methods, that torture saved so few lives….  It’s practically unbearable.  Bigelow shows little mercy to the viewing public.  Squirm-inducing moments pile up like rubble.  The grin of dippy happiness on the face of Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Maya’s friend and fellow Agency analyst, right before a car bomb rips her apart….  The rant by Maya’s boss (Kyle Chandler) where he states that the the hunt for UBL is a meaningless waste of resources….  By the end of the film, Maya has become a friendless recluse, existing only to persue her obsession, finding and killing Bin Laden.  And when the deed is done, when we, the audience, stare up UBL’s unbreathing nostrils, there is no feeling of victory, only a deadening lack of closure.

At roughly the same time, I began reading Osama, which had just won the World Fantasy Award.  I had just finished with Tidhar’s Bookman Histories, a three novel steampunk / alternate history series which frequently amazed and occasionally confounded me.  The SF&F community seemed to think highly of Osama, so I decided to give it a try.  Though aware that the novel had something to do with UBL, I did not really know what I was letting myself in for.

Osama is the story of Joe, a Chandleresque private detective in the sleepy South East Asain city of Vientaine.  Joe seems content to sit in his favorite marketplace café or chat with his neighbor, an aging bookseller, until a mysterious woman hires him to find Mike Longshott, the author of a controversial series of novels, at any cost.  For you see, Longshott’s books describe the exploits of the fictional ‘vigilante’ Osama Bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty PosterAs quickly becomes obvious, Osama takes place in an alternate world, a planet Earth that has never known international terrorism.  But it is also a world without computers, or any of the gadgetry or social changes that followed their invention.  It’s a world with no Red China, possibly no Cold War, and a very different World War Two.  However, the true extent of the differences is never made entirely clear, at least not until late in the story, when Joe reluctantly attends OsamaCon, a small gathering of Longshott enthusiasts in a fleabag hotel.  This particular sequence in the book made me more than a little queasy.  Having been to similar conventions myself, I felt disconcerted to read about obsessives like me pontificating–not about Doctor Who or Richard Stark’s Parker–but about 9/11 or the July 7 bombings in London.

It is this presentation of acts of mass murder as fiction that gives Osama its power.  Excerpts from the works of Mike Longshott appear throughout the novel, short chapters that contain spare descriptions of real world death and mayhem.  As one of the organizers of OsamaCon puts it, “…to read about these horrible things and know they never happened, and when you’re finished you can put the book down and take a deep breath and get on with your life.”  Of course, the reader is not grated this luxury.  For us, that sense of safety is the fiction.

In his search for Longshott, Joe encounters the ‘refugees,’ victims of terror attacks and subsequent retaliatory wars who have been thrust sideways into this brave new world.  In the world of Osama–the ‘Osamaverse’ as the conventioneers put it–these people resemble ghosts, apt to fade away if reminded to forcefully of who they once were.  Once again, I am forced to contemplate a notion I first encountered in Iain Banks’ The Crow Road, that life after death is more terrible to contemplate than simple oblivion.

While Osama has light moments–an American government suit interrogating a refugee expresses concern about ‘Asian Fusion’–it is a heartrending read.  Later pages give us intimate descriptions of real terror attacks from the point of view their deceased victims.  Even the ‘better’ world which Joe occupies is grimy and impoverished.  While I recommend Osama and admire Tidhar’s achievement, it is a book that–like recent history itself–leaves scars on the soul.

Dave Hurwitz

Parker Movie Trailer Irks this Parker Fan

Posted in Cinema, Parker with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2012 by davehurwitz
It's moody.  It's iconic.  It's invisible on your web browser.

University of Chicago Press edition of The Hunter

Parker, the protagonist of Richard Stark’s novel The Hunter, is not a nice man.  He beats a prison guard to death to escape a California work camp.  He does this not because he’s serving a long sentence–he isn’t–but out of impatience.  Once free, he browbeats his admittedly traitorous wife into committing suicide.  He dumps her corpse in New York City’s Central Park, hiking up her skirts to make it look like a sex murder, then mutilates her face.  Later, he threatens and beats a prostitute into revealing the location of the man who walked off with his money.  Info in hand, he abandons the woman, leaving her at the mercy of the mob she just betrayed.  Next, Parker stakes out the mobster’s hotel by breaking into a hair salon across the way.  Finding a stylist still there, he ties her up and gags her.  When she asphyxiates and dies, he blames her death on his enemies.  Even when he’s killed the man who betrayed him, Parker, total bastard that he is, still isn’t satisfied.

While I’m a tremendous fan of the Parker books overall, even I have to admit that if I’d read The Hunter first, I would never have tried the rest of the series.  There are twenty-four books in total, twenty-eight if you count the four staring Parker’s more genial colleague, Alan Grofield), nearly all of which are heist novels.  These follow Parker and a rotating cast of other ‘operators’ through the planning and commission of a theft, along with the inevitable complications.  Many of these books allow Parker to display his finer qualities, such as they are.  He possesses a keen understanding of people’s psychological needs, needs he simply doesn’t share.  He dislikes unnecessary killing, not because of any moral stance, but because murders attract more law-enforcement attention than thefts.  Parker never betrays his fellow thieves, but is absolutely ruthless with operators who become greedy or erratic.

Parker reserves his nice manners for managing his victems.

Darwyn Cooke illustrates Parker’s smooth touch in his graphic novel adaptation of The Score

In The Hunter, Parker is nothing short of contemptible.  In later books he operates according to a code of conduct that might seem admirable if it weren’t entirely self-serving.  Just what attracts me to the series is hard to explain.  Whatever it is, Hollywood has occasionally fallen under the spell of Parker’s brutal appeal.

The quintessential Parker movie is John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank.  Lee Marvin plays Walker (Donald Westlake, a.k.a Richard Stark, never allowed the Parker name to be used during his lifetime) as a kind of emotionless force.  His quest to retrieve his money from the mob unfolds in all it’s meaningless glory.

Less successful was 1999’s Payback, another adaptation of The Hunter.  Mel Gibson, now called Porter, comes across as sort of puppy-eyed hardcase with a heart full of goo, who’s prone to irregular bursts of insane violence.  As the bodies drop, he goes out of his way to rescue the aforementioned prostitute.  Muddying the waters even further is Lucy Liu (who’s now cluttering up an otherwise serviceable Sherlock Holmes TV adaptation) as a comic-relief Asian gangster.

Jason Statham as Parker?  Well, if we must...

U. of Chicago’s movie tie-in edition of Flashfire

Now Hollywood is back at it.  January of 2013 will see the release of Parker (the Westlake estate allowed the use of the name) staring Jason Statham.  I’m willing to set aside Statham’s complete lack of resemblance to the character as described by Stark.  I’m more worried about other issues.  Though Parker’s new producers have dodged a bullet by not trying to adapt The Hunter yet again, the novel they picked–2000’s Flashfire–bears a remarkable similarity to Parker’s first outing.  After a successful score, members of Parker’s crew betray him and leave him for dead.  When he tracks them down, they’ve spent his loot setting up an even bigger job.  Of course, Parker isn’t leaving without his money.  Sound familiar?

Even more disturbing is Parker’s revised code of conduct, as mouthed by Statham in the recent trailer.  “I never steal from people who can’t afford it,” he rasps, “and I never hurt people who don’t deserve it.”  Sentiments Stark’s Parker would find laughable, or at least worthy of a fist in the face.  In a way, Hollywood’s efforts to soften Parker are understandable.  Most people don’t want to watch a movie featuring an uncommunicative sociopath, even if that’s how his die-hard fans would prefer it.  Let’s hope that, in their efforts to introduce Parker to a mass audience, Statham and company don’t undermine the very things that make this anti-hero so intriguing in the first place.

Dave Hurwitz

Emma Watson Shines in The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Posted in Cinema with tags , , , , , , , on October 10, 2012 by davehurwitz
Is there anything more beautiful than Emma Watson?  I gotta say no.

Wallflowers: Logan Lerman & Emma Watson as Charlie & Sam

Kensington Cinema, midnight, sometime in the early nineties.  I’m sitting in lopsided theater seat near the front row, watching my first live-cast performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  A slice of Wonder Bread sits in my lap along with other equally inexplicable items.  I have no idea what it’s for, but I’ve been assured I’ll need it later.  Up on the screen, Brad and Janet abandon their stranded car to seek shelter for the night.  Meanwhile, on the concrete apron between the screen and the front row, a couple I met just a few minutes earlier reenacts the scene, word for word, with perfect timing.

Fast forward twenty years.  A different theater, a very different me.  My seat is more comfortable.  There’s nothing funky in my lap.  Up on the screen, Emma Watson, wearing nothing but her skivvies, lip-syncs “Touch Me” to an equally under-dressed Logan Lerman.  His face is a portrait of dumb-struck, terrified happiness.  And I’m taken back decades, to a night when my face probably looked much the same.

It’s a testament to Watson’s performance that at no point do I stop, like a swimmer bursting suddenly out of the water, and think “Holy crap.  Hermione’s in her underwear.”  For the duration of this film she is simply Sam, the generous, damaged love object of Stephen Chbosky’s novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Although Perks is technically a high school movie, I’m not sure what the smart-phone generation would make of this film, which is set firmly in the technology-lite world their parents came of age in.  This is very much the time of my late adolescence.  A world I’d just about forgotten, but suddenly found myself missing.  A time when a manual typewriter was merely quaint, not absurd.  An era in which, if you heard a cool song on the radio, it might take you weeks to figure out who sang it.  A time when, if you really loved someone, you made them a mix-tape.

But it wasn’t merely the era or the familiar soundtrack tunes that had me waxing nostalgic.  Mostly, it was the characters, all of whom felt just as familiar.  Perks is the story of Charlie, a depressive high school freshman with memory issues, who is befriended by Patrick and Sam, eccentric step-sibling seniors, and the rest of their clique.  Each of these characters could have slid easily into familiar types–punker, klepto, recovering party girl, gay outcast–but the depth of the performances and the undeniable realism of the situations they are thrust into make them into complete human beings.  More than that.  They reminded me of people I liked and even loved when I was in high school.

No, school walls were never this shade of green.  Sorry.

Ezra Miller as Patrick with Watson and Lerman

Add to that a recurring sense of dejá vu, the feeling that I’d actually lived through some of these scenes myself, way back when.  Whether it was Charlie’s fist encounter with an out-of-the-closet homosexual (and his immediate, no-big-thing acceptance of it), his pop-eyed introduction to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a kiss with exactly the wrong person, or that perfect song on the car stereo, I knew just what he had to be feeling because I’d been there myself.

The events of my youth were neither as epic nor as sad as the things that happen to Charlie and company in this story.  But at the time, my smaller problems felt big as mountains, and all-consuming.  That teen self-seriousness is another thing this movie captures very well.  But most of all it conveys what it feels like to be taken in, to be accepted without questions or conditions, to be given a second family’s worth of friends at a time when you yourself aren’t sure you have anything to offer.

To conclude, if you grew up weird in the early nineties, this is a film you simply must see, because this is your life, or at least your youth.  I think you’ll find it’s worth reliving.

Finally, I should point out that some critics have chastised Chbosky, a man with no prior experience, for directing this adaptation himself.  Film Comment’s Violet Lucca went so far as to say that he “seems more skilled as a novelist than a visual storyteller.”  I beg to differ.  Perks is as well-made a film as any I’ve seen recently, and one of my favorites of this year.

Dave Hurwitz

Happy Birthday Ken Cinema

Posted in Cinema with tags , , , , , , , on August 30, 2012 by davehurwitz
The classic frontage of Ken Cinema is beautiful black and white.

The Ken

The San Diego Reader isn’t good for much.  This is probably because I’m not a wild twenty-something seeking medical marijuana, cheap breast augmentation, a new career in medical office administration, or beer in a boot.  I go long periods without looking at an issue.  When I do pick one up, I mostly read News of Weird during those moments alone in the bathroom.  But every once in a while The Reader will surprise me with something that I really do want to know.

For example, a brief rant by Scott Marks, slotted in with the movie reviews of the August 23 issue, informed me that my local single screen theater, known to regulars simply as The Ken, turns one-hundred this year.  Of course, I knew that The Ken had been around a while, but I had no idea it was one of the oldest surviving single screens in Southern California.  Marks himself is also something of local fixture, having been, for far too brief a period, Curator of Film at the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts.  He had been planning a series of Val Lewton films when he got canned as part of a money-saving decimation of SD MOPA’s film offerings.  I sent the museum my shredded membership card in protest, but nobody seemed to care.

I’m not as old as The Ken, of course, but the theater and I do go back nearly twenty years.  I was a graduate student attending SDSU when I first moved into the neighborhood, mostly because of its proximity to the #11 bus route.  I quickly discovered The Ken and the adjacent Ken Video, the amazing family-run specialist video store right next door to the theater.  I spent a lot of time in The Ken’s somewhat shabby seats during its independent heyday.  I watched a lot of great movies, and more than a few that were enjoyably bad.  I first saw Reservoir Dogs there, double billed with Pulp Fiction.  Every summer brought the annual Hong Kong Action Festival, featuring chop-chop flicks with titles like Naked Killer 2 and Bullet in the Head.  My admiration for Wes Anderson began there with a screening of Rushmore.  The Ken showed me what Lawrence of Arabia was really supposed to look like, CinemaScope sand dunes tamed somewhat by an Italian soda from the concession stand.

These days, The Ken is no longer quite so grubby or quite so eclectic.  Like it or not, it’s now a part of the Landmark Theater Group, and as such shows the kind of middle-of-the-road art house and foreign films that appeal to the KPBS / AARP crowd.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve seen some pretty awesome flicks there in recent years.  I vividly remember sweating my way through a summertime screening of Chan-Wook Park’s Lady Vengeance.  The Ken’s air conditioning had conked out on one of the hottest days of the year, but the movie was so good I couldn’t make myself leave.  And the theater’s annual screening of Academy Award Nominated Animated Shorts has become a ritual for me and my boys.  But on the whole I don’t make the hike down to my local single screen nearly as often as I used to.

Which brings me back to Scott Marks, and his rant in the SD Reader.  Marks complains, rightfully so, I think, about the meager slate of revival films Landmark is offering to commemorate The Ken’s hundredth birthday.  It’s not just that the films are few–a mere ten movies, doled out on weekends through October–it’s the films themselves.  Between slightly dusty blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future and revival circuit warhorses like Some Like It Hot and Double Indemnity, there isn’t much to draw me to this ‘celebration.’  I might take in Charlie Chaplin in Gold Rush, which I’ve never seen on the big screen, at least.  But I’d rather see some of the films that drew me to The Ken in the first place.  I’d almost prefer Naked Killer 2.  Almost.

Luckily, revival is alive and well in San Diego.  It just doesn’t live at The Ken anymore.  Lately I’ve taken in a lot of the Forty Foot Films offered by Reading Cinema.  Coming up at their Gaslamp location:  The Omen and The Producers.  Soon to arrive in the Town Square theater:  Chinatown, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Young Frankenstein.  All to be followed by four weeks of ‘Hitchcocktober.’  It’s a cinematic feast.  And yeah, it’s DVD projection, and not Scott Mark’s beloved celluloid.  But the $5 ticket price more than assuages my inner film snob.

So I’ll see you at the movies.  While we’re there, maybe the muckety-mucks at the Landmark Theater Group should think about why I’ll be celebrating The Ken’s big birthday at a multiplex.

Dave Hurwitz