Saturday, April 19, 2008

Two of my favorite things

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

“Am I dead?”

In a bizarre and convoluted connection to the Southland Tales experiment, this post will be about a movie called Right At Your Door. When I rented Southland Tales, I also tried to rent Kill the Moonlight. The video store didn’t have it, so instead I rented Southlander. I had seen Southlander before and it was the closest thing to Kill the Moonlight I could think of (prompting the guy at the video store to say, “You’re all about the Southland, aren’t you?”). Southlander stars Rory Cochrane (remember him? Lucas from Empire Records and the ├╝ber-stoner from Dazed and Confused?), who is also the star of Right At Your Door. Maybe not a big deal, but seriously, when was the last time you watched a movie with Rory Cochrane?

Right At Your Door is a taut, low budget thriller, featuring Cochrane as Brad and Mary McCormack as Lexi; a young, newly married couple living in Los Angeles, Brad being the struggling out of work musician who is being supported by the more professional Lexi. One bright, sunny, LA morning, Brad dutifully prepares his wife’s coffee, warms the shower for her, and even listens to the morning news to catch the traffic report for her morning commute. She begrudgingly gets up, showers, and just before she leaves, Brad warns her to take the side streets into downtown, since the highways are all jammed. Everything pretty much goes downhill from there.

Shortly after Lexi leaves the radio is interrupted with an emergency report. Terrorists have set off bombs all around downtown LA. After some frantic calling, Brad sets out to go and find his wife. He quickly discovers that getting anywhere near downtown is impossible, as the police are blocking all roads. The radio reports that the bombs were dirty, lacing the billowing smoke with some kind of unidentified hybrid toxin. Brad grabs as much duct tape as he can carry and rushes back home to wait for word from his wife.

Upon arriving home, Brad resumes his frantic calling until he is interrupted by his neighbors’ handyman, Alvaro. With the roads blocked, Alvaro can’t get home and pleads with Brad to let him stay. Brad relents, and as the swelling clouds of smoke and ash spread over the city, Alvaro convinces Brad to begin sealing the house before the toxins reach their neighborhood. Shortly after they finish, a panic stricken Lexi arrives at the door. What ensues is a slow, tense, emotionally devastating sstory, as Brad and Lexi are forced to deal with the realization that she has been infected, and he can’t let her in.

Right At Your Door amounts to 30 minutes of fast-paced, frantic confusion followed by a slow-burning 60 minutes of watching the couple deal with their tragic situation. The film relies heavily on, and makes good use of, the rampant confusion following the attacks. The radio news that plays almost constantly throughout the film disseminates bits and pieces of vague and contradictory news, facts, and conjecture. Authority in the abstract becomes the savior, while any appearance of actual authority inspires skepticism and fear.

Over all, the film is good. Great at times, and frustrating at others. The biggest problem is that the filmmakers don’t seem to know where the narrative tension lies. The fear of authority and the appearance of the military sometimes distracts from the real tension of watching Brad watching his wife slowly dying in their backyard. The confusion caused by the media and the distrust of authority can, at times, turn pretty hackneyed. And the ending, while not unnatural, does seem unnecessary.

Those problems aside, Right At Your Door is a well made, tense, and emotionally devastating film. The acting by McCormack is serviceable, but Cochrane is great. Large amounts of time are spent watching him anxiously pacing around his house or sitting distraughtly next to his wife, separated by a thin sheet of plastic. A difficult task for an actor, and Cochrane makes it work. There are solid visuals, such as a quiet moment of watching the toxic ash falling gracefully on the neighborhood, looking like a gentle and beautiful snowfall.

The film belies its low budget nature through good acting, solid cinematography, and a tense story constructed around a single location. It can be a difficult task to set a movie in a single place with a limited cast (see 90% of movies adapted from plays), but Right At Your Door does an admirable job. It is a tense film about choices, both rational and irrational, and dealing the inevitable consequences of those choices.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Two Experiments Gone Awry

As I mentioned last post, I was planning on engaging in what I had deemed “The Southland Tales Experiment,” which basically consisted of me watching Southland Tales and drinking lots of whiskey. Somehow I figured the addition of whiskey would drastically alter the experience of watching a movie that has been called “an incomprehensible, self-indulgent mess” (Austin Chronicle) and “a prettier, younger, and developmentally-challenged sister [of Mulholland Drive]” (Modern Fabulousity). Well, it didn’t really happen that way. At least not in the drastic way I expected. Basically what you’d probably to expect would happen did happen. I got a little drunk. That was really it. Oh well. On to the movie!

Southland Tales is, without a doubt, a big sprawling mess of a film. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I found it to be pretty enjoyable. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s start with an attempt at a plot synopsis.

If you had to pick a lynchpin for all of the convoluted, interweaving subplots, it’d probably have to be Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, AKA “the Rock”). Boxer Santaros is a Schwarzenegger-esque action star who has married into politics and has strong ties to the Republican party (married to the daughter of a prominent Texas senator running for president in the 2008 election). Oh wait, let me back up a moment. The film opens in the “near future” of July 4th, 2005 (FYI: this thing has been delayed for years), when terrorists set off some nuclear bombs in a couple of Texas cities. In the wake of the attacks, the US government has instituted a state of martial law, issuing interstate visas, creating USIDent (a CIA/Homeland Security nightmare that spends its time spying on US citizens, including but not limited to monitoring stalls in public bathrooms), amongst other crazy dystopian style stuff. So, back to Boxer. Oh wait, I totally forgot about the tide-harnessing, perpetual motion machine that is destroying the universe. But first, let’s get to the Neo-Marxists. Or Justin Timberlake as the Revelations-obsessed, Iraq vet narrator. I’m sorry, is this frustrating? Well, welcome to the world of Southland Tales.

Let’s try this again. In 2005 terrorists set off nuclear bombs in Texas. In turn the US government declares war on numerous Middle Eastern countries, institutes martial law, creates the aforementioned USIDent, reinstates the draft, and generally tightens the noose around the public neck. Jump ahead a few years to 2008. The election is looming and civil unrest permeates the nation. With the war in the Middle East cutting off US access to oil, all collective faith is placed in a new form of alternative energy, Fluid Karma. A scientist has been able to harness the ocean tides to create a sort of force field of free energy off the Pacific coast. Now we can get to Boxer. Shortly before the start of the film’s story, Boxer has disappeared near Lake Mead, but is known to be somewhere in southern California. The presidential hopeful (also Boxer’s father-in-law) is desperate to find Boxer for the sake of his campaign. Turns out Boxer has amnesia and is shacking up with former porn-star turned entrepreneur Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and the two of them have written a screenplay together about the end of the world. While this is going on, there is also the Neo-Marxists, a revolutionary group, who seem determined to rig the election, bring down the US government, and cause just general craziness. The Neo-Marxists have kidnapped a UPU2 cop (Sean William Scott) and talked his disturbed twin brother (also Sean William Scott) into impersonating his cop brother in an attempt to stage a racially motivated shooting, thinking a racist cop in LA will somehow spur massive social reform. Well, at this point, it’d just be quicker to say that the Neo-Marxists, Boxer Santaros, the porn-star, the would-be president, the scientist and his perpetual motion ocean machine, the cop and his twin brother, and probably some stuff I forgot to mention all crash into each other, creating an intensely confusing web of plotlines that involve time travel, blackmail, drug use, war veterans, environmental-disruption-induced-epidemic-of-mob-violence, a bunch of stuff about souls and the apocalypse, and other wackiness.

There are a lot of ways to describe this movie. Sprawling, convoluted, overly ambitious, garish, nonsensical. The tone of the film is incredibly uneven, oscillating between near slapstick level comedy and end-of-times Biblical prophecy drama. Laugh out loud moments often transition uncomfortably into confusing, earnest, pseudophilosophical ramblings about the nature of existence and souls and identities and what not.

The biggest complaints that can be leveled against Southland Tales would have to be Richard Kelly’s mishandling of the more serious, dramatic elements, and the uneven nature of the film as a whole. That being said, the film is an incredibly fun ride. Kelly is able to effectively create a bizarre, thoroughly engrossing version of the future that is both wildly foreign and frightfully familiar. Terrifying and wholly believable elements like USIDent are mixed with comically despicable caricatures of our own popular culture (e.g. Krysta Now’s talk show, which features her and three other pornstars sitting on the beach discussing current events). If the two biggest problems are the drama and overall tone, the two biggest strengths are the comedy and the dystopian world Kelly creates.

Also of note is the performance of Dwayne Johnson. Since he left the WWF (or WWE, or whatever), I’ve seen him in a few things here and there. I have to say, the more I see of him, the more I like him. He’s not the best actor by any means, but he definitely possesses an affable charm. One of my favorite bits in the entire movie is the expression Johnson makes when he is shocked or scared (which happens a comical number of times, given his enormous stature), wherein his eyes bug out, his brow arches, and he does a sort of rapid finger-tenting motion.

Along with the Rock, Buffy, and Stifler, Southland Tales manages to wrangle together one of the most bizarre ensemble casts I have ever seen. Mandy Moore, Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, John Larroquette, Bai Ling, Lou Taylor Pucci, Wallace Shawn (i.e. the Sicilian from the Princess Bride), Kevin Smith, and countless others play roles of varying size. This movie is a veritable parade of B, C, and D-list actors. It’s almost as if Kelly’s casting agent had never heard of extras.

Overall, I enjoyed Southland Tales. It is without a doubt not a film for everybody. Viewers will need to let go of trying to make sense of it, and even let go of trying to remember how all of the characters and plots relate to one another. In order to really enjoy it, you’ll need to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Turning your brain at least halfway off would go a long way. You know, maybe all that whiskey helped after all.