This week brings high-profile disappointment to the multiplex with Taking Woodstock and Halloween 2; fortunately, two indie films at the Circle Cinema compensate for Hollywood's failure, and once again prove that bigger is not always better. First, the Circle:
War is (Funny as) Hell
With an acid tongue and razor-sharp wit, new political satire In the Loop successfully cuts through the bureaucracy of war with a frighteningly believable scenario involving suits more worried about the semantics of a PR campaign than the ramifications of a premature invasion.
Jumping back and forth between Washington and London, the British film presents a hodgepodge of befuddled, profane and conniving politicians who cross paths on the eve of a pre-emptive strike against an unnamed Middle Eastern country.
Director and co-writer Armando Iannucci manages to strike a tone that's somewhere between Dr. Strangelove and BBC's The Office, with the callous manipulation tactics of our politicians playing out as a hilarious comedy of manners. The jokes fly at an alarming rate--one barely has time to catch breath before the next laugh hits--but Iannucci expertly guides the humor according to plot, and the jokes never feel unqualified.
The film centers around an inane slip of the tongue by British Cabinet Minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), a good-hearted but ineloquent lout who makes the mistake of declaring that "war is unforeseeable" during a radio interview.
He makes things worse when he tries to rectify the mis-speak by saying "in order to achieve peace, we must climb the mountain of conflict" (to which Senior Press Officer Malcolm Tucker exclaims, "You sound like a Nazi Julie Andrews!").
Foster is subsequently sucked into a clusterfuck of competing politicians with conflicting interests-- bloodthirsty U.S. Senator Linton Barwick (David Rasche) wants him to help facilitate British cooperation, secretary of diplomacy Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) sees him as a tool for the pro-peace politicos, Tucker (Peter Capaldi, stealing the show with some of the most creative profanity since R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket) just wants him to stop speaking in public.
Meanwhile, two bumbling aides, Toby (Chris Addison) and Liza (Anna Chlumsky), attempt to forward their careers while navigating the hostile terrain as punching bags for their superiors.
It's lightning-paced, quick on its toes and wonderfully non-partisan; the only real political stance it takes is that war without all the facts is not necessarily a good idea. Iannucci smartly avoids making any one character the voice of reason--idiots abound on both sides of the aisle. Viewers will likely project their own politics onto the movie, but the beauty of In the Loop is that it's subservient to no one idea but critical of every idea pusher.
The ultimate point of the movie is that there's an abyss of disconnect between decision makers and the reality of their decisions. Petty semantics, personal agendas, career strategizing, constituency courting--it all obfuscates the inescapable truth that war is hell. In the Loop is successful because it makes the road to war funny as hell.
"My Name is Tetro!"
Tetro isn't exactly a return to form for Francis Ford Coppola. It's too weird and too small to comfortably categorize in terms of past work, but it showcases a re-vitalized master hungry to tell intimate stories and experiment with storytelling technique in an unprecedented way. Unprecedented not because what he's doing is new to the art form, but because it's new to the artist. Tetro could easily be another Godfather. It's epic in emotion and deals with family dysfunction and betrayal in the same grand, melodramatic fashion. It's familiar in theme, but tonally and technically it's surprisingly self-contained.
Coppola isolates the film in stark black & white photography, employs anachronistic shooting techniques (old Hollywood noir mixed with a contemporary indie aesthetic) and plots the story as a small chamber drama.
The result is something of an anomaly; an original work (Coppola's first original story since The Conversation) that begs serious consideration but will likely be ignored by audiences and dismissed by critics who will no doubt dish out descriptions like "a jumbled mess" or "ambitious but unfocused and self-indulgent." It's a shame, people are so ready to write-off the director, but if Tetro had Jim Jarmusch's name on it, people would be hailing it as a triumph.
His vision is anchored by three superb performances. The great Vincent Gallo is done a great service by the director with the titular role of a tortured genius worthy of Brando. Gallo, an iconoclast, scapegoat and unfairly maligned performer of seemingly limitless talent, plays a washed up almost-writer who ran from his family as a young adult and now lives in self-exile in Buenos Aires.
His wife Miranda, a miraculous woman who endures emotional torture without ever sacrificing dignity, is played by Maribel Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as a woman of independence who stands by her man because she knows that without her he'll fall apart. Complicating matters considerably is the arrival of Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), Tetro's 18-year-old brother who idolizes his sibling but has many questions about his family that Tetro does not want to answer. Gallo, Verdu and Ehrenreich sink their teeth into the drama, selling the secrets and lies with great relish. Ehrenreich, a new actor, is especially good, and will doubtless grow into an actor of great importance.
Coppola has stated repeatedly that Tetro is part of a new phase (started with last year's Youth Without Youth) of personal filmmaking that finds the artist more fully indulging his personal whims and interests. Tetro proves this is more than talk, and, more importantly, proves that he's still capable of making something that really matters.
Give It Back
Though not without its moments, Taking Woodstock proves the end of the line for Ang Lee and James Schamus as a collaborative team. The director and screenwriter have worked together for years, with movies like The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk and Brokeback Mountain to their credit.
And while their tepid, detached approach to storytelling has sometimes come close to failure, never before has it so clearly and inarguably undermined their high-brow intentions.
Based on the true story of how a rural New York town became ground zero for the key moment of the hippie movement, Taking Woodstock should be alive with the possibility of its subject matter, but under the mannered guidance of Lee and Schamus, it's oddly inert.
Here we have a movie about the most important music festival in history, and not one piece of source music appears until over an hour into the film. This was clearly a conscious choice of the filmmaker; the music doesn't arrive until the festival does, but it's the kind of misguided creative decision that sucks the life out of a film that should be brimming with energy.
There are a few successful passages: an unbroken tracking shot through a hopelessly clogged road leading to the festival inverts the apocalyptic traffic jam of Godard's Weekend, and Lee eerily recreates the 16mm split-screen of the era (with nods to the great documentary Woodstock). He also manages to breathe life into the obligatory psychedelic passage with an extended acid trip that is hypnotic, tastefully restrained and thankfully humorless.
Sadly, the rest of the movie is restrained and humorless as well, though it clearly wishes to be a comedy. Lee and Schamus have clearly aimed to make a classy movie about the counterculture, and they certainly have class to spare. What they don't have is Woodstock's energy or sense of possibility. They may assign the festival its due significance, but with Taking Woodstock the filmmakers have revealed themselves to be as square as they come.
On the bottom rung of this week's roster is Halloween 2, a movie so nasty, mean-spirited and disrespectful to the source material that it's hard to be bothered to even acknowledge its existence. The column space could be better used to expound on the greatness of In the Loop and Tetro, but alas, Halloween is the one that everyone will be seeing this weekend, so it must be addressed.
Rob Zombie is a talented filmmaker. He proved this with House of a Thousand Corpses and The Devil's Rejects. He also proved that he has a deep-seated love and respect for horror, but his re-imagining of the Halloween series has shown that while he may be a knowledgeable filmmaker, he doesn't possess an iota of self-control.
One could talk all day about this movie's technical problems--tonal inconsistency, terrible pacing, unfocused script, ludicrous and unnecessary tweaking of the Michael Myers mythology--but the real problem is that the movie is a horrifically violent glorification of human misery that lacks any moment of levity (a brief Weird Al cameo being the exception), stylistic flourish or intriguing plot point to make it worth the time. Carpenter purists will no doubt be as appalled by this travesty as they were by the first, but if Zombie had made an entertaining movie, the gripes would be moot.
Miserablist horror can be done well--see the Hills Have Eyes remake for proof--but the kind of sadism that Zombie revels in demands justification through artistry. His movie is as violent and hopeless as Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, but without any of that film's redeeming qualities. If you've seen Irreversible and you still watch Halloween 2 after reading this, there's something seriously wrong with you.
Share this article: