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Friday, Nov 9, 2007

SLEUTH (dir. Kenneth Branagh)


The true star of Sleuth, the remake of the 1970’s cat and mouse thriller, isn’t its up to date A-list cast. Michael Caine, playing the role originally essayed by Sir Laurence Olivier, is a decent enough heavy, and Jude Law, inhabiting Caine’s old part, is an equally adept dandy. Together, they forge a unique performance unit that literally grabs the screen. Nor is it the work of playwright/literary lord Harold Pinter. While off his typical linguistic game by a few disadvantage points (he is adapting another’s work, after all), his exchanges percolate with the type of tongue twisting that makes theater types gush. Nor is it the sterile modernity of Tim Harvey’s production design. It may look like Caine’s Andrew Wyke lives in a funhouse version of Hitler’s bunker, but it’s really a contemporary ruse, a way of making the conventional seem unreal and daunting.


No, the real featured performer here is a typically unsung hero known as Kenneth Branagh’s camera. It zips and zings, floating around large spaces and creeping around corners. It stays stoic and stationary when needed, and flips itself over like a puppy wanting attention when the narrative needs a creative spark. Constantly upstaging the rest of the cast, and reminding us over and over that we are watching a stogy, old fashioned stage play, Branagh’s loopy lens is indeed the best part of Sleuth. Everything else is just plain pointless. While it’s hard to imagine a battle of wits between war horse Caine and stud muffin Law to be anything other than kinetic, this exceedingly uninspired update of the 1972 original provides the perfect argument for leaving old cinema well enough alone. While the previous incarnation was far from perfect, this adaptation makes it look like a classic from the Old Vic.


When our sticky narrative begins, we meet Andrew Wyke, a successful crime author. Having learned that his wife is cuckolding him with a two bit actor/ hairdresser named Milo Tindle, he invites the bloke over for a sit down. Our young stud is glad to have the confrontation. He wants the Missus all to himself. But Wyke won’t give up without a fight, and he stages an elaborate trick in which he threatens the young man. The fatal results spell doom for this rich writer’s freedom—or do they? Perhaps this too is part of another elaborate ruse meant to scare Wyke into admitting the adultery and losing his wife forever. Whatever the case, it’s clear that these two men don’t like each other. The victor will most likely be the individual that has the gumption to go all the way—even as far as prison.


There are three basic things wrong with this remake (or as Branagh has noted, ‘reimagining’). The first is the decision to dump most of Anthony Schaffer’s original plotting. Sure, the set-up is the same, the cheated on husband, the dashing if slightly dumb lover, the surreal sense of one-upmanship between the two, the elaborate plot twists and interconnect charade. But where Pinter and Branagh break from tradition is as profound as it is perplexing. First off, most of Wyke’s infidelity is out. There is a hint, but we really sense he adores his trophy spouse. Second, there’s a last act turn toward talky desperation. It’s as if, after delivering two tripwire segments, everyone decided on something hackneyed and senseless for a finale. It really reeks of a massive screenplay stumble and practically destroys all that came before. 


Next is the Act II twist. Of course, in order to discuss it, we need to include a SPOILER ALERT. When Jude Law shows up in disguise as the gruff and smelly cop, he’s about as convincing as a high schooler embodying Willy Loman. There is just too much of the charismatic actor under all the greasepaint and fake features for us to buy the flim flam. And the back and forth between Wyke and this bogus bobby seems to ‘drag’ on forever. Long before our characters uncover the gag, we are bored waiting for said shoe to drop. The final facet that fails to connect is the homosexual angle. Again, another SPOILER is mandatory. In this version of the play, Wyke invites Tindle to be his “traveling companion” around the world, describing all the non-erotic male bonding they can experience while living together and sharing a bed. Apart from sounding like a Hays Code version of same sex innuendo, the veiled references aimed at maximizing intrigue end up resulting in unsettled aggravation. 


It clearly can’t be a matter of cinematic courage. We’ve grown up a lot in the last 50 years, and Caine even engaged in an eyebrow raising liplock with a male costar before, in the like minded motion picture puzzle box Death Trap. But just like everything else in Sleuth, even the most scandalous material is measured and antiseptic. In fact, most of the movie is as devoid of color and character as Wyke’s warship gray homestead. Branagh braves a lot of possible criticism for tampering with what ended up being Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s last film. The director, noted for such Tinsel Town treasures as All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, and Suddenly, Last Summer, would have never sold his story out this way. Instead, he would have challenged convention and deconstructed the essence of Schaeffer’s opus. Branagh, instead, simply guts the beast and sets it up in a new, high tech trench for all to see.


And the view isn’t very viable at all. While some of the scenes crackle with the kind of thespian fireworks we expect from such bright British lights, Sleuth is claustrophobic and cold, more a mausoleum than an actual movie—and it’s equally strewn with the corpses of the past and their unfriendly ghosts. Perhaps if Law had been replaced with someone sturdier, say Daniel Day Lewis or Ewan McGregor. Maybe if Pinter had polished the knotty narrative to the point of a high, histrionic strewn gloss. It could be that Branagh has made the very opposite of a thriller—a movie that doesn’t fray the nerves as much as recognize their biological importance and then politely moves on. There is great tension here, but also great tediousness. During the days when Dame Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap was the longest running show in theater history, this kind of heavy handed antagonist byplay found favor with an audience. But in a Saw born environment, to be obvious is to be obsolete.


Still, that camera carries on. It gets in close to see Law’s fake teeth and Caine’s conniving eyes. It follows action from various surveillance set-ups, giving the movements a video game like quality. It reveals secrets and hinders clues. But most of all, it announces itself as easily the best element of what is otherwise a magnificent misfire. As mysteries go, it’s mindless and quite inconsequential. As a lesson in applying lenses, Sleuth manages a bit of relevancy—if only a bit. 



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Thursday, Nov 8, 2007

A few weeks ago the Financial Times directed its pale-peach gaze at a problem that may be widely undiagnosed in America. Under the dry headline of “Swedes face scrutiny as welfare net starts to fray” comes the story of Roger Tullgren, an unfortunate sufferer of an addiction all too familiar to anyone who was in high school in the 1980s:


To say Roger Tullgren likes heavy metal would be an understatement. The committed headbanger used to take time off work whether his boss liked it or not, to go to gigs; he also listened to music the entire time he was at work. “My friends used to ask me to say anything – just one thing – that was not to do with heavy metal, and I couldn’t,” he admitted.
The situation got so bad that, with the backing of his boss, he consulted a psychologist who concluded that Mr Tullgren was not just an ardent rock fan but was in fact addicted to heavy metal – and signed an official diagnosis stating as much.


At one of my first jobs, at a market-research firm of all places, I worked with someone like this. He used to smoke weed in the parking lot and try to carve “Slayer” into his arm with an unfolded paper clip while we made our phone calls to unsuspecting households and asked anyone who answered their opinions about cat litter. (Most were for it.) Anytime he wasn’t talking about cat litter to strangers, he was listening to metal, and when he deigned to speak to co-workers, it was about metal. It never occurred to me that he was suffering inside. In Sweden, apparently, he would have had somewhere to turn:


as Mr Tullgren was suffering from a medical problem, he qualified for income support.
The government now pays 20 per cent of his salary and he is permitted to listen to heavy metal at work and go to any gigs he likes, as long as he makes up the time later. “For me, it’s great,” said the genial and tattooed rocker.


The article plays it straight, but presumably we are supposed to be outraged by this and chalk it up to the inevitable abuses built into any social welfare program—eventually, as conservatives argue, the logic of entitlement programs leads to untenable situations like this, where one can claim any kind of absurd preference as a grievance that state is expected to address and ameliorate. People like Tullgren are exceedingly useful to demagogues, and that probably goes a long way toward assuring that people such as him continue to lurk within the social safety net. It tends to be the enemies of a system


On a related note, it was startling to see that the New York Times has jumped on the Black Metal bandwagon with a piece about Norwegian band Enslaved. Have they no consideration for poor souls like Tullgren, who literally are enslaved?


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Thursday, Nov 8, 2007


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In last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, there was an op-ed section on George Orwell.  Dubbed “Why Orwell Matters”, the section featured four writers weighing in on Orwell’s relevance to the events of today. Their main target was his “Politics and the English Language” – which was billed as ”the classic essay on the relationship between words, truth, propaganda and politics.”


That essay has been less consumed than Orwell’s subsequent dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. For those of us fortunate enough to have worked through it, (and assuming we have also kept our eyes open these past few years), we know how perceptive Orwell was concerning the manipulative machinations of those in power, especially via rhetoric and other dark arts of communication. Readers also appreciate how spot-on scary Orwell’s clairvoyance was. In the linguistic tricks of a totalitarian government like that of “Big Brother”, one not only discerns the voiceprints of Stalin or Mao, but also hears the ensuing echoes of Richard Nixon (“Peace with Honor”), Ronald Reagan (“The Evil Empire”), and especially this generation’s very own Dubya (“Compassionate Conservatism”, “The Axis of Evil”, “Weapons of Mass Destruction”).


In fact, although I wish to observe that Orwellian “doublespeak” seems to have been more a tool of Republican administrations, historically speaking, it also seems hands-down the weapon of first and final recourse for the White House incumbent. Which is extraordinary, when you think about it. After all, one wonders: “how could that possibly be . . . since Dubya hasn’t ever read a book in his life?”


 


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Thursday, Nov 8, 2007

Radiohead’s radical “pay what you like” experiment for their In Rainbows album shook up the industry and is already one of the biggest music biz stories of the year.  But after some number crunching, reports are coming back (see this Comscore article) that the vast majority of people who downloaded the record didn’t pay squat for it.  Does that mean that this idea was a flop?


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Wednesday, Nov 7, 2007


It’s hard to ignore it, especially if you’re a student of the medium. Film, while still the number one format for most fledgling auteurs, is losing ground. Slowly but surely, at the fringes of the industry and within the outsider dominion, celluloid is being replaced by the binary. Thanks to DVD, advances in computer technology, the shrinking cost of moviemaking equipment, and an eager pipeline of cinephiles desperate for something different, a punk-like DIY spirit has gripped the wannabe Welles of the artform and has turned everyone – from the most accomplished visionary to the most horrifying hack – into their own determined De Mille. While some would argue that the art form is undergoing one of the most important revolutions since sound sunk the silents, the camcorder has a long way to go before it can claim a coup.


As an example of truly independent filmmaking, the current breed of homemade artisans isn’t really achieving anything novel. For decades, individuals with Super 8 cameras, friends in local universities or rental outlets, or perhaps a basic videotape set up, have been crafting cinema – or something close to it. They’ve relied on imagination, determination, and a collective ideal that sees the like minded gang up to give the format an infusion of necessary new blood. While the cost could be controlled, there were other prohibited measures that kept many from making their stand. With the death of exploitation (a genre where almost anyone could get a week long run at some Podunk passion pit) and prior to the birth of the affordable VCR, there were very few ways to get a film distributed. Even worse, if you were lucky enough to find an acquiescing shill, months (or even years) of hard work could be marginalized, and then MIA, in the breech of a contract.


The growing popularity of the VHS format changed some of this. Suddenly, the creation of a crude, movie-like entertainment could be achieved. Though aesthetically limited, the beginner could simulate cinema without having to jump through the nepotistic hoops and technical specifications of an actual career in the industry. Even better, the cost was commiserate to what many would-be directors could afford. While the equipment was bulky and hard to maintain, and the end results paled in comparison to even the most poorly shot stag film, the first volley in the soon to be salvo against the Hollywood mainstream mentality was in place. Even better, home video opened up an important public perception. It let the everyday individual, someone not possessed of their own projector or screening room, determine when and how they were to be entertained.


The VCR indeed began the democratization of film. It removed the “see it now or never again” sense that surrounded most Tinsel Town fare. Granted, the result of such a surge in retail revivalism meant that the medium was simultaneously celebrated and diluted. The ability to revisit an old favorite in the comfort of one’s home led to a greater appreciation of the classics. But with studios slow to embrace the change (based in nothing but money, naturally) and the independent’s seeing a legitimizing light at the end of their travails tunnel, the entertainment equilibrium was destroyed. From the moment you could buy a copy of Star Wars for $120 at some high end New York specialty emporium, people outside the business felt empowered. In the war for the art form, magnetic tape was the Gatling gun.


In that regard, the digital versatile disc became a multi-megaton nuclear bomb. An offshoot of the CD and the growing Asian fascination with the video version – or VCD – of same, the purpose of the new format was simple: use the increased storage space and clarity of the analog-less transfer and deliver theater quality images to a hibernating home theater crowd. When DVD came along, VHS sales were flat. Laserdisc had proven that there was an audience (albeit it a rather elitist and picky demographic) for replicating the big screen experience. Almost instantaneously, film fans dumped their clunky collection of fading, glitch-ridden tapes and embraced the sleek, sci-fi like system. Within 10 years, the VCR was officially a dinosaur and even the most cinematically stunted was celebrating the little aluminum disc’s wealth of wonders.


The importance of DVD cannot be overstated. It arrived on the heals of home computing’s power, a strength supported by the MP3, the introduction of localized broadband and cable Internet access, and the ever, extending scope of a PC’s internal power. Where once, memory was measured in mega-bite, the gig was becoming the norm, and as the think tanks tricked out their desktops, finding ways of turning their tunes portable, the focus slowly shifted to film. Once again, the digitization of information in combination with a drop in price made technology more accessible than ever. And once you have the ability to use a new toy, you naturally want to expand its range of realization. Thus laptop editing and other post-production software started cropping up. The stage was set for a Bastille storming celebration.


Of course, there was a significant factor missing from the discussion – talent. There are many who believe, rightly or wrongly, that access hinders the gifted, that if only given a chance, almost anyone could succeed within the proper symbolic support. On the other hand, there is another argument that states, rather succinctly, that skill and acumen always win out. Call it the proverbial cream rising, but without a gift, mainstreaming of any art leads to mediocrity. When filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Lloyd Kaufman argued that technology would save cinema, they had a very valid point. But without actual artists behind the newfangled lens, the same old junk would end up in the DVD-R drive.


That’s why, so far, the digital revolution has been one of quantity, not quality. Since anyone can buy a computer, a camcorder, and a rack of recordable medium, the movie monopoly middleman is no longer necessary. Yet one of the functions that the unenlightened suits regularly performed was the mandatory thinning of the ranks. While DVD lets anyone who wants it access to the corridors of creative power, the sad fact is that many making their way down said hall have no business being there. In fact, with very few exceptions, the art form’s digital dissidents have failed to make much of a splash on the big stage. Instead, they have so far only managed the most middling of victories.


If compartmentalizing genres into their easily micromanaged basics and preaching to a purposefully determined demographic (horror fan, sex farce aficionado) can be considered a triumph, then this neo-revolution can claim a minor sense of accomplishment. Unless you consider that famous Hollywood filmmakers like Michael Mann and David Lynch have embraced the sleek, ambient look of millennial medium, digital has been so far reduced to a delivery system. Filmmakers like George Lucas and Robert Zemekis have stated that, until theaters are equipped with special projectors that replicate the celluloid experience without the need for analog transfer, celluloid will remain the moviemaking model for decades to come. And this is from men who fully believe in the new guard.


Ability, however, will be the definitive deciding factor. The public will determine digital’s viability, and right now, the pickings are slim to say the least. Currently, most outsider artists tend to replicate their favorite film style – horror, comedy, horror, drama, horror… - and do so in a way that simply substitutes handheld cinematography for a big screen sense of scope. They’re not out to set trends or buck the system so much as make a name for themselves and get a window seat on the plane ride to fame and fortune. Distributors are more than happy to help them along said rose-colored path. A company like Lionsgate will buy up almost any hackneyed camcorder macabre, re-title it, slap a snappy bit of cover art on the case, and advertise it as the “new face of terror”. Of course, once the poor sucker who bought/rented sees what’s inside, that overwhelming sense of being conned creeps in.


The problem is obvious. For every Giuseppe Andrews, actor turned auteur who is deconstructing cinema in a manner similar to Godard and Truffaut, there’s a billion Blair Witch wannabes who think that moviemaking is as simple as playing the lottery – and DVD and its technical ease of access have rigged the results in their favor. Sadly, the truth is far more telling. Even avant-garde antagonist Lynch was raked over the coals when his INLAND EMPIRE proved to be nothing more than a director’s home movies strung out for nearly three hours (at least, that’s how some saw it). If innovation and imagination can’t accompany access, then there is no hope for real change. Audiences will grow antsy no matter the format – overstuffed celluloid blockbuster or naval gazing camcorder crudity.


So it looks like the revolution will be digitized, if and when the rebels catch up to their ambitions and intentions. There are some marvelous examples of the medium out there, movies like The Legend of God’s Gun and The Blood Shed that really capture the daunting DIY spirit and channel it into something truly astounding. These are films that find their insurgence in ideas, the new tech specs are just a way of delivering their creative conceits to the masses. It’s not the medium that’s making the change, it’s the minds behind it. It was true a half century ago, and it’s true now. CDs didn’t make popular music better, or more culturally relevant. They just gave greater entrance to those outside the cocooned conglomerates. Whenever a new voice is finally heard, it is rarely judged on its entrance. The power to change is inherent in art. Getting into the gallery and access to paints are only the beginning of the battle.


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